Taking over a hotel at the age of 19 is no mean feat, and doing it whilst studying for your university degree made the challenge even tougher for Serena von der Heyde, owner and GM at the Georgian House Hotel. TOM DAVIS sat down with her to find out more about her story.
Tell us about the history of the hotel and how you came to work here.
The hotel itself was built in 1851 by my great-great-grandfather, and it has been in the family ever since. My
grandfather was a civil servant, so he didn’t work in the business himself, only on his death, when he left it to my parents, did I even know that the hotel was in the family.
By chance I was already doing an institutional management degree at North London University, so it was really the most serendipitous, but wonderful, opportunity for me. My parents asked me while I was in my first year at university whether I would like to take over the business, which of course I was really interested in doing.
We had 28 rooms at the time and two stars, it was a very different kind of business to what it is now. If someone had handed me this business as it is at the age of 19, I would have been a lot more hesitant about taking it on. But at that time it was a lot less intimidating and I have been here ever since.
Was it tough taking over aged just 19?
Yes, I was at university and I was the squarest university student in the world. Everybody else was going out drinking and partying and I was just the most stressed and responsible student on the planet. I was trying to balance doing my degree at the same time, so I had projects to get in and essays to do. But starting off at that time I did get a lot of of support from the staff at North London University, if I had an issue at the hotel I could go back to them and say ‘look, I’m experiencing this’ and I would have the benefit of their experience and advice, which was very helpful.
Also, every time I was writing something or doing a project I had something live to work on, a lot of my friends on the degree would have to go and find something theoretical or look up somebody else’s company, but when it came to my marketing plan, I was actually already doing my own one. In that sense, it gave me a really good foundation and a good start, considering that I had so little experience I wouldn’t have been able to do a good job without that. Saying that, it was very intimidating to start with and people would ask to speak to the manager, and I would appear, it has taken me a while to be taken seriously.
You took over the property when it had a two-star rating and 28 guest rooms, how did you go about transforming the hotel into the boutique it is today?
It has been a real journey because as a family we are pretty risk-averse in that we haven’t wanted to take out loans and so on. So all the improvements that we have made had to be done organically through the capital that we have generated from the business. At first, every time it rained we would have to put buckets out in the top rooms, it was in very bad condition as a business.
We had to tackle all these things from leaking roofs, stairs that were in bad condition, guttering and a lot of things that cost a lot of money but the guest wouldn’t really see as a comfort feature, they were a necessity. We started to tackle those, and I think, maybe by nature, by then we were so much into a mold it had created an ethos in the business that was constantly trying to get better, and now that we have turned the engine on we can’t turn it off. Every time we thought, ‘imagine if we get to three star’, and then we would get to three star and now we’re aiming for five star. So it is something that I really think is in our DNA now. Everybody, all the management team, and all the staff, are just really motivated by trying to make things better. We are restricted by size, we can’t physically grow so the only way that we can really grow the business is to grow the quality.
Could you tell me a little about the design of the hotel?
We want to be quintessentially English, that’s very important to us, and the heritage of our building is part of our unique story. However, we don’t want to be an old fashioned traditional hotel, we don’t want to be out of date. It is a combination of playing to the strengths of the building and emphasising what we think we are good at, but the main thing we are trying to create is the feeling of a country house in the centre of London.
We have a designer Diana Holmes, and she is extremely inspirational. She did the Wizard Chambers, and I basically just threw it down as a challenge to her to do something completely different. She scoured auction houses to find little antique items to put into the rooms, she is really crazy about design anyway, and that level of detail and care that she put into the Wizard Chambers, she basically applies to every single room in the hotel.
We have lots of rooms that still have original features, such as beautiful fireplaces, moldings or proportions, so for every single bedroom she will try to make the design fit that particular room. Each room is designed individually which for a 60-bedroom hotel is quite ambitious, and quite hard work. But it really does add to the interest level for guests, it feels warmer and has much more character than a standard hotel room. Some guests return and want the same room, and others come back and they enjoy a completely different room.
Could you expand on the inspiration and the thought process behind the Harry Potter themed rooms (the Wizard Chambers)?
We knew that the Warner Bros. tour was leaving from Victoria and it has just been incredibly popular. My children at the time were really into Harry Potter, so I knew the books quite well and I just thought it would be really wonderful, and it helped me to appreciate that whole imaginary world. We created the rooms and to start with we tried quite hard to get people to come and see them, and the first couple of months were quite slow to get off the ground, but then it was picked up in the Melbourne Standard online, then the Daily Mail and from there it went completely global, we were on television in 57 countries, we were on CNN, our website went from 500 hits a day to 61,000 and crashed the server. Ever since then, there has been insatiable demand for the rooms. I saw somewhere online that we were the number one movie-themed filmed hotel in the world. We have some other beautiful rooms as well, but they are just not as famous.
What would you say are the key aspects of running a successful boutique hotel?
Staff. It’s all about getting the right people in the first place and investing in training. We have very low turnover here, it’s really stable and we have become a very close-knit team, but it also means that we don’t have that same flow of ideas coming from other places, so that is something we are always working on. We had zero days sick last year, which is just incredible, we have never had that before, it really is extraordinary.
If you had to choose, what is your favourite room in the hotel?
My favourite room at the moment is a really beautiful room on the top floor, there’s no lift so you have to be fit enough to get there. The building originally had servants’ quarters on the top floor, they were very little rooms with these beautiful tiny fireplaces, and this one room has a fireplace in the room and the other end is a spacious bathroom with a fireplace in it. When you come into the room you can see through to both, so that these two fireplaces are mirrored, and it is just such a pretty, sweet room.
What does the future hold for the Georgian House?
We have lots of plans for the future, we are actually graded as a bed-and-breakfast because we don’t do dinner and we don’t have a bar. At the moment we have four-star guest accommodation and we are aiming for five star.
I would like to get Investors in People accreditation, because I feel what we’ve got in place is really strong, and I think we can tick all of the boxes they are looking for. It would be really nice to get a badge that shows what we do, and
makes it more official, and is something that we can be proud of. One of the challenges for me, with this business, is that usually if you rebrand something you close down, refurbish, and have a grand opening of the doors and all of a sudden you are on a different level.
Because of our approach, where we have been chipping away at it, there hasn’t been a big reopen so this makes it harder to reposition yourself in the market. Moving from four star to five star, it will be extremely important to market the product correctly.