NEW YORK—Home economics class. That’s where Nigel Buchanan began taking risks as a young lad in Hampshire, England. Ever since, he’s been pushing the envelope in the hospitality industry with companies such as Hotel du Vin, Ian Schrager Company and Yotel.
Yotel’s operations director, Buchanan said he took a risk by showing he had an interest in cooking by donning an apron in home economics as a young man and that began his journey of following the road less traveled.
“Doing something for the first time is tough—no rules, conventions or precedents, which is music to my ears. I like to be in an environment where I can shape the culture, service and strategy in hospitality,” he said. “I’m pretty much unemployable by a typical corporate hotel.”
Indeed, Yotel is entering new territory this month as it opens its first hotel outside of the United Kingdom—the 669-room Yotel New York.
Buchanan said it’s been a long journey for this project. The development deal was signed with Manhattan developer Related Companies on Christmas Eve 2007.
“I’m very proud of the team we’ve built—they get it. You find like-minded people and it’s been challenging, but we’re blessed that we’ve had Related alongside us because they know the city really well. They know all the challenges of building in the city. It would have been extraordinarily difficult if we tried to do it by ourselves.”
At the same time, Buchanan said it’s the opportunity at Yotel to dive head first into projects that makes it worthwhile. “I’ve been very lucky that entrepreneurs have created opportunities for me to create opportunities for myself. … I have chosen alongside our CEO every fabric, paint color, every dish on the menu, down to the last pen or pencil.
“It’s a very small team, but it’s a team environment.”
Buchanan said he was lucky to have Robin Hutson, creator of the boutique U.K. hotel brand Hotel du Vin, as a mentor early in his career. He also counts Simon Woodroffe, founder of the Yo! Company (creator of Yotel), and Gerard Greene, CEO of Yotel, among his entrepreneurial mentors.
“I was always drawn to people who would say I don’t want to do it like other people have done it,” he said.
Among the innovations while at Yotel that Buchanan recalls, it started with finding a property-management system that would allow a hotel to book cabins, which define the Yotel design, by the hour. All the typical software providers said “no.”
“We found a company that does software for a film studio in London,” he said. “You have to just challenge people and say if there’s conventional ways of doing things that don’t work and conventional companies can’t do it, you have to find someone that can. You have to be very diligent and consistent, and that’s Yotel all over.”
In Manhattan, the robot that handles baggage, the Yobot, was a “very practical solution to a mundane problem,” he said.
“With Yobot we had a bit of fun, but it’s a practical thing,” Buchanan said. “We need to store luggage, but instead of guests waiting, they put their luggage into Yobot and it’s almost dancing as it stores it in a compartment.”
While Yotel’s move across the Atlantic required Buchanan to make frequent trips away from his home in Brighton, England, it also required the development of a North American-based management team to support growth.
“We’ve had to create a management structure locally with a managing director and very senior people,” he said. “We’ve had to hire a caliber of talent, as it were, that’s over and above what you would normally expect if we had a corporate office here, because we hope to open more properties in airport or city-center locations in North America over the coming years.”
Buchanan knows he won’t be at Yotel forever.
“When Yotel is done for me I’m going to start my own hotel company,” he said. “So it’s my education. I learn on their time and their dollar and they have allowed me to fail. I’ve made some big mistakes and they’ve allowed me to make them.”