Robert Cook is the CEO of Malmaison and Hotel du Vin, two hotel brands which together form the UK’s largest boutique group.
Cook was born into a hotel-keeping family. He spent his first 18 years living in Room 114 of the Swallow Palace Hotel in Peterhead before embarking on a hospitality course at what is now Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen. A few years back, the university gave Robert Cook an honorary degree for his work in the hospitality industry.
As part of his course, he took up a placement with the InterContinental group. At the end of his training, the chain’s owners offered him a position as a resident hotel manager at their London-based Holiday Inns.
He reckons this solid background stood him in good stead. By the time he was offered the job of opening manager for the Newcastle Malmaison in 1997, he knew every system and procedure.
For Robert Cook, Malmaison is a brand with a difference.
“What I love about Malmaison now is what I loved when I joined – the ability to be your own man,” he says.
“You are responsible for running a business which is not only a business, but also a business in the community. It is a funky brand and when I started, boutique hotels were a concept new to the UK.”
When the business was sold to MWB in 2000, Cook did not have to wait long before Malmaison founder Ken McCulloch rang him from Monte Carlo to let him know he was going to start again – this time, in partnership with Formula 1 driver David Coulthard. They wanted Robert to join them as the MD for McCulloch’s Columbus and Dakota Hotel group in the UK. So he moved to Monte Carlo.
Cook added his own unconventional style to his solid background, and new Malmasion owners MWB then made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. He calls it “the best thing I ever did”.
Within six months in London, the company had bought Hotel du Vin. Now there are 12 Malmaisons and 15 Hotels du Vin.
The turnover for the two brands is in excess of £120 million – almost half of which comes from food and drink.
“The big boys in the industry are terrified of food,” Cook declares.
“They can’t see it make the return they want to make. But we are passionate about it and it works.
“Our mantra and whole reason for being here is that we are a hotel group known for great food, great style, great value. We have taken this very seriously. Because we have, it has become the cornerstone of our success.”
Cook has a clear hands-on approach, and says he is passionate about investing in his employees and in helping his hotels’ neighbours.
“Hotel du Vin and Malmaison should be pillars of the community,” he explains.
“Whether speaking at schools or local events, our staff, our chefs, our sommeliers support local charities.
“The community contributes to the revenue of the hotels through our bars and restaurants. Also local businesses need a place of excellence to put people up for the night.”
With staff committed to that ethic and their local communities, Cook believes his people make a brand which is “able to give things back”. I start to realise why Robert Cook has been labelled “an inspirational example for the managers of the future”.
Hotel du Vin and Malmaison do not form a chain, he adds. “We are a lifestyle brand. People spend time away from home. If all the time they would prefer to be home then we have not done our jobs.”
Cook prefers the label “lifestyle” to “boutique” which he explains “has connotation of design”.
“My hotels are well designed but I think this industry has put design too far up the agenda, and hospitality too low. Too many hotels hide behind a veneer.”
Cook believes success comes from good hospitality and good service. The group grows its staff from within to “keep the feel, the golden thread”.
“I have a big responsibility to grow young talent,” Cook says. Most of the general managers started as graduates with the group, and are still there a decade later.
“There is a Chinese proverb which says ‘a fish stinks from the head down’. If my general managers are happy, the receptionists are happy and we will provide great service.”
The group is still expanding, despite the global economic downturn, and Cook is encouraged by what the government is doing to support tourism. He welcomes the Olympics but deplores transport fares.
“We need to encourage visitors to get out of London and make sure that they will return to the UK again and again,” he says.
Looking ahead, new sites for Hotel du Vin in market and university towns like Durham, Chester and Chichester are being considered. New openings in Canterbury and St Andrews are already planned.
We can also expect to see Hotel du Vin becoming part of a range alongside Pub du Vin – pubs with rooms – and Bistro du Vin, coming soon to Clerkenwell in London.
Cook has also considering “Retreat du Vin” – but this country house style of lodging is just an idea at present.
As for Malmaison, Cook would love to open a bigger branch in London’s West End. He can also see Malmaison working in the US, possibly starting in cities such as Miami and Atlanta before moving to New York and Washington.
“We can do something interesting in that market,” he explains. “Some of the hotels I have seen are tired and passé.”