What would Wilhelmina do?
Wilhelmina, the patron of The Zetter Townhouse in London, is a difficult person to find. Her portrait hangs by the entrance to her hotel, but she is never there herself. She has influenced every aspect of the hotel’s design, but none of the staff has ever met her in person. She has inspired the hotel’s signature cocktails, but has yet to taste a single one.
There’s a simple and unexpected reason for such a hands-off approach to hospitality: Wilhelmina is a fictional character, born out of the collective imagination of co-founders Mark Sainsbury and Michael Benyan.
Sainsbury and Benyan also own the Townhouse’s (big) sister hotel, The Zetter Hotel, which is among the world’s ‘50 Coolest Hotels’ according to Condé Nast Traveller. But as Mark Sainsbury explains to us in the cosy warmth of the Townhouse’s drawing room, the purpose of it is not merely to achieve cool status. In fact, ‘cool’ is not an idea that Mark Sainsbury seems to feel very at home with. When they opened The Zetter Hotel in 2004, the owners’ ambition was to create an accessible experience that combined good value with high design.
If you wanted to spend less than £200 a night you would stay in the chain hotels with no character, in cookie-cutter rooms with all the drabness of international hotels. Or you stayed in the St Martins Lane Hotel [designed by Philippe Starck for Ian Schrager]. I think the Sanderson was just about to open and you paid through the nose for that experience and at the same time were made to feel like you were slightly uncool if you weren’t dressed in the right clothes. We stayed in the Royalton in New York, which I loved in so many ways, but I remember that feeling when I walked past the doorman and he was better looking, taller and better dressed. I remember feeling that I was not quite making the grade in a way and feeling slightly uncomfortable. And so we loved this idea of value, design and approachability. So not too cool.”
So what does a ‘not too cool’ hotel look like? Ian Schrager’s nightclubs and hotels have defined cool for generations. They are sexy, sharp and polished. But excessive coolness comes at the expense of warmth and welcome, both cornerstones of Zetter’s approach to hospitality.
“Around the same time, a week before I got married, my sister sent my fiancée and me to Babington House. It was eye opening in as much as I’d never stayed in a hotel by somebody of my generation with the relaxed approach that was lacking at the Royalton and, for me, that was on the money. Until that point hotels felt like places that you very rarely feel comfortable in. These were all contributing factors to our approach, the love of hospitality, the sense that there was this gap in the market and this discomfort with what was there.”
The Zetter hotels exist to prove a point: that high design does not have to mean high prices. But they also demonstrate the difference between having high standards and high standardisation. The aim is not to build a ‘global brand’, but to introduce a singular love of hospitality into an idiosyncratic, eccentric set of environments. No hotel and no room is alike.
“We wanted a different feel between the sister hotels because they belong to a different period: Victorian warehouse and Georgian townhouse. We always wanted them to be different. In fact we really enjoy the idea of difference. In our DNA we’re wary of ‘chains’ and this idea of a cookie- cutter approach to hotels. We are terrified of being pigeonholed, as we grow with more restaurants and hotels. So the idea of doing something completely different was really appealing and obvious to us. You can share values and the attitudes towards your customer without requiring the same look. The common threads are that we don’t mind taking a few risks, being a bit edgy and breaking a few rules. There is not a common aesthetic — it is all very different.”
While the hotels in the group may not share a common aesthetic, each property has a distinct personality. This sounds easy in theory but is extremely difficult in practice. It’s easy to dismiss hotel chains as excessively samey, but there is undeniable comfort in knowing what to expect, regardless of the city or country you may find yourself in. For many people, chain hotels are beacons of familiarity in far-flung cities: sanctuaries in the midst of strange surroundings. There’s a benefit to being predictable: visitors know what to expect when they make a reservation. Excessive difference is arguably as detrimental as excessive sameness to our experience of a hotel. Few of us like to feel like check-in is a game of Russian roulette. To some extent, we want to be reassured that our next experience of a hotel will resemble our last: otherwise, what reason would we have to return? The Zetter hotels have successfully avoided both extremes by designing each hotel’s experience with a specific person in mind. That person is not (as one might suspect) a notional ‘average’ customer. Nor are the hotels designed to reflect the tastes of Mark Sainsbury and Michael Benyan. Although she may be fictional, Wilhelmina plays a central role in making sure The Zetter Townhouse has a personality that is internally coherent as well as being distinct from its sister hotel.
"This place was conceived around this fictional character Wilhelmina. It started as a bit of a joke but over time and looking back over the design process it is extraordinary how often we would refer to her. What would she do? How would she play it? She was brilliantly useful in terms of being consistent and coherent.”
Wilhelmina isn’t the only fictional character that exists in the group. The group is building a new Townhouse in Seymour Street, under the watchful eye of Uncle Seymour.
“Uncle Seymour is going to be a little more masculine. A little more austere. There are a central role in making sure Zetter’s Townhouse has a personality that is internally coherent as well as being distinct from its sister hotel.
“This place was conceived around this fictional character Wilhelmina. It started as a bit of a joke, but over time and looking back over the design process it is going to be greys and marbles. Although Seymour is conceived in the same way, it is going to have a very distinct and different aesthetic and personality. That is what we are after. Whatever we do, we don’t want to play it safe. We don’t design by committee. It is one of our great fears, as well as trying to please everybody all the time. Attention to detail, bags of personality and great staff are the compliments that I most cherish when we get feedback.”
Under the watchful gazes of Wilhelmina and Seymour, the Zetter empire is steadily expanding. But Mark Sainsbury is clear that one detail in particular will always be a part of the DNA, regardless of which member of his fictional family is in charge.
“I’m massively keen on the smallest detail, no detail too small. This includes incredible caring for our staff and making sure that they are happy because it all comes from them. I think there is a sense of honesty about the place. It’s a weird thing that you don’t find this more often in the hospitality world, particularly in restaurants. I was incredibly lucky with the first job I had in a restaurant. I worked in this really sweet restaurant called the Union Café and I think the owners had been treated horribly when they were working for somebody else. They turned that on its head and would take us on holiday to Mallorca, give us massages and buy us mountain bikes for our birthdays. It was extraordinary and from that day on it was very obvious that we had to do something similar. So we go that extra mile. It is more difficult when you have over 100 staff here but we still have that respect for honesty towards our staff and showing it in different ways — from the parties we throw to the summer trips that we take and the massages that we give. It comes back to you. Our reasons behind it are warm, but I think you could justify it entirely financially because the return you get is people who really love their job.”
This goodwill isn’t limited to the hospitality extended to customers or perks offered to employees. The business’ owners have a heartfelt commitment to sustainable business practices, from the partners they work with to the communities that play host to their properties. Mark Sainsbury is a co-founder of the Sustainable Restaurant Association and frequently meets with a community of restaurateurs to share information and encouragement.
“The local surrounding area has changed a lot. It’s nice to have played a role in that. There is a responsibility in that. I’m sure as we grow we could do a little bit more and give a little more back. We’ve organised summer festivals and markets and we’ve worked with community groups. I think this is a key thing.”
It’s evident that both owners draw significant satisfaction from the way they do business. Every ounce of effort that they put in contributes to a sense of pride that profit alone cannot deliver.
“On a personal level, there are easier ways to make money rather than sinking it into a hotel. Although we are doing very well, money is not my main motivation. Success is important but success at the expense of people’s happiness is hollow to me and pretty valueless. The way you conduct yourself as a business is most important. I think that has come from my upbringing. It’s amazing when you hear the feedback people give when you are human about your business.”