Want to know something about the chap on top of the column outside Newcastle’s Monument Mall? Don’t ask a policeman, ask a member of staff newly recruited to run Staybridge Suites, the city’s progressive new hospitality venue.
They’ve been put through a Newcastle Culture Day - inducted not only into the running of their new workplace, but also into local knowledge, with guided tours of many attractions amid which most of them have actually grown up. This complemented an interview and an audition that involved singing, story and joke telling and entertaining. Group culture coach Janet Roberts says the aim was to find behavioural patterns in each applicant that mirrored the values of Staybridge’s brand and that of its parent company, InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG).
She explains: “To break away from traditional hotel service, and help recreate Staybridge Suites’ unique and homely spirit in the UK, team members essentially become a part of each guest’s extended family.” And, if a guest asks for local information, staff are expected to know the answer or to be able to track it down fast. Staybridge Suites breaks with tradition for a more significant reason, however.
Its concept is the provision of “a home, more than a hotel” - a homily apparently borne out. Mark Armstrong, the hotel’s inaugural general manager - formerly GM of the Caledonian Hotel in Jesmond - says: “IHG believes that having an involved and engaged workforce, confident they can bring to the workplace the same energy and enthusiasm shown in their passions outside work, is fundamental to our delivery of an outstanding service.” In ongoing training, the staff will share best practice and awareness of guest likes and dislikes to strengthen the home-from-home experience - a blend of hotel and service apartments, aimed at extended stays.
Suite hotels have figured in US hospitality for more than 40 years. IHG has grown them for about 11- since its initial opening at Alpharetta, Georgia. Newcastle is the group’s second UK city - Liverpool was first - as it starts to roll through Europe and the Middle East its fusion of hotel comfort and serviced flats.
Its Liverpool and Cairo operations opened last year, and soon there will be further openings at St Petersburg in Russia, on Abu Dhabi’s Yas Island (a new home for Formula 1 grand prix racing from this year) and at Birmingham NEC. Further UK Staybridges will follow in London and Glasgow. The £15m investment in Newcastle has brought a distinctive seven-floor new build of sandy shade with terracotta tile cladding. It was designed by the young, award-winning Reid Architects of Manchester.
It stands prominently on a corner of Buxton Street, between St Dominic’s Priory Church at Shieldfield and the former Tyne Tees Television studios overlooking The Quayside.
It has parking for 82 cars and is easily reached by public transport. Built over a fragment of Hadrian’s Wall, it required the architects to negotiate planning consent from English Heritage. A structural solution was provided by building consultants Shepherd Gilmour, so the building now sits on the line of the preserved wall.
Mark Armstrong describes the location as “a great opportunity”. He explains: “We’re close to major universities and many city centre companies that, by their nature, would typically require extended stay accommodation.
“We’re close also to many famous local attractions, and our elevated position gives some stunning views of the city and the riverside, including the Millennium and Tyne Bridges and The Sage Gateshead.” There’s certainly no likelihood of waking up and wondering whether it’s Belgium or Bristol you’re in today.
Even if you forget to look out of the windows, there are photographs and paintings of Tyneside on the walls. MIdweek, Staybridge’s 128 suites are aimed mainly at business people in the city for extended spells - perhaps relocating, on a project or training.
Mark says: “Business travellers having to stay five nights or moregenerally have to choose between a traditional hotel and a serviced apartment. “We believe there’s demand for our alternative.It combines the best of both.
We expect growth in this segment.” At weekends and holiday times, it is expected to attract families or other groups wanting more space without formality, but still with all essential services and support of a conventional hotel.
So what does Staybridge offer? Tastefully furnished and decorated studios and one-bed suites with open fires, and more space for your money than conventional hotel rooms might offer, management claims.
Both suites and studios have a kitchen area - with dishwasher, hob, combination cooker and kitchenware - or a call to the 24-hour reception desk will yield recommendations of local takeaways, who deliver downstairs. There’s a complimentary beer in the fridge, and tea and coffee to sustain you through the first night. And of course, nearby on The Quayside there are many places to eat out.
All that, and the staff take care of the housework. The suites have a convertible sofa in the lounge for friends to stay over, there’s digital TV, internet access, radio, music, and DVD entertainment.
There is also complimentary broadband and WiFi, and telephones with voicemail are direct dial. Cooked and cold breakfasts are available daily in an open-plan hub kitchen on the ground floor, where coffee and cookies are also always on offer.
Four evenings a week, Mark hosts an after-work reception, where guests can mingle or network over a complimentary drink and nibbles. He explains: “It’s an opportunity for me to get to know guests and for them to get to know me.
We hope they’ve no cause for complaint, but if they do, they can tell me and it will be looked into straight away.” There’s also a convenience pantry where, 24/7, you can replenish your suite or studio with frozen meals, snacks, beer and wine, toiletries and basic medicines.
There’s also a lounge area and The Den; a quieter area with library, where informal meetings can also be held. There’s also a terrace for warmer evenings. Back inside, there’s a free exercise room and laundry room.
Dry cleaning can also be arranged. Steve Thorne, regional sales manager, recalls: “One of our longer-term guests told me his wife loves him again because he goes home at weekends now without a suitcase full of dirty washing!” The hotel rates are determined by the local market, and the benefit of an extended stay is that rates are discounted the longer you remain.
Studio suites currently start from £59 daily bed and breakfast (ex VAT) for a stay of 29 nights or more, against £119 for a similar but shorter stay of one or two nights (ex VAT).
One guest presently working on an airport contract expects to be there five months. While Staybridge Suites, open since April 4, is still growing, it has been listed as number one hotel in Newcastle on www.tripadvisor.com Is recession good for Staybridge’s business? Steve suggests: “We offer value for money, as the sliding scale of charges indicates. And with breakfast, evening receptions and free WiFi included, there are no hidden extras.
“Also, given the flexibility and comfort of home here, employees can control their costs better.” Guests’ verdicts so far have been largely favourable.
“The general feel of the hotel is of quality,” said one, while another concluded: “There’s nothing snobby here. Staff are willing to help out at every opportunity.” Which means, no doubt, you’ll be told without hesitation that the chap aloft by Monument Mall is Earl Grey, the former British prime minister who gave his name to that aromatic blend of tea that, yes indeed, they can serve you here in gallons, should you require it.