Michael Bonsor may seem as charismatic a hotel manager as they come, but beneath the slick exterior is a man with hospitality in his DNA, determinedly overseeing one of the capital’s finest hotels, its guests, staff – and in-house pooch, Pearl
It could be disconcerting for some if a Golden Retriever jogged in during a meeting, but it’s par for the course at Rosewood London, where Pearl has been a feature of the hotel pretty much since day one, getting her name from Pearl Assurance Company, who the Holborn building was originally created for.
Pearl seems genuinely unphased by the comings and goings at the hotel – she must feel secure that managing director Michael Bonsor has it all under control. He started in August 2013, just weeks before the hotel was opening, and his first full hotel opening at that, plus it was a beast - with 306 rooms, two restaurants, spa and significant events space.
But it was always Bonsor’s destiny. His first job was helping his parents at their hotel in Inverness, “probably from an illegal working age” he laughs, “cleaning toilets and making beds” and it opened his eyes to the world.
“Put it this way, the area isn’t that diverse – kind of white and Scottish – and most of my friends were not meeting people from Europe, let alone Japan, so I loved it. We also travelled a lot whenever we could as a family – staying in nice hotels, so I kind of got used to that,” he says.
He was lucky enough to go through school very clearly knowing what he wanted to do and never steered from that, although he did toy with pursuing architecture or interiors, but as he says, both are things he can now appreciate as part of his role.
In 2000, he left Inverness at 18 to go to hotel school at Strathclyde University in Glasgow, one of the country’s key avenues for such a career route. Then it was an inadvertent meeting with someone at Four Seasons Park Lane that started his real journey into work.
“I was down in London at Claridge’s for an interview at another hotel in America, but I wondered around town on a break; I found myself in the hotel chatting to the person who was in charge of HR! Within a few weeks, I graduated and had a job offer at Four Seasons Boston so off I went. I loved it – what a great city just to ease into the American way of living," he says.
The role was in stewarding, back of house, rubber gloves on, washing pots – “it was like being back at my parents’ hotels”, he jokes. But of course it was integral to progression, and hotel GM Robin Brown soon became a great mentor for the young Bonsor.
A job at the “mother ship”, Four Seasons Toronto was next, after 18 months, and his time saw him covering F&B and events – ensuring he had ticked off lots of departments in just four years.
He soon felt the lure of New York and a job at The Pierre opened up in 2005, marking the start of another great time for the young Bonsor – but the group would sell the property months later, with no other opportunities.
Toronto called him back, as director of private events, a “mammoth” job that would also mean overseeing the personal entertaining of Four Seasons’ founder Issy Sharpe and his wife at their home.
“It was the most wonderful time – what an opportunity, to spend time chatting with them in their kitchen!" he recalls. "We would also take care of all the executive meetings – so there I was, being around all these key people within the group, it was a magical time to be in the company.”
Next up was Four Seasons Hotel New York and the opening of L’Atelier Joel Robuchon, “dealing with a lot of drama”, being involved in the restaurant getting a Michelin star and also opening the $35,000-a-night Ty Warner suite.
Four fabulous years were spent in New York, he says, but the pull of London was next and a role at Claridge’s as food and beverage director. “It was a very different job to the one of the same name I'd held in New York and I also had to calm myself down… People just were not moving quick enough!” he jokes. “I was careering around London and down that staircase at Claridge’s at top speed. I’d brought that New York mentality of ‘why isn’t his happening NOW’, with me. Plus, at Claridge’s around 70% of your guests are repeats that know the hotel, so you’re really much more of a custodian.”
He spent four years there, ending his time as hotel manager. “And then something just popped into my head that I should do an opening; Maybourne was always thinking of having more hotels, but it wasn’t going to happen any time soon.”
And so came Rosewood London. “I came over to see what was happening – I loved the building, and we sat in a model suite, and I felt there was something special bubbling away, so eventually I joined, but just weeks before opening - for the first time, I had to deal with construction workers and interior designers instead of guests.
“Really you’re more a project manager getting things together at that stage. Coming up with concepts was really interesting – especially reaching out to English cartoonist and illustrator Gerald Scarfe to come on board with Scarfe’s bar [pictured above]. It was non-stop. There was the snagging of rooms; 300-plus rooms, several times! It was intense, but we opened on time, that October.”
He says one of the proudest moments was the first time when every single room was booked out. “We managed to get the global sales event for Bentley, with their global team taking all 306 rooms. I was worried if all the showers would work when they all got up at the same time in the morning!”
The water did flow and from there on in, business has sailed in the last four years. Bonsor says he is also immensely proud of how the hotel has been accepted by his peers, and how it has managed to “pioneer luxury in a completely new part of London – not in Mayfair or Knightsbridge”. Plus there had been no presence for Rosewood in Europe for years, since when The Lanesborough was part of the group.
He says there is a great “energy” in the hotel, mainly driven by allowing the team to work within the framework, but to also be themselves. “We hired people on personalities – genuinely. Not just based on a CV of hotel experience – but from real bars and restaurants in the city. I allowed bartenders to have beards and tattoos – pianists not wearing bow ties. That’s why Holborn Dining Room is one of the busiest restaurants in town – we’re doing 800 covers a day,” he beams.
“There was nowhere around here for all the businesses like Warner Brothers and Metro Bank, not to mention the hundreds of top lawyers, to go.”
It sits with Rosewood’s ethos that a hotel has to be somewhere the community also wants to come.
“Your F&B has to be something that would hold up completely outside of the hotel,” Bonsor says, adding that for its guests, the hotel also has to be like a resort in the city that really “cossets” you; whether it’s enjoying one of the pop-ups in the courtyard, a great jazz bar or a buzzing restaurant. “Guests immediately feel they’re in a great place.”
Next up, pies... what was originally the deli space has been turned into The Pie Room at Holborn Dining Room, a one-stop destination dedicated to one of Britain’s most iconic dishes, spearheaded by executive head chef and pastry expert, Calum Franklin.
The pies will be sold to passers-by at lunchtime from The Pie Room, and pie-making masterclasses are also on offer, with the space also available for private dining.
The hotel is also home to interesting courtyard pop-ups and London’s largest selection of gins – 600 and counting, Bonsor says – adding that he wants to expand to being the UK’s largest gin bar.
New fitness retreats with Harry Jameson are also being rolled out, and afternoon teas are “blooming” in the Mirror Room, where the pastries are designed around current exhibitions in London, or key artists.
“You just cannot rest on your laurels – the beautiful chandelier and plush carpet only gets you so far, you need more stories to tell, especially when you are literally queuing up with other London luxury hotels to see the best agents in New York, for example, or at Virtuoso, so what’s your story?” he says.
Of course, Rosewood’s general story is a big one these days too, with a hotel in Luang Prabang among the recent openings, as well as the revealing of Hotel de Crillon in Paris last yeat.
“It’s a very exciting time – we hosted Rosewood’s global management here in London last December and it is exciting to hear all the plans and how we’re going to double in size in five years,” he says.
Of course one of those new hotels will be a Rosewood sister hotel in the capital, with the opening of the 140-key hotel in Grosvenor Square – set inside the former American embassy – in a couple of years.
“It’s exciting! And yes … I do feel London has the demand for another luxury hotel,” he laughs, pre-empting my unspoken question, in a way that only a very switched-on, 100-miles-an-hour hotel manager can.