Interview with Robin Sheppard, Chairman of Bespoke Hotels

Robin Sheppard is the managing director of Bespoke Hotels, which he founded in 2000 with business partner Haydn Fentum. The group operates and manages around 40 properties in the UK as well as resorts in the Caribbean and Thailand, along with beapart, a portfolio of apartments in the UK and Spain.

A number of these properties are owned by  the company, others are managed by the group. In 2010, Bespoke secured the management contract for six hotels formerly run by Merchant Inns, which had gone into administration, adding a collection of historic inns to a portfolio which already included London’s Bermondsey Square Hotel and the Cornwall Hotel and Spa Estate.

The variety of properties is impressive but to join the Bespoke group, locations have to have two common denominators, Sheppard explains. They need to be “perfectly positioned” together with  “the potential to benefit from individual tailoring”.

As might be expected with Sheppard’s obsession with precision, each hotel offers a high standard of service and great food. But each hotel is also unique.

“The word ‘boutique’ is very important for individuality,” he says. “Bespoke Hotels caters for the needs of families, or offers that luxury you are looking for on certain occasions.

“Boutique hotels shouldn’t be a series of uniform, indistinguishable hotels. Each property is tailored throughout in order to enhance its essential character and to meet the needs of individual guests.”

This uniqueness, combined with Sheppard’s sense of humour, has led to some eccentric items being added onto room service. Pillow fights, for example.

“At the time, we were looking for a marketing idea,” he recalls – adding that the fights became a little too popular. “We ended up with a bit of a problem, there was feathers absolutely everywhere,” he laughs.

Will the group have such novelties planned for its new venture in Greenwich?

“As you know, the planning application has been a difficult time,” Sheppard says, referring to hostility to the plans from the local council, who blocked the original scheme before their decision was overturned by a planning inspector.

“It is very important for us that we work with the traders and the people of Greenwich,” he continues. Visitors can expect themes linked to history and seafaring.

“Greenwich is such a beautiful place, there is so much history but as far as I can see it does not have much nightlife.”

The new hotel will be right on the edge of a busy market, therefore the noise generated by the hustle and bustle of traders might be a concern. But Sheppard says all the rooms will be above the market roof.

“Our guests will be able to look down on the market, but the roof will act as an extra sound buffer. The entrance will lead to the market place, so that the hotel will become an integral part of the area.”

The expanding group has been recognised by the industry with several accolades throughout the years. But behind Sheppard’s professional success is a battle against a debilitating illness which left him completely paralysed.

One day in  December 2004, he was suddenly unable to stand up, and within days he could not move a muscle. He could hear and see things for brief periods, but that was all. After some time spent in intensive care, tests confirmed he was suffering from Guillain-Barré Syndrome, a little-known autoimmune disease which disrupts the transmission of nerve signals between the brain and the muscles.

Initially, the illness left him paralysed from the neck down. His recovery came after intensive treatment and hard work, a story told in his book “A Solitary Confinement” which he wrote a little over a  year after the illness struck.

Sheppard used voice activated software to recount what happened to him and those around him, from his days in hospital to getting back to work.

It was described in a reader’s review as “a real laugh of a book” and as we talked about his experience, I found myself chuckling at the way Sheppard described a couple of events which took place during his illness. He seems to be able to  find a funny side even to the most gloomy of situations.

This may not be the only reason why a man who had a happy “boy childhood” in Bath followed by an education at Oxford Brookes University became a successful businessman – but it has certainly helped.

Looking to the future, where would he like to develop a new boutique hotel? The answer is prompt.

“Plymouth – a town with some very pretty parts and wonderful waterways.”

But for the time being, Sheppard and Bespoke Hotels are being kept busy by their Greenwich venture along with the Streete Court conversion, a former boys’ school and a Grade II -listed building located at Godstone in Surrey. He is also looking forward to operating a 120-room hotel at Newbury racecourse, opening as part of a multi-million pound redevelopment of the site.

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