In the new FOX series, Hotel Hell, celebrity chef and reality TV guru Gordon Ramsay travels across the US trying to fix horrid hotels, awful inns, and bad bed & breakfasts. This journey takes him to San Diego, CA, Couer d’Alene, ID, Cambridge, NY, Milford, PA and Winter, VT.
The two-night series premiere begins Monday, August 13 at 8/7c and Tuesday, August 14 at 8/7c and will continue airing Mondays at 8/7c beginning August 20.
Earlier this week, Gordon participated in a press conference call to talk about the series and the challenges he faced, and the issues he sees with the hospitality business in general.
I was able to ask Gordon a few questions during the call:
Kyle: Going from saving a failing restaurant in KITCHEN NIGHTMARES to fixing an entire hotel is a big undertaking. Could you talk about some of the challenges you faced while increasing the scale, and how you go about identifying what those core things you should tackle are?
Gordon: One hotel in particular was in San Diego, and there’s a young entrepreneur that’s bought it for millions, and he got Pininfarina—as you know, they design Ferraris—and they had all this hi-tech spec furniture that just looked ridiculous. It was so far futuristic it just felt uncomfortable.
But I said to him, “Look, why would you spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for a designer that designs Ferraris to furnish your hotel?” He said, “Well, I have a Ferrari, and I love driving them, and they’re unique.” I go, “They’re unique for you, but the furniture is impractical. You don’t sleep in your Ferrari, so why would you get a bedroom designed by a Ferrari designer?” And he couldn’t really answer the question.
He had a bar, a nightclub, a restaurant, room service, banqueting, and 60 rooms. He was completely out of his depth—I mean, really out of his depth, no experience. I mean no disrespect, but it’s like people buying restaurants; sadly it’s the same with hotels. You can just go and buy a hotel. There’s no certified measures that you need to take in order to obtain a hoteliers license.
So I had a bigger team, and I had some secret, undercover footage that I had as a backup if I was ever to use it—necessary in order to make sure that they were wrong and wrong and wrong every time they stepped into it.
Kyle: You mentioned your backup team. Is the first time that you step foot on the property and meet the owner, is that when we see you in the show, or do you go and visit them ahead of time?
Gordon: No. No. When you see … is literally the first time, but I have a backup team, obviously—a research team—and I have members of the production and members of the public actually staying there, and then I have a wealth of support from a hospitalities organization as a consultancy package that I leave them with, whether it’s the re-modernization of their Website, whether it’s a repositioning of their sales. I have a huge team, much bigger than we did on KITCHEN NIGHTMARES because the problems, as you can imagine, are so much wider.
Kyle: Finally, will we see you do any kind of followup at the end of the season with these and see how they’re doing?
Gordon: Yes, that is a good question. We’re treating this one a little bit like the U.K. version of NIGHTMARES, so filming over a much longer period, and obviously everyone’s working so hard on there. There will be ones I’ll be visiting that hopefully they’ll let me in of course.
And here are the questions other folks asked during the call:
With your other shows you were all into the kitchen stuff. What made you want to branch out into doing hotels?
Gordon: I’ve stayed in thousands—literally thousands—and I have a small boutique hotel in London. It’s at Regent’s Park I think on the back of the ups and downs and the—I suppose the laziness that I started witnessing even coming back from a long day at work or even a holiday with the kids, I always found there was something not quite right within the hotel.
And then, of course, the fortunate positions of these places, because they’re landmark addresses and big buildings, they think that they don’t really have to work as hard as they should do because of their position—so partly the stuff I’ve experienced and also—scratch beneath the surface. When you see a pristine hotel room. You can find problems anywhere.
What’s the biggest mistake you see hotels making?
Gordon: The biggest mistake is when they start becoming systematic in terms of they see a bedspread, and they think it’s new and it looks great. Just because it looks neat and tidy, it doesn’t mean it’s clean. The worst scenario with hotels is the fact they’re open 365 days a year. Airplanes can’t even fly that long. They need to be reassessed and repositioned and reengineered.
Hotel rooms are the exact same; they take such an abuse. You think of seven nights a week, four weeks a month, 12 months a year, 365 days a year—these things are relentless, so they take their toll, but they never, ever stop and completely transform those rooms properly.
Have you ever had a really bad hotel experience that encouraged you to want to do this?
Gordon: I think just on the back of the experiences I’ve experienced myself personally, and I have hundreds of e-mail over the last couple years—in fact, into the thousands—stating it’s all very well fixing restaurants, but there are hotels in dire straits that are ripping customers off.
I think the one thing that we never do enough of, is that we never complain. Every hotel is up of negotiating and bantering those prices down. Like restaurants, the sad news is with hotels anybody can buy one, and I’ve come across some very arrogant, inexperienced owners of hotels—because they’ve got the money, they think that they’ve got the right to dictate what they should be serving to the public because they bought the place. That’s not always the case.
Did you find that the attitudes were different depending on which geographical region you were in, or was there any particular area you found to be more distressed than another?
Gordon: I think it’s been harder—more so than ever this year—for everybody in the hospitality sector, but I didn’t really see a difference in terms of location, whether it’s in San Diego or upstate New York.
What I did notice more than anything was the fact that when these places are so isolated in the way that they are off the beaten track, and they’re in a small provincial town, then they think that they are almost like historic landmarks that customers will just travel to because they’re en route to a skiing resort or en route to a Disneyland stay.
They think because there’s no big hotels within their area that they can do as little as they need to do to get by because the customers are driving past on a daily basis. They take their position for granted because of the landmark address, and they think that’s good enough to draw customers in. Well it’s not, quite frankly, at those prices.
I really didn’t see a change in attitude of regions. I just saw more of a mainstream, almost incompetence, on the back of their positions where they thought because they’re in a particular area, they had their customers at their feet, and that was never the case.
Were there any special caveats that you were looking for when choosing the hotels that you visited? Were you looking for places that definitely incorporated a strong restaurant presence, or were you looking for the landmarks, the older places?
Gordon: A bit of both, really—the landmark, historic—because you never want to let go of a historic hotel within the vicinity and what that stands for. The one in Whitechapel, again, when you think of where it was, how big it was— the Cambridge pie-a-la-mode was invented there—these places are amazing buildings just for the local community, let alone the business. So it was sad, really, just to see how some of them have not just lost their way but almost given up.
Like I said earlier, these things are relentless. You have to be over everything—more so than a restaurant. A restaurant can close down at Thanksgiving. We can shut it at Christmas, Labor Day. We can close these places down and revamp them, but hotels are taking an absolute pounding seven days a week, and that is a big upkeep. Even if it’s a 25 or 30 bedroom hotel, it still needs to be run efficiently.
I came across one hotel, and I couldn’t quite understand why there was this smell. It was horrific, and the room was gorgeous. And he said, “Oh, we’ve had a sewage problem.” I said, “How long have you had it for?” He said, “Well, it’s been running for the last four months.” “Well how can you rent this place out when it smells?” You can’t smell that on TV.
But then literally two days later I found there was a pen of pigs downstairs in the basement. They have these pigs—and this is in the winter with snow on the ground, so if that’s what it smelled like in the winter, goodness knows what it’d be like in the summer.
Did you find that the attitudes were different working with these hotel owners who have so many different areas of business to focus on from the stay in the rooms to the restaurant and the quality of food versus working with people who were just chefs?
Gordon: I found the attitudes a little bit more disconcerting, a little bit more arrogant, and almost like they were a cut above the rest of them—you’ll do as you’re told, and I’m an owner, and what I say goes. So because they buy antiques, they thought they had the right to dictate his favorite recipe on the menu, something like $47 upstate New York. It was more expensive than my lunch menu in the middle of Manhattan in New York. So yes, to be honest worse than chefs, and I think pretentious beyond belief.
You’re a hotel owner yourself, a restaurant owner, a TV personality. When you’re talking about balancing high standards for 365 days a year, what are things that you do to ensure that yourself and things that other hotel owners can do to ensure their own high standards and quality?
Gordon: Every day I have reports, up to 20, sometimes 30 individual reports whether it’s a coachhouse stay at the York & Albany Hotel in London—a little boutique hotel—whether it’s an early supper at … or The Narrows, or even a steak last night in Vegas. So I have mystery shoppers and mystery sleepers that on a daily basis, seven days a week I spend over $100,000 a year on paying for complimentary meals in order to get the good feedback I need on a daily basis to handle the volume of customers we deal with.
We do make mistakes. There’s no two ways about that. But what I can reassure is that we can nip those mistakes in the bud. Nothing festers. Nothing gets out of control. And the bigger we become, I think the more important that we focus on that customer feedback instantly. It’s not like waiting for a food critic to come in and eat; it literally is five minutes after their experience. It’s viral. We get to deal with it. And we nail it immediately.
Just on a fun note, just about having your plate so full, have you been able to watch any of the Olympics in your hometown, and if so, what have been some of your favorite moments?
Gordon: Honestly, there’s something quite fascinating watching the beach volleyball at Horse Guards Parade. There’s no beach there, but they’ve made a beach. I’m pleased. The opening reception was phenomenal, and everyone’s at the big rehearsal tonight ahead of the closing ceremony on Sunday. The kids have been ecstatic. We’re over here in L.A., and so they’ve all joined their track and field clubs at UCLA summer camp.
Last week it was diving, and they were all diving off the high ten-meter boards. My youngest is ten, so to watch the Olympics and then the next -day say, “I’m going to go out and dive off that ten-meter board,” it was good to see how important it is for their minds. They don’t have Xboxes and sit on computers. They get off their butt, and they go on a track and field, and they do lots of sports. So it’s been uplifting.
But I’m so pleased with the response from the opening ceremony, and we started off slow with our medals, but it’s not how you start; it’s how you finish. So to be third in the table as one of the smallest nations behind the U.S. and China when you think of the population difference, I think we’ve done a bloody-good job.
You’ve traveled all over the world doing both the U.K. and U.S. versions of your shows, do you have a favorite hotel?
Gordon: Yes, I do. I love staying in hotels, and I get so excited the minute you dive on that bed. There’s one outside London down in Bath, and it’s in the West Country. It’s called Babington House, and it’s just this little country house. It’s run by Nick Jones who runs the Soho House. That place is just stunning.
The other one is just outside Saint-Tropez away from all the hassle, up in the village nestled in the vineyards called Villa Marie, and it’s just gorgeous—again 20 rooms, boutique, family-run, and no menus. They ask you what you would like to eat. If you want some fish, they’ll cook fish. If you just want plain eggs or scrambled eggs or you want something simple, or pasta—no menu, and they ask you, “What would you like for dinner tonight?” They do that to every guest. I mean, can you imagine the attention to detail with that? I mean, that is just luxury beyond belief.
“What would you like today? What would you like this evening? We have dorade or we have pasta or—what would you like?” So you tell them what you want, and they do that for every guest, which is quite unique.
Do you have a show idea that you haven’t been able to do yet but you would like to do in the future?
Gordon: What, in terms of another show? Looking at the phenomenon of MASTERCHEF and the level of competitive spirit this year from … and even the blind contestant with an amazing palate. I’ve worked very closely with charities, and Scottish spina bifida has been a charity close to my heart for the last ten years, so cooking with disabled kids has been so unique, and to give them that little bit of magic across a day—autistics as well. I do a lot of that.
I’m setting up a kitchen, almost like a pressure camp, for these guys to release that kind of frustration and take it out on food—I would like to have a look at next time around. And “Junior MasterChef” has been a big phenomenon in Australia, a huge phenomenon in England, and we’ve just done a little mini 12-minute …
And the talent, I’m not talking about little posh kids that are food snobs, I’m talking about young kids that have a passion for cooking, and they don’t get a chance to do it at school. It’s so educational, and I think even if you never pursue it as a career, learning to cook properly and look after yourself through eating is just as important as history or geography or French language, in my mind.
I was blown away by the standards of these youngsters. I’m talking, of ten, eleven, and even a nine-year-old as well that are excited. This is not posh food. This is proper home cooking. It was quite phenomenal.
How has your restaurant experience prepared you to—I mean, I know now you have your own hotel, but how is this the same? How does it help you with the hotel business?
Gordon: It’s all customer-related and attention to detail. Running a restaurant is an absolute nightmare to get it to function on a daily basis, and you depend on two teams: one in the front of the house and one in the back of the house. In a hotel, there’s ten-times greater whether it’s a chambermaid, whether it’s bath service, or even room service, we know how long that food takes from the minute it cooks, to traveling through stairs or up elevators, you name it. It becomes a chore.
So I broke all the sections down. In each and every hotel that we targeted, I broke it into different categories, and I really did give each individual space within the hotel so much time dedicated to the individuality of absolutely nailing the concept 100%.
Then we try to tie it together, and sometimes the bigger the hotel, the more fragmented it was, and the housekeeping department was at war with the bar, and the bar was … at the kitchen, and the kitchen hated the waiters because they were serving the food incorrectly. It was almost like KITCHEN NIGHTMARES, but three or four times bigger.
You talked a little bit I know about the bed you mentioned earlier, but can you talk about some of the small touches that either make or break a hotel?
Gordon: Inside the wardrobe when you hang your clothes up when you’ve just been in transit and you’ve traveled in a suitcase, you want a decent hanger, a proper coat hanger. I find that so frustrating.
Towels—so many towels are small and unfriendly in terms of slightly rough. Those little attention to details—the bed, the way the bed’s made. Is it made with a bit of love, attention? Is it smothered with three or four covers—looks neat, but no one sleeps with that stuff The first thing you do is pull it off.
I hate when they fantasize the bedrooms, when they put too many cushions on there. You can’t sleep with all those cushions on there. Less is more, and the more relaxed and the more appealing it is, then the better the stay.
I like things to look comfortable, and I hate the corporate side of things where everything has to be left in the same place seven days a week, otherwise you’re potentially fired. That kind of stuff is just so unfriendly, so cold, in hotels.
It’s so stark and so unnecessary, and they’re scared to change things up because all 400 rooms must look like that because we have an identity. And it’s not really identity, it’s a cold front, and they forget the importance of that warmth.
You went to Milford, PA, and one of the things you did while you were there was you got together with people in the community in a theater and talked about marketing and did really some outreach with the community. You shopped local, and you left the town with a really good taste in their mouth. Why did you take the extra step? You could’ve just come in, done business, done your show and left.
Gordon: I keep it real, and so I work blood hard, and if I’ve had failure, I’ve always transformed that failure into success and learned from that. There’s no business script. We don’t get to be told what’s happening in the next 18 months to two years; you go with the flow. So going into a little town like Milford and having a presence in that town, I wanted to leave with a—not just a stamp of approval, but to understand the integrity and the honesty of what goes in to turn these businesses around.
Unfortunately, they sort of see your temperament, and they see your frustrations on TV, and they think that you’re going to come in all guns blazing and have no time for anybody. But when I’m doing these projects and I work at this, you’ve got me 110%, and I think that’s what makes it that transparent and that successful.
Then, I’m brutally honest, which sometimes I always get myself into trouble with, but I’m not there for three months, as you know, but I put a lot more time into that thean we did with the KITCHEN NIGHTMARES because of the size of the project and the amount of staff involved.
Of course, now I have a research team that will go there ahead of me. I have customers staying in the rooms ahead of me, so whatever I say and however frustrated I get, I’ve always got that backup information. If they still don’t quite believe it’s just a freak incident of nature because I’m there—it happened to happen on that night—well, it’s not true; it happens on most nights, and that’s why you’re failing.
The communities are powerful because whether it’s a hotel or a restaurant, the first thing you need to do is understand your market and whether it’s seasonal—whatever happens, you need that business in your local community 12 months a year, and you can’t pitch beyond that community because you’re removing yourself out of what is your bread and butter.
Milford was amazing, I mean, stunning. A hardworking town, but more importantly the attitude of the locals was admirable.
The date of the show start just kept bouncing around—what was the reason for that?
Gordon: I’m not a scheduler for FOX network, and I was excited about them going out in April, and then there was an issue with the dates. It got more and more frustrating for me because I was so keen to get these hotels and businesses turned around so short. The minute we finish filming, I always insist that we absolutely turn that program around so the wealth of viewers can support that business. It’s a tough one for me to answer that because I don’t schedule programs.
Having such a long time maybe you have a better sense now of what your work has done—if it has indeed turned places around long term. Do you have some record?
Gordon: Yes, we do. We have a good above-average rate, and five out of the six are working brilliantly. One, sadly, has entered foreclosure. That was due to substantial loans, and that was really beyond my control that I really didn’t even discover they were in that much debt. So yeah, five out of six is not bad.
In the piece for your show, it says that in the first hotel you run into a really arrogant boss, and the way he treats his employees really gets to you—so much that you almost have to “abandon ship”. So what I was wondering is what do you think makes a good boss, and what’s it like really to work for you? Is it like what we see on HELL’S KITCHEN or is it different?
Gordon: It’s completely different than what you see on HELL’S KITCHEN. To ask my staff—you’d be best asking them because I’m not going to sit here and blow smoke up my backside talking to you as a journalist. I never do that.
I’m only as good as my team, and I’m always asked, “Well who does the cooking when you’re not there if you’re such a hands-on chef?” And I say, “Well look, it’s the same people that do it when I am there,” because I look at business two ways: There are people in life that get to the very top and keep the ladder down and allow their team to climb, and there are people that get to the very top in business and pull the ladder up so no one is getting anywhere near them.
I’m of the first instinct in terms of I want that ladder positioned comfortably, and the more successful I become, then the more successful my team becomes. I will expose them and put them in those positions, and they have to grab the reins with two hands and run with it. I can’t force them to be successful. All I can hope for is they listen and they learn.
Sometimes even when they leave the nest and they come into competition with me—I’ve done everything I’ve needed to do in this industry and came into it on the back of the upset from soccer and a bad injury and didn’t have a pot to … in, and I climbed my way up from the bottom, got my … in France, and came back with a vengeance.
So I’m an unselfish boss, and I think that’s the key when I’m brutally honest. We don’t run Royal Hospital Road, my flagship restaurant, like you see in HELL’S KITCHEN. We are a dedicated, 100% unique team that strives for perfection on a daily basis, and that place functions with or without me the same standards.
The secret of a good boss is leveling out your staff. No one calls me Chef Ramsay. No one calls me mister; it’s Gordon, and I never, ever expect them to do what I wouldn’t do. I think when people say bistro cooking,… cooking, American-Italian cooking, fine dining, Chinese, Japanese—I’ve been there. I’ve tasted everything from the … end of Cambodia to a floating village living with a family in Vietnam, and I’m still learning. So I think that’s what I take my inspiration from. I still push myself, and I think HOTEL HELL has done that even more on a much bigger scale, and that’s the difference between a hotelier and a chef.
I think the hotelier is a little bit more arrogant because they’ve sat in their little kingdom with their moat around them, and they think the village or the town locally aren’t good enough to grace their floors, so they pitch to businesses in Paris, New York, and they forget what’s on the ground. There’s a big difference there.
…I don’t have the right to be arrogant, and may come across cocky and abrasive, but I get straight to the point. When I see these individuals that have bought these hotels because of the hand me downs or the structure in their father’s will and they’ve come into money and all of a sudden, “Hey, I’m a hotelier. I’ve just spent $9 million on a 60-bedroom hotel, and I’m king of the castle, and I’ll tell the chef what to cook, and that’s my favorite lamb recipe stuffed with Roquefort—why would anyone stuff a rack of lamb, the most amazing cut of lamb? Why would you stuff it with Roquefort? Stuff it? Insane. So yes, I cut straight to the chase.
I don’t think you come off arrogant, but sometimes I worry about your blood pressure.
Gordon: Do you know why I keep fit? I worry about it as well, to be totally honest. I’m preparing for an Iron Man; I keep myself fit; and I suppose—yeah, I eat like a horse.
We’ve seen that with that and with KITCHEN NIGHTMARES you deal with some truly insufferable people. So how do yo persist and keep dedicated to really helping these people?
Gordon: Sometimes I need a release, and do you know how I get a release? I go for a run because running is relaxing. I don’t get stressed out; I just get this built-up frustration I need to release. So my release is going for a run. I’ve taken that run to twelve London marathons, six ultra marathons in South Africa, and I’m currently training for my first-ever Iron Man in Lake Taupo in New Zealand, March 2013.
So my frustrations are getting bigger; the idiots are getting worse; and I still cannot believe that these individuals are running big concerns, big hotels with big bills, big amount of staff dependence on them, and the idiotic positions they put themselves and their staff in frustrates the … out of me.