Opening Doors: Nigel Stowe of Hotel Café Royal
“Are you staying with us madam?”
The language of the luxury hotel can feel curiously prohibitive, and imbued with a certain imperiousness. I imagine to counteract such feelings they hire men like Nigel Stowe.
Sat neatly-suited in The Club at Hotel Café Royal, Nigel is the courteous Club Director. The image of ‘members only’ seems immediately contradicted in his openness. Originally from North London and a keen conversationalist, he’s dabbled with stand-up comedy and claims that “humour is the backbone to everything.” Best of all, Nigel knows how to blend 5 star service with sincerity.
Completely contradicting the idea of the dogged Brit upholding age-old ‘boys’ clubs’, Nigel thrives on the movement of our metropolis. “I went to Paris last year, I love it, but it hasn’t really moved on much since I’ve been going there for 40 years. I wouldn’t say that’s a bad thing, but I do think cities need to evolve.” He has no problem letting the London whir occur, and is excited about change, including the change that he’s helping to bring about.
Hotel Café Royal is a colossus of classical architecture on Regents Street; its rich design only to be rivalled by its equally rich history. Oscar Wilde dined here, so did Princess Diana. Winston Churchill in his day wined here, whilst Elizabeth Taylor, Brigitte Bardot and Muhammad Ali all lunched in theirs. Though he respects the hefty history it has, Nigel says: “For me it’s about looking forward. It got refurbished and is now about 4 years old, so about 2012 it opened. A lot of time has been spent looking at the history, but that’s not really relevant to the operation you’re sitting in today.” He’s currently in the process of redeveloping The Club, ensuring the members comfort, curating a high-quality cultural events programme and building up a buzz to propel the place into the present. “We’re creating new stories the next set of people will talk about – everyone wants a story to take away with them!”
The Hotel is almost a complex; offering a 20m pool, gym, spa, 160 rooms, lounges, restaurants and cafes, and of course The Club itself. You may be thinking, “God Lord! Another Private Members Club! Is there anywhere to still go without a passcard and an annual fee?!” You’re somewhat justified; there has been a veritable uprising of members clubs in the last few years, everything from specialist to elitist, catering to every class of person from hipster to high-flyer. From Soho House to Shoreditch House and the hallowed halls of the Arts Clubs; London seems to have been seized by the idea that there is money to be made in memberships. But the beating heart that pumped these new lifelines through London was The Ivy, the very venue at which Nigel began his career.
“The Ivy really was about theatre. Not about celebrity. Ultimately it was a place actors went to eat because it was open late. They just happened to be famous actors. In the 90s, Tom Cruise was in a play with Nicole Kidman and they would go and eat there. Then it all kicked off…” he explains. Soon enough restaurateurs cottoned on, and juggernaut Richard Caring bought The Ivy, which he has been expanding ever since: opening new chains in Kings Road, Covent Garden, Marylebone and St. Johns Wood… In short, anywhere there’s money. Does Nigel think this will dilute The Ivy brand and damage it’s integrity? “It’s inevitable what he was going to do with The Ivy. It’s a strong brand. Quite what the effect of 15 Ivys’ across London has on the original Ivy restaurant I’m not sure… Maybe there’s a slightly detrimental effect, but we’re not saving lives at the end of the day, it’s just a restaurant and I think it reflects the times we live in.”
Pragmatic, as well as pleasant, Nigel Stowe spent 10 years at the illustrious Ivy where he started as a commis waiter whilst studying architecture. Settling into high-end service, he never returned to art school. He went on to play a significant role in developing The Ivy Club, then worked on the relaunch of The Mayfair Arts Club. After a stint at the Bulgari Hotel, he couldn’t turn down an offer from the reopening Hotel Café Royal. “In hospitality they say you either love working in a hotel or you don’t. And I did, I liked it. I was working over at Bulgari, and I got asked about this club in this hotel, and I couldn’t really say no, because it’s a club… in a hotel!” And after all, can you really think of a more experienced man to hone the city’s newest hot spot?!
Though Nigel is a man who is run off his feet by the very nature of his job, he can always find a minute’s calm for you.
“We are in the hospitality business, we’re here to be hospitable, to look after you, to make you feel special, to make you smile.”
Many in similar roles may just be doing their jobs, grinning at the constant blur of faces rolling through the revolving doors, but for Nigel it’s obviously a way of life: “As much as a people person is such a cliché, I never ever, honestly, tire of talking to people.
The day I don’t enjoy meeting new people and talking to them is the day that I’ll stop doing this, and I really mean that.”
That love of communication shines through Nigel’s conduct. I notice how quietly and politely he speaks to the waitress handing him his coffee; exactly the same way he greets guests coming in or out of The Club. He notes: “I’ve only ever really worked in 5 star environments and it’s engrained in you. You can be on the tube and you treat people like you’re at a 5 star hotel… It can take people back a bit! But I always want to be like that and I have children and I want them to be like that, it’s a life skill really.” Similarly vital is the ability to speak to people on their level; No one really likes small talk, but I’ve literally got a degree in it. If you can speak to someone with a bit of knowledge and insight, people quite enjoy it and respond to it, rather than generic weather-type small talk. That actually comes from the Ivy restaurant mentality; the reason their service was world famous was because you spent a lot of time researching what guests did, not just food and drink, but you spent a lot of time reading about their industries, and you still do it to this day.”
It’s almost laughable to imagine any other club in London can possibly leave you awed and giddy in the same way; Hotel Café Royal is a modern day palace. But there is something for us to take away aside from memories and complimentary chocolates. Behind the clip-clop bellhops, baggage, lobbies and leisure, even after leaving the building we should remember to transfer Nigel’s gentlemanliness from high-end hospitality to every day life. Because that’s the sort of behaviour that really opens doors.