How did you start your career?
I started off my copyrighting career with Radio Caroline in Liverpool in 1963, when I was given the job of writing advertising shows for the station. It was a freelance contract and a very happy time – it paid well and was a very freewheeling and entrepreneurial business.
I then went into advertising full time. I moved from Liverpool to Manchester and got a job with Osborne Hope and Peacock/Royds, which was the largest advertising agency outside London at the time. Royds had a full creative team working on their major accounts, and they also had an alternative creative team working on different ‘off the wall’ ideas. That was my job, and it was wonderful. I spent my time coming up with ideas that weren’t necessarily practical, but that made people think.
I then moved back to Liverpool having been head-hunted by the Brunning Group (the world’s first public advertising agency), where I stayed for around eight years, becoming creative director and then managing director. I then became managing director of the main agency operation in London in 1977.
When did you set up your own agency?
A colleague called Stephen King and I set up our own advertising and marketing company, Senior King, in 1979, when I was 33. In time we came to specialise in strategic brand solutions for hospitality, leisure, tourism and travel companies. Over the next 10 years or so we gained a wide range of clients including Watney Mann (now Grand Metropolitan) and Ladbrokes Hotels (now Hilton).
We developed a system which we originally called pub market targeting, which was particularly suited to businesses with a lot of outlets in different parts of the country. The idea was that if you evaluated the company’s catchment area – geo-demographically and socio-demographically – you could then position what it offered to its market based on accurate data. We take that kind of approach for granted now, but it was new at the time. We started off with pubs, and then did the same with hotels and transport hubs. We became very statistically-based and research-led.
Do you have any favourite campaigns that you worked on with Senior King?
One of the most successful campaigns we did was the launch of P&O Ferries Portsmouth, which was a spin off from P&O Ferries. It was a new independent company within the P&P group which went head to head with Brittany Ferries.
P&O Ferries Portsmouth’s star route was to Bilbao. We developed the advertising campaign through catchment area targeting – we worked out where the people who were most likely to go for a premium brand ferry journey lived and where they would be going to. Having done that, we worked mainly with outdoor advertising and created an image for P&O Ferries Portsmouth which focused on the civilised nature of the route in comparison to the hectic hurly burly of Dover to Calais. We prioritised our media expenditure on the catchment areas that were most likely to use P&O Portsmouth to their advantage. It was a very successful campaign.
We also handled Wales as a tourism and business development destination for 15 years. We did a lot of the same kind of targeting of people who would enjoy a holiday in Wales. We then came up with a very strong brand, brand identity and brand character and made everything in the communication hang off that. The original campaign we did for Wales was: ‘Wales, It’s Magic’. It was research based on the magical character, history and heritage of Wales, and all of the magical, out-of-the-ordinary experiences you could have there. It increased tourism business for Wales by some 30 per cent.
How would you describe the way you worked?
Our approach to marketing tended to be strategically driven and logically developed. We would assemble all the information about the campaigns of our competitors and look for clear space in their market noise to put our message across. Then we would present our message in a way that was research-tested to appeal to our target consumers.
We were strong believers in the value of cumulative impact over time. If you say one thing one year then change it the next year, you’ve wasted the residual power of everything you’ve said in the first year. If you keep saying the same thing and build up layer upon layer of credibility for it, you get a very strong brand presence.
Why did you sell Senior King?
In 1999 I was advised (by Touche Ross – now Deloittes) that it was time to sell the business, because being 100 per cent shareholder and also the main creative asset was not a good idea. I sold it to Michael J Howard – an independent agency group in Hertfordshire. They asked me to be executive chairman and CEO of the new business.
For the next five years I had arguably the best time of my life in the advertising business. Between 2000 and 2005 my job was to increase the shareholder value of the whole business. I really enjoyed that because I could get rid of having to be the ‘strategic talent’ and just try and plan and run the business for shareholder value. We expanded rapidly and in 2005, after about two years of discussions, we sold the whole business for cash to Accord Holdings.
What have been the biggest changes in hospitality since you launched Senior King?
In those days, hospitality was much more internationally brand-driven than it is today. Companies like Intercontinental, Holiday Inn and Hilton were dominating the marketplace. The market now is much more character-driven than brand-driven, and the characteristics of individual properties are increasingly important.
Today very few people make a buying decision based on advertising or previous experience alone. They make their buying decisions via very careful internet research. Peer group opinion is absolutely vital. Tripadvisor is a critical tool in marketing for all forms of hospitality. You have to really manage your relationship with Tripadvisor in the right way – you have to deal with every complaint you ever get preemptively and avoid getting too much bad noise coming out of the marketplace. The consumer today gets a very much better deal than ever before because they are absolutely in charge.
Do you see these changes as a good thing?
Yes, I do. If you have a business which is based on genuine consumer focus and commitment and you are genuinely trying to offer a good experience, then you are much more soundly based. If you’re selling an illusion and not everything fulfils the expectations, there’s nowhere to hide.
You launched Senior Partners after selling Senior King. What does Senior Partners offer?
Senior Partners is a vehicle to bring the right expertise to bear on a brand marketing or brand positioning for product offerings with particular emphasis on discretionary spending leisure products, in other words. I set up the company because I needed a vehicle to satisfy the requests I received to work with people who have been my clients in past roles.
Senior Partners is a partnership that has a network of experts that I’ve collected over the years. We operate our solutions as a partnership.
How did you come to buy Howard’s House Hotel?
Howard’s House Hotel was bought by Noele Thompson and her husband in 2002. Her husband sadly died shortly afterwards and Noele ran the hotel admirably for many years. I was a loyal guest of Howard’s House Hotel, and worked with Noele for a long time, supporting her through various difficulties and doing the marketing and brand positioning for the hotel.
At that time, we operated a business in southern Italy called A Life in Puglia, selling property, mainly to Britons and people from the low countries. Our younger daughter Charlotte and her partner Simon ran the business. In 2008 it was making a profit, but after the crash of October 2008, the roster of potential clients simply evaporated. We held a board meeting in Italy to try and decide what to do next, and Charlotte and Simon decided they wanted to relocate to the UK. While I was in Italy I got a phone call from Noele saying she had finally run out of cash. On our way back my wife and I discussed it and decided that the best way to rescue the hotel was to invest in it, so we decided to buy it. We kept Noele as an essential part of the mix, and she does an excellent job as part of the general management team. Simon runs the hotel business and Charlotte handles the commercial, financial and marketing role.
How would you sum up the Howard’s House offer?
The proposition is ‘escape the everyday’. We want guests to feel at home and to see the hotel as a place that welcomes them with genuine concern for their individual wishes and needs. Our aim is not to be grand or smart or ultra luxurious; it’s to offer a relaxed environment where the people you meet are people you feel comfortable with, where the rooms are comfortable and where the food is a delightful surprise on the plate.
What’s been your biggest challenge at Howard’s House?
Assembling a group of people who share the same vision of hospitality that we do, and motivating and retaining them.
Everyone who works at the hotel comes from the area. We are very keen to hire and train local people who feel a sense of pride in representing this establishment and providing the kind of hospitality that we like to offer. Our hospitality has no limits; we’ll do whatever it takes to make our guests feel happy, relaxed and at home.
Another challenge has been the process of bringing the building up to standard without altering the character of it. We’ve put a lot of money into technical support, because this is a horrible area for signals of any kind. We’ve also put a lot of thought into the lighting. It’s all done carefully to keep the character of a home but give the sense that someone really loves and cares for the place.
What do you see as the biggest trends in leisure and tourism at the moment?
An increasing disinclination to travel for all kinds of reasons, including fears about terrorism and the fact that travelling can be really rather unpleasant.
People are rediscovering the value of not putting themselves at the risk of interruption in their travelling. The budget carriers have artificially extended the use of air travel and they have big volume appeal, but many people are rediscovering the benefits of doing things close to home. The quality of self catering accommodation in the UK is very impressive and has improved massively. The more things you can do without travelling too far or without putting yourself at risk of interruption, the better.
Do you think this is a good time to be a UK hospitality business?
I think it’s an excellent time. The UK is a very affluent and secure market.