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Robert Cook has aggressive expansion plans for Malmaison and Hotel du Vin, now that they have the financial muscle of MWB behind them, says Patrick Schmitt

AS CHANCE would have it I met Robert Cook on the anniversary of his first day as CEO of Malmaison.  He was in an ebullient mood, not necessarily because of the significant date, nor because we were nearing the end of the day, but because I believe that’s the sort of mood he’s usually in – I say usually because I also imagine he can be pretty fierce when necessary.

The point is Cook is very content with what he thinks is the best position in the hotel industry. "Funnily enough there were only two jobs I would have liked," he tells me, imagining what would have persuaded him to leave his previous role.

"Either to head up Malmaison or to do something with Hotel du Vin."  Fortuitously for Cook, he was called by Marylebone Warwick Balfour (MWB), owners of Malmaison – and, since October, Hotel du Vin – and asked to "come and have a chat".

He became CEO of Malmaison last January and CEO of Hotel du Vin when it came on board. This wasn’t his first experience of Malmaison, however.  He had in fact joined the group initially in 1997 as general manager for its first Englandbased hotel in Newcastle, before becoming regional operations director for the entire business.

At this stage the chain was still owned by its founder, Ken McCulloch, although only a year later he sold it. But McCulloch obviously had a high regard for Cook, and when the Glaswegian entrepreneur began the Columbus hotel in Monte Carlo in 2000, he asked Cook to help him.

This gave Cook a four year break from Malmaison, before returning with MWB at the helm.  "To be honest," admits Cook, "I was at a stage where I’d been with Ken for nearly eight years and it was time for me to step out of his shadow."

Just for kicks

But why did MWB need Cook? "The challenge was to revitalise Mal," he explains.  "It had lost its way a bit, and although the industry had just come out of a two-year pretty quiet time – it was recessionary in 2002, 2003 and certainly for the first part of 2004 – Malmaison just needed a swift kick up the arse, and that’s what I did."

Cook was certainly equipped for this task.  Not only did he know "what Malmaison was, and what it should be," but he’s also, by his own reckoning, "a bit of a trouble-shooter".  However, Cook doesn’t seem to be just ironing out creases in an otherwise smooth-running business, he’s also at the forefront of an ambitious period of expansion for the group.

"We’ve an exciting development programme in the pot at the moment," he begins with regard to Malmaison.  "We open in Oxford in August/September of this year in the Old Prison, which we are converting – it’s the most interesting building we’ve ever embarked on.

And then we are going from the most interesting building to the first ever newbuild – that’s the benefit of having the clout of a parent company like MWB.  They have land-banked or  building banked some opportunities for us."

The new-build will be on Prince’s Dock in Liverpool, while there is also a Malmaison planned for Reading, where the company owns a building at the railway station.  "That’s not opportunity-led," adds Cook, "that’s resource-led – it happens to be where we’ve got two buildings."

There’s also a Malmaison planned for Dublin. And after that? "Where Malmaison can go is limited.  I certainly think it needs to do a West End London hotel and we are actively looking for that, and then it’s my ambition for the brand to take it into Europe, or the world in fact. And I would like to see a Paris Malmaison, particularly on the Left Bank – nothing massive, 80/90 bedrooms.

And I would also like to see us in New York.  Then we’ll probably explore France a little more or do some other interesting cities in Europe.  But I think if we just do those two first, it says from a value point of view it’s an international brand. 

"Whether we own the buildings is another matter," he continues. "I know it’s very tricky to buy in Paris having operated there before, but we might buy a business.  I definitely think that’s where we should be."

On the other hand, Cook suggests the group could take a different tack before going international.  "Once we get it up to around 10 or 12 hotels in the UK, I think one of two things will happen.

Either we exit the business, which would possibly happen, but then I think more opportunities would come," or international expansion as outlined above would occur.  But how would this latter development work  from an operational point of view?

"I’m certainly asking myself the question am I against the franchise route? And I am. I think you bastardise the brand."  This leaves Cook with the possibility of "management contract" as a solution, "provided we have the design and management say".

But, whatever the strategy, he is sure of one thing: "I would love to do a Paris." Town planning In the meantime, Cook is not focusing all his efforts on extending Malmaison’s coverage.  Hotel du Vin, he also believes, has great, if not more, potential to expand.

 "I think there are a lot more towns and cities with old buildings in them that we could make a Hotel du Vin out of," he says.  "This is because if you stick to the principle that Hotel du Vin is 30 to 60 rooms which go into cathedral towns and cities, I can roll six off my tongue without even thinking about it.

"Whereas in the UK I struggle with Malmaison, apart from another one in London and in Dublin, after Oxford, Liverpool and Reading … and maybe Bristol," he suddenly ponders, before adding, "but there’s a Hotel du Vin there.

"We are going to grow both groups quite aggressively, and our vision is to build this groupin the next four to five years up to about 30 hotels.  We’ve got a Cambridge Hotel du Vin deal well under way; we’ve got a site in Durham; we’re looking at an opportunity for something in New Town in Edinburgh; looking in Exeter, Canterbury, Chichester, Worcester …

I wouldn’t put a Hotel du Vin into Manchester and I don’t think I’d put one into Newcastle, although maybe I would, but there are some cities it just can’t go."  He switches back to Malmaison: "I looked at Sheffield for Mal – but just can’t get it to work."  Which leaves me wondering what exactly is brand Malmaison?

After some discussion, it appears the hotel is meant to be "simple" as well as "affordable chic", "priced to sell, not to discount".  Much of the brand’s character comes from the fact that MWB and Cook "look for things that are off-pitch, not quite where the heart throbs are in a city, and in an unusual building, for instance the Seaman’s Mission in Edinburgh, the bus ticketing depot in Leeds, the old Charterhouse school in London or the two old grain warehouses in Belfast".

Mostly, it seems, Malmaisons are housed in "interesting period buildings", the Oxford prison being a prime, example.  Which makes Liverpool’s new-build appear at odds with the brand, although Cook explains that the hotel will be made to appear old using high-end materials.

He acknowledges, however, "The danger is that we create something that looks convoluted." He hopes to avoid this by "really extending the interior-design team", which is, by the way, in- house.

Lastly, the hotels are citybased, but with a certain "intimacy" and he believes, "Mal lies at 120 to 130 bedrooms."

Brand of brothers

So are the two branded hotel groups complementary, or is this far from a happy union? Cook thinks Malmaison and Hotel du Vin are certainly "complementary" but also "very distinct".

"It is month four of the marriage," he says, before deciding that, actually, the two groups are more like brother and sister companies, but with different DNAs.  "They are adopted children. Hotel du Vin has got a mystique and a modus operandi that’s very different from Malmaison and, actually, the acquisition has helped me define the two. I think Hotel du Vin is Mulberry and Malmaison is Prada.

Hotel du Vin is a Morgan, Malmaison a Maserati, there is a sleekness and a bit more edge. One is contemporary rustic and the other is contemporary chic."  And put them together? Certainly there are benefits from both having the same parent company.

For one, as Cook explains, it helps motivate staff, not just because MWB has given each group the potential to grow, but also because people can move between the chains. 

 "My job is to integrate the two from a human resource point of view," he comments, although he has also combined the two "from a marketing point of view". For example, Cook worked on "a one-piece document called ‘Together’ with a guy and girl in bed and Hotel du Vin on one side, Malmaison on the other, and you opened it up and it said ‘Now as one’.

It was very much a statement saying we are owned by the same parent but we are verymuch sisters."  Although Cook notes, "This was the first and last piece of joint collateral."

The advantage of this, of course, is that, although each hotel’s customers are "distinct in terms of profile", as Cook notes, "Hotel du Vin people now see there’s a thing called Malmaison and we get quite a lot of Winchester and Tunbridge Wells people who will come up to London and stay at Malmaison during the week.

"Ford didn’t buy Aston Martin to do nothing with it," says Cook.  "And we didn’t buy Hotel du Vin to do nothing with it. We bought it because there are a lot of synergies.  Yes, they’ll stay separate, yes, they’ll be branded separately, but let’s take Ash Park water.

We both buy Ash  Park water – we went back to Ash Park and we made a large saving, just by having a conversation.  That’s the value of putting the two brands together back-of-house wise.  We can also hyperlink into each others’ websites.

We have a Malmaison and Hotel du Vin in Birmingham.  The minute one’s full, the other one can refer everything to the other one."  He explains, "We want to make sure users of Hotel du Vin and Malmaison haven’t seen any difference, and my job is to make the engine room a little bit tighter."

It’s worth adding that some of Hotel du Vin’s wine culture seems to be seeping into Malmaison.  "We had a 40-bin wine list when I came to the company," notes Cook of Malmaison, "and we now have a 120-bin list, and I want to see a 240-bin one."

As he says, "We’ve a long way to go. It’s a very new relationship, but the brands are not stagnating."  In fact, Cook wants to "make the two brands the darlings of the industry", and for those who already view Hotel du Vin as their "darling" there’s little need for concern.

As Cook assures me, "The damage which happened to Malmaision by being slipped through mainstream operators was significant – and that’s why I’m so protective of Hotel du Vin." 

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