Michael Bonsor, managing director of the Rosewood London, is in charge of one of the capital’s most successful establishments, with a slew of awards to its name. Rosalind Mullen meets him to discover how he’s managed to create a hotel offering a luxurious experience that is also loved by locals.
As luxury hotels go, the setting of the five-red-AA-star Rosewood London is imposing. But despite the Belle Époque, Grade II-listed architecture, rare Pavonazzo marble staircase – valued at an eye-watering £40m – and sumptuous Tony Chi-designed interiors, it’s far from intimidating. Walk into the uber-chic reception at this Holborn landmark and you’ll be charmed by Pearl, the hotel’s golden retriever, asleep in a Burberry dog basket. In fact, it’s one of the few hotels in the city where you can check a pooch into your swish suite. And by the time the receptionist has walked round from the low-lit desk to greet you, you’ll be feeling as at home as the A-lister checking in next to you.
The fact that this 306-bedroom hotel exudes tasteful luxury without being stuffy has evidently fuelled its success. Since opening in October 2013, it has shown solid performance with a 10% year-on-year increase in revenue recorded in 2017. In the past six months it has earned a host of accolades, including the 2017 Catey award for Hotel of the Year – Group, as well as being voted Best Hotel in London in the Condé Naste Traveler 2017 Readers’ Choice Awards. Previous to that, it was AA Hotel of the Year 2014-15 and Opening of the Year 2014 at the European Hospitality Awards.
What’s interesting is that the Rosewood London has made the Holborn site work, whereas the incumbent operator, Marriot’s Renaissance Chancery Court, was reported as “struggling”. There are many reasons for that, though one man in particular has played a key role in driving through change: managing director Michael Bonsor, who came on board as hotel manager before the launch and stepped up to managing director last March, replacing Matthias Roeke.
Bonsor, however, is modest about his contribution: “We had an £85m refurbishment to eradicate the previous hotel, we had the power of the Rosewood brand – 40% of its clientele are North American – and we have iconic sister properties, such as the Carlyle in New York and the Crillon in Paris.”
Even so, the domestic market was unfamiliar with the Rosewood brand as it had not had a presence in London since it relinquished management of the Lanesborough hotel in 2001. What helped make the location work is the hotel’s food and beverage outlets – which account for 40% of hotel turnover. The hotel is close to the West End and five minutes’ walk from law firms in the nearby Inns of Court, with hard-hitters such as law firm Mishcon de Reya bringing international business, while companies such as Metro Bank and Sainsbury’s have headquarters nearby, ensuring that they resonate with local clientele and the international traveller.
As well as Scarfes Bar and the 160-seat brasserie-style Holborn Dining Room – housing London’s largest gin bar – diners can also choose from the Mirror Room, overseen by executive chef Amandine Chaignot, private dining rooms and pop-ups in the landscaped courtyard – currently an outdoor Alpine ski lodge experience in partnership with gin brand Monkey 47.
“This hotel talks to the community,” says Bonsor. “Many of our customers in the bar and restaurants work within five minutes’ walk of this building, and they didn’t have anywhere to go [before], so Holborn Dining Room and Scarfes were quick successes.”
Both were designed by Martin Brudnizki and have separate entrances in the archway leading to the hotel courtyard, so they don’t feel like hotel outlets. “The architecture works for us,” says Bonsor.
Hotels have held a fascination for Bonsor from an early age. Working in his parents’ boutique hotel, Culduthel Lodge in Inverness [now Rocpool Reserve Hotel and Chez Roux restaurant], he “absolutely loved it. It was fascinating to meet visitors from Australia and far-flung places. I was also lucky because I travelled around the world with my parents, staying in iconic hotels such as Raffles. I would wander round the hotels – try to get behind the reception desk.”
After graduating from the Scottish Hotel School at the University of Strathclyde, he attended a round of interviews in London for a role at the Breakers Hotel Palm Beach in Florida, but was less than enthused, saying he “just wasn’t feeling the connection”. On impulse, during a lunch break, he slipped down the road to the Four Seasons Park Lane and ended up chatting to the HR director, who
happened to be on duty in the lobby. “Fast forward a month and I had turned down Palm Beach and accepted a job at Four Seasons Boston. I started there back of house aged 21.
“I’d imagined a trainee programme front of house and I had bought lots of suits. What I didn’t realise was that experience back of house was crucial – but it was tough. There was a large workforce, few colleagues spoke English and communication was difficult.”
Six months later, he moved front of house, covering the bar, fine-dining and events. “It was great. I saw different operations and got all-round F&B knowledge quickly.”
Moving on to Four Seasons New York, he describes his four years there as “invaluable”. Not only did he make his mark as director of restaurants for the launch of Michelin-starred restaurant L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, he learned a lot about managing staff. “Being exposed to the union environment in New York gave me a huge knowledge about employee relations. I probably spent 50% of my time in and out of HR there because of heavy unions. There is a large rule book to follow, but you need to embrace it. I remember one day a large group arrived, so I pitched in helping the porters to load bags. One of the porters took photos as evidence. Their argument was that if management had to help, they needed more porters on duty. We had to pay the three porters who weren’t on duty that day, so it cost the hotel.”
While Bonsor’s time at the Four Seasons gave him a thorough grounding in a corporate, structured business, it was the four years he spent as F&B manager and then hotel operations manager at Claridge’s on his return to London that exposed him to creative management. Not only was there the Noma pop-up and Christmas trees from leading fashion designers, including John Galliano, Bonsor also found himself involved with the BBC2 documentary Inside Claridge’s during the year of the London Olympics. “It was a brave decision. It was one of the first [hotel documentaries], but everyone was proud of what was produced.”
He was pleased that it showed the industry in a good light. “[Hospitality] has a bad image, which doesn’t reflect the truth. In New York, it is taken more seriously. You feel you can have a wonderful career, you can make a difference and get paid well. We need to do a better job in the UK to inspire those going through education and attract them into the industry.”
Among those who have inspired him, Bonsor singles out three people he worked with at Maybourne Hotels, the operator of Claridge’s: former chief executive Stephen Alden, who “had an eye for luxury and was relentless in his pursuit of craftsmanship, always asking ‘is this the best?’”; the “phenomenal” general manager Thomas Kochs, who is now managing director at Corinthia London; and Paula Fitzherbert, the group communications director.