One of 2024’s most anticipated hotel openings in London, and the first hotel from Kinsfolk & Co – the Newman, in Fitzrovia – has 81 rooms and suites, a European brasserie, a cocktail bar and a wellness floor.
General manager Oliver Milne-Watson talks hotels, hospitality, and the inspiration of AA Gill.
This article was originally published in the Winter 2023 issue of Hospitality Ireland Magazine, in December of 2023.
Why is the Newman a valuable addition to the London hotel scene?
The Newman is situated in Fitzrovia, a neighbourhood that is perhaps not as well known as other areas of London, despite being nestled in the middle of Soho, Marylebone and Bloomsbury. We will have a strong focus on celebrating the neighbourhood within which we sit, weaving elements of Fitzrovia’s history and charm seamlessly into the running of the hotel – a place to stay to get a real feel for the neighbourhood. I hope that this approach will make us a welcome addition to the already very special London hotel scene and, most importantly, show off all the area has to offer.
Tell us about your own background – where you grew up, studied, etc.
I was born and grew up in London, which is, I believe, a bit of a rarity for a general manager working here. My original plan was to go into finance, so I studied economics and Spanish at university and spent a year living in Argentina as part of my course. Following that, I went straight into hotels on a management trainee programme and was lucky enough to be selected for the first cohort of the Master Innholders Aspiring Leaders Diploma [MIALD]. This course was my first taste of hospitality training and was invaluable to me.
What first drew you to hospitality?
When studying for my finals at university, I was having to work hard to get my desired degree. Often stressed and losing focus on what I was working towards, I used to read Breakfast at The Wolseley, a book by AA Gill. This helped me feel less overwhelmed and more relaxed. Shortly after that, I realised that I was much more drawn to the recipes and stories of hospitality than my economics degree.
When did you first realise that you wanted to do this professionally?
My family have always been keen hosts, whether it is cooking for others or welcoming guests to stay. Mum has an amazing talent at creating beautiful spaces and Dad cooks the simple dishes well, so, in this respect, I have always been exposed to the joys of hospitality. It was only after I got my degree that I really considered it as a career and initially planned to open my own restaurant. I was advised by a friend of the family to learn about hotels instead, as they were “much more fun”.
What was your first big role?
My first big role was as night manager at the Goring [Hotel]. I had just finished my management trainee year, and this was a significant step for me. I was hungry to do it and fortunate that my general manager recognised this and put his faith in me.
What was that like?
Working nights was certainly a baptism of fire for my first managerial role, yet a great learning experience. The realisation of overseeing so many guests at night was quite daunting at first. Mentally and physically, it was a challenging change from days, but you ease into it pretty quickly, and the exposure to all the different departments/scenarios was fascinating.
What makes a great hotel?
The team members. You can have the finest marble, sheets with the highest thread count and so on, and so on, but it means nothing without the right team bringing it all together. Guests, like all of us, just want to be heard, understood, and be made to feel individual. To do this, the team need to offer emotionally intelligent service and to be given the space to be present for each interaction. Of course, this needs to be supported with a strong culture of respect and care. It is vital that owners/operators, in turn, provide an emotionally intelligent service to our teams.
What are the changing trends in hospitality – people’s expectations, new elements, etc.?
I feel that travellers are seeking out hotels that have a purpose – one they can resonate with, and something that makes a stay more than just a ‘room for the night’. Whether this is a connection to the local community or a focus on ESG, the average guest seems to be much more conscious about where they visit. In addition to this, wellness is continuing to be a key demand of travellers, both business and leisure alike – not just in the spa, but in all areas of the hotel, like minibars, in-room apps, etc. – a general desire to look after your body, the planet, and other people.
What are the major challenges at the moment?
Rising operating costs, combined with shortages of labour, continue to create challenges for hotels. Whilst the costs will level out in time, for the latter, I believe we have a more systemic problem and need a real shift in the way we look after our team members – financially, emotionally and mentally. We need to change the narrative that hospitality is a tough industry to work in, but, before that, we need to better understand our team members and their needs.
What are the main opportunities?
As the presence of AI continues to grow, I believe that hotels can harness this inevitable shift in ways of working by creating efficiencies – not replacing team members with AI, but allowing them to be more productive and, in turn, have more time to spend creating connections with each other and guests. There will always be a need for hotels and the people that run them – even more so as other industries become more anonymous and standardised.
What do you do when you’re not working?
Time spent not working is time spent with my family. My daughter is 18 months old, so that keeps my wife and I on our toes, and the weekends full of activities. I love running and the natural highs it gives, so I try to do this as much as possible.
Any other plans on the horizon for the next year or so?
We will open the Newman in the winter of next year, so that is my focus for the coming months. We are about to start recruiting for our first team members, so I am excited to start this journey with them, and to create something special.