Craig Markham: "It has been an incredible experience working for Firmdale and living in London for nearly three decades"
Interview by Molly O'Brien, Marketing & Communications Specialist, Advance
On a particularly chilly London afternoon, escaping the cold by stepping into the other-wordly lobby of the Ham Yard Hotel in Soho was a welcome experience. The large open fireplace emanating heat and the spectacularly bright pieces of art covering the walls were a stark contrast to the grey of outside.
I was there to meet Craig Markham, Director of Marketing and PR for the hotel’s parent company Firmdale, a luxury boutique hotel group celebrated for its one-of-a-kind stylish properties. Co-owners of Firmdale, Tim and Kit Kemp, now own ten hotels in New York and London, each attracting clientele as unique as the hotels themselves. As design director, Kit has purposefully infused an inimitable identity into each property – a crucial point of difference and a core part of the company’s brand identity.
I was taken on a hotel-wide tour by Craig himself and it’s clear that not even the smallest of design elements happened by accident. After viewing the elegant drawing room, extensive library, luxury spa, plush 190-seat theatre, 1950s bowling alley and rooftop garden overlooking the London skyline, Craig and I sat down in the hotel’s cozy drawing room to talk about his 30-year career with one of the most renowned luxury boutique hotel brand names in the world, how growing up in Wollongong has informed his career and global outlook, and why, after all this time abroad, he still strongly identifies with being Australian.
How did you find yourself in London?
I came here in 1987 with my best friend Stephen Ward, who actually went on to become a very important Australian photographer; he’s shot for Australian Vogue and Harper's Bazaar.
How many years had Firmdale been in operation for before you joined them?
Firmdale was formed in 1985 and I joined them shortly after in 1987. There were barely any of us to begin with, and we now employ 1800 people.
Did you know what you wanted to do when you first came to London?
Not at all! If you had asked me at that time if I’d consider a career in hotels, I probably would have said ‘no’ because I was more interested in fashion and design. But then this great opportunity came along and it has been so fantastic to not only work on such an incredible brand that has evolved over time but also work for a couple who understand that to make something happen you need to really believe in it. It’s not uncommon for other hotel groups to be run by accountants and owned by private equity, but Firmdale is very much run like a family company. You can hopefully look at our hotels and think well, "this is unique." And it's hard to really standout in the hotel-world right now.
What other factors make Firmdale unique from other hotel groups?
We’re always coming up with other projects that sit under the Firmdale umbrella. For example Kit has an ongoing fabric collection, we've just launched a range of carpets and we have our second collection for Wedgwood launching next year.
Kit is behind all of this. As you can tell from the interiors of the hotels, she’s passionate about creating exciting and unique spaces. We are about to create a whole new digital platform which will focus on the world of Kit Kemp, including a blog. We celebrate our achievements of course, but are always thinking how we can make things better. We always include the refurbishment of rooms in the annual budget. There's a lot of competition in London and New York so our product needs to always be tip-top. Guest really do notice.
I can imagine you get a lot of repeat business.
We have a high proportion of repeat customers, which is of course what every hotel aims for. A stay with us is a different experience each time for our guests. People will notice when you change the furniture or add new fabrics and artwork.
Did you start your career in Australia before you moved to London?
No. I came to London straight after I graduated from the University of Wollongong, where I did an Arts degree, majoring in Urban Geography.
I think tertiary education is important – for personal growth, and it makes you think about things in a different way.
Do you think growing up there contributed to your professional success?
I still have many ties in Wollongong. My entire family is still there, who I love dearly and are all very important to me.
When I was a small boy growing up, I would look at the World Encyclopedia (pre-Google) and pull out ‘M’ to look up Manhattan and pour over it. I always imagined that one day I'd live in New York City! It ended up being London which I love but I do spend a lot of time in New York. I often think about how I arrived in this country in 1987 not knowing a soul, aside from some relatives in Scotland, and now have an address booked filled with hundreds of people from all over the world.
Are there any misconceptions about your job?
It appears to be very glamorous. The reality is that it's all about managing a team and making it all work.
We have an inclusive policy at all our hotels. We don’t subscribe to the ‘velvet rope’ approach. We want people to feel welcome and not feel uncomfortable should they not wearing the “perfect” outfit or fitting the “right” demographic. You don’t have to stay in the hotel to experience what we do. You can have a cocktail at the bar or have afternoon tea in the orangery.
Do you also feel the pressure to sell the “experience”?
We always try to exceed guest expectations. We call them ‘plus ones’. I think that when you travel the sense of “arrival” is vital because so often you get the same manufactured cellophane-packaged experience. Not every hotel has to be focused on the art and design as we are, but it definitely adds to the experiences our guests know and love.
Do you still very much identify with being Australian even though you've been overseas for so long?
Very much. I still think being an Australian expat makes you stand out. It really has been an incredible experience living in London for nearly three decades and I’m glad I’ve stuck it out. It has been an incredible adventure. Every year we have something new happening and that’s what’s kept me here.
Do you have any exciting projects in the pipeline?
We are currently looking for a new site. Watch this space. We have lots of individual projects happening next year including a new book from Kit Kemp, another collection with Wedgwood and an exciting project with Bergdorf Goodman in New York.
Marketing, Sales and PR is becoming an increasingly competitive industry. What advice would you give young Australians wanting to break into the industry overseas?
If it’s longevity in a career, don’t move too fast. Be patient. Listen, learn and absorb as much as you can. And read! Don’t just read the headlines and news alerts. Click through and read the facts, comment and opinion. Also, read a book. I do every night. It’s one of my favourite things and helps me unwind. And always be nice to people.