I invited Steve Lowy, founder and CEO of Umi Hotels on YHP to share the story behind starting his company and his journey so far building it into a successful business.
Deciding to follow in his dad's footstep who owned the Lowy Group (formerly known as Vienna Hotel Group) which has hotels and luxury apartments in London and Brighton, Steve fell in love with the hospitality industry during his gap year before University, working in hotels and restaurants.
He eventually followed up his passion by studing for a BA in Hospitality & Tourism Management at the University of Salford but instead of working for his dad, he decided to start his own business.
After spending time travelling the world after university and realising how great the offers and experience in Asia and Oceania were, the idea for Umi Hotels was born, but it wasn't until his time at Westminster Hotel as the General Manager that the idea began to take shape.
Below is the full interview.
Hi Steve, How are you doing, great to have you on YHP?
Thank you for having me!
Could you quickly give us some background information about yourself? Tell me about yourself growing up?
Well I am a born and bred Londoner. My mother is from Ireland and although my father is British, his parents were from Austria and the Czech Republic. At school I played a lot of sports which allowed me to travel from an early age, at first in the UK but then in Europe and at the age of 16 I went to Australia and New Zealand. I was very fortunate. I was also surrounded by people who loved food growing up and started a bit of home cookery at the age of 6 where I helped my older sister baking and made sure my mums Sunday roast gravy wasn’t lumpy (I hate lumps in gravy!).
I struggled with my A levels and looking back I think I was just bored. I took a gap year before University and got to work in hotels and in a restaurant so I developed a real passion for the hospitality industry. I also travelled to Asia and across Europe inter-railing which reinforced my love of travelling.
I went to the University of Salford where I studied for a BA in Hospitality & Tourism Management. I had a great time there; I learned to love to study again and reinforced my love for the hospitality and tourism industries.
How did you get into business? Were you exposed to entrepreneurship as a child?
Yes, my dad owns the Lowy Group (formerly known as Vienna Hotel Group) which has hotels and luxury apartments in London and Brighton, so I was interested in the hospitality industry from a young age. Then I worked and travelled and became sure I wanted to get into that area of business. I could have probably worked for my dad, but I wanted to do my own thing and put my own unique brand out there. I’m ambitious and I’m always having new ideas; I didn’t want to be restricted.
Who was your inspiration growing up and why?
My parents and my grandma. My grandma (the only grandparent that was alive when I was born) was born in Austria and escaped the Nazis and fled to London, speaking no English. She married my grandfather, had two children and opened her own restaurant in London, where my father and his sister worked as they were growing up. My parents are both inspirations as they each lost their parents at a very early age and they have both worked in the industry starting from the bottom. They worked very hard to get to where they are now. I guess all three family members showed me that no matter what adversity you go through, if you work hard you will achieve your goals.
So tell me about Umi Hotels and how the idea came about?
I was travelling around the world after uni. I was staying in hostels, guesthouses and B&B’s and I just loved the welcoming, fun environment they offered. Particularly in south-east Asia, where the guesthouses I was staying at were $2 a night and I was receiving this warm Asian service where people were genuinely friendly. I thought why can’t a city hotel in the UK offer something like this, something in the mid-range market but with the fun and relaxed atmosphere of the B&Bs and hostels in Asia and Oceania. My business opportunity arose when I was General Manager in the Westminster Hotel and I was able to take on the building to establish my own brand: umi.
What were you doing before you founded Umi Hotels?
I had travelled, trained as a chef and cocktail barman as well as managing a 500 bed backpackers hostel in Paddington , London. Immediately before umi I was managing the Westminster Hotel in London.
What was your biggest challenge during the startup phase?
Getting people to believe in me. I was young (26), in quite an old fashioned industry.
How have you been able to fund the business?
Initially it was by increasing the profitability of the first hotel and since, I have a loan from my father’s company that we are now looking at paying back by getting an external investor.
What are the most crucial things you have done to grow your business?
Focus on staff. You are only as good as the team around you. Creating a loyal and strong team that work towards the same goal and are passionate about their role is so important.
Would you say the business has changed from the first initial idea?
Yes. The core of offering great value mid-range accommodation in a fun and friendly environment hasn’t changed but we have tweaked and changed the brand a bit through the logos, strap lines and the websites. At first I was a little stubborn (some people would say very stubborn) with regards criticism. You will never please everyone but I have learnt to listen more and work with the ideas people have to actually drive the brand forward. I want umi to be a dynamic brand that changes with the times.
What makes you different from other players in your sector?
I think that we focus on working with young people a lot more than others. I enjoy helping students get into hospitality and find out where their strengths lie. I think our pseudo franchise offering is more flexible and modern for the current needs of mid-range independent hotels than other programs.
What would you say has been the highlight of your entrepreneurial journey so far?
Crikey… that is a hard one. I think being able to travel all over the world and meet some amazing people through my work. Being recognised by industry peers through awards such as the Acorn awards. I think the highlight though was being asked to do a skills exchange in Siem Reap, Cambodia where I was completely inspired by the hard work people are doing there to make the local Khmers life better. I was there for ten days and it had a huge positive impact on me.
What can we be expecting from your company in 2012?
Well.. wouldn’t you like to know! We are hoping to be able to have a few more hotels on board with the umi brand, for umi marketing to keep growing in its own right and producing wonderful design online and offline and with BookItWith, our software… well if we get the external investment, I have some grand plans for that too!
What three pieces of advice would you offer entrepreneurs starting out today?
Be a sponge not a sieve – listen to people. You don’t have to take their advice but really listen to it as it will probably really help you.
Create something that you are passionate about. If you are passionate about the industry you are in or the product you are creating, it rubs off on people and also you will enjoy the day to day aspects a lot more.
Believe!! You have to believe in yourself and aim high! I am a big Liverpool Football fan and Bill Shankly came up with some great quotes in his time. But this one is one that I really believe in “Aim for the sky and you'll reach the ceiling. Aim for the ceiling and you'll stay on the floor.”