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Navigating the Crisis

Stuart Johnson, Managing Director at Brown's Hotel

The 5-star Brown's Hotel - based in London's Mayfair - has seen plenty during its 183-year-old history: from Alexander Graham Bell making the very first telephone call from Brown’s in 1876, to Rudyard Kipling penning The Jungle Book while staying at the hotel in the early 1890s. Today, Brown's is renowned for playing host to a multitude of literary stars, political figures, actors, musicians and royalty - that is, until Covid-19 forced the hotel to close its doors for only the second time in its history. To discover more, we spoke with Stuart Johnson, Brown's Managing Director for over 15 years, on how he's navigating the business through these unprecedented times - as well as his thoughts on British luxury and the influence of Rocco Forte - who purchased the hotel in 2003.
19th Apr 2020
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Navigating the Crisis  Stuart Johnson, Managing Director at Brown's Hotel

Stuart has been Managing Director of Brown’s Hotel, working within the prestigious Rocco Forte Hotel Group for over 15 years. During his time at Brown’s, he has led London’s first hotel from strength to strength overseeing a team of over 200. Stuart firmly supports his team and leads from the front, working closely with every team member within the operation, with an “open door” policy. Stuart Johnson dedicates his own personal time and energy to Cancer Research, a charity that is close to his heart, raising £17,000 in 2019 for Children with Cancer, walking 100 kilometres along the Thames Path continuously for 24 hours.

How are you navigating the business through the current COVD-19 crisis?

We are, as you know, in unprecedented territory, there is every possibility that leisure tourism will not return to healthy numbers until next year.  Although we will be able to travel once again and will be open to those from the GCC who are wishing to travel away from the heat of summer, I think our most important market as such during this pandemic is the domestic one - and we our doing our utmost best to keep in constant contact with them.  The UK domestic (leisure and corporate) traveller will be the first to return and London, being the capital, will still have its draw when normality kicks in again.  Another significant tactic we have in place is maintaining good communication and building on the relationship we have with our third party bookers, i.e. travel agents and DMC’s – taking a genuine interest in another’s business and staying in contact will only reap benefits in the future.

What has the situation taught you about leadership?

Sir Rocco Forte, as the leader of Rocco Forte Hotels has shown true leadership throughout and has remained in constant contact with his General Managers across all of his properties.  For me, I have a dedicated executive team that I am in contact with as well as the wider hotel team – via daily video messaging for example. Leadership is not about scoring points but rather to enable to lead a team successfully, and empower them to do their job when challenges are faced, such as this time. It is important to be sympathetic to one another and be consistent at the same time.

And what has it taught you about your business?

Brown’s, before temporarily closing its doors due to the pandemic, was a well-oiled machine. This closure will allow us to evaluate how we deliver service and support our team even more effectively when we open again. We will also have to be vigilant when it comes to the needs of all guests in the future. The hospitality industry was understandably one of the first industries to close down and therefore we will have to make sure the necessary health and safety measurements and requirements are in place to ensure our guests feel comfortable to visit us again.

How are you – and the wider business – supporting your people?

In this current situation, we are fortunate to have an industry body, UKHospitality, led by CEO, Kate Nicholls.  Kate has worked tirelessly with the Government to obtain the best possible support for everyone involved in this industry. From a closer and personal perspective, we at Brown’s have set up various ways to keep in touch with all team members, from a dedicated ‘Brown’s Team Together’ Instagram account to weekly quizzes and teachable moment’s group sessions via Zoom.  We also have a weekly e-newsletter and I produce a weekly podcast touching on what I have been up to the week of, and more importantly, it acts as a way to show (a positive and supportive) face to my team.  As we are a people industry, it is in our nature to support one another, to show appreciation and we look forward to the day we can come together once again under one roof.

What does British luxury mean to you?

British luxury is about the different elements that make a brand unique, which come together seamlessly to portray a true British luxury offering; something I am proud to say is evident at Brown’s. I say Brown’s is quintessentially English with a hint of the unexpected and working with Olga Polizzi, the Director of Design for Rocco Forte Hotels, renowned British designers and personalities are celebrated across the hotel.  From the wallpaper, to home-grown fabrics to our cuisine. We have Lewis and Wood wallpaper in The Kipling Suite (famously named after renowned British author, Rudyard Kipling – who penned ‘The Jungle Book’ at the hotel); wallpaper in the Front Hall is by Adam Ellis, conveying a quintessential English garden. We also celebrate British artists and photographers – from the works of Terence Donovan that hang in the Donovan Bar, to rotating painters on the walls in the Drawing Room. Charlie’s, our restaurant celebrates British cuisine at its very core and is headed up by British born, Michelin-starred Chef, Adam Byatt – he joins us from his restaurant Trinity in Clapham. As a guest of Brown’s, you also have on hand at any time of the day our Chauffeured Bentley Mulsanne – a trusted British luxury brand.

What's your vision for the company?

Brown’s is part of the esteemed Rocco Forte Hotel group, a company that prides itself in offering the highest level of engaged personal service whilst empowering team members to deliver service in a natural and pre-emptive manner – this is something that is inherited by every team member and we will continue to strive upon in the years to come.

What do you see as the future of luxury?

Luxury (now and in the future) is all about seamless service and providing privileged access. For luxury hotels, as guests become younger and more time poor, their experience must be completely hassle free, our aim is to meet and exceed guest expectations, whilst being prompt with the delivery of every request.

What inspires you?

Sir Rocco Forte is a true inspiration – his endless energy and focus on delivering the utmost best across all aspects of the entire Rocco Forte Hotel portfolio is remarkable. My team like to challenge me but this in turn energises me and this particularly relates to the younger team members – who are so ‘in the know’, I really do learn from them. My children, aged 29 and 32 are of course an inspiration to me also, they continue to keep me young and remind me that the world is changing and we need to adapt and change with it.

What was your big break?

I have been fortunate enough to experience several big breaks. Opening Cliveden Hotel as the first stately home hotel in 1986 with the then ​John Sinclair now Lord Thurso; being the youngest Hotel Manager of The Savoy at the age of 32; and more recently becoming General Manager and latterly Managing Director of Brown’s Hotel – a position I have held now for more than 15 years.

What piece of advice would you give to someone entering the luxury industry now?

The luxury hotel industry is very different now from when I joined. As a profession, we are much more focussed on training and support. It is more important today to achieve an academic qualification in some capacity or for those who cannot achieve this then joining a company with a reputation for training is just as imperative – the best part of working in hotels is that we remain a vocational career where team members are able to learn on the job.

In a parallel life, what would you be doing?

Exactly what I am doing now, communication, engagement and setting and monitoring standards, it is in my DNA.

What’s your favourite luxury?

My favourite luxury is music and it is wonderful how we have incredible free access to it. If I was stuck on a desert island, I would definitely need my iPod to listen to music – it changes every mood and occasion, from classic through to pop. Listening to the radio is part of my morning ritual.

Visit Brown's Hotel online.
If you are the leader of a Walpole member or partner and have the time to talk to Walpole - and the wider luxury sector - on how you are navigating your business through the current Covid-19 crisis, please contact [email protected]; we'd love to hear from you.