Tuesday 21 November 2017

Hugh Taylor: Meet the link man hoping for a chain reaction

Hugh Taylor is putting together Ireland's biggest group of hotels -- and he means business, writes Roisin Burke

Hugh Taylor
Hugh Taylor
City West Hotel

Roisin Burke

Hugh Taylor's day started at 7am with a breakfast briefing to Irish hotel industry peers but when we meet him a good while later he is still fresh-faced and brimming with enthusiasm despite the early start.

Taylor is one half of Michels and Taylor, one of the best known hotel asset managers and consultancies in the business, managing or advising over 100 hotel portfolios. His partner is former Hilton Group boss and well-known British corporate figure Sir David Michels.

His company now has two Irish projects: a new commission to run Citywest, Ireland's biggest hotel and conference centre for its low profile new London and Swizerland-based owners, and a joint venture with Ulster Bank that aims to launch Ireland's biggest hotel chain in 2014.

Taylor has a long relationship with Ulster Bank's parent, RBS, having managed the former £1.5bn Mariott and Hilton hotel businesses once owned by Derek Quinlan's Quinlan Private and Israeli tycoon Igal Ahouvi.

The big new hotel brand launch is planned for within the first six months of next year. "But I'm in no rush -- I'll get it to the market when it's ready but I'd be surprised if it wasn't within that period," Taylor says.

The new chain will be made up not just of Ulster Bank indebted hotels, but also other hotel businesses that want to come on board. In preparation Taylor and his team have been visiting and staying in target hotels and meeting non Ulster Bank hotel owners who may be interested in joining the brand.

"We're now in discussion with other hotels over and above the core portfolio Ulster hotels," he says. Of the Ulster Bank debtor hotels, only ones deemed suitable will be included.

"The hotels we're involved with are not in distress operationally, they're good hotels with good managers in good locations in a determined and defiant market," Taylor says.

"There is a discussion they are having financially with the bank, but I've no idea about those discussions. They are viable well run businesses. The idea that they are a group of distressed hotels is not the premise of the business.

"They're not broken operationally. This isn't about recovery, it's about support and adding value to good businesses."

Michels and Taylor does not operate hotels, he is keen to point out, unlike distressed hotel managers and recovery experts like Pat McCann's Dalata, which managed Citywest during administration.

"We're going in as a team with specialist experts to help the owners and the existing mangers to do better professionally.

"Ulster Bank wants to get as much of their money back as they can given the circumstances and this is an initiative to get as much money out of the business at the end of the day as they can."

Rather than running the hotels, Michels and Taylor are creating a brand company. "We're there to bring the hotels together, to enhance distribution, to get them together to sell to give customers deals and offers that they wouldn't otherwise get, along with a reservation system, call centre, cost efficiencies included in the services to these hotels. We do not have an operational structure within this initiative."

As yet Taylor won't name hotels as all of those involved have not all been finally confirmed. However they are all non-Dublin businesses to date, and are both rural- and city-based properties.

"We spent a year preparing for this and we took out a huge amount of hotels from Ulster Bank's book that just weren't suitable. The hotels involved in this project are well run, well invested, in a good position. We couldn't approach hotels that were uninvested for years or where management were poor."

When the plausibility of building the biggest hotel chain in Ireland out of core indebted Ulster Bank provincial hotels along with some additions in a still tough climate, he is entirely upbeat.

"The timing is very good," he argues. "This is the time to go into the market, particularly in the provinces. Whilst Dublin is doing really well, it's pretty much motoring, there's still a real lack of supply in the provinces of stock and we know that. I think it's a very good time to come in.

"But there are different markets around the country. We're starting from a low base that can be built upon and I think that building is now happening, and if you bring in this sort of initiative to help good hotels on their way you're going to have inherent growth that comes from an economy starting to strengthen again but you then have this boost to these individual hotels.

"As it stands we haven't got a Dublin hotel. It's not a concern from my perspective. The proposition was for the provincial locations. If a Dublin hotel came in we'd be very happy to talk to them but it's not the premise on which the business is being built."

The collection of hotels will be a mix of categories, from three-star to five-star. He has been in the hotel industry since the late '80s, Taylor is a former vice president of marketing at Hilton's European group and has also run 31 Hilton hotels and has veteran brand building savvy.

"We can't possibly create a hard brand to that degree like Hilton Doubletree which has significant success throughout Europe," he says. "We're doing it slightly differently.

"We are keeping the hero name -- the name of each hotel and that remains above the door. We don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. However our brand name will be underneath, collectively branded for customer recognition.

"We want them to be different and individual -- a variety, but with the same standard and service across all hotels."

Big name global hotel franchise names have come and gone around Ireland in recent years. "I also think the international brands outside Dublin have had quite a chequered history in justifying the cost of those contracts against the value that they deliver," Taylor says.

"The costs of bringing in management of a franchise outside Dublin in particular, there have not been as many successes, and the brands will admit this as well. In Dublin they can add value, outside it's much more difficult.

"We are conscious of that and trying to almost go the opposite way and trying to almost develop a truly Irish hospitality brand which reflects the individuality and character of the hotels."

The uptick in tourism numbers from the British market in particular -- and the American market -- will help power things on. And he thinks the perception of good old fashioned Irish hospitality still has integrity.

"The way you welcome people and look after people in my marketing judgement is tangible enough to build a brand around. And I can't say that about many countries. You do this extremely well.

"How consistent that is unit by unit is for people to discuss, but in my judgement and my experience Irish hospitality remains a very strong part of the proposition."

Taylor was chairman of the English tourist board and part of his remit was the hotel stars rating system. It's a concept which he says is something that is dwindling in credibility.

"Because of the internet customers I don't think they buy three and four star anymore, not in reality. They buy brands, they buy Tripadvisor, word of mouth and reputation. The brands define what they get at different levels. But they don't buy 2/3/4 star hotel, I think it's somewhat outdated."

A Dublin office is being set up and a headhunter has been commissioned to find a Dublin chief executive. There will be an Ireland-based core team backed up by a specialist team out of London.

An Irish branding agency is working on an identity for the business.

In tandem, major moves to revive Citywest, the former Jim Mansfield 774 bedroom hotel, arena and 4,100 person capacity convention centre, which was bought out of administration recently for €30m, is under way.

"It's a big beast. All options to make sure it can play the international conference markets are being considered." A rebranding may form part of those plans.

"It's a convention space to die for, a self-contained centre that can take the large conventions in a way that other hotels can't." It will compete with the biggest centres of its kind around the world, Taylor says.

So there are challenges aplenty ahead. But he's enjoying them.

"It's a fun industry. We're not talking about making widgets, we're talking about hospitality and excitement -- it's friendly and people-based and never dull."


Taylor in Brief

Age: 48

Career: Former marketing vice president of marketing for Hilton UK & Ireland, current chief executive of hotel asset manager and advisor Michels and Taylor.

Education: Masters degree in marketing from Penn State University.

Personal: Married with four children. Enjoys playing tennis and going to the theatre.

Irish Independent

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