Bespoke Hotels: Design Values Delivering Accessibility

In this conversation, I talked with Robin Shephard, President of Bespoke Hotels. Robin came in to tell me about why the company is pioneering an approach to accessible design-led spaces showcased in properties like the Brooklyn Hotel in Manchester.

Today’s guest is Robin Sheppard, President of Bespoke Hotels. I first came across one of Robin’s hotels, the Brooklyn Hotel in Manchester, because I was looking to run a diversity and inclusion training course, and I needed somewhere to run this training course. Because the training is about diversity and inclusion, I was particularly mindful about finding a venue that is inclusive and accessible, being a wheelchair user myself.

I live in Manchester now, and my brother will be coming to visit me. He’s got the same disability as me and needs a wheelchair-accessible hotel room. By far, the Brooklyn Hotel Manchester is the most fantastically accessible place to stay.

There’s the accessible room. There’s a ceiling hoist that can get me or my brother in and out of bed. It’s got a wet room, which is a roll-in wet room. I was really excited to be able to sit down with Robin and interview him to dig a bit deeper as to why accessibility and inclusivity are an important part of the hotels that they run. Bespoke Hotels have about 95 hotels in the UK, so they are not

a small organisation.

I asked Robin to tell me a bit more about who he is and his role.

‘I’ve been a hotelier for nearly fifty years. After college, I went through an apprenticeship programme. I was very fortunate to join a company called British Transport Hotels, which existed then and included properties such as the Old Course in St. Andrews, the Great Eastern, Gleneagles and so on. It was a wonderful training ground for me. I got into the country house circuit. Everything seemed to be going fine. My health was good. I never gave too much thought to the lot of the disabled guests in our hotels. It just seemed a bit of a nuisance, really.

Twenty-one years ago, I founded Bespoke Hotels with a colleague, Haydn Fentum. This was on the premise that we wanted to offer management of hotels to people who didn’t want all their hotels to be the same. In other words, if you go to Hilton, you expect your rooms to be homogenised in terms of the approach, so you get a consistent brand standard.

Our counter-intuitive view is that if we rode in the opposite direction upstream, we might have a different audience and a different effect. We’ve been trying to assemble a group of local hero hotels, which mean a lot to the people in the immediate environs, and yet have a nice signature at the bottom right-hand corner, which says, “This is part of Bespoke.” So that should mean some good things about how well it operates. We’ve been going at that for quite some time. Haydn and I have had two arguments in twenty-one years, and unfortunately, on both occasions, he was right, which is most disappointing!

We’ve grown in that time. Originally started as a company based in the west country. Our roots are now in Warrington in the Northwest, which we’ve discovered is equidistant between Euston and Warrington and Warrington and Glasgow. Because our hotels are now from Cornwall to Caithness, it seems to make a great deal of sense to have a head office which is in the middle of the country. That’s us. We’re not a hard brand. We’re not a Bespoke Hotel Manchester type of company. But we love to create strong stories in each of our hotels and give them all a personality.’

The Bespoke Hotels are lovely. They’re all unique and bespoke, as the name suggests. It’s interesting how Robin said as part of the introduction that, initially, accessibility was a bit of a nuisance as a hotelier. I asked him, ‘So, what changed for you, and why is accessibility now a really important factor in your hotel designs?’

‘In December 2004, I started to sense some tingles in my fingertips and toes. I thought I’d got pins and needles. I had a bad cough too. Over a very short period of time, I realised I was terribly unwell. Funny story, I’d gone home to see my father for Christmas. All this took place on Christmas Eve. I got into bed feeling I’d got the shivers. Something was clearly wrong. I got out of bed to try and go to the loo and fell over and couldn’t move. I had nothing on except a Nokia 3210, which is a very, very modest mobile phone with which to cover one’s modesty.

I couldn’t move. So, I was tapping out messages, saying, “Help, I’m in trouble, I can’t move.” My father, meanwhile, was downstairs watching Countdown with Carol Vorderman, asking him at full volume whether he wanted a vowel or a consonant, and of course, he couldn’t hear a word.

I was screaming at him from the top of the stairs. Fortunately, a neighbour came around and said, “Look at the state of you. Let’s get you off to a hospital.” And I was admitted to Bath Hospital, where they said, “We’ve no idea what’s wrong with you, but it looks like it’s going to get worse.” When your body gets the wrong email as mine did, the immune system attacks itself.

At some point about four days later, I was told I had something called Guillain-Barré syndrome, which I’d never heard of before, let alone being able to pronounce. But it’s been my body mate for eighteen years. It made me think about illness and disability in a very different way because I was a consumer of illness and disability.

A brief walk through the illness: the immune system gets the wrong email, thinks it’s under attack, attacks itself, short circuits the nerves, and your stomach stops working. In my case, my breathing went, so I was on ventilation. It was a very tough time. I was told I wouldn’t be able to walk again and had nearly two years of relentless physiotherapy and training to try and reteach my muscles how to sit, how to stand, how to walk.

I still walk as though I’m on the moon. I have very poor motor skills. Suddenly, I was in that wheelchair where people talked to the person pushing my wheelchair, not me. And I’m sure you’ve come across that, Toby, when people are not at your height and they either patronise you or talk to the person who’s standing behind you. If they do talk to you, they talk very loudly just to make sure you are paying attention. Utterly surreal.

That really pricked my conscience. I thought I must do something with this newfound knowledge. I’m fighting it, but I want to give back and help. So, what can I do? It took a while before alighting upon the ideas to create an award scheme and put something back into the business. So that’s how it all started for me. Falling into a terrible period of paralysis and trying to recover.’

‘First of all, I thanked Robin for sharing his personal story about how he came to acquire a disability and how that also shaped his view on accessibility within the hotel industry.

As I mentioned in the introduction, the Bespoke Hotels group is a very well-established organisation, with around ninety-five hotels in the UK. I came across Hotel Brooklyn in Manchester when I was looking for an accessible place for training and for my brother to stay when he comes to visit me. I asked Robin why he wanted to make Hotel Brooklyn particularly accessible?

With the wet room and roll-in shower, plus a ceiling hoist, in my opinion, they have created a great template for other hotels going forward. Very few hotels have a ceiling hoist. Also, in my opinion, it’s just a beautiful design. A lot of hotels they’re accessible, but they just don’t look very nice. They got gaudy white grab rails and plasticky floors in the bathroom. And, but you know, you’ve gone for style as well.

‘That’s comforting to hear because that’s precisely what we wanted to achieve. If I just dial the clock back to 2016, I was with a group of colleagues, not least a lady called Dame Celia Thomas of Winchester in the House of Lords, having a chat about various causes. The idea of inventing a competition to encourage better design in and around hotels was born. We launched with the RIBA’s backing.

Jane Duncan was the president at the time, and she was a great sponsor and advocate for what we intended to do. Initially, we wanted to encourage hospitality, interior designers, and architects to enter a competition and demonstrate that there was a mind-changing new emphasis coming, where people put oomph, style and elan into the look and feel of disabled facilities. As soon as I put my head above the parapet as a semi-appointed voice of quasi-authority, I was inundated with people saying, “Well, it’s not just about wheelchairs, you know. It’s about autism. It’s about hard of hearing. It’s problems with eyesight. It’s people on the spectrum.”

I suddenly realised that my lack of knowledge was disrespectful, and I needed to do something about that. I took on many more partners and stakeholders in the business.

An inspirational moment was a day at Channel Four’s Headquarters. The building was created by Richard Rogers, the architect. It was extraordinary to see how access and disability run through programming, building design, recruitment, training and retention. It’s like the letters through a stick of rock because it permeates everything.

I wondered what we could do to try and encourage people to put a little bit more oomph into what they’re doing, so the annual competition has gathered pace. We have grown it to have twelve different categories.

I also thought that it’s all very well for me to do this and have a piecemeal approach to improving the disparate hotels we’ve got across the group. Some are 13th-century coaching inns, and some are brand new properties. The ones that are brand new are a bit better in terms of provision than converting 13 Century coaching ins where wheelchairs weren’t invented in the 1400s.

I thought if we have got an opportunity to design a hotel from scratch, could we create an exemplar of good practice? A, to prove that it can be done. And then B, to be having conversations like this, which hopefully would inspire others. Brooklyn was conceived about three and a half years ago. This was the same developer after we created a very iconic, completely bonkers hotel in Manchester called Gotham, in a Lutyens masterpiece, which isn’t great for accessibility, but it is riotously funny and very much a storyboard. Everybody’s on a movie set there, and it has been astonishingly successful. I pinch myself when I think how much detail went into specifying that hotel and how it’s turned out, but I’m terribly grateful to the Manchester public for taking to that property and holding it dear.

Armed with that success, we thought, well, can we come up with a sister property to Gotham, which has a hint of New York about it. Brooklyn is, in fact, separated by New York Street, coincidentally. Brooklyn was the code name that we gave the project. It has one hundred and eighty-nine bedrooms. Typically five percent of the beds by regulation would need to be disabled-friendly or accessible. We decided we would double that amount and try and make the provision in all our public spaces as accommodating and as fun as we possibly could. And hopefully, we’ve achieved that.

I was a judge on the industry’s awards for several years. They are called The Cateys because they belong to our trade magazine, The Caterer. It’s a bit like the industry’s Oscars. And I thought, “Well, we’re going to win with Brooklyn, so I’d better not be a judge this year. Otherwise, people will accuse me of favouritism.”

Thankfully, we won the prize of the most inclusive and disabled-centric hotel in the country. And we’ve decided to do it again. Now we’ve been open through the lockdown for a year and a half on and off at Brooklyn in Manchester and we’re just about to open the second one, which I hope you’ll come and see fairly soon in Leicester, next to the Leicester Tigers Rugby Club.

We’ve tried to mimic a number of the good practices in Manchester and repeat them. The detail of this is a little bit more nuanced in terms of how many rooms are fully disabled-friendly, with carers’ rooms with interlinking doors, so you can have privacy or immediacy depending on the needs of the client. In both hotels, we have a couple of concealed ceiling tracks for hoists. We have commodes to get people in and out of the wet rooms in the bathrooms. And we put a huge amount of emphasis on elegance and style. We don’t tell that person who’s viewing the room that it’s a disabled room until they leave.

All our research says that people are incredibly and pleasantly surprised. So that’s sort of the story as it currently stands. We’d like to do more, and I’d like to get a lot of people to say, “Well, that’s quite interesting. I’ve never thought about the topic in this way before. Maybe I have a responsibility to do something about this in my own business.” Time will tell. I’m evangelising like it’s going out of style, Toby, but whether I got anybody listening, I’m not too sure yet.’

I hope other hotels around the country are following in Robin’s footsteps. As a disabled traveller myself, it’s so difficult to find accessible accommodation. It’s always the little things that bug me.

For example, if I travel with my partner, we want to have a double room, but if I travel with my carer, I want to have a twin room. So many hotels have an accessible room, but with only a double bed in it. And that’s no good if I’m travelling with my carer on a business trip. Or they say that they’ve got an accessible room that’s got twin beds, which isn’t very good if I’m travelling with my partner. The best hotels have flexibility where they’ve said, “Actually, we can make it a double or a twin depending on the requirements of the customer.”

Robin agreed, adding, ‘There’s been a historical tendency to say, “Well, we are doing these rooms because we have to.” They’ve lacked colour. They’ve lacked aspect. They tend to be by the lifts and with minimal views, very bland in colouring and hospitalised in terms of the look of the bathrooms.

We wanted to have a go at that and make sure that it wasn’t repeated. You must keep improving. There are a number of things we’ve done in Manchester, which I’m pleased with, but a number of things still aren’t quite right. As soon as we opened the hotel, we realised we’d forgotten to put in beds which you can shape to suit yourself, recliner beds, and so we’ve put some in. We’re doing the same in Leicester because that’s what people have asked for.

I’m in two minds as to whether to take the concealed ceiling hoist directly into the bathroom and allow someone to remain in the hoist, both in the wet area and the dry area, or whether to use the commode. At the moment, it’s the latter, but we’ll take a poll as we go and see what our clients say they want the most.

I don’t see why it’s not possible for caring and intelligent hoteliers to do something about this. Then, of course, there are the golden behavioural rules. Like you have a disabled loo in a restaurant or a hospitality venue and bless them, the staff put the beer barrels and last year’s Christmas decorations in there. If it’s always full of something else, you can never use the facility. Silly things like that.

It’s wrong. And I suppose there’s one occasion in ten you might think it’s funny, but the rest of the time is just incredibly inconvenient and very upsetting. I suppose there are a few other ingredients in there. I’m very anxious that the business has an Accessibility Champion. And I don’t really care whether that’s the pot washer or the managing director of the business. I just think it needs to be on the agenda. It needs to be on the heads of department meeting agenda. It needs to be on the board’s agenda. And whilst it’s very fashionable to have sustainability on your agenda almost as a prerequisite, access has always been a poor relation, so I’d like to see that changed.

I’d quite like to rename some of these rooms, rather than calling them the accessible rooms. At Brooklyn, we’ve christened our rooms Liberty rooms. And the more I say it, the more comfortable I am that that is what it’s trying to achieve — to give more Liberty and a sense of freedom to the person who’s using the accessible room.

We’ll see if that catches on. Then from a practical point of view, what experience has taught me is that if you have got some compromise in your life, you need reassurance to give you the confidence to go to that venue. If the venue can come up with enough pictorial evidence of where the tricky points are likely to be if you’re in a wheelchair, you’ll know from experience narrowness of doorways, a concealed lip, and all sorts of things. If you can just find a way to plan those or to highlight them, so if there are issues, you know what to ask for in terms of help and know what you can manage yourself.

Website photo galleries which display accessible issues I think are very important. I would urge anybody reading who is effecting change in a business where people require pictorial evidence of what a bedroom or a bathroom looks like to do this.

It’s as important as how do I get out of the lift? Is the lift on an angle? If I’ve not got a power-assisted wheelchair, will I be strong enough to get up a ramp? Is the ramp very steeply inclined? All those sorts of issues. It’s transferring that confidence and giving as much preparatory information to someone who’s planning to come to stay, which will make it much less stressful for them once they arrive.’

It’s amazing how many hotels and restaurants don’t include accessibility information on their website. It’s so nice to be able to go onto a website and get that information without having to make a separate phone call. Quite often, I try to book a hotel room and the accessible rooms are not even listed on the website, so you can’t even make the booking online as other customers would. Having that transparency of information is important.

Robin said, ‘There’s also a training issue for the person on the front desk answering the phone call too. They may have no idea how to deal with the complexities of an issue you might be facing as the client, and they don’t know how to talk to you.

There is an app, this is a shameless commercial plug, but a character called Gavin Neate, whom you may know or have come across. He’s doing some ground-breaking work with his Welcome Me app, which I think is fantastic. He’s identified more than twenty issues that affect people with disabilities on the premise that only 8% of visitor traffic to hotels is from someone in a wheelchair. Ninety-two percent of a business’s disabled customers have a different set of issues or multi-layered issues. The app enables the subscriber to give a pre-warning to the participating venue of what that person needs.

So, these are the sort of questions I’m likely to ask you. These are the sorts of questions you can ask me and so on. It builds tremendous confidence between the venue and the customer, but the more he can get that going and the quicker it takes off, the better, from my point of view. We’re keen advocates of his system.’

It’s a fantastic app. Just being able to kind of provide that information up front improves the overall customer experience, which I think is wonderful. I was interested to find out from Robin what business benefits he is noticing now with the focus on accessibility within the hotels.

When we first decided we were going to be a bit more evangelical about promoting the needs of the disabled, we had just taken over a hotel in Dorking called The White Horse. It’s a very old-fashioned coaching inn with difficult access, a multitude of hidden staircases, wonderful creaks, old grandfather clocks and so on. It was a delightful, very old-fashioned hotel. We instated our disabled rooms, made them bigger, gave decent access, and got all the pinch points sorted out in terms of heights and flow of traffic.

To our astonishment, not only did we get an uplift in terms of disabled customers, but we had abled-bodied guests who wanted to use those rooms and regularly book them because they felt that the room was more in keeping with their needs. One particular client, a lady who’s a regular corporate client to a business nearby, always specifies the accessible room because she likes to be on the ground floor, and she likes the spatial planning in the room.

I wanted to highlight this particular property because we’ve identified per bedroom, as an annual profit, each of the accessible rooms, the Liberty rooms earn just over six and half thousand pounds more profit per room than the abled-bodied rooms. So that’s quite compelling.

Rather than saying, “Well, what’s the minimum number of accessible rooms I need to put into the hotel?” Why don’t we ask, “What’s the maximum number I can put into the hotel?” With Brooklyn in Manchester, it’s a bit more turbocharged than that. Not only do we have approximately ten thousand pounds as our annualised extra profit per bedroom; there are eighteen bedrooms like this. Eighteen bedrooms multiplied by ten thousand pounds is one hundred and eighty thousand pounds. Plus, the special events and activities we have attracted simply would not have come to us if people hadn’t heard of this as an accessible, friendly property.

We reckon, in terms of profit, not to turnover, this is pure profit, without hiking prices or doing anything sly, it’s about two hundred and seventy thousand pounds worth of extra profit to the business as a result of the investment we’ve made.

Our Finance Director he’s got to look at this and say, “Why am I building in apology discounting into my pricing policy?” I’m accepting that my disabled rooms will be let last, that if there isn’t a disabled guest, the abled-bodied guest will be given it, and they will feel as though they have been relegated or marginalised. A shocking statistic in one survey we ran from about two and a half thousand people was forty-three percent of abled-bodied guests, when offered a disabled room, rejected it and said, “I want something else.” That’s a dreadful indictment of human nature, isn’t it?’

That figure quoted by Robin is similar to the research that Scope has been doing about how awkward non-disabled people feel when talking to disabled people as well, so that doesn’t surprise me at all.

‘Well, there we are. That’s something to spur us on a little bit more. I can’t pretend, Toby, that all our hotels are perfect. We’re going at it one by one. What we can do when it’s a new build project is to try and put in as good of facilities as we can. We have one particular property in Coventry called The Telegraph, which has won the Boutique Hotel Accessibility Award. And so that’s a nice thing. It pays homage to the ’50s in this hotel. Don Draper of the television show ‘Mad Men’ would definitely hang out there.

It was a property which, at one point, was the printing and editing headquarters for the local paper. There are a lot of artefacts and merchandise that was left behind which had been repurposed, so it’s full of fascinating stories, including, just to make you smile, some rooms without natural daylight, with red lights. You could, in theory, if you’re old-fashioned, process your negatives into film in the dark room. These rooms are called the Dark Rooms. And to my astonishment, they seem to be the rooms that go first.’

That’s what I do love about the Bespoke hotel brand. They are so unique, quirky and fun. They’re not your bog-standard hotel, so they are a joy to stay in. I asked Robin ‘What do you feel are the things businesses could do to embed accessibility into their organisations? You’ve talked about appointing an Accessibility Champion, and maybe you want to elaborate on that a bit more? Maybe some practical things that people could do.’

‘Well, be inspired by others, find out who’s doing a good job or has won prizes for their efforts elsewhere, and go and copy them. Speak to the experts. There’s a brilliant young man called Ed Warner, who heads up a business called Motion Spot, which provides design and good practice to hotels, hospitality venues, retirement homes, and private houses right the way across the spectrum. There’s a German-based company called Hewis, headed up by Steven Maley, and they provide fabulous equipment and removable equipment. If you want a particularly strong access lever, support bar or grab bar in your bathroom, and then you’ve got a client who’s coming in next who won’t need the same level of detail, it’s interchangeable. They’re a great equipment supplier.

There are plenty of experts out there. And I suppose, lastly, if anybody just wants a pep talk and a good dressing down, I’m very happy to oblige.’

I then asked Robin the question I ask everybody when they come on my show, ‘What does inclusive growth mean to you?

‘The ultimate aim is to make sure it’s not a subject because it becomes so normalised; it is so culturally embedded that equality amongst accessible guests and able-bodied guests is exactly the same or as close to being exactly the same as possible. So that nirvana is that you and I are not having to discuss things like this in the future because we’ve done our job.

A new sort of sense of equalisation has taken place. There are times when I’m quite grateful to live in the UK because we’re more advanced than large parts of Africa and other developing countries. We have much to be grateful for, but even so, if we’re one of the leading economies in the world, we should be leading the way. All I’m trying to do is challenge prejudice and sloth and see if we can’t put some zip and some energy into making people think in a different way.’

To learn more about Bespoke Hotels and the accessibility work that Robin has been doing, contact him by email Robin@bespokehotels.com

Another source of inspiration can be found at www.bluebadgeaccessawards.com the competition for better disabled facilities, which has a whole raft of information there, including good practice and quotes from stakeholders who’ve been involved.

And of course, if you fancy a weekend break, check out www.bespokehotels.com which has a directory of all of the hotels. Robin is keen that if a prospective guest is nervous about a weekend break and they can’t find all the answers on the website, to please contact him.

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Toby Mildon

Toby Mildon

Diversity & Inclusion Architect. I like psychology, tech, ideas, design and food (esp. curry). Live with SMA.