An Olympic challenge
The Hand & Flower inn in London’s West Kensington is situated right opposite the huge Olympia Conference Centre. Under new management, the inn is poised to rebrand itself and widen its mainstream appeal while not losing the lucrative corporate business on its doorstep. Bill Lumley looks at the plans.
Carlos Filipe Da Silva Oliveira took over as general manager of the Hand & Flower inn just a month I paid a visit, but he has firm plans to fine tune this successful London inn primarily serving visitors to the Olympia Exhibition Centre across the road, and to turn it into a destination hotel for a wider audience.
Carlos’s background iss firmly in hospitality. In 2001 in Lisbon he embarked on a career principally in corporate hotels. In 2012 he moved to the UK and began working in the pub business, and over the ensuing seven years all the experience he had gained in hospitality culminated in him taking over the Hand & Flower inn in April 2019.
His appointment involved a jump from solely UK pub businesses to the inn business, which matched his former experience with corporate hotels. “It’s a big challenge bearing in mind the redevelopment of the area. We are working towards building a foundation for the future,” he says.
“At the Hand & Flower you have your food, your drink and your bedrooms, and the whole point is not to sell them as separate businesses but to integrate everything into one business.”
“My vision for the inn is to deliver flawless experiences, and to turn it into a destination inn, to make it an extraordinary destination,” he stresses. “The future is very much about delivering, so it is not only about the service you actually get: that is not enough these days. Nowadays it is all about what experience you get for your money. Therefore, value for money underpins what we will try to build here. Whenever guests leave, they will remember the Hand & Flower for that experience.”
For the time being Olympia is the overwhelming driving force for guest business, he says. [Get Olypmia cvisotor stats] Given the busiest times for Olympia run from September to June the inn works the other way around to country inns. “Summer is probably the quietest time of the year for us, and over Easter, Christmas and bank holidays it’s very quiet,” he says.
Value not luxury
Carlos says he does not consider the inn to be a hotel. “People come here with hotel expectations, and we are trying to change that,” he says. “We do provide the service of a hotel, but here we are trying to provide people with the experience of actually sleeping in a pub. Our aim is not to provide a corporate hotel experience but to provide a personalised experience for everyone.”
The differences he explains lie in the little things like the actual service provide to the guests.
The inn only has eight rooms, but he says this opens up opportunities to provide a tailored service to his guests. “Our goal is to tailor the guest experience from the moment someone books with us, when you start the experience for that guest on a follow-up: whether they have any preference on breakfast, on the kind of complimentary drinks that are going to be supplied in their room.
“It’s all these little things that will show people the difference between the Hilton hotel corporate and the highly tailored, personalised experience at the Hand & Flower.”
The Hand & Flower is a managed house owned by Fullers and it shares the same communications and marketing strategy as the rest of the brewer’s nearly 400 inns.
With only eight rooms we want to make our communication channels one-on-one. We are endeavouring to build up business away from the online travel agencies. Most of our business currently comes form them, and we now want to drive direct business.
Providing that high level of personalised experience to the overnight guest will help achieve that he predicts. “Online reviews are very important – nobody will book a room these days before they read the reviews, and we want that excellent feedback. That is what we promote to our guests. It does not matter if it is good or bad feedback: we can always learn from it,” he says.
“Our aim is to get feedback from everyone that comes for a drink, a meal or to stay at the Hand & Flower. That will start the momentum and start to generate direct business and cut out the middle man, and it is our most important marketing tool.”
We get 100% support from Fullers. As a managed house we have guidelines that we must follow, but Fullers give their managers the tools to actually manage. It is not like other companies that will give you such strict guidelines that there is nothing else you can do with the business. We have the power to manage the business. They set you parameters but anything in between is up to you.
If there is a trend to craft ale, for example, he says the brewery will give him the choice of bringing in such beers if he considers they will be popular with patrons. He is currently working with a number of London breweries that are set to appear at the British Beer Festival at Olympia later this year, including Beavertown Brewery. The pub currently has two of the brewery’s choices on draught and is currently trying to arrange something else out for the great British Beer Festival in August. But he stresses: “We can never forget that we are a Fullers inn, and that is our core business. When it comes to brand awareness, I get the Fullers name out there.”
Breakdown of time
He is unable to give a clear breakdown of his time between the amount he spends on the accommodation and the time he invests in the bar. “I don’t look at my time that way,” he says. “One of the mistakes you can make with an inn is to divide a business, for example accommodation and bar. The business is the Hand & Flower, and in the future the whole business will be connected and working as one business not as separate businesses. We won’t have the Hand & Flower Hotel and the Hand & Flower Pub.
“I look at a business as a whole. When you sell your rooms, it doesn’t stop there – you are also going to sell your function rooms, your bar, packages, dinners with accommodation. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a corporate hotel or a small inn: you have to apply the same model to both when it comes to selling all your services. That’s what will happen to the Hand & Flower in the future,” he says.
On the first floor, conveniently buffering the residential guests on the second and third floors from the bustle of the bar on the ground floor, is an events space that can accommodate up to 60 people. Next to this is a room for up to 10 people used for corporate meetings or private dining experiences.
Although Olympia is a driver for such meetings, most of the bookings of the smaller room come from local businesses that simply want a meeting space for the day, Carlos says.
As well as a new general manager the inn has a new chef. “Our vision of what the Hand & Flower should be to stay in touch with our roots. We do have to adjust and adapt to what the guests want, but at the end of the day we are a pub, and that is what we want to remain, so our core offer will continue to be traditional pub food.
“Around that core offer there will be the seasonal offering and you will just have to adapt to what people want nowadays, so you will see an incremental growth in vegetarian and vegan dishes reflected on our specials as well as our signature dishes. But sticking to our roots, we want to stick to our traditional pub food.”
As a business the Hand & Flower opens at 7am when its kitchen starts to serve breakfast until 11am, and then the kitchen is open again from 12 noon until 10pm.
On the bar side of things, he says he is seeing a growth in gins. “Gin is what people want. You still have to put your own personal stamp on a business, but you do not run the business – it is the guests who run the business. My job as the general manager is to adapt my business to my guests’ needs. When it comes to gin, that is what people demand nowadays. Guests expect you to have a big range of gins, and this expectation extends to your range of mixers. People have a G&T but regular tonic is not enough nowadays. You now have to offer low calorie tonic, flavoured tonic and so on.
His gin range extends to Boe Violet, Chase pink gin and grapefruit gin as well as the inn’s traditional offering, which includes Tanqueray.
There are no lifts at the inn, and the eight rooms are on the second and third floors, which can be sometimes challenging, Carlos admits. As they go up to their rooms, guests can enjoy the portraits that adorn the stairway walls with figures such as Mr Hand [any more about the origins of these names?]
There four rooms on each of the two floors, all double rooms with a double bed or twin beds.
The family room is less popular among corporate guests but very popular among families, he says. “We provide all the amenities for guests who may wish to stay a whole week. If you don’t want to leave the room and just wish to stay in for one day because you are tired of walking around London, you can relax, go downstairs to the pub, have a meal. Children can stay in the room, where we provide a Playstation and games. There is a desk (in how many rooms?) if guests wish to do some work.
“We offer what a corporate hotel will not provide you,” he says. Everything in the rooms’ minibar is complimentary. The inn promotes its own brand, with a bottle of Fullers beer in the compact minibar, along with a bottle of still and sparkling water and a small bottle of fresh milk to go with tea or coffee, and all rooms are equipped with a Nespresso machine and a range of up to 20 different types of tea bag.
“Everything we provide for the room we strive to ensure is premium – it is a premium experience staying here,” he says.
Renovation are scheduled to take place right across the inn in July as the quiet summer period begins. Although the inn was last redecorated in 2012 and there is some slight wear and tear, the place does not come across as being in grave need of redecoration.
“When the Olympia season resumes in September it will be completely refreshed,” says Carlos. “There will probably be rebranding and a redesign of the Hand & Flower image adapted to appeal to both families and corporate guests.”
The new image he says will enshrine the combination of pub and accommodation to become more immediately identifiable as offering accommodation. He explains: “The business was run with the pub on one end and the accommodation on the other, and what we want to try to do is present an image of the business as a whole where you integrate your wet business your kitchen and your hotel. At present it is just the Hand & Flower and in the future it will be the Hand & Flower Pub Kitchen & Hotel.”
He stresses that despite the use of the word hotel he will entirely be devoted to operating it as an inn, not providing the traditional hotel experience but providing all the experiences on offer in any hotel in the world but with a tailored experience. “No two stays will be the same – it is tailored specifically for you the guest, what kind of breakfast they want, what kind of cereals, what they like to drink, so on their second stay if they liked to drink cider on their first visit, instead of a bottle of Fullers beer you’d have a bottle of cider in the bedroom minibar, with a note saying thank you very much for coming back – enjoy your stay. Perhaps also a plate of homemade chocolate chip cookies with a note saying, “We know these are your favourites. Pop downstairs and join us for a drink,” or “If you are busy working call us and we will deliver to your room.”
The vision for the Hand & Flower deliver flawless experiences and make it an extraordinary destination, and everything we do is geared towards that vision, and it is all delivered with outstanding customer service. That’s the only way to go forward. It’s the only way you will boost your reputation, and this is a place that has to live by its reputation – that’s the only way we are going to sell the rooms and reduce our dependency on Olympia,” he concludes.