Having been one of the leading players in the story of London’s hotels over the past 40 years in late 2015 David Levin was awarded an MBE. Looking back, it is almost amusing to consider that David managed to fund the launch of the hotel with an £800,000 loan from Barclays Bank that was almost given on trust in David and the fact that Capital and County had accepted an offer from David on the lease. It is something that just would not happen in today’s market. Over the next 20 years, The Capital Hotel grew to become one of London’s leading hotels and had grown through the three-day week and two, if not three, recessions.
Today, as David discussed his long and successful career and story, we noted just how few hotels still possess an owner at the core of the living operation and just what a rarity it had become. As one listens to David talk, one soon realises that he is an operators’ operator in the true sense of the phrase and has a deep and abiding love for the hospitality industry. And as one looks at his career, it becomes clear that David is not just a hotelier.
He had the vision to see beyond hotels and was the driving force behind The Green House restaurant with Gary Rhodes in the 1990s and a concession contract with The Royal Festival Hall (and the People’s Palace restaurant) for ten years in the 90s. Today, he owns not just the hotel but a bakery, a vineyard, a bistro and more. He has an eye on two or three new deals as we talk.
David’s story began in Glasgow where he grew up. In those days, his parents wanted him to take on a traditional profession and were resistant to his entering the hotel industry which they believed was a very difficult career path to achieve success. From their perspective, they believed that the leading players in the industry were Italian, French and German and very few from Britain attained the highest levels.
But David was unperturbed. He began his career with British Transport Hotels before moving south to take over the Royal Oak pub in Berkshire. This was a turning point for David as it gave him the belief that he could make money and nurtured his love for business. The pub cost him £15,000 and he made the same in profit in the first year.
His dream though was a five-star London hotel and this is where his attention turned to The Capital, in the heart of Knightsbridge, which celebrates its 45th birthday this year. He has developed a legacy that he has handed over to his daughter, Kate (pictured opposite with David), to run. “I created a boutique hotel with 50 rooms and a nice restaurant – the word ‘boutique’ was not a known term in those days as it is today, but in some ways that was the aim; to create something high quality and personal. Everyone said, ‘Don’t do it, it won’t work.’ The 70s were a tough trading environment but I believed that customers wanted something different.”
Levin was Restaurateur of the Year in 1991 and Hotelier of the Year in 1994, while The Capital was the Good Hotel Guide’s London Hotel of the Year in 2008 and was awarded Most Excellent Hotel Restaurant the same year by Condé Nast Johansens.
Most hotels focus on the rooms but the key here has been the food. At first, The Capital was seen as a restaurant with rooms rather than a hotel and David was relaxed about this perception as he knew that a great restaurant would bring in the guests.
“The 70s were a tough trading environment but I believed that customers wanted something different”
It is an interesting thought as so many hotels today view food and beverage as their weakness and seek to outsource the operations. However, David’s success began with food and one can see that food has been central to David’s philosophy throughout.
The restaurant was one of the first hotel eateries to be awarded a Michelin star, and it gained its second in 2001. In the intervening years, Levin has nurtured the careers of great chefs including Brian Turner, Gary Rhodes, Richard Shepherd and Paul Merrett. Today the hotel boasts ‘Outlaws’, which is an alliance with Nathan Outlaw.
It is also fascinating to try and understand what makes one great hotelier different to another and one of the great fascinations about the sector is that each is often so very different. Generally they possess a common love for hospitality and for the guest, but each will have different qualities that inspire their ‘fan base’. It may seem strange to write about hoteliers having a fan base but this is exactly what does happen – customers do follow those that provide great hospitality.
Great food and beverage sits at the heart with David and this may be well illustrated by the state-of-the-art winery in the Loire Valley. He did not want to own just another Loire vineyard but one with a difference, so he imported the technology and equipment from Australia to create a Loire wine with New World influence – the taste of the wine is a blend between French and New World.
It illustrates David’s innovation. The Green House caught the imagination in the early 90s and The People’s Palace too was very innovative at the time. The Capital has been a success for four decades and now is an institution in London.
There is no doubt that David will have had many offers over the years to sell the hotel but one feels that he still has a hunger for hospitality and for business and instead, maybe has an eye for what can be achieved next. Some will say that David has left a great legacy and there is no doubt that he has left his mark but really the question is what lies ahead in his story?
Kate now runs the hotel and it is easy to see that father and daughter work effectively in tandem and share common values. Interestingly these values are not just about business but about being on the floor with the guest. And this takes this article almost full circle as the question still remains in the air – how many hotel owners will guests meet and see on the floor caring about the operation and the customers, as was commonplace in days gone by? The answer must be too few as there is much consumer research that suggests that customers yearn for the proprietor led ways that one can still see today at The Capital.