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Hotelier of the Week: Ruraigh Whitehead
Jan 20, 09 | 1:56 am
The challenge Ruraigh Whitehead faces in running his hotel is a little bit different from that of most other general managers. He is in charge of the Millennium Madejski Hotel in Reading, attached to which is a conference centre and the Madejski Stadium, home to Reading Football Club and London Irish Rugby Club.
"It is different for any business which operates in a multi-unit complex where there are three to four different businesses which are all inter-connected: the football club, the rugby club, the conference centre and the Millennium hotel.
"You have to have an understanding of each other's needs and wants and of making it all work for everyone. But there are more benefits than negatives as the organisations support each other and so they are not left on their own."
Building hotels linked to sports stadia is a relatively new idea in Britain. The Madejski hotel and stadium, which opened in 2000, was the first. Since then Bolton Wanderers have built a hotel at their new Reebok Stadium. Two hotels, along with extensive conference facilities, were built when Chelsea developed their Stamford Bridge ground in West London and there is a hotel attached to Sheffield United's newly developed Bramall Lane ground. All, except the de Vere run property at Bolton, are managed by Millennium and Copthorne (M&C).
It was not something that M&C pursued, said Mr Whitehead. But because of the success of the pioneering Reading development, the group has often been approached.
"There was a feeling that that we had the experience, that there was someone who thinks their language and can give the pros and cons. It was having a general manager who understands the idiosyncrasies of running such a hotel and who can talk to them before they spend their money. There is no doubt there will be more opportunities in this area for us," he said.
The big challenge is match days. How do you attract fans, who have already paid out for tickets and possibly travel, into the hotel to spend more? "We have ticket packages, hospitality package. We will try anything," Mr Whitehead said.
"Our corporate hospitality is mainly at weekends but the level depends on what division the team is in and who they are playing. There is a certain amount of cherry picking by fans but it also depends on the economic climate."
Reading's relegation last season from the Premiership and the economic downturn have seen a fall in the hospitality business. With the team riding high in the Championship, Mr Whitehead, a rugby man himself, is hopeful Reading will return to the Premier next season.
"But Reading is not a prime destination for leisure so we are heavily reliant on events in the area, like Royal Ascot and the Henley Regatta although we also hosted three triathlons last year."
But away from match days and big events, Mr Whitehead has a different hotel on his hands. The Millennium Madejski is on the outskirts of Reading but in the heart of the Thames Valley and its IT industry. Among the companies with offices in the area are Microsoft, Hewlett Packard, Vodaphone and Symantec.
"This is a business driven hotel," said Mr Whitehead. "We get visitors from all over the world, though mainly from the US, Europe and the Far East. I would say that our ratio of business to leisure guests was 70:30."
There is also a growing conference business. It has one large room which can take 600 theatre-style and 12 conference rooms, for from 10 to 100 people. Two of the rooms can be combined to provide accommodation for 66 theatre-style.
But there are also the 28 boxes in the stadium which, away from match days, can be used as break out rooms or for private dining.
"We attract both residential and non-residential meetings with local companies using us for meetings or AGMs. We have just done a conference for a major energy firm which the year before held its event in Rome," he said.
"Business is growing but it is highly competitive. More and more facilities are being offered all over the UK although our stadium is recognised as an asset."
How the economic turn down will affect his hotel, he candidly admits he does not yet know. "At the end of November, the market was still fairly strong. In December there was Christmas and a bit of a slowdown.
"What is challenging is trying to predict what will happen as all previous trading patterns are now irrelevant," he said.
It is a challenge Mr Whitehead, an Aberdonian who has worked for M&C for 22 years, clearly relishes. His experience includes working in Scotland, the Caribbean and, for M&C in Birmingham, the Dudley and Newcastle before being picked to oversee the opening of the Millennium in Reading.
"Stadium hotels are a bit different from normal but they are more exciting, it's another ingredient in the melting pot. That is probably why I have stayed as long as I have," he said.
"We have continued to develop and adjust. We added 60 rooms so we now have 201 which is probably the maximum and we have re-furbished the ground floor restaurant and bars. For the future with Reading back in the Premier, we might then give consideration to expanding the whole complex." www.millenniumhotels.co.uk
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