DAVID BOWD, AKA THE HOST
CAUSE: Putting a boutique twist on the B&B and reintroducing traditional service values with contemporary flavour.
ICONS: Salt Hotels
MOTTO: “I don’t care what people look like; I care about how people look after our guests. I want people to be themselves, but to be so focused on guest experience that it’s all they’re really focused on.”
Chief Executive of Salt Hotels David Bowd was never a model pupil – “I’m not a rule follower and never have been, which is why I never finished high school” – but it turns out that he likes school enough to open one of his own. Salt School is a 10-week, 25-hour, intensive introduction to the hotel industry, tutoring willing students on everything from guest experience to sales and marketing.
Initially a side project supporting his aforementioned burgeoning collection of boutique B&Bs, which officially launched in 2013 with the opening of Salt House Inn in Provincetown, Massachusetts, Salt School has since been hailed as a movement so genuine it’s become part of Salt culture. The School gives people “an opportunity to come into our industry, to have a sneaky peek at what our industry is about, to choose whether or not it’s right for them, and then to be able to go as far as you want”, explains Bowd. There’s a note of defiance in his tone as he continues, “I didn’t finish high school; I was the school clown and rebel… And now I’m running the company of my dreams.”
So what prompts the school clown to get serious about education? I get the feeling that Bowd, having found his calling in spite of his teachers’ doubts, now wants to pay it forward. “I want people to enjoy their job. I want people to be happy at work. I want people to feel rewarded and appreciated, because those are all of the things that I wanted when I was in their position.”
When he was in their position, though, the industry was in a different mindset. With the birth of contemporary luxury came something of a backlash against traditional service values, with certain hoteliers too preoccupied with being ‘cool’ to be kind. “I think where the industry got confused was when the boutique hotel came in and that also meant that every member of staff had to be six foot six, blond, size zero and had to match almost this minimalist design. And I think we, as an industry, got really caught up in that for a long time.”
Now practically an industry veteran – with job references from both Ian Schrager and André Balazs adorning his CV – Bowd has different priorities. “I don’t care what people look like; I care about how people look after our guests. I want people to be themselves, but to be so focused on guest experience that it’s all they’re really focused on.”
Interestingly, I later realise that when Bowd talks about “guest experience” he refers to the wellbeing of his staff as well as paying customers – it’s clear he considers everyone under his roof to be equally as deserving of his care and attention. “Our internal guests, our employees, their welfare, their experience is so important to me and to our organisation.” It’s fitting, then, that Bowd considers Salt a “family business”.
But unlike your traditional patriarch, this born rebel has patience – a penchant, even – for rule-bending. “Our team members are family and in a family people make mistakes. In a family people make errors of judgement but they’re still very loyal to the family and we’re still very loyal to them.” Another reference to his past, I wonder?
It was Bowd’s distaste for convention that led him to throw out the metaphorical rulebook when creating Salt Hotels. Averse to city hotels thanks to years of working in them – “it’s really hard to enjoy it because it’s like a busman’s holiday” – he nevertheless found bed and breakfasts “fusty and musty and full of rules; and they were furnished from just random places – there was very little thought having gone into the design element, the guest experience element.” So he decided to merge the best of both.
“We wanted to bring beautiful design to a B&B environment. And we wanted to get rid of the rules.” This flexible approach is what defines Bowd’s contemporary take on old-school service. In contrast to tradition – where, he imagines, “somebody sits in an office somewhere along the line and says, ‘Okay, here are the rules for our hotel’, without actually thinking about it” – Bowd put the needs of his guests first, then built a brand ethos (never a rulebook) around them.
In contrast to the doilies and fake flowers of traditional B&Bs, at Salt great design sits alongside “a great shower”, “a great bed” and “great linen” as key elements borrowed from the hotel world. Room service is another transferable perk; but in true Salt style, Bowd questioned the regular format: “It arrives, you have that awkward experience of somebody knocking on the door and then coming into your room with a tray. And you don’t know what to do… I don’t want to start my day off with that.” So at Salt they bag it up and hang it on your door knob: no human contact necessary.
But despite claiming B&B status, the Salt experience doesn’t end at breakfast. For today’s contemporary traveller, says Bowd, the concept of service has evolved dramatically. “It’s not just about a good night’s sleep and a great shower, it’s about curating somebody’s whole experience of a destination… if somebody comes to our town, whether that’s Shelter Island, Asbury Park or Provincetown, and they don’t go away loving the town, then I think we’ve failed”.
“For us, it’s giving that little bit more. It’s not just, ‘This is the best restaurant’ any more; it’s, ‘This is the best restaurant and these are the best dishes in that restaurant.’” A far cry from the standard (and occasionally suspicious) endorsements made by your average concierge, the Salt team offers advice founded in personal experience, adjusted on a case-by-case basis to cater for individuals – whether they’re a foodie in the market for an impressive tasting menu, or a gang of revellers looking to line their stomachs ahead of a night on the town.
“I think today’s traveller wants to immerse themselves in everything local, and I think it’s why they choose us as a hotel brand, because we’re not a chain, we’re not cookie cutter in any way. They know we’re authentic, they know we’re truly engrossed in the neighbourhood that we’re in and they want to do the same.” I imagine a diary packed with reservations for restaurants that need ‘testing’… Not for the first time, a job at Salt sounds very appealing.
Indeed, Bowd considers being able to get to know guests as one of the benefits of running a smaller, B&B-style outfit. Whenever they’re in town, he and partner-cum-Creative Director of Salt Hotels, Kevin O’Shea, host breakfast for guests, dishing out local intel alongside eggs any style. With no rulebook to speak of, the Salt experience is an “organic” model that evolves according to the feedback they garner along the way.
One example of this came when they trialled a “wine hour” – an traditional B&B event where guests and staff mingle over a glass or two. Alas, he and O’Shea found this to be “a very restrictive environment; people weren’t themselves and it was almost like they were forced into this drink.” So they scrapped the idea and, instead, told their team: “If you see a couple or even just somebody sitting there on the sun deck enjoying the weather, take them a bottle of wine and four glasses and go and have a drink on us.”
It’s touches like this that make staying at a Salt Hotel more like staying at someone’s home – after all, as Bowd points out, the first thing a host usually does is offer their guests a drink. When I quiz him on whether this sort of personal service is possible in a larger hotel (he has ruled out Salt Hotels ever giving rise to a 100 or 200-room property), he admits that size does matter.
“I do think it’s very, very difficult. I think that, you know, the sweet spot to us is 50 to 60 bedrooms. I think that you’re really able to know every guest and you’re really able to deliver on that personal guest experience.”
“Going back to Ian Schrager’s original thought for what a boutique hotel is, essentially it’s a Madison Avenue boutique versus a big department store. I think that the Madison Avenue boutique style really suits a small, intimate hotel – it’s much harder to be able to deliver that in a large hotel.”
Bowd acknowledges these limitations even among his own hotels. At 260 rooms, Asbury Park is noticeably non-Salt branded, “because people know that our hotels are in that smaller category”. Nevertheless it remains, in his words, “in the spirit of Salt Hotels”, thanks to subtle nods such as a lack of check-in time and the signature map detailing recommendations for experiences in the local area.
When I ask if he has any tips for larger hotels wanting to inject a bit of ‘Salt spirit’ into their own brand, he advises them to, “Get rid of all the staffing levels and structure. Employ people that are really passionate about their role, with that mentality of guest experience, rather than thinking everything is driven by profit.” It appears that even in boutique’s newest incarnation, hiring right remains a priority – it’s just that, nowadays, they needn’t be six foot six and blond.