Let's Talk

Bespoke Hotels: Design Values Delivering Accessibility

In this conversation, I talked with Robin Sheppard, 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.

Photo of Robin Sheppard


Speaker 1: Welcome to the Inclusive Growth Show with Toby Mildon, future proofing your business by creating a diverse workplace.


Toby Mildon: Hello there, thank you ever so much for tuning into this episode of the Inclusive Growth Show. I'm really excited to be talking to today's guest, Robin Shepherd, who is the president of Bespoke Hotels. Now, 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 need somewhere to run this training course, but because it's about diversity and inclusion, I was particularly mindful about finding a venue that is accessible, being a wheelchair user myself, and also inclusive. And also, now that I live in Manchester, my brother's coming to visit me and he's got the same disability as me, and needs a wheelchair accessible hotel room. And by far, the Brooklyn Hotel Manchester is fantastically accessible. There's the...

Toby Mildon: In 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. So the accessibility is, in my opinion, one of the most accessible hotels in Manchester. So I was really excited to be able to sit down with Robin and interview him to really dig a bit deeper as to why accessibility and inclusivity is an important part of the hotels that they run. Bespoke Hotels have about 95 hotels within the UK, so they are not a small organization by far, they run lots of hotels in the country. So, Robin, thank you for joining me today. It's great to see you.

Robin Shepherd: Pleasure. Hello, Toby, and hello to all your listeners.

Toby Mildon: So, after that introduction, could you just introduce yourself a bit further about who you are, your role in the organization, and yeah, we could start there.

Robin Shepherd: Well, I've been a hotelier for nearly 50 years, growing up through an apprentice training program, going off to college, and so on. I was very fortunate to join a company called British Transport Hotels, which existed then, including properties such as the Old Course in St. Andrews, the Great Eastern, Gleneagles and so on. So it was a wonderful training ground for me. And I got into the country house circuit, everything seemed to be going fine. My health was good. Never gave too much thought to the lot of the disabled guests in our hotels. It just seemed a bit of a nuisance really.

Toby Mildon: Yeah.

Robin Shepherd: 21 years ago, I founded with one colleague, Haydn Fentum, Bespoke Hotels 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, you go to Hilton, you expect your rooms to be homogenized in terms of the approach, so you get a consistent brand standard. And our counter-intuitive view is that if we rode in the opposite direction upstream, we might have a different audience and a different effect. And so, 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. So we've been going at that for quite some time. Haydn and I have had two arguments in 21 years, unfortunately on both occasions he was right, which is most disappointing.


Robin Shepherd: We've grown in that time. Originally started as a West Country based company. Our roots are now in Warrington in the Northwest, which we've discovered is equidistant between Euston and Warrington, and Warrington and Glasgow. And 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.

Toby Mildon: That's really great. And yeah, your hotels are lovely and they're all unique and bespoke, as the name suggests. It's interesting how you just said as part of the introduction that, initially, accessibility was a bit of a nuisance as a hotelier. So, what changed for you and why is accessibility now a really important factor in your hotel designs?

Robin Shepherd: Well, in December 2004, I started to sense some tingles in my fingertips and toes, I thought I'd got pins and needles and a bad cough, and over a very short period of time, I realized 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, got out 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.

Toby Mildon: Yeah. [chuckle]

Robin Shepherd: And I couldn't move. So I was tapping away messages, say, "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 neighbor came around and said, "Look at the state of you, let's get you off to a hospital." And I was put into the RUH in Bath Hospital, in Lansdowne, where they said, "We've no idea what's wrong with you, but it looks like it's gonna get worse." And I can assure you when your body gets the wrong email as mine did, my immune system attacked itself. And 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 20 or years now. No, 18 years, I'm sorry. And it made me think about illness and disability in a very different way, because I was a consumer of illness and disability.

Toby Mildon: Yeah.

Robin Shepherd: Very briefly, walk through the illness: The immune system gets the wrong email, thinks it's under attack, attacks itself, short circuits the nerves, your stomach stops working. And in my case, my breathing went, so I was on ventilation. 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. And suddenly, I was in that wheelchair where people talked to the person pushing your wheelchair and don't talk to you. And I'm sure you've come across that, Toby, when people are not at your height and they either patronize you or talk to the person who's standing behind you.

Toby Mildon: Yeah.

Robin Shepherd: And if they do talk to you they talk very loudly just to make sure you are paying attention. Utterly, Utterly surreal and...

Toby Mildon: Yeah.

Robin Shepherd: That really pricked my conscience. And I thought, well, 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? And it, 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 was, was falling into a terrible period of paralysis and trying to recover.

Toby Mildon: First of all, you know, thank you for sharing that personal story and you know, how you came to acquire your disability. And I suppose, but that how that also shaped your view on accessibility within, you know, within the hotel industry. As I mentioned in the introduction, your group is a very well-established organization. You've got 95 give or take hotels in the UK. And 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. So why did you want to make Hotel Brooklyn particularly accessible? 'Cause in my opinion, I think that's a really good template for other hotels going forward. You know, you've got the wet room with roll-in shower, you've got the ceiling hoist. Very, very few hotels have a ceiling hoist. And also, in my opinion, it's just like beautiful design. A lot of hotels they're accessible, but they just don't look very nice. They got really gaudy white grab rails and plasticy floors in the bathroom. And, but you know, you've gone for style as well.

Robin Shepherd: Well, that's totally 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 lady called Dame Celia Thomas of Winchester in the House of Lords, having a chat about various causes and the idea of inventing a competition to encourage better design in and around hotels was born. We launched with the RIBA's backing. So Jane Duncan was the president at the time, and she was a great sponsor and advocate for what we were intending to do. And initially all we wanted to do was encourage hospitality, interior designers, and architects, to enter a competition and demonstrate that there was a mind-changing new emphasis coming, which would encourage people to put oomph and style and elan into the look and feel of disabled facilities. 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.

Robin Shepherd: And I suddenly realized that my lack of knowledge was disrespectful, and I needed to do something about that. So took on many more partners and stakeholders in the business and have grown now to an annual competition, which has about 12 different categories in it. I must point out one inspirational moment was a day at Channel four's Headquarters. The building that was created by Richard Rogers, the architect. Extraordinary to see how access and disability runs through programming, runs the building design, recruitment, training, retention. It's like the letters in a stick of rock, it permeates everything. And I thought, I wonder what we can do to try and encourage people to put a little bit more oomph into what they're doing, so the competition has gathered pace. And then I thought, well, it's all very well me doing this and having a piecemeal approach to improving the disparate hotels we've got across the group. Some are 13th century coaching ins, some are brand new properties. Necessarily 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, 1300s.

Toby Mildon: Yeah.

Robin Shepherd: And I thought, well, if we've 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 to be having conversations like this, which hopefully would inspire others. So 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 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.

Robin Shepherd: So 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. And it's in fact separated by New York Street, coincidentally. So Brooklyn was named as a... It was the code name that we gave the project. 189 bedrooms. Typically 5% of the bed stop by regulation would need to be disabled friendly or accessible. And 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.

Robin Shepherd: I was actually, for several years, a judge on the Industry Awards, which are called The Cateys, belonging to our trade magazine, The Caterer. It's a bit like the industry's Oscars. And I thought, "Well, we're going away to Brooklyn, I better not be a judge this year. Otherwise people will accuse me of favouritism."


Robin Shepherd: And 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. So 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, carers' rooms with interlinking doors, so you can have privacy or immediacy depending on the needs of the client. We have a couple... 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, so that if someone does go and attend one of these rooms, we don't tell that person who's viewing the room that it's a disabled room until they leave.

Robin Shepherd: And all our research says that people are incredibly 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 evangelizing like it's going out of style, Toby, but whether I got anybody listening, I'm not too sure yet.

Toby Mildon: Well, I think if any other hotels around the country were following in your footsteps, because as a disabled traveler myself, it's so difficult to find accessible accommodation. And it's always the little things that bug me, I suppose. 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. And actually so many hotels, they have an accessible room, but with only a double bed in it. And that's no good if I'm traveling 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 traveling with my partner. And some of the best hotels I've had a flexibility where they've said, "Actually we can make it a double or a twin depending on the requirements of the customer."

Robin Shepherd: Yeah. Well, there's that to it, but there's been a historic 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 coloring, very hospitalized, in terms of the look of the bathrooms. So we wanted to have a go at that and make sure that wasn't repeated, but you keep improving. The number of things we've done in Manchester, which I'm pleased with, a number of things that still aren't quite right. So soon as we opened the hotel, we realized 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...

Robin Shepherd: 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. 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. But I just don't see why it's not possible for caring and intelligent hoteliers to do something about this. And then, of course, there are the behavioral golden rules. Like you have a disabled loo in a restaurant or a hospitality venue and bless them, the staff put the beer barrels and the Christmas... Last year's Christmas decorations in there. So you can never use the facility, it's always full of something else. Silly things like that, behaviorally.

Toby Mildon: I've been to so many bars or restaurants where the disabled toilet is used... Is being used as a cupboard.

Robin Shepherd: It's wrong. And I suppose there's one occasion in 10 you might think it's funny, but the rest of the time is just incredibly inconvenient and very upsetting. I suppose there's a few other ingredients in there, Toby. I'm very anxious that business is a point and access 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 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. So as a natural spur coming out of Brooklyn, we've christened our rooms the Liberty rooms. And the more I say it, the more comfortable I am that that is what it's trying to achieve; is to give more Liberty and sense of freedom to the person who's using the accessible room.

Robin Shepherd: So we'll see if that catches on. And then from a sort of practical point of view, what experience has taught me is that if you have got some compromise in your life, you need a number of reassurances 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, all sorts of things which, historically, have tripped you up. 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. So galleries which display accessible issues I think are very important. And I would urge anybody listening to this broadcast who is affecting change in a business where people require pictorial evidence of what a bedroom or a bathroom looks like.

Toby Mildon: Mmm.

Robin Shepherd: And that's all quite as important to how do I get out of the lift? Is the lift on an angle? Is... 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, so 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 get to.

Toby Mildon: Yeah, it's quite amazing how many hotels and restaurants don't include accessibility information on their website. And it's so nice to be able to go onto a website and get that information without having to make a separate phone call. And quite often, I try to book a hotel room and the accessible rooms are not even listed on the website, so it's... You can't even make the booking online, like other customers would, you have to make a separate phone call. So yeah, having that transparency of information is really important, I think.

Robin Shepherd: But there's also a training issue in terms of, if you get through to a person and that in itself is quite a battle.

Toby Mildon: Mmm.

Robin Shepherd: That person's life skills and understanding or empathy, quite often you're gonna get a young person who's fresh out of school, not really experienced, only knows about a distant aunt who's in a wheelchair in the family, has no idea how to deal with the complexities of an issue you might be facing as the client at the front desk and they don't know how to talk to you.

Toby Mildon: Yeah.

Robin Shepherd: So there's a lot of training, a lot of coaching. There is an app, which is, this is a shameless commercial plug, but a character called Gavin Neate, who you may know or have come across.

Toby Mildon: Yeah, I know Gavin, yeah.

Robin Shepherd: I just think a word in his favor to say the ground breaking work that he's doing with his, Welcome Me app, I think is fantastic. He's identified approximately 26 issues across the spectrum that affect people with disabilities on the premise that only 8% of visitor traffic to hotels is from someone in a wheelchair. So 92% of your disabled customer has a different set of issues or multi-layered. And his app enables the person who's subscribed to give pre-warning to the participating venue of what that person needs. 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. And then it just 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. So we're keen advocates of his system.

Toby Mildon: Yeah. It is a fantastic app. And I think, yeah, being able to kind of provide that information up front just improves the overall customer experience, which I think is wonderful. So what are some of the business benefits that you're noticing now that you've got this kind of particular focus on accessibility within your hotels and particularly the latest hotels, so Hotel Brooklyn in Manchester and then the new hotel opening up in Leicestershire.

Robin Shepherd: Well, if I just go back a little bit, when we first decided we were gonna 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, which is a very old-fashioned coaching in with difficult access, a multitude of hidden staircases, wonderful creeks and old grandfather clocks and so on. It was a delightful old... Very old-fashioned hotel. We instated our disabled rooms, made them bigger, gave decent access, got all the pinch points sorted out, in terms of heights and flow of traffic. And to our astonishment, not only do we get an uplift in terms of disabled custom, but we got a number of 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 'cause she likes to be on the ground floor and she likes the spatial planning in the room. Anyway, the point of the discussion of highlighting this particular property is that we've identified per bedroom, as an annual profit, each of the accessible rooms or 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.

Toby Mildon: Yeah.

Robin Shepherd: And rather than saying, "Well, what's the minimum number of accessible rooms I need to put it into the hotel?" Why didn't you say, "What's the maximum number I can put into hotel?" With Brooklyn in Manchester, it's bit more turbocharged than that. Not only do we have approximately 10,000 pounds as our annualized extra profit per bedroom, so there's 18 bedrooms like this. So 18 times 10 is 180,000 pounds. Plus the special events and activities we have attracted simply, which would not have come to us if people haven't heard of this as an accessible friendly property.

Toby Mildon: Yeah.

Robin Shepherd: So we reckon, in terms of profit, not to turnover, this is pure profit, without hiking prices or doing anything sly, it's about 270,000 pounds worth of extra profit to the business as a result of the investment we've made.

Toby Mildon: Wow.

Robin Shepherd: And so, 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 in to it and he will feel as though he is been relegated or marginalized. Shocking statistic in one survey we ran from about two and a half thousand people was 43% of abled-bodied guest when offered a disabled room rejected it and said, "I want something else."

Toby Mildon: Right.

Robin Shepherd: That's a dreadful indictment of human nature, isn't it?

Toby Mildon: That's similar to the research that Scope have been doing about how awkward non-disabled people feel when talking to disabled people as well, so that doesn't surprise me at all, that research that you've done.

Robin Shepherd: Well, there we are, that's something just 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 a one particular property in Coventry called The Telegraph, which has won the Boutique Hotel Accessibility Award. And so that's a nice thing. It's an homage to the '50s in this hotel. It's mad Don Draper of Mad Men is, would definitely hang out there.

Toby Mildon: Oh well, wow. [chuckle]

Robin Shepherd: It was a property which at one point was the printing and editing headquarters for the local paper. So there's a lot of artifacts and merchandise that was left behind which had been repurposed, so it's full of a fascinating story, including, just to make you smile, some rooms without natural daylight, in which red lights have been put. So you could, in theory, if you're old-fashioned, process your negatives into film in the dark room.

Toby Mildon: Oh wow.

Robin Shepherd: And the rooms are called the Dark Rooms. And to my astonishment, they seem to be the rooms that go first.

Toby Mildon: That's what I do love about your hotel brands, because they are so unique and quirky and fun. And they're not your bog standard hotel, so they are a joy to stay in. What do you feel are the things that the person listening to us today could do to embed accessibility into their organization? You've already talked about appointing an Accessibility Champion, and maybe you want to elaborate on that a bit more, but some really practical things that the listener could do.

Robin Shepherd: 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. And speak to the experts. There's a brilliant young man called Ed Warner, who heads up a business called Motion Spot, who provide design and good practice to hotels, hospitality venues, retirement homes, private houses right the way across the spectrum. There's a German based company called Hewis, spelled H-E-W-I-S, was headed up by Steven Maley, and they provide fabulous equipment and removable equipment. So if you want a particularly strong access lever or 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. So they're a great equipment supplier. So 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. So yeah. [chuckle]

Toby Mildon: So to contact you. The penultimate question I ask everybody when they come on this show is, what does inclusive growth mean to you?

Robin Shepherd: But the ultimate aim is to make sure it's not a subject because it is so normalized, 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.

Toby Mildon: Yes. Yeah.

Robin Shepherd: And a new sort of sense of equalization 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 third world countries. So 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 in terms of intellect and thought process that goes into this. And all I'm trying to do is challenge the historic prejudice and prejudices and sloth and see if we can't put some zep and some energy into into making people think in a different way.

Toby Mildon: Brilliant. And before you go, Robin, if the person listening to us right now wants to learn more about your hotels and the accessibility works that you've been doing, where should they go to get that information?

Robin Shepherd: Well, they can either can contact me directly by email, which is very simple, [email protected], and I'll try and help myself or point them in the direction of others if I can't. They might find as a source of inspiration our website, which is to help inspire competition for better disabled facilities, which is called www.bluebadgeaccesawards.com. There's a whole raft of information in there. Good practice and quotes from other stakeholders who've been involved. Well, I hope that's more than enough to satisfy their question now, Toby.

Toby Mildon: Brilliant. And of course, your main website is bespokehotels.com, that you've got a directory of all of your hotels and information about all of your hotels. So if anybody fancies a weekend break, then yeah, I would start with that, that website as well.

Robin Shepherd: But if they're nervous about that weekend break and they can't find all the answers, then please contact me and I'll do my best to manage their expectations.

Toby Mildon: Brilliant. Well, Robin, thank you ever so much for joining me today on this episode of The Inclusive Growth Show. It's been really interesting to talk to you. And thank you for logging in today and listening to Robin and I having a chat, and hopefully our conversation today has given you some inspiration about how you can embed accessibility into your own organisation or your customers user experiences. So thank you for tuning in and thank you, Robin.

Robin Shepherd: My pleasure. Thank you all.

Toby Mildon: Cheers. Take care.

Speaker 1: Thank you for listening to The Inclusive Growth Show. For further information and resources from Toby and his team, head on over to our website at mildon.co.uk.

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