Wild Geese: James Clarke, London
Lessons from family business in Boyle still shape hotel manager’s approach to hospitality
James Clarke manages Hilton Bankside in an area of urban renewal in south London.
“One of the passions, for me is taking care of your community, particularly coming from Boyle. In a small town in Ireland, you’ve got to make sure you take care of your community because people will remember if you don’t.”
James Clarke might have travelled to the UK to learn his trade and as far as the United States to gain invaluable hospitality experience but it would appear that when it comes to what makes him stand out as a hotel manager it is his experiences growing up in Co Roscommon.
“My parents have a pub and restaurant in Boyle which has been in the family since 1889, so that’s where I first started out, really. My sister still runs the business. I went from there to the local hotel,” says Clarke.
He’s a long way from the family business now though: Clarke manages Hilton Bankside in an area of urban renewal in south London.
“I came down here [Bankside] and there was nothing really here. There was Tate Modern and Shakespeare’s Globe but this area itself was just starting to bubble,” he says.
“They said they were building a brand-new hotel where originally there was a warehouse. Before that it was a site of a perfumery. ‘We are going to put a brand-new hotel of 292 beautiful rooms and a ballroom that can seat 700 people’ – did I want to come and open it?
“I remember signing the deal with the owner on the back of a napkin in Starbucks, as any good Irish man would do, and it really started from there. The hotel is open three years in October, I officially started in April the following year.”
Clarke is no stranger to the inner workings of a capital city hotel, having previously worked in Hilton New York, Waldorf Astoria stateside and London hotels Grosvenor House, A JW Marriott and London Hilton on Park Lane.
“I’m American in the point of view of ‘Yes, we can’ and I’m passionate. I say to any customer: ‘I’ll do whatever you want me to do.’ It’s very much that type of hospitality, whereas Europe would be a little bit more set back.
“I say to any customer: ‘As long as you have the money I’ll do whatever you want – whatever imagination you might want to have, we’ll see what we can do to pull it together.’”
Staff development is at the core of Clarke’s management skills. If they choose to, staff at the Hilton Bankside can get involved in a voluntary scheme run by the hotel to help out at the Dragon Cafe, a local mental health charity. The team helps out for a couple of hours on a Monday and get involved in fundraising events too.
“I say to the team that one in four of us is going to be affected and that’s the stats, why wouldn’t we support it? It’s a volunteering piece, I’m never going to force anyone to do it – if you want to, do it; and absolutely, it’s been great engagement. Onwards and upwards, that’s the way I look at it from my position in the hotel.”
With community spirit deeply embedded in Clarke’s Irish roots, it has given him cause to reach out to the community, believing that if you look after your community it in turn will look after your guests.
“Every three months, we bring all the neighbours in, we have a few drinks and cocktails and canapés at the bar. It goes back to my philosophy of, if you take care of the neighbours, they’ll take care of the rest.”
Not only does the community bond over a few drinks but it brings about some fantastic networking opportunities, something to which Clarke is always open.
“One of the guys told me he had bamboo bikes and that if I was passionate about the environment we could make a bike in three days. I thought, ‘What a great idea.’ So I got six of my team members, we made six bikes. They’re here at the hotel, so if you’re a customer you can use the bikes for free, and it’s totally sustainable.”
His passion for the Bankside district resonates through his customers’ experiences, something that he has learned during his own experiences working in some of the best hotels in the world.
“There’s a story to tell about the area you’re in, the hotel you are in: why not translate it to your customers? People will say, ‘Wow there’s something about this place, let’s come back.’”
An example of that is an interactive map created following an idea Clarke had about the fox population in the area. Basically guests can follow the map around the area looking for the many hidden foxes and, at the same time, visit all the local sites and businesses.
“Bankside as an area, it’s like Pandora’s box, you think there’s not much here – it’s the best hidden little secret yet it’s a great location with a great neighbourhood and that’s the reason why we do Fox Marks the Spot, because I believe if my customers can stay within the area then it’s a win-win for all of us”.