The Stafford has stood in St James in London since the 17th century, and was originally built as private residences. Next door, buildings were added over time and in 1912 The Stafford Hotel was born. In charge of the luxury five-star property is GM Stuart Procter, who is surrounded by a team who are passionate and loyal and have stayed with the hotel for much longer periods than current hospitality tides.
“If you could bottle what this hotel has in spirit and sell it, you’d be a billionaire. The feel this hotel has and the connection it has with people is unique. Sarah [Executive Assistant], Frank [Executive Head Concierge], Gino [Master Sommelier] and Benoit [Bar Manager] are only a few examples of the longevity we have. There are another dozen like them. It’s like a stick of rock – if you snapped it in half it would say The Stafford in it. They care about it and are real stakeholders through and through. There’s a real sense of joy in the morning meeting when we achieve our budget and equally if a client’s not happy, we get upset about it. It has been this way for decades, the detail the team knows about clients is phenomenal with repeat guests making up 60 per cent of our business. We had a client stay recently who has been coming here for 50 years, so we now have their grandchildren and their great grandchildren stay.”
Stuart explains how he considers the hotel to be more of a home for their clients. “That’s not a marketing line you tend to read from the big international companies, it’s a fact. I would suggest 50 per cent of our clients could buy the hotel and when we give them our top suites they’re probably as big as their shoe cabinet at home.”
Stuart has been in the hospitality sector from an early age and took his first steps as a 15-year-old part-time waiter, “This was at Northcote Manor, a boutique hotel in Blackburn, Lancashire, where I’m from. I loved food and hotels from a young age and was fortunate enough to be offered their first ever apprenticeship. It covered all areas from the kitchen, to the bar, to housekeeping, to the office and at the same time I completed my BTEC National Diploma in Hospitality and Institutional Management. I went on to work for Shire Hotels who were owned by Thwaites Brewery and they purchased The Stafford. At that time I loved the hotel from afar – it was for me, the iconic boutique hotel.
“I was Deputy GM at the ripe age of 23 and within six months was the GM before coming to The Stafford aged 27 as number two under the great hotelier Terry Holmes. A couple of years later I was GM and spent seven years here. I left to open Hotel Football in Manchester but returned to The Stafford last year. I’m not the first to go away and come back. Others have gone abroad to explore but many have a fondness that brings them back. Employees arrive here and either last five to ten years or one week – the team won’t suffer fools. Clients are treated as friends but without being familiar – it’s the informal formality. The cultural side of our hotel is to deliver the best service and we are helped by not having guests who feel they have nothing to prove. If they did, they wouldn’t stay here.”
During the Second World War, The Stafford served as a club for American and Canadian officers stationed overseas who sought refuge in the Wine Cellars. A glimpse into this period of history can still be seen at the far end of the Cellars, where an authentic collection of items from the war is housed in a little museum. The hotel today has many international guests and the bar is named The American Bar, which Stuart explains is due to their special relationship with the US. “The bar is an institution – it has only had two head barmen over the past 60 years. There is lots of memorabilia on show which has been given to us by guests and this connects them and their families to us, it is a bit of a club. It was started by Terry Holmes who really put this hotel on the map. We have worked very hard for five decades attracting American clientele – 53 per cent of our business is from the US. We have a person employed on the west coast and an agency on the east. I visit at least once a quarter because this is a relationship business. You have to know the right agents and families and then deliver on those promises. It helps being in the best location in the world for me.”
Some hotels have trouble retaining staff but The Stafford does seem to hold the secret that keeps the team together. “They all look out for each over, it is like a family. You can fall out with your family but you make it up very quickly. We have different individuals holiday together, there is a lot of social activity, and they are well rewarded, which doesn’t just mean money. I liken it to supporting a football team, you love your club and this club is called The Stafford.
We also have amazing young people coming through and I believe our industry offers a great life. We need to grow our talent and, yes, you spend a long time training but my generation were fortunate to have great bosses and mentors and now we must pass on our experiences. We’re not a college because we can’t afford to make mistakes at the prices we charge. This is a job where anyone can go and work anywhere abroad because the skills are transferable.
“We hold a meeting every morning and walk through every client that’s arriving. We have notes on each client. Hospitality hasn’t changed since long before we were born, it’s about knowing the client. It isn’t about the amount you charge because value to one person is different to another. They will pay, so it doesn’t matter if your gin and tonic is £9.60 or £16.50, it’s irrelevant. We know all our clients because we walk the floor, we don’t sit in an ivory tower and we’ve got all the tools to aid us. Our business is strong and we would rather spend thousands of pounds looking after our clients who go and tell their friends than spending the same trying to get new ones.
“We’re continuously, like other top hotels, reinvesting. It’s like the Forth Bridge starting at one end, finishing, and then starting again. We’re currently in the process of appointing an interior designer from New York, tasked with refurbishing all our Carriage House rooms. It’s a big investment and will be an amazing enhancement once completed.
“To make a successful hotel you need continuity because clients want recognition. Stability and loyalty isn’t rocket science. If you turn over your staff you don’t deliver. We’re in the service business and short-term mentalities don’t work. Are we unique? No, there are other hotels doing what we still do, London has the best hotels in the world without a shadow of doubt. If I don’t look after my clients they may just pop around the corner and so we have to be always on it. I was privileged to take over an incredible philosophy and culture, which we have maintained. The team lives and breathes the hotel, it’s not their job – it’s their life.”