A QUIET EVOLUTION

Apex Hotels today boasts hotels in Glasgow, Edinburgh (x4), London (x3), Dundee and is due to open a new £35m hotel in Bath in summer 2017. The last decade has been difficult for independent operators, but Apex has found a niche and built a business that really has a special feel and place in the industry. How has it achieved progress when others have struggled?

Apex was founded by Norman Springford, who opened his first hotel in 1996 in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket. Norman had previously been an employee of the Inland Revenue and owner/operator of a number of pubs, bingo halls and the Edinburgh Playhouse. Today, turnover is an estimated at £60m.

Norman was reported to have once said that he “could not run  a hotel to save my life”, highlighting the fact his success has been due to appointing the best operators, such as Chief Executive Angela Vickers. “My role is focused on finance and profitability,” he explains. “Perhaps I shouldn’t say this, but one of the biggest changes I’ve witnessed since I opened my first hotel in Edinburgh in 1996 is the increase in number of hotels being run by accountants rather than hoteliers, alongside the growth in budget hotels and a move towards distribution via the online travel agents. Accountants are generally not the right people to run hotels – they are more interested in the bottom line, rather than providing true hospitality.”

It is a typically modest statement, and one of the real qualities of the leadership team within Apex is that they are modest but thoughtful, considered and open minded. They seek to explore new ideas and innovation in a way that very few others do. One could turn Norman’s quote on its head and argue that the fact that they are accountancy led is the exact reason for their success.

However, this too is simplistic. The Apex differential is its open-minded approach but also its understanding in the essence

of hospitality. The hotels will often be well designed and with real points of difference, plus possess a great service ethic. Rest assured, they understand hotels. If one visits the Temple Court Hotel, situated on Fleet Street, one is met by an Elephant sculpture

next to the entrance – it does bring a smile to the face and makes a subtle statement. If one visits Glasgow, the hotel is a modern, imposing building that impressively dominates the street.

The bottom line, maybe, is that Apex is just a well-run business that is almost old-fashioned in ethos but with an open, enquiring mindset for the future. It possesses strong relationships with its bank and the leadership team is a well-balanced mix of financial and hotel specialists. “We have an excellent relationship with the bank that has been built up over many years and as a result the bank has confidence in us,” notes Angela Vickers. “I think that one of the most important aspects is that everyone at the top of the business comes from a financial background and therefore the bank knows it can trust that we have done all our background work.”

It is quite a story – a hotel group that has quietly developed from its £1m launch to £60m turnover in 2015. They have achieved this almost under the radar, and it is this point that intrigues. Not many experts talk about Apex Hotels and yet their story probably has more substance than those that are often more publicly discussed.

Angela’s own career started when she graduated from Glasgow University and joined KPMG to train as an accountant. She entered the industry with Stakis in the days of David Michels and subsequently moved across to Hilton following their acquisition of Stakis. Angela joined Apex in 2004, became Managing Director in 2005 and more recently, Chief Executive.

Angela is a key part to the story for she does share many of the same traits that make Apex a success. She is keen to learn and to see new talent developed. In 2013, she was one of the initial intake of the new MSc course at the International Leadership School developed at Strathclyde University Business School with HIT Scotland, Ecole Hôtèliere de Lausanne and Cornell. She is also a Trustee of HIT Scotland. Angela is an avid listener who will digest information but will constantly seek ways of moving the service and product forward. At the same time, she is true to all the founding principles that made Apex a success.

There is an argument that the four-star business hotel is one of the sectors that are under pressure, and yet Apex will often record far higher occupancy levels than their competitors. They have built a strong customer base that vote with repeated stays in the hotels. One can argue that the group needs to raise its profile but the counter is why when the hotels will see 96 per cent occupancy levels as a norm.

“I think that we have provided a good service at very reasonable prices,” outlines Angela. “I know many people will say this, but we have, and we have done it modestly, which I think also suits our customers, as it is a bit like their secret. And this generates loyalty. I think the other key factor as to why we have performed well during the recession is that we reacted quickly to the market when it turned. We took a long, hard look at our cost base and our business mix and developed new ideas and solutions. There is no doubt that the market changes at speed and we need to be constantly reviewing what we do and asking ourselves how we can improve – but we will do this in a reasoned considered way, as that is just us.”

The hotels are modern, well designed and practical. They are almost modest but offer exactly what a customer wants and they are like that old advert line, ‘We deliver what we say’. The interesting point is that Apex do not say too much and hence are low key.

Apex is and has been a role model for many companies to observe. Maybe its branding does need developing, but its success comes from two factors. Firstly, it has kept the bank’s confidence at the most difficult of times, and secondly, it has delivered to the customers what they wanted at a reasonable cost.

Apex has understood its business, adapted it but also built for the future by constantly seeking to ask questions of itself and find new solutions. It has thrived in a market that has been under real pressure and has done so through a quiet evolution that ensures its customer base continues to enjoy the journey.