He brought berets and board shorts to boutique hotels - and that's just the staff. Catherine Keenan talks to David Seargeant, the man behind QT hotels.
As a 14-year-old growing up in Wangaratta, Victoria, David Seargeant already knew the magic of hotels. His family travelled regularly, usually to Melbourne to see relatives, and he was particularly taken with the now-defunct budget chain Commodore Hotels. He can't remember exactly what appealed to him; it was more like an instinct, an inclination towards hospitality perhaps handed down from a great-grandmother who ran pubs in the Goldfields while raising 10 children. Whatever it was, he "just knew" he wanted a career in hotels. "There's nothing like standing in a hotel lobby and experiencing that buzz of people from all walks of life," he says.
At 64, Seargeant is group managing director of Amalgamated Holdings Ltd (AHL), the third largest owner and operator of hotels in Australia and with an extensive entertainment portfolio including Greater Union, Event and Birch Carroll & Coyle cinemas. Its hotel brands include Rydges Hotels & Resorts, the new design-driven value brand Atura Hotels, Thredbo Alpine Resort, and the line that really brings the light into his eyes, QT Hotels & Resorts.
We talk in a moodily-lit lounge off the lobby of the QT flagship in Sydney; behind Seargeant are three giant illuminated letters spelling HIP. A slightly crumpled figure in a pin-striped suit over an unbuttoned white shirt, he hunches forward in a throne-like chair with his gaze steadily fixed on his knees. He has a highly focused way of speaking, interrupted by bursts of enthusiasm for an industry he clearly adores.
In Seargeant's view, the golden age of travel has returned. "With airlines, they're creating a real luxury experience again, with flat beds and with Etihad's [first-class] apartments." Travellers, he says, want similar choices from hotels. "Luxury is very much back in demand, from affordable luxury right through to high-end luxury, and I think that's been the biggest change over the past four or five years. Travel used to have a magic about it, and I think we're recapturing the magic."
This shift runs counter to the global economic upheavals of recent years. "Maybe it's escapism," Seargeant wonders. Whatever the reason, the new mood delights him.
After getting his first job as a cadet at - you guessed it - Commodore Hotels, Seargeant went on to manage the chain's hotels, before moving to the Southern Pacific Hotels Corporation (now Intercontinental Hotels) and becoming director of operations. In 1988, AHL offered him the chance to start Rydges, initially a boutique-style operation, with each hotel operating under its own brand. This individuality was scotched by the introduction of airline frequent-flyer programs, he says. "[Hotels] could only belong to those programs if you were a chain, and they were such a driver of business that we branded all the hotels under the Rydges brand," he says, unable to hide the hint of disappointment in his voice. "That was the sole driver."
More bad news for the industry followed, with the pilots' dispute of 1989 and the rapid rise of the procurement officer in Australian companies, a role designed to slash costs in entertainment and travel.
"It was during that period, the mid-'90s, that hotels became very commoditised. It was all purely about a price, and we cut a lot of services. It was quite a sad period."
Seargeant believes corporate travellers in Australia are beginning to exert more control over where they stay, and this discernment and demand has encouraged hotels to invest in the services that fell out of favour in the '90s. At Rydges, for example, he has focused on improving the quality of restaurants and bars. But he also saw an opportunity to start something completely new. QT was born out of his belief that there was space in the market for boutique, design-driven hotels pitched at people in creative industries, and those who want to associate with them.
Seargeant loves boutique hotels. In 1987 he laid eyes on Ian Schrager's hotel Morgans in New York and "saw the future". Australia arrived late to the boutique hotel party, but he hopes to make up for lost time. He started QT in 2011 with a Gold Coast hotel, which won Best Hotel Breakfast in GT's Australian Hotel Guide this year. A Port Douglas resort was followed by the dramatic transformation of the State Theatre and Gowings department store to become QT Sydney. Next came QTs in Falls Creek and Canberra. A Bondi opening is planned for late 2015. QT Melbourne, just off Collins Street in the city, is slated to open mid-2016; and more are planned for Thredbo, Perth, Brisbane and Queenstown, New Zealand. Each will be unique and location-specific, in the same way QT Port Douglas baristas are clad in board shorts, and door staff at QT Sydney wear fire engine-red wigs and berets. "I don't believe you can clone a hip boutique-style experience. It's very much got to be fashioned around the city."
QT Sydney is a theatrical cornucopia of outré furniture, video artworks, arcane trinkets in original Gowings shop cabinets, and lifts with pumping music. "There's so much to absorb; therefore the hotel becomes a very important part of the experience of that city, not just where you stay to experience the city."
AHL began as an entertainment company just over a century ago. "It was travelling picture-show men who then started building wonderful movie theatres," Seargeant says. By 2000 there were problems with AHL's entertainment businesses internationally, and Seargeant was asked to take on that side of the company, too. He didn't know much about cinema, but he found what he'd learnt about hotels could be applied.
The company had already launched Gold Class - essentially putting restaurants into cinemas - and Seargeant set about improving the food, along with the candy bars, and installed cafés and bars in cinemas and complexes. He intuited that in cinema, as in hotels, people wanted luxury. And as movies became ever more spectacular, cinema-goers wanted an experience, not just a seat. "So now premium cinema - Gold Class and Vmax -is really the leader in growth in our cinema business," he says.
Contrary to predictions that the industry is in decline, AHL is opening cinemas around the country, Seargeant says, with work starting soon at Westfield Miranda, in Sydney, and Pacific Fair on the Gold Coast.
He doesn't really have an off switch when it comes to work. "I don't think you want to when you absolutely love it and you get so much out of it," he says. "I think email and your accessibility has led to people embracing work and lifestyle and leisure all as one. You learn to live with doing both at the same time."
Seargeant lives at Bondi Beach with his partner, and they eat out three or four nights a week: Sean's Panaroma, Brown Sugar and Pompei's are favourites, and he reels off a list of new places he's keen to try. Most of his five children have landed in industries allied to hospitality - the apple doesn't fall far from the tree - and he likes to see them, and his grandchildren, regularly for dinner or breakfast.
Seargeant travels frequently, including to Germany where AHL operates the country's largest cinema circuit, and to New York where he catches up with the latest innovations in hotels and restaurants. He never truly relaxes when he's staying in a hotel; he says he's a critical, but not complaining, guest. "I'm constantly looking for new ideas and how to do things better."
And the future? Seargeant sees plenty of growth in QT, perhaps even internationally, and his own future certainly doesn't include retirement, not immediately. Not while he still feels excitement at walking through the foyer of a hotel he created, on the way to enjoy a glass of Pieropan Soave Classico in a bar he loves.