The square root of style

The square root of style

Peter Taylor is the mastermind behind Blythswood Square hotel in Glasgow. He explains how his £30m hotel dream was saved from the brink of disaster.

Hotelier Peter Taylor smiles a lot. He is a very charming business man who has created his own stylish signature on Scotland’s hospitality trade. His hotels are immaculate places for the weary to lay their heads, and for the discerning to savour the good times. But he was best known for his establishments in the East. He hadn’t conquered Glasgow, where there was certainly a more exuberant and well-heeled clientele.

His “West Side Story” began when he was a guest speaker at a business breakfast in central Glasgow and was tipped off about a unique opportunity a few blocks away. After the coffee and bacon butties, he was chatting with Beverley Payne, a familiar figure in Glasgow’s hotel scene who worked with entrepreneur Ken McCulloch, creator of The Malmaison and Dakota Hotels.

She asked Taylor if he was interested in turning the former Royal Scottish Automobile Club in Blythswood Square into a hotel. The place, he was told, was in a sad state; the dwindling club membership and the high cost of maintenance had taken its toll and the building was derelict, lain empty for four years, and up for sale. Yet here was a glorious Georgian terrace that was an essential part of Glasgow’s civic history.

“She was the second person that week who had mentioned it to me,” recalls Peter, as he sips green tea in the grand Salon of Glasgow’s most sumptuous new hotel. “I thought there must be something in this.

I was aware of the RSA Club, but didn’t know its status. I went to see it, recognised its potential, then I bought it off-market very quickly,” he adds with an infectious grin.

“It’s a trophy building. You could never create this with a new build, no matter how much effort or money you put in. This building is very special – and it required something to rekindle its magic. We’re over the moon about how it’s worked out.” The creation of Blythswood Square is all about seizing an opportunity, applying the hard graft and holding one’s resolve in the face of adversity.

Taylor might have built a successful hotel group in Edinburgh, with the multi award-winning Bonham, but Glasgow was a different ball game altogether. He purchased the building as the world went into financial meltdown and banking finance froze. And when major refurbishment work was well under way, the rear wall of the building collapsed into a pile of rubble. This caused chaos and a hold-up of nearly two years before the hotel could eventually open for guests. Previous owners originally hoped to create 43 apartments that would have involved destroying the wonderful 35-metre Salon, certainly something Historic Scotland would have frowned upon.

Then they obtained planning permission for 139 rooms needed to create a sense of space and it was physically impossible to build so many rooms in such a confined area. “We’ve had great support from the City of Glasgow Council,” he says. “They were very keen to have a new five-star hotel in central Glasgow, right in the main business district.” Planning permission came through in nine weeks. In 2005, Glasgow attracted 2.8 million visitors who spent £700m at its varied attractions and events. The council’s vision was to deliver a minimum 60% increase in tourist revenues by 2016, growing tourism-related employment to 40,000, and increasing the capacity of premier hotel rooms by 3,000.

A new hotel in Blythswood Square, near to the Malmaison, would be a bonus. “Even in good times it was a brave move,” says Taylor. “And I did have a number of people from the industry suggesting I was over-optimistic. Some told me that they had looked at turning it into a hotel but couldn’t get it to stack up.” Blythswood Square has been open for over a year and creating a buzz in a metropolis that loves to dress up when it goes out.

The restaurant is packed most evenings – if you don’t want Mather’s Black Gold beef fillet at £40 a pop or Loch Duart Salmon at £22.50, there’s a more modest Chicken Kiev at £19.50 – the hotel isn’t chasing Michelin stars, preferring to provide great food all day long – with Josper charcoaled grilled steaks a speciality.

The downstairs Rally Bar and the Salon, draped in Harris Tweed, are the smartest places to be seen in town at the moment. “We are proving all these people wrong,” says Taylor. “We’ve sold 55,000 cocktails since we opened the bar and restaurant in November 2009. Our aim is to be not-too stuffy or formal, providing a range of dishes for all tastes – when you want it, any time.” But Taylor is particularly delighted with the spa – a subterranean and fragrant cocoon on a dreich Glasgow day – that has been lovingly created and already recognised as world-leading.

He says: “When you’ve got a building that’s historic, it dictates what you can do, how you finish it and how you present it. But when you’ve got a spa with a new build space – a blank canvas – making those decisions is a tougher call because we could have done lots of things. It’s far better than we imagined and the feedback is brilliant.” The upmarket travel glossy Conde Naste Traveller, which has kept tabs on Taylor over the years, has already decided it is a world-class spa – a blend of Scottish sophistication with the kind of contemporary elegance that Glasgow is famous for.

To complete the hotel, the six original houses had to remain intact while behind it a six-storey, 70-room hotel block was created adding to 30 rooms in the original front buildings. “We took everything away, including the in-fill building in West Regent Street,” says Taylor.

“We’ve created a high-class hotel tucked in behind the front façade, with penthouse suites with commanding views of Glasgow.” The architects, Ron Galloway Associates (RGA) had done a brilliant job, while Jim Hamilton of Graven Images designed the interiors.

“Jim was more than just the interiors,” says Taylor. “He challenged us on the whole customer journey. Jim played a pivotal role and has given Blythswood Square its identity and its soul. There isn’t one piece of furniture that is off-the-shelf, Jim designed all the furniture and we then had it made for us. We’ve used Harris Tweed in a big way – on the seats, cushions, curtains and bed covers.” Taylor says he was told it represents the biggest order of Harris Tweed since the original order for the QE2 in 1967, and has been a boon for the Western Isles weavers.

“It’s the talk of the town now as a fabric, not just for fashion but for furniture, curtains and upholstery because you get different weights and it is hard-wearing with vibrant colours,” says Taylor. But there hasn’t always been this gentle smile on his face. The Salon might be special but there were some low-grade buildings at the back that had to go during reconstruction. It was a rabbit-warren of rooms, offices and stairways. On November 24 2007, a wall collapsed at the back of one of the townhouses – a major setback for Peter Taylor. Understandably, the bank became nervous. It might well have killed off his Glasgow ambition, but after some shrewd negotiations, the team carried on. What it did do was make the whole project 90 weeks late. Not only that, but corporate business at the rest of the Town House Collection had fallen off too. “The more we looked into it, the more we realised the collapse was right at the centre of the whole development,” he recalls.

“We carried on but it was a stressful time.” Chard Construction did its best to retrieve the situation, but it all became very complicated. Eventually, the company went into administration.

“This wasn’t all about us; there was the credit crunch,” says Taylor, “but the wall collapse would have had some impact on them, for sure.” The collapse was viewed as the contractor’s responsibility, so for Peter Taylor there was an expected multi-million insurance payout to cover the losses.

Renfrew-based specialist fit-out contractors Thomas Johnstone stepped in as the new contractors and, according to Taylor, have done a brilliant job picking up the pieces.

“It was on time and on budget.” Eventually, the bars and restaurants opened in November 2009, many months behind schedule, with extra costs requiring fresh banking help, and in the wake of the worst recession since the Second World War. Finally the hotel opened fully in September 2010 with its penthouses ready for customers.

“I was determined that despite all these pressures, we couldn’t afford to compromise with the final result and the finishes,” says Taylor.

“My father always talked about, ‘Don’t spoil the ship for a ha’pennth of tar’.” The nautical aphorism is appropriate. Peter Taylor was born in naval Portsmouth during the Second World War and his father was in the Royal Navy. He moved around a lot as a youngster and attended various schools, but his father retired to Dundee and Taylor went to school in Dundee.

“If I’d had perfect eyesight I might have joined the Royal Navy,” he says.

“But all I knew was that I didn’t want to be sitting behind a desk. I wanted to work with people. I still enjoy the buzz of working in hotels.” So, in 1961, he went to Ross Hall, the Scottish Hotel School in Glasgow, which became part of University of Strathclyde. It was there that he met his wife, Mhairi, who was also in hospitality training.

He graduated in 1964 and went off to the United States, where he worked in the River Club of New York, in East 52nd Street, and then one of Manhattan’s most exclusive club – where the Kennedy clan were regulars.

“The cost of living was so much compared to my meagre wages, but it was brilliant experience,” he says. “I was working in the front office and also doing night audit – or night manager. Then one of my colleagues, also from Scotland, started to get letters about being drafted into the American military for service in Vietnam. I decided it was time for me to head back to Britain.” He took up a traineeship with Strand Hotels, then part of the Lyons Group. He worked in various departments in London’s Cumberland, Strand Palace and Regent Palace hotels.

“I gradually worked my way up to assistant manager and then spent three years as a training manager, overseeing the opening of a number of new restaurants and hotels,” he says. “In that role, I also oversaw the opening of the Albany Hotel in Nottingham in 1969. I was then appointed to run the Albany. Then, in 1972, I was appointed general manager for the Albany in Glasgow.” At that time, the Albany in Bothwell Street, which opened in 1973, was the most fashionable and best place to stay in Glasgow. It had 250 rooms, two restaurants and a 700-seater conference suit. It also housed the St Andrew’s Sporting Club where Scotland’s greatest professional boxers, such as Jim Watt and Ken Buchanan fought in the ring. Peter Taylor welcomed royalty, film stars, celebrities and rock stars, including The Who when they played at Celtic Park, and maintained the0020discreet and attentive service that was to become his hallmark.

“It was an amazing scene, I would say. I was in my late 20s and I remember a minor royal was staying with us and I was taking her up to her suite. She was delighted by the crowds that had greeted on her arrival at the hotel. I didn’t want to tell her the crowds were waiting to see the Osmonds.” Taylor’s focus was on training the right people and focusing on the quality of the hotel, which wasn’t really one of the acknowledged aspects of Scotland’s hospitality industry at that time.

“We wanted to be a considerate employer concerned about developing the people in our business,” he says. “Even today, in Blythswood Square, we are only as good as the people we have on board. They know more about our business than anyone else. In a sense, they are the listening posts for us. We fail to listen to them at our peril.” After the Albany, he worked with Forte where he was regional director in Surrey, Sussex and Kent, before joining Thistle Hotels, and then operations director running all of Stakis Hotels, by then a major UK chain created by Reo Stakis. But he yearned to go out on his own, to run his own hotels. So, in 1984, he grabbed his chance. Over in Fife, the Lundin Links Hotel had seen better days. It was a tired old lady, once a fashionable place as a golfing hotel, but in receivership.

“I was keen to get out of the big corporate scene,” he says. “I believed I could make it work and do my own thing. We didn’t have enough capital, so I persuaded Mhairi that we should sell our home in Cramond. We bought the hotel for just over £100,000. It was on its knees with almost no business.” They set about transforming the place.

“We spent a lot on redeveloping. We took it from a low base and we really got it motoring and sold it a few years later for three times what we’d paid for it. Mhairi was a solid number two and, amazingly, we didn’t argue. We didn’t have time to argue.” He was prompted to sell by an offer to become involved with the old Fox Covert Hotel in Corstorphine, in Edinburgh, renamed the Capital Hotel. It was then a 55-bedroom hotel, where the liquor receipts were higher than room sales. It was a place that had a reputation for attracting trouble. But there was land next door for development, so Taylor snapped it up and added 40 bedrooms.

“We doubled the size and created a leisure club,” he says. “I was a quarter shareholder in that hotel. It took off incredibly well.” In 1989, Taylor led a management buy-out of the Capital Hotel, with help from Donald MacDonald and Sandy Orr who later founded City Inns. Then 16 weeks later, at the top of the market, it was sold again for a lot more money to Queens’ Moat Houses. He remains coy about how much money they made on this deal, but it helped him release his dream of creating his own bespoke hotel group.

“In my corporate career, I was used as a clean-up boy to go in and sort things out,” he says. “I think it’s good to stay as manager in a hotel for a while, because you have to live with the decisions that you make. So many managers opening hotels, open with a flourish, get all the kudos and soon discover it’s a long hard haul to iron out the teething problems.” He learned that luxury hotels have issues.

At the Albany Hotel, for instance, room service was a serious problem because it was difficult to serve food and drink throughout the night, so far from the restaurant. The Townhouse Collection would become a reality. His first target was the Gordon Bruce, a one-star establishment, going nowhere. It was five town houses joined together in South Learmonth Gardens and wasn’t maximising its use. Taylor stripped it out and started again in1990. It was nearly named the Balmoral, but instead they choose Channings, which had a genteel ring of quality. A week later, much to Taylor’s relief, rival hotelier Peter Tyrie renamed the grand North British Hotel in Princes Street, the Balmoral.

“I wasn’t using the term boutique at the time, and I don’t particularly like the word because it’s a bit cliched,” he says. “We wanted to do something refreshingly different. I’d worked for all the big boys. I do enjoy creating something from out of nothing.” Channings was born as the Gulf War and recession hit and it lowered its sights temporarily to accept the bus tours. But he knew that guest wanted a bit of personality, quirkiness and something different. He entered the STV’s Business Game, presented by Viv Lumsden with financier Peter de Vink among the judges, and got to the finals. This was like having free consultancy and Taylor says it helped him focus on his plans for expansion. In 1995, he bought the Howard Hotel, a popular New Town hotel, which was then in receivership. In 1997, he beat 12 others to acquire Muir Hall, a former university residence, which he then turned into the Bonham. It was a shell and it was decked out in eight months, ready to open in June 1998. Almost immediately, the Bonham emerged as the best place to stay in Edinburgh, tucked away in the West End. Conde Naste Traveller dubbed it one of the Coolest 21 Hotels for the 21st century. This was the kind of publicity that you simply couldn’t buy.

“After that, the PR took on a life of its own,” says Taylor. “And we are about to refresh the Bonham’s public areas, creating a whisky bar.” The Town House Collection – owned by Taylor, with help from the bank – has become one of Scotland’s leading luxury hotel groups. More recently, Channings and the Howard have been sold off to help pay for Blythswood Square. At this point, Taylor pays tribute to the team and especially to his co-director Hans Rissman. They have worked together for nine years, the last four as managing director of the company.

“He volunteered to come across and lead the project and I was delighted about this,” he says. “He was brought up in the West of Scotland and went to school in Glasgow. “I looked after the building work while Hans brought on board our people – who are really the heart of the Town House business. We had 400 applications for the jobs in Glasgow. This was unsolicited, before we advertised.” What is his secret then? He smiles once again: “We don’t believe our own hype. We keep asking, could we be doing it better or differently. It is not all about bricks and mortar but our people.” The proof of this is Blythswood Square.