A different take: Firmdale Hotels29 October 2018
As the founders and leaders of Firmdale Hotels, Kit and Tim Kemp are among the industry’s most influential boutique hoteliers. Phin Foster hears them speak about the importance of maintaining their own spheres of control, taking a personalised approach to hotel development and why it sometimes pays to do things a little differently.
Operators like to extol the virtues of uniqueness, reinvention and identity ad nauseam, but, when one looks beyond all the talk of lifestyle-led new concepts, affordable luxury and total connectivity, today’s hotel market can appear to be a somewhat homogenous, monotonous landscape. As an increasing number of brands compete for a decreasing amount of space, genuine markers of difference stand out like never before.
Counter-intuitiveness is rarely an intentional building block for a business model, but, accidental or not, in an increasingly beige environment, it can quickly become a wonderful selling point. Firmdale Hotels design director Kit Kemp reveals she is “scared of beige”, and, having founded the hotel group with her husband Tim in 1985, the couple have witnessed the industry around them change to such an extent since that their unwillingness to bow to the prevailing winds seems almost wilfully, joyously reactionary.
In an age of private equity investment and asset-light operations, they are owneroperators of a growing portfolio. During a period dominated by conversions and rebrands, they built full-service, luxury hotels in the heart of two of global hospitality’s capital cities from the ground up. Amid a dominant emphasis on scale and scalability, the Kemps have forged a brand defined by the individuality of the properties that sit within its portfolio.
Said portfolio now numbers ten operating hotels – eight in London and two in New York – but the Kemps’ influence transcends figures. In the playful, vibrant, colourful feel evident within the service and design culture of each Firmdale property, one can see the template that any number of multinational behemoths are currently trying to ape through the ongoing launches of new boutique, lifestyle brands. One can make a case for the couple being the most influential boutique hoteliers working in the industry today.
Acknowledgement of such significance came in the form of the Hall of Fame Award at this year’s Hotel Investment Conference Europe. It seems apt that they should jointly receive the accolade; they lead separate, but essential components of the business and, unlike so often when hearing from business partners, in conversation one senses no indication of there being an ultimate leader. This feels very much like a partnership of equals. Is there a boss?
“It’s somewhere in the middle,” Tim answers, demurely.
Kit laughs. “We do work somewhat autonomously,” she explains. “We have our own buildings, and that gives us plenty of space, but we're a bit like two old sumo wrestlers; we know when to circle each other and when to go in for the kill.”
Tim serves as chairman – “the money man”, in his wife’s words – while Kit is responsible for the look and feel of the hotels, though neither works in a vacuum. “I think the secret is to very much have our spheres of control, though there is also clearly a lot of collaboration,” he explains. “You don't want to be treading on each other's toes.”
And they agree on everything? “Pretty much, most of the time,” he says, smiling.
One area on which they clearly speak as one voice surrounds the founding principles of good hospitality and the ingredients that have made Firmdale such a success. Here at Hot.E, the couple stand out amidst the formal business attire and aggressive networking of a city centre investment forum, and it is a difference that goes beyond mere aesthetics.
“I've been listening to everyone else this morning,” Tim begins, indicating towards the conference going on around us. “So much of the focus is on the top, levels of finance and so forth, but we actually start at the bottom. The guest comes first; what do they want? One of the easiest ways of doing that is remembering that you’re a guest yourself: ‘What do I like?’ You hope if you like it others will too, that people are looking for similar quality, levels of service, value for money and all the rest of it. In the end, it really is that simple.”
Seeing everything through the eyes of the guest also dictates much of Kit’s work, in terms of interiors and a more general sense of what a hotel should be. “Staying in a hotel is a luxury, an adventure,” she explains. “You mustn't forget about all those interlinking areas, how to draw the eye from one area to another. I feel it’s a success if guests who are not interested at all in their surroundings suddenly want to know more about things.
“People are so sophisticated now; they understand about good art, they understand design. You're playing up to them all the time and that means we too need to be learning continuously. We spend a lot of time travelling, studying other hotels, always buying, discovering art and artists. Staying in hotels is work of a sort, I suppose, though it's good when it doesn't feel as such.”
Tim and Kit both agree that Firmdale is a brand, though not in the sense that it is something that could be scaled up, franchised and rolled out. They believe the name ultimately stands for quality, even if the way that quality is articulated, aesthetically at least, is to a large extent site specific.
“All our hotels are quite different and the whole point is that if you come and stay you won't be entirely aware that it is a brand because that building should speak for itself,” Kit says. “That's what we aim to do. And it’s not just about staying in the hotel itself; we also do art walks, we get authors in to talk about their books. So many guests seek engagement; they want to not only have leisure time, but also to learn.”
Like a number of lifestyle operators, however, Firmdale faces the challenge of maintaining this sense of personalisation and intimacy as the portfolio grows. Work has just started on the next New York site, near the city’s financial district – “It could be a world-beater,” according to Tim – and the chairman acknowledges that he is keen to find locations in Paris and Lisbon. Could there be a tipping point where Firmdale gets to such a size that development and management models need to be overhauled?
“I don’t think so,” he responds. “It will never be InterContinental Hotels or anything like that. We don't do many transactions; it's one at a time, so they're bespoke and not cookie cut. But we're in competition with a lot of other great brands in this space and we're at the bottom of the list in terms of finance, so we have to take what's left over. It's therefore more difficult to find good sites, but we manage.”
That prompts another question about expenditure and control. A number of Firmdale’s properties have been newbuild projects. All have been selffinanced and the temptation to take outside investment must be significant. One wonders whether the pair might be convinced to enter into such an arrangement should it promise to gain them a foothold in a competitive gateway city such as Paris.
“It could change,” Tim acknowledges. “I must say, it's a challenge coming up with the money. Then, on the other hand, the time difference between starting and finishing a project, as the building progresses, people lose interest or things change. It’s not just you anymore. You have more control this way.”
Kit interjects, “I always say to Tim, I wish he would buy an architectural gem, but the problem with gems is that they're so expensive. That means we have to make some of our own instead: New York, Ham Yard, Soho. I guess that's how we get them. The funny thing is, very often, I'm showing somebody around and they'll ask, ‘Did you have to do much here?’ I take that as a compliment because there wasn't anything here before.”
The overriding factor in why these new properties feel so established and lived in so quickly is the design director’s unique style. Synonymous with colourful textiles and a carefully curated maximalist approach to interior furnishings across a variety of scales, Firmdale properties feel simultaneously grown-up and playful. It is also an incredibly difficult approach to ape, something a number of larger, cookiecutter brands have found to their cost.
“You look at every hotel, every space, individually and it's always a panic at the beginning; you get butterflies in your stomach, seeing something for the first time, realising the scale of the task,” she explains. “But you must have that belief in yourself, stick to your guns. In so many areas, people will tell you that's no good, it will never work, forget it. My message is always, come back when I've finished.”
This approach has been so successful that Kit has become a brand in herself, launching an array of products, from wallpaper to patchwork toys, and collaborating with classic, British brands, including Wedgwood and Wilton Carpets. “I adore fabrics, beautifully made crafts,” she says. “These are things we've always championed. We love to discover and commission very good artists and craftsmen, so much so that we soon can't afford to buy their work because they become quite famous themselves.”
Such is her passion, one wonders whether Tim is allowed any input whatsoever when it comes to matters of design. “I have significant input and I'm very grateful for it,” he replies. “That's not to imply that everything I say is taken notice of, but it seems to work out alright.”
Inside and out
But when discussing the boutique sector, there is always the danger of failing to see beyond aesthetics. While Kit’s interiors are certainly a defining feature of the brand, within the industry at least, Firmdale has become almost as celebrated for being an employer of choice across all levels of the business. Staff retention is incredibly high, with a quarter of employees boasting more than five years’ service, and success in this sphere clearly provides the couple with enormous pride.
“It starts with a smile, if you can possibly produce one in this day and age,” Tim says of trying to be the best employer he can be. “You offer lots of training, the promise of promotion, an understanding of other people's needs and requirements – after all, we all began at the bottom somewhere. A sharp memory therefore helps; empathy; [and] it should be fun to start a new job, to be appreciated. I've never been very good at remembering names. We employ around 1,800 people and I used to know everyone and then, when they left, it was incredibly emotionally disturbing. Now I think of everyone as ‘darling’, really.”
It sounds more natural coming from Tim’s mouth than that of most hotel group chairmen, you’d have to imagine. Then again, being defined by their differences has served the Kemps pretty well thus far.