Design Focus: Chester Hotel, Aberdeen


The Chester Hotel, formerly Simpsons, in Aberdeen opened last month, almost a year after owners Gillian and Graham Wood closed it for a complete refurbishment and exactly two years after the couple bought it. Susan Young paid it a visit.
There’s nothing better than going to see a new hotel on a sunny day, and the Chester Hotel in Aberdeen was no exception. An added benefit was that the glorious sun highlighted the hotel’s glorious granite exterior. The grey theme continues throughout the building, and despite owner Graham Wood giving his two designers, Graven Images and Ambiance Interior Design, two separate briefs with regard to a colour scheme (Graven were responsible for the bar and restaurant, while Ambience designed the hotel interiors) both designers independently chose grey, black and white. Says Graham, “The only stipulation I made was no brown or gold!” He continues, “I was surprised when they both came with their ideas, and they were so similar. In fact I was relieved because it means that the two parts of the building compliment each other.”
The Woods may be part of an entrepreneurial dynasty, but the hotel plan was entirely their own. Says Graham, “Before we went into hospitality we looked at other ideas such as an indoor play area for kids. We had just had children at the time and thought it was a great idea, but we were advised against it. Instead we opened the Chester Residence, serviced apartments, in Edinburgh. The Chester Hotel is a natural progression from that. Serviced apartments don’t do food or beverages, which in my opinion, is one of the hardest parts of hospitality to get right, but what we have learned over the last few years is all about, what I call, front of house. We learned how to look after our customers.” He also points out that as well as being award-winning, Edinburgh’s Chester Residence have always been No 1 on tripadvisor.
The couple knew Simpsons well before they bought it. Graham explains, “We lived directly across the road from here in a flat and Simpsons was our local. I’ve always known it. Then we were presented with the opportunity to buy it from two friends. We completed the deal in record time and took it on as a going concern.”
When considering the design of The Chester Hotel and its reincarnation from Simpsons, Graham wanted something completely different. He tells DRAM, “I didn’t want people going in and saying it looks just the same.” With a £5m construction and refurbishment spend however, that seems unlikely. It’s not just the décor that is different, the layout is too. Graham explains, “Now when you walk through the front door which leads to the bar and IX Restaurant, we have created a corridor – on one side are some comfortable booths with small TVs, and on the other there is a wall. It means that if people are coming to eat they don’t have to go through the lounge bar to get to the restaurant.”
He continues, “The booths sit up to six people and can be reserved – each has a TV and a champagne bucket. It means that people can book them for sporting events such as the Ryder Cup or rugby matches. However, although we thought they would be popular with sports enthusiasts, they have also proven a hit with people with children, who put on the kids channel to occupy the youngsters.”
The lounge bar is on the left as you come through the front door of the building and the actual bar is now situated on the wall to the right as you enter this area. Graham says, “We have moved the bar completely. It’s not the best use of space, but I wanted the bar to look completely fresh, and I didn’t want people coming in and seeing it in the same position as it was in Simpsons.”
The bar boasts some distinctive lampshades, a marble bar top and colourful accents. This area also has its own bar menu, and Graham tells me that food here is going well. “It’s a 50/50 split between here and the restaurant.”
The corridor takes you to the restaurant which is on two levels. Graham explains, “When we learned that the Marcliffe was to close we decided to make the function room on the ground floor larger by building an extension. However we realised that the roof height of the banqueting suite would only have been 9ft, which was too low for a room of the size we were planning. So we decided to raise the ceiling and subsequently had to reapply for planning, put more steel in, and re-design the area above the room – our restaurant. If we had kept the original plan, the restaurant would have had a wall in the middle. It was a problem but as usual Willie Nolan of Graven Images came up with a great idea. Subsequently the dining room is now on two levels, and I think it works really well.”
The focal point of the bright and airy restaurant is the ‘theatre kitchen’. It is effectively part of the restaurant design, as it is situated right in the centre of the room. It boasts a Josper oven, and two refrigerated display cabinets at the front which highlight the fresh local produce on offer from the meat to seafood. The food does look amazing.
Further back you go up a few steps and reach two private dining rooms situated one on either side. Both seat eight, and with sliding doors can either be open or closed. At the very back there is another private dining room which seats around 24 people and which has its own private balcony space which complements the floor to ceiling windows.
Downstairs is the substantial banqueting suite which seats 270 for dinner and 230 for a dinner dance. It boasts a luxurious looking cream bespoke carpet and further through its own white and black gleaming bar area, which has a twinkling ceiling. It has a very modern and contemporary finish. The room can be split into various areas for conferences, meetings and such like which allows the hotel event organisers to maximise revenues. You can also enter the banqueting suite through its own entrance. Outside, a walled garden is in the process of being created and there is also a cupola – obviously brides are being taken into account with these additions to the landscaping.
Says Graham, “Now we have the conference and wedding area open we need to get it right. It will make or break us. We have the fun of weddings at the weekend, and conferences through the week. Conferences are certainly our big challenge because people come to the conference and they stay at the hotel. It’s usually a company event.”
Next door, the hotel, which currently has 45 rooms open and another 10 on the way, is definitely aiming at the five-star market. Says Graham, “Simpsons was a three-star and it is a big jump to five-star but we hope to achieve that. It certainly helps that many of the staff we inherited during the time that we were closed managed to gain employment at various establishments such as Gleneagles and The Marcliffe. We helped get them the jobs, but at the same time there was no guarantee they would come back. I’m delighted to say most of them have. It’s not easy getting good staff in Aberdeen, you certainly are paying about 30% more for the staff than you would in Edinburgh. That’s because the oil companies here offer such good wages, and the lure of a 9am – 5pm job is too much.”
The hotel has a lounge and bar area to the rear. Says Graham, “I gave Ambience free reign when it came to the public areas of the hotel. I really like it, infact the lounge area is my favourite room in the hotel. The predominant colour is grey, the soft furnishings are shades of black and grey and obviously the best of quality, with splashes of colour coming from the paintings. Graham explains, “I commissioned 75 pieces of individual artwork from John Byrne. We have used one in each of the bedrooms – which total 45 at the moment. There are 10 left for the rooms yet to be finished, while others are in public areas. There is also an original in the lounge.”
The bedrooms however are similar in style to the Woods’ Edinburgh business. Graham comments, “When I walked into the bedrooms here I was a bit surprised at how much they looked like Edinburgh, but I liked them. I didn’t ask Ambience to detour too far with the bedrooms because our Edinburgh guests really like them.”
Aberdeen is a more difficult market than Edinburgh. People who stay at the Chester Residence are usually on holiday, and they are already in a good mood by the time they arrive. In Aberdeen, and remember I am an Aberdonian, people are difficult to please. The other anomaly is that although generally we have 100% room occupancy through the week with business people staying, come the weekend that drops to around 20%. People come to Edinburgh for its tourism, but there is no real tourism in Aberdeen, so we have to look at how to attract the weekend market. Filling the bar and restaurant, however, at the weekend is no problem.”
Graham also filled me in on the lengths he and his team have gone to with regard to securing the right brands and products for his new venture, from visiting a brewery to getting to know the whole meat process. He can now wax lyrical on all of the different cuts – I think he might have picked this enthusiasm up from brother Nic who owns Edinburgh’s Kyloe, and Nic also had a hand in the wine list for the new hotel. Says Graham, “I wish I had the same passion for wine that Nic has. He wrote the wine list and picked all the wines. His help was invaluable.”
He also told me that his accountant nearly had a heart attack when he saw the price of a couple of bottles of Dalmore Constellation. Says Graham, “We bought these two bottles at a cost of around £4,000. The good news is that we have already sold 12 shots!”
There was still a lot of work going on when I left, particularly on the outside area. I can’t wait to go back and experience The Chester when it’s fully operational and totally finished. I can’t imagine that will be too long! But I think the Dalmore will be too rich for my pocket!