With last week’s relaunch of the Edinburgh Carlton and soon-to-be-completed renovations at Glasgow City Hotel, John Brennan is closing in on phase one of plans to forge a new force in the UK hospitality sector.
The chief executive of Amaris Hospitality – the hotel group created last year by billionaire ‘distress investor’ John Grayken’s Lone Star venture capital fund — has been on a £100 million campaign to rebrand nearly one-third of the group’s portfolio into an upper mid-market collection of properties with global gravitas. The two Scottish hotels are switching to brands from the Hilton family, one of eight names such as Jurys and Mercure currently under the Amaris umbrella.
The Capital hotel is now trading as the Hilton Edinburgh Carlton after a £17 million refurbishment, and to the west, the newly-christened Doubletree by Hilton Glasgow Central will open when its £10 million overhaul is complete at the end of September. In total, 23 of Amaris’s 73 UK properties are being revamped, with most work to be concluded by the end of this year.
“The Carlton is a very good example of what the Amaris strategy is about,” says Brennan, visiting the Capital for the formal opening of the 211-room property, just half a mile from Edinburgh Castle.
“We look for good hotels in good locations, and the centre of Edinburgh could not be better for that. It is a unique property that at one stage was a very modern and high-quality product for its day, but over the years through different ownership there was a lack of investment. We could see that it had huge potential, but to achieve that potential would require huge investment.”
Backed by Lone Star’s deep pockets, Brennan has the means to execute the hospitality know-how that he was bred with. His father, also John, ran the InterContinental hotel in Dublin after an earlier stint as an airline sales manager.
But that’s not to say the younger Brennan’s future was a foregone conclusion. Although his earliest aspiration was to be a pilot, he had decided long before he left school that he wanted to be a hotelier, despite his dad’s efforts. “My father was very keen that I become an engineer, and encouraged me to be inquisitive around construction and so forth,” Brennan recalls. “He knew a guy who was an electrician on a building site, and for one summer, for a very small sum of money, I followed him around carrying his bags.”
Following hotel training at Dublin College of Catering, he joined the Four Seasons group, where he spent 22 years in a variety of roles in Canada, Ireland, Japan, Malaysia, the UK and the United States.
The opportunity arose to join the world of private equity in 2007, when he signed on to oversee Quinlan Private’s newly-acquired Jurys Inn group, bought for £791 million at the peak of the property bubble.
The crash followed soon after, forcing refinancing and management changes that landed Brennan in the role of interim CEO of Jurys in 2008. By mid-2009, he was named permanent chief executive.
Jurys raised an additional €40 million to get through the initial fall-out and fund the purchase of a modern technology platform that underpins what is now recognised as one of the best-honed operating models in the European hotel sector. Quinlan’s shareholding eventually passed on to successor group Avestus, which was joined by a syndicate of other investors during the course of a further financial restructuring.
The syndicate sold Jurys in 2015 to Lone Star, which rolled the group together with three other hotel portfolios acquired in the previous two years to create Amaris. Brennan was given responsibility for turning this amalgamation into a cohesive whole.
It now includes 73 hotels with more than 13,000 rooms, including eight properties in Scotland, with 1,600 rooms across Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness. Employment north of the border stands at 600.
The aim now, Brennan says, is to transform this year’s investment into financial returns in 2017. There has been talk of a possible public offering worth up to £2 billion, though much will depend on trading performance and the stock market.
So far, there has been a “negligible” impact on trading in the wake of the Brexit vote, but how that pans out into 2017 remains difficult to predict.
“In reality, nobody knows what will happen — there are lot of questions but not many answers,” Brennan says. “But our business is resilient, and our focus is going to be on those things that we can control.”
30 SECOND CV
Born: Dublin, 1962
Education: St Michael’s College, Enniskillen; Dublin College of Catering/Trinity College
First job: An electrician’s assistant on a building site
Ambition at school: One was to be a pilot, but very soon after that, well before I left school, it was to be a hotelier
Can’t live without: My family
Kindle or book: It used to always be books until about two months ago when I got a Kindle. It hasn’t replaced books, but it is getting there
Favourite city: Hong Kong, probably. I lived there for three years, and I really like the energy of it
Preferred mode of transport: Train, definitely
What car do you drive: BMW 5
What makes you angry: I don’t get particularly angry, because it is an emotion that does not get you far, but I don’t like it when things are not done well, and when people don’t give their best effort
What inspires you: Working with a great team of people who want to do things the right way
Best thing about your job: The diversity