British boutique hotel company Firmdale Hotels is the passion of its owners Kit and Tim Kemp, who emphasize the refined tastes of guests and unique design cues in their buildings that have revolutionized their chosen neighborhoods.
LONDON—Tim and Kit Kemp, the husband-and-wife ownership duo behind London-based Firmdale Hotels, have found success in the boutique hotel space simply by catering to guests and keeping things fresh.
Tim Kemp oversees capital considerations, while Kit Kemp oversees design and the story behind each of the company’s 10 hotels, which are all privately owned and operated.
“The goal always has been to reshape and reinvent the hotel experience,” Kit Kemp said during the Hotel Investment in Europe Conference.
Firmdale’s portfolio consists of eight properties in London and two in New York City—the Crosby Street Hotel and The Whitby Hotel.
Tim Kemp said he is very proud of “turning previously overlooked London sites and injecting energy into those neighborhoods.” Examples of the company’s London portfolio include The Soho Hotel and Covent Garden Hotel.
Success has come, the Kemps said, from each knowing where their skills lie.
“We do work autonomously, like two sumo wrestlers circling one another,” Kit Kemp said. “Tim is the financial side.”
Input and feedback at all levels is also integral to sustained success.
“I think the recipe for success is very simple,” Tim Kemp said. “We listen to everyone, and we focus on the top level. Also … we think of the guest all the time. What do they want? You also know what you like, and we assume the guest will like that, too.”
Kit Kemp said the starting point for the design process in each of her hotels is to understand the unique qualities of each building and location.
“Staying at a hotel is a luxury and an adventure, and success is if a guest becomes even more interested in the hotel and neighborhood as a result of staying there,” she said. “Guests are becoming ever more sophisticated.”
Funding a dream
Tim Kemp said Firmdale is its own brand.
“Definitely, but it will never be (InterContinental Hotels Group),” he said. “The management style is the consistency across the portfolio. And we’re at the bottom when it comes to finance. You have to take what is left.”
Up until now, most of the company’s funding came from the Kemps, but that might change as the brand expands.
“It is a challenge, but we saw value derive from the fact that buildings take two to three years to develop, and that is the perfect time to add interest,” Tim Kemp said. “And often I did not have all the finance in place when development started.”
Kit Kemp said she despised the word “brand.”
“(Firmdale’s) buildings should speak for themselves. All our hotels are different, and every stay is a different stay, so we have to step above,” she said.
Firmdale’s hotels host art walks that Kit Kemp said provide guests additional upscale value.
“I look at every space individually,” she said. “Initially, there always is panic and butterflies in your stomach when you see a property for the first time, but you have to believe in yourself and stick to your guns. I say, ‘Come back and see it when we’re done.’”
The company has commissioned numerous artists and craftspeople along the way as well.
“It’s also important to make sure all the back of house works, but of course guests are not interested in that,” Tim Kemp added.
Demand continues to grow for boutique hotels, the owners said.
“We sit at the top end of the market, at a point where people do not believe anything bad will happen,” Tim Kemp said. “They continue to travel, although at $800 to $900 a night if Americans stop traveling, we are all in trouble.”
He said the biggest opportunity for Firmdale is the addition of more hotels.
“Hopefully, there will be a third site in New York, near the financial district. Also in Paris and Lisbon,” he said.
“I always ask Tim to buy an architectural gem, but they are always so expensive,” Kit Kemp said.
She has another litmus test for success.
“People when they see a new hotel (of ours) ask me if I had to do anything here, which I take as a compliment,” Kit Kemp said.
She’s convinced more people will travel and more discerning people will travel more.
“Hotels can be as specialist as they want to be, but people will not be told where to stay. They’ll make their own decisions,” Kit Kemp added.
The Kemps said they are very proud of winning awards for employment practice, including being four-time recipients of the Queen’s Award for Enterprise, awarded for achievements in international trade
So, what do they provide their staff?
“First off, a smile, if you can possibly provide one in this age,” Tim Kemp said. “No, really, it is about training and the promise of promotion. We have always promoted from within.”
But he admitted being awful at remembering names.
“We employ 1,800 people, but I am terrible with names. I used to know them, so now I call everyone ‘darling’,” Tim Kemp said.