It is a wet Wednesday morning when I visit Stuart Procter, managing director of GG Hospitality, and Stewart Davies, general manager of the group’s newly opened Hotel Football in Manchester. Perhaps not prime conditions to see the place at either its best or busiest, I smugly assume as I arrive at the hotel, just a free-kick away from Manchester United’s Old Trafford stadium.

More fool me, then, because its 185-seat Cafe Football restaurant is already doing a roaring trade. By the time I leave at the peak of lunch service, it’s positively rammed. "We had 5,250 people in the building two weeks ago for the Spurs game," says Procter. "It felt like it too," laughs Davies. "The place was heaving."

The 95,000ft2, nine-floor Hotel Football opened on 28 February and has already been reviewed overwhelmingly positively by every major UK newspaper, while also catching the attention of further-flung, august journals such as the New York Times. Having the star-power of joint owners former United footballing legends Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, his brother Philip, Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes on board certainly helps to oil the publicity machine, but the 133-room hotel has rightfully gaining real recognition for the quality of its service, its accommodation and food.

A few local dishes aside, this Cafe Football menu is virtually identical to that of the team’s inaugural London operation in Westfield Shopping Centre, near the Olympic Park, which opened in autumn 2013. Two-Michelin-starred consultant chef Michael Wignall (Pennyhill Park) and executive chef Brendan Fyldes (Bentleys) designed the menu and have managed to expertly find a balance between providing a playful, football-themed offering with quality food at an affordable, fan-friendly price. The Observer’s Jay Rayner liked it so much he claimed he wanted to adopt its signature sausage roll as his "third child".

"We’ve had some great reviews for both Cafe Football in London and now Hotel Football here in Manchester," says Procter, who was formerly general manager of the Stafford, a five-star hotel in London. "But those reviews are already so ‘yesterday’, it’s frightening. We have to keep looking forward."

A striking property

Hotel Football boasts some stunning views of Old Trafford stadium, not least from the roof-top five-a-side AstroTurf pitch, available for fans to hire on non-match days, where Procter and I later have a kick about (Giggs et al can rest easy, needless to say). Before that, we settle ourselves in the hotel’s 92 Suite conference room, coined after the Class of ’92 moniker given to its owners (plus David Beckham, who is not involved in the venture), whose footballing careers at United blossomed at the same time under the guidance of Sir Alex Ferguson. The room is brimming with footballing memorabilia.

"That’s Nicky Butt’s England shirt from the 2002 World Cup quarter final game against Brazil. And those are his boots from his last ever game for United. Look at the mud on them!" says Procter. A Manchester United shirt worn by Ryan Giggs on the night of his record-breaking UEFA Champions League appearance hangs next to the boots he wore when United won the Champions League in Moscow in 2008, while his BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award from 2009 sits resplendent alongside his 2009 PFA Player of the Year award.

Coordinating all of this attention-grabbing detail for the hotel’s opening, while simultaneously spinning plates with the Cafe Football operation in London, must have been daunting for the team, I suggest. For Procter and Davies, however, speaking like well-drilled, professional sportsmen, it’s all about accentuating the positive and staying focused. Davies, formerly with Radisson Blu Edwardian and City Inn, Manchester (now the DoubleTree by Hilton), says: "It was an amazing opportunity to open Hotel Football. To be part of the creation and launch of not one, but two brands for GG Hospitality really was a once-in-a-lifetime chance. We’ve assembled a great team."

So, are they happy with what they’ve achieved in such a short space of time? "The picture looks really healthy," says Procter. "We’ve made great inroads. We’re very comfortable with where we’ve got to in the 14 months since we launched Cafe Football. We’re well-placed against casual dining brands that have been going for a couple of decades. We have a brand that has legs."

For Procter and Davies, a deciding factor in their success was their willingness to stay close to the customer and measure their feedback. "The team is learning every day to enhance what we do. We learned very quickly that casual dining has a price point. We are now on our fourth menu in 12 months at Cafe Football, and it’s by far the best menu we’ve done. The key is to change quickly; don’t be stubborn. Learn from your clients, they’ll soon tell you what they think you’re doing wrong," says Proctor. "We achieved a good profit at Cafe Football in London in the first year. I understand that’s rare and we’re pleased with that. We’ve had fantastic feedback from our customers."

A winning pitch

None of this success has come about as the result of a hopeful punt or merely celebrity backing, according to Procter. "We’ve all worked on this brand for four and a half years, and have done a great deal of research into it. It’s actually easier to open a hotel than it is a restaurant because there is so much more available market data you can compare," he says.

"We use TRI Reports, STR Global and Hotelligence, among others," says Davies. "It means you get to see what’s coming into your comp set. You know what you have to deliver. GG Hospitality is not a huge chain, there’s no big machine behind it, but it’s a customer-focused operation. The big chains often lose sight of the customer."

For Procter and Davies, the quality of their employees on both sites is a big differentiator from the competition. "The integrity of our staff is vital," says Procter. "At Hotel Football, we ensure that at least 15% of our staff are from the local area. No matter what their function here, we try to engage with them so they feel they are participating, and they know they have a voice and are part of the brand. While the leadership team has vast experience in hospitality, for any business to succeed it must grow from within.

"Talent is like oil – it’s rare. You have to look after it. Everyone has been given an opportunity to progress. Trust and credibility are two key words for us. We don’t take detail lightly. We want individual personalities here, regardless of experience. With the right leaders, the right philosophy and the right DNA, we can grow."

"The key is to change quickly; don’t be stubborn. Learn from your clients, they’ll soon tell you what they think you’re doing wrong." 

The owners, says Procter, are not involved in the day-to-day operation of the business. "That’s my job," he laughs. "They were very involved with the detail, right up until the opening and the first week. They don’t interfere. They had a manager for 26 years who never let the owners pick his team, so they know what that’s like! But in a hotel, the fact remains: if the food and service are terrible, and bedrooms are dirty, you’re never going to succeed, whoever your partners are. If a customer sleeps here once and doesn’t enjoy it, he won’t be coming back."

A fresh feel

GG Hospitality felt that getting the right look and feel for both Cafe Football and Hotel Football was crucial. "We worked hard to select the right [interior] designers. We got several to present to us. We knew what we wanted – cool, fresh and subtle – but we couldn’t draw the designs ourselves."

Then, three years ago, Procter, Neville and Giggs met with "two great designers", Leicester-based Checkland Kindleysides. Things quickly clicked in place and the team started to work together. "The design has evolved since then," says Procter. "We want it to keep evolving and stay fresh." Every bedroom in the nine-floor hotel contains original, football-themed artwork, many of it from students at the local University of Salford, and is available to purchase. "We bought six pieces outright because we liked them so much," says Procter. "It’s great to be able to support young people in the area."

Neil Roberts, a young Welsh artist Neville discovered on Twitter, has designed a vast mural of famous football scenes in the Old Trafford Supporters Club basement bar (fans pay a £1 entry fee and proceeds go to local community projects). "He’s a huge United fan and was completely starstruck when he met Ryan," laughs Procter.

As well as being backed by the former United players, Singapore businessman Peter Lim is another partner in the business. With Lim’s estimated net worth of $2.5 billion behind it, the GG Hospitality brand can continue to spread its wings. "Peter has got amazing business acumen. If a good opportunity arose, he would look at it with us," says Procter.

With two successful launches in their locker and a potentially franchiseable restaurant and hotel model that could be rolled out to any football-friendly major city in the UK or further afield, the sky is the limit, says Procter. He feels that his firm is also well placed to expand. "GG Hospitality has a team of experts in restaurants, hotels, sales, PR and marketing, IT and accounts. We could manage any hotel, from a three to a five-star property, if an owner was unsatisfied with its existing structure. We have the skills for that."

First published in FCSI’s Foodservice Consultant (