General Manager of the Year: Stuart Procter of The Stafford

Stuart Procter has come very far from being “a working-class lad from Blackburn.” In fact, today, he’s at the helm of The Stafford, a leading luxury London hotel, looking after some of the most VIP of clients in the world, including the late Queen Elizabeth II. This prestige has earned him the honors of being named Luxury Travel Advisor’s Top General Manager/Managing Director Worldwide as part of our 2022 Awards of Excellence, which were voted on by, you, the readers of the magazine.

What’s earned him such esteem? To sum it up, it’s his willingness to pull off any request for a client, all with a London sense of flair. In one instance, when a repeat guest was having trouble coming up with a birthday gift for his wife, Procter and his concierge, Alan Noone, proposed he buy a bench in Berkeley Square, a favorite spot of the wife. A plaque with her name adorned the bench, which was accompanied by flowers, when the couple “happened upon” it during a walk. 

“There’s no request that we can’t deliver,” Procter tells Luxury Travel Advisor, adding, “We can create those that people can’t create.” Now, every time that guest comes to London and stays at The Stafford, she’s off to Berkeley Square, sits on her bench, and reads a book. “That gift will last forever with her,” he says. 

In one logistical challenge, a famous client once left his toupée in his room after checking out and flying to Las Vegas, where he had a show the following night. Procter flew the toupée on a private jet, which arrived in time for the show. Not bad!

Stuart Procter
A Love of Food: Procter poses with several close friends and chefs, includingAngela Hartnett and Lisa Goodwin-Allen (who oversees the food offering at Northcote and The Stafford).  (The Stafford)

Procter, who’s led The Stafford for 14 of the last 18 years, tells us that pulling off feats like this are what he loves most about the job. “I enjoy looking after people, I enjoy making people happy, and I enjoy looking after my team,” he says. There’s nothing better, he adds, than “coming into work in the morning [and] receiving a letter on your desk from a top client who’s written to you to say how fabulous their day was.”

But Procter’s not a one-man team, and putting his staff in positions to meet, and exceed, guests’ expectations is the key. And to do this, he says, his staff must be empowered to be themselves — and this starts from the moment they meet the guest. “I don’t allow name badges in my businesses. You’ve got a name, you’re going to tell people your name, and we will take it from there,” he says. This same attitude is conveyed to the guests, who are all addressed by their first name. “It’s not ‘sir,’ it’s not ‘madam,’” says Procter. “Whomever it is, whatever celebrity or affluent client we might have, we use their names.” The idea? It conveys friendliness, it conveys a personal connection.

“Our clients could stay anywhere in the world — they could choose any hotel on Park Lane, Knightsbridge or wherever — but they choose here because they’re made to feel comfortable, warm, friendly,” says Procter.

This begins with hiring the right people, so finding personalities that match what The Stafford is trying to convey to its guests — locality, for one — is important. “You come to London; you want to meet Londoners. You want to understand what they love about the city, the food, the bars, the restaurants,” he says. “I want [my staff] to express themselves, and that’s really important.”

Procter explains: “For me, running hotels, you got to have a sense of place. When you open the curtains at The Stafford, you know you’re in London. When you walk into the lobby, you know you’re in London … The flowers are English, the artwork’s English, the soap has got the Royal Warrant, the water has got the Royal Warrant.”

The folks at the top — the concierge, the executive chef, the sommelier, the design team, etc. — “have to be the best in the business,” since “we look after the best clients in the world,” Procter tells us. But beyond these staff, luxury hospitality experience isn’t a requirement, as those put in charge to lead will educate all staff, especially in what Procter calls “human training,” i.e., the emotional intelligence side of the business. To prove his point, he told us about one recent hire who came from Nando’s, a fast casual chain restaurant, who had the opportunity to handle Procter’s room service. “He went through the whole process, but with a personality … [and it was] spot on,” reports Procter. 

“If you’ve got the right attitude and application, you can do whatever you want,” he adds. “I’m a believer in that. We don’t have to employ from The Ritz-Carlton or The Peninsula. We can employ from The Dog Inn in Preston and then train them up.”

Stuart Procter and Nigel-Rick-Brian
More Kitchen Content: Here, Procter stands alongside Royal Academy of Culinary Arts President and Trustee Brian J. Turner. (The Stafford)

A Lad From Blackburn

Procter has always had an interest in the service industry. When he was very young, he thought he would be a professional football (soccer) player but realized “I wasn’t quite good enough.” His next love, after football, was food and his home economics class in school. Procter, at just 13 or 14 years old would be cooking up whole salmon, decorations and all. At 15, he started waiting part-time at a hotel called Northcote Manor in Lancashire — about 15 minutes from Blackburn. It was at this time that Procter “just fell in love with the service industry and hotels.” 

He remained at Northcote Manor for several years, including being named apprentice trainee manager at 16. During his time there, he was introduced to the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire through his first manager, Craig Bancroft, leaving an impression on the couple. Procter then left Northcote to become deputy general manager for Shire Hotels, which owned a brewery in Lancashire, a number of pubs, several four-star hotels and one luxury hotel in London called The Stafford. Following this three-year tenure, he joined The Vineyard in Berkshire as general manager before heading north again to work at The Devonshire Arms Hotel & Spa for the Duke and Duchess. But before leaving Shire Hotels, Procter told the woman who owned the company, “One day when I’ve grown up and know my trade, I will come back and run The Stafford for you.” 

In three years at The Devonshire Arms, Procter and his team “really put the hotel on the map,” resulting in it winning “lots of awards.” These included four AA-Red-Stars, along with a Michelin Star and three Rosettes. Despite being in his early to mid-20s at the time, Procter displayed his acumen when it came to operating a luxury hospitality business. Then, one day, his former boss came into the hotel and told him she had been following his career since he left the Northcote Manor. She was impressed; she asked if he still had intentions to run her hotel in London. “I said, ‘Mrs. Yarborough, I would walk over broken glass to run the Stafford.’”

Procter adds: “The rest is history, really.”

He joined the hotel in 2006 at just 27 years old and was named general manager at 29. He remained with The Stafford for six years before leaving in 2011 when the property was sold and became affiliated with an international hotel company. During his tenure, however, The Stafford earned five AA-Red Stars as its revenue and profitability “grew substantially.” In 2015, the hotel ended its affiliation with the hotel company and, with that, returned Procter. 

What brought him back? “I loved the hotel,” he tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “The hotel was not performing as it should. It was a special building. The opportunity to elevate The Stafford and put it on the global map was there. I love the people, I love the clients, I love the area.”

He was also promised by ownership that he would be able to make the updates he felt were required, giving him free reign of how everything should look and operate. “There was so much opportunity mapped for me to ensure that we could put it back on the map and make it globally recognized,” he adds. “Certainly, the location of it is supersonic. You are a one-minute walk from Buckingham Palace, you’re a one-minute walk from Bond Street, all the top theaters, all the top restaurants. [I had] the freedom to be able to do what I can do and create something special.”

Stuart Procter and daughter
On Safari: Procter and his daughter, Florence, recently traveled to South Africa, staying in several Singita lodges. Here they are enjoying some refreshments on a game drive. (The Stafford)

Among his first tasks upon returning: Hire an interior designer to elevate the spaces within The Stafford. Procter brought on board Alexandra Champalimaud. “The place really needed waking up and shaking up, frankly, and we did that with a great team.” 

The rooms and public spaces, including the food and beverage venues were refreshed. Of particular importance, Procter says, was updating The Game Bird, the hotel’s signature restaurant, serving upscale British cuisine. Being the food-lover he is, Procter assisted with creating the concept. Turning the space that one might have called “pathetic” previously into one where reservations should be made right when guests book their stay has been “a game-changer for the hotel,” according to Procter. 

Procter also led the renovation of The American Bar, which he says “has always been terrific.” Nonetheless, it needed a new look and that was included in the shakeup. Now, they have to turn away 100, 150 people a night — a mix of visitors as well as locals — who are looking for a spot at the bar. It’s a good problem to have says Procter. 

In fact, if you ask Procter what his favorite spot in the hotel is, he will tell you it’s The American Bar — especially during summer, where the hotel makes use of its courtyard. “You can bring your fabulous children … You can bring your wife, your girlfriend, your mates. I think we’ve created something very special,” he says. “If you go to the American Bar, you’re going to have a good time.”

All About the People

Within four years of returning to the hotel, Procter had led multiple refurbishments to hotel guestrooms, including the Carriage House and Main House, the relaunch of The American Bar and the successful launch of The Game Bird restaurant. This was far from a one-man job and what stands out when you talk with Procter is how often he name-drops those that he works with.

“What I did as the leader was brought in some fabulous people around me,” he tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “You don’t lead a business like this on your own.”

Among the staff that he highlighted during our conversation were his concierge, Alan Noone, who Procter calls the “number-one concierge in Britain, probably in the world,” and Ned Holder, guest relations manager. “He’s incredible,” says Procter. “He will make that difference when you arrive, because he’s done his homework, and in your room is something that will make you smile.” He also spoke about his executive assistant, Sarah Pendrigh, who has been at the hotel for 23 years. She is the liaison for all travel advisors who email Procter, who calls her “the linchpin” at the hotel. Highly regarded as well is Marianna Nemeth, who looks after all the travel agency network accounts — “Virtuoso, Signature, Ensemble, Internova, you name it.” Like Holder, she will make sure your room has everything you want before you arrive, according to Procter.  

Other staff mentioned were Benoit Provost, bar manager; Jozef Rogulski, executive chef; Gina Nardella, the master sommelier who just retired after 47 years with the hotel; Barbara Richards, chief housekeeper; Steven McGovern, director of sales; and Cassie Delaney-Brown, marketing director.

“I win these awards, which is phenomenal, but I have these amazing people who make me look good,” he tells us. “Honestly, there’s not one [staff member] that doesn’t come into this building wanting to impress the client every day.”

When it comes to impressing guests, Procter says the keys is “you’ve got to be sincere.” He tells us, “You’ve got to listen: We’re born with two ears and one mouth for a reason. If you listen to what your clients want, deliver on that with great service, humility and fun.”

Procter adds, “You can have fun in the poshest and most glamorous of places.” It comes back to his mantra of hiring the right personalities for the job, rather than those who have the most experience in luxury hotels. And Procter’s freedom to hire and train such “characters,” as he calls them, is one of the reasons he likes where he is at The Stafford. “This building’s not a corporate cookie-cutter; it is fun, it is quirky,” he says. “I think it’s important to have a lot of fun.”

Highly valuable to Procter is feedback from guests. For instance, he will reach out to clients ahead of a potential guestroom redesign to get their input. “If Mr. Jones has been staying in Room A for 20 years, it would be a bit naïve” to shake it up without considering how they would react. He will similarly consult with travel advisors and share what plans are for the hotel. “They’re very, very knowledgeable people. They travel the world, so listen to them,” Procter tells us. 

When Procter and co. were redesigning The Game Bird, he says he listened to the clients. He asked where they were going out to dinner, and learned they were dining at Scott’s, J Sheekey, Pollen Street Social, Bentley’s Oyster Bar & Grill — all “very British offerings.” So, what did they decide? “Let’s do our own cool British offering.”

stuart procter and daughter
Following in his footsteps: Procter’s daughter Florence recently joined the hospitality industry. “I love it. I’m very proud,” he says on the topic. (The Stafford)

Beyond taking care of people and making them happy, Procter most enjoys “the creative element to my role.” Having the chance to design cool new restaurants and bars is an opportunity he cherishes.

The good news: Procter will continue to have the chance both to make people happy and design new spaces. “The Stafford is a phenomenal place, but we need to keep evolving,” he says. “We need to keep developing, we need to keep learning, we need to keep listening to our clients, we’ve got to keep it fresh.” 

Getting to “the top” is only half the battle; remaining so is the other half. With new luxury hotels constantly opening in London, while existing properties continue to be an option for travelers, Procter says it’s important to not get set in your ways. It’s why the hotel will update at least two floors of guestrooms each May. “Once you finish, you start again,” he says. During the COVID-19 pandemic, The Stafford had the opportunity to invest millions to refurbish all of the guestrooms. “We’re constantly refurbishing. We don’t stop. You can’t at this level. You can’t.”

But, of course, it’s not all about the hardware. “Hospitality hasn’t changed in 20 years, it’s all about service. If you serve the clients properly and look after your travel advisors, you’re going to be okay,” he tells us. Procter adds: “We’ve got the best team, we look after our people well, and we have to maintain that.” 

This leadership is why, when the family that purchased The Stafford in 2011 also bought Northcote Manor — where Procter got his start in the business at 15 years old — in 2019, he was named chief operating officer of the newly formed Stafford Collection, looking after both hotels. While that hotel has mostly a U.K. client base, Procter says he’s taken a number of travel advisors up “and they’ve really enjoyed it.” He calls it “night and day” compared to The Stafford. 

Northcote has 26 rooms and a Michelin-starred restaurant under the guidance of chef Lisa Goodwin-Allen. The hotel is run by Craig Bancroft — the man who first hired Procter to work in the hotel’s restaurant back at 15 years old. According to Procter, they are looking to add to its room count, as well as open another restaurant and a spa. 

If you have intentions of driving up from London to the north of the country, or to Scotland, Procter says Northcote is a great place to stop for a night and enjoy a good meal. Of course, if you’re a bit of a foodie, Procter also notes the hotel’s “fabulous cookery school” and chef’s table in the kitchen. 

Beyond Northcote, Procter also oversaw the opening of Norma, a Sicilian-inspired restaurant in London about 15 minutes from The Stafford. Tip: He even tells us that there may be more hotels in The Stafford Collection’s future — within the U.K. as well as internationally. 

 The Stafford
HAPPY Space: Enjoying a glass of champagne are The Stafford’s Director of Sales Steven McGovern, Procter and Northcote Managing Director Craig Bancroft. ( The Stafford)

Experiences Are All the Rage

Although no two days are the same, Procter says most days he and his dog Stanley wake up nice and early and hop on the train together, where he’s checking emails and seeing who’s arriving that day, so when you arrive at the hotel “you’re all go.” He will first and foremost meet with his housekeeping team. Afterwards, it’s off to see his executive chef and bar manager, taking a look through the restaurant. Then he will meet with the reservations team, followed by his executive assistant “and away we go.” 

It’s all to prepare for the guests in the hotel and how they can best take care of them. Overall, about 65 percent of The Stafford’s guests come from the U.S., while 60 percent are repeat business. “I know the majority of our clients who are coming through the doors every day,” Procter tells Luxury Travel Advisor. It’s not uncommon to count film stars, singers, authors, athletes and royalty among the hotel’s guests. Procter attributes this to making them all feel comfortable during their stay. 

“If you are sat in the bar, Prince William could be sat on one side, David Beckham could be sat in another, and Mr. and Mrs. Smith from Blackburn could be sat on the other. They’re all as important because they’re just people at the end of the day and they want to be treated as normal people,” Procter says.

During the pandemic, the hotel was resilient on U.K. business but Procter reports that, finally, they are “seeing some normality” in terms of booking patterns pre-COVID. Like many others in the industry, The Stafford saw lead times shrink as traveler confidence plummeted, whether over fear of getting sick, getting stuck in a country, or not knowing what travel restrictions would look like at the time of travel. Now, “we’re seeing more confidence,” says Procter, who reports future business for 2023 is strong.

COVID, Procter says, gave people a wakeup call. “People have realized that you can’t take your money with you,” so when they’re coming to London now, they’re opting for more experiences than in years past. “The concierge desk is off the scale with big requests to do shows, trips, tours out to the Cotswolds, a jet to Paris or Champions League tickets,” he tells us. In addition, people are traveling much more often as families and multigenerational groups. 

The “pent-up demand” has been so high, “people will check out and just book” — it’s, “See you next year!” as they head out the door.

To be safe, Procter recommends booking a room at The Stafford at least three months out, depending on the time of year. For summer and festive season, it’s a better bet to book at least six months in advance. “A lot of our clients are creatures of habit, so they do like the Chelsea Flower Show, they do Wimbledon, they love Valentine’s Day, they love Christmas, they love New Year’s Eve, so they just rebook,” for the same time each year, he says.

Procter can’t fault them, however. He tells us his two favorite times to be in London are, well, summer and Christmas. Just like his guests, Procter is going to the Chelsea Flower Show, to Wimbledon, to Ascot Racecourse, to Glastonbury Festival. And, as previously mentioned, he loves the courtyard outside of The American Bar, where they will host barbecues and play music. Then again, he also loves Christmas in London when the hotel will decorate with upwards of 500 Christmas trees. 

Stuart Procter
Procter and his partner, Louise Murray of Dream Escape. (The Stafford)

As for Procter’s recommendations off-property, that would depend on how often you’ve visited London before. He’s always a fan of checking out the latest show, exhibition or art gallery, as there’s always something new. He quotes author Samuel Johnson, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” Another tip he has for visitors: Take the open-top red bus tour. “I don’t care if you’re the most affluent client in the world, get on the bus, listen to the history of London, and hop on and hop off. It is a fabulous experience,” he says.

Of course, being so interested by restaurants, Procter has a few favorites. “My all-time favorite restaurant is Cecconi’s, which is an informal, lively Italian just off of Saville Row. I’m also huge fan of Wiltons on Jermyn Street, and without sounding biased, Norma, The Stafford Collection’s restaurant in Fitzrovia is absolutely fantastic.” 

Taking Nothing for Granted 

When speaking about his relationship with travel advisors, Procter says, “at the end of the day, we are here to make them look good.” 

Beyond welcoming travel advisors to visit — when he might show off Northcote, as well — Procter also makes sure to get over to the U.S. to meet with the trade in their offices or out for lunch or dinner. The relationship goes both ways: He’s trying to learn what their clients are looking for to best accommodate them when they visit the hotel, and he shares the latest at the property so the advisors can best sell the hotel to their clients. The conversations continue — particularly through Director of Sales Steven McGovern and Marketing Director Cassie Delaney-Brown — throughout the year. “My job is to make the travel advisor look like a rockstar and that’s it. If they look good, they’re always going to send their clients to us. I make them look like a rockstar, deliver what they want, and don’t let them down.”

As evident in winning the “Top General Manager/Managing Director Worldwide” Award of Excellence, it might be fair to say that Procter has succeeded in making his travel advisor partners look like rockstars in the eyes of their clients. Whether your clients are Mr. and Mrs. Smith or royalty themselves, Procter’s goal is to make them feel welcome at The Stafford and to make sure no detail goes unmissed. And to have accomplished many of these at a comparatively young age, taking over a five-star hotel on Green Park in London at just 29 makes it all the more impressive. Being “a boy from Blackburn looking after Her Majesty, you feel very privileged to do such a thing. It’s special, not to be taken for granted when you look back,” he says.

Receiving the recognition for his work from the travel advisor community is more than just the icing on the cake for Procter. “To win the award by people I respect vastly, who have supported me personally and The Stafford is very, very special,” he tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “To get the recognition is very special. Especially when I know the caliber of hoteliers around the world that I have uber respect for, to be selected was a really touching moment.”

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