Phillip Allen is having his Ted Lasso moment – moving his family from Kentucky to London to become president of AJ Capital Partner’s emerging Marine & Lawn Hotels & Resorts, a growing collection of bespoke U.K. hotels in the world’s most distinguished golf destinations, including St Andrews, North Berwick and Troon. But unlike the sports comedy-drama character Lasso, Allen told HOTELS last week in an exclusive interview that he is moving into a very well-timed opportunity as golf tourism booms in the region and opportunities for growth are abundant.
Marine & Lawn launched quietly in fall 2021 and continues to spend millions of pounds on refurbishing its portfolio. Of the four hotels, Rusacks St Andrews and Marine North Berwick have been updated, while Marine Troon is set to come back online in the next month. The 181-key Slieve Donard Resort & Spa by Royal County Down golf links in Ireland will remain open for the coming season and then move into a renovation phase, which should be completed before the 2023 season begins.
Moving from chief development officer of AJ Capital Partners, more widely known for its Graduate hotel brand found on college campuses, into his new role at Marine & Lawn, Allen said the move is the right thing for the brand and his marching orders include growing the portfolio and delivering excellence and consistency across the brand being positioned as a lifestyle experience with luxury service.
AJ Capital didn’t really set out to jump into niche golf resorts, but when negotiating deals with Macdonald Hotels for Graduate hotels in Oxford and Cambridge, England, Allen toured their hotel at St Andrews and fell in love.
“I just fell in love standing on the balcony of the roof at St Andrews, overlooking the eighteenth green and the first hole of the Old Course,” Allen said. “Beyond that is West Sands beach used for the opening theme of ‘Chariots of Fire.’ I just got chills.”
When Allen suggested to creative and opportunistic AJ Capital Founder Ben Weprin that they should buy St Andrews, he agreed. “Once we decided to go all in with Rusacks as what we hope will become the world’s greatest golf hotel, we started looking around the United Kingdom and noticed that there were other opportunities with iconic golf courses that didn’t necessarily have any great hospitality or hotels nearby,” Allen continued. “So, next we acquired Marine North Berwick, which was also from Macdonald. And once we had that, we figured we had a brand – something that really has legs, and we just continue to grow.”
With the help of private investment capital, Marine & Lawn will continue to be acquisitive with Allen saying they’d like to acquire two to three properties a year. “I have a deal or two, let’s say, in the works, and I have my eyes on several others,” he said, adding that ultimately AJ Capital would like to grow the brand in the United States and possible continental Europe.
“There’s absolutely more runway in all four countries of the United Kingdom – England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland,” Allen continued. “And then, without question, the Republic of Ireland is also in our sights.”
Again, timing for Marine & Lawn seems to be exemplary with this coming summer season giving the group a chance to show off its renovations at St Andrews, North Berwick and Troon when crowds are expected to be at capacity and the assets are expected to fairly significantly outperform 2019 results.
“We’re going to have a very strong 2022. The leisure markets in the U.K. are bouncing back very well,” Allen said. “Golf has really exploded over the last couple of years after being kind of flat for a long time. The game of golf has regained a tremendous amount of popularity during COVID and golf clubs in Scotland and throughout the U.K. are absolutely swamped in terms of the number of visitors that are coming this summer.”
Allen expects to further wow guests with great food and beverage from White Rabbit Projects, led by former Soho House F&B lead Chris Miller, and through bespoke design that reflect the communities and golf courses. “In most cases, we are renovating every aspect of the properties – the public areas, the guest rooms, and food and beverage spaces,” Allen said. “We have a fantastic internal design team that loves to tell stories through design.”
Among the highlights are new spaces at Rusacks that includes a restaurant called 18 on the top floor with a never-before-seen view of the Old Course. “It’s a real showstopper and a place that people will want to go to see the views,” said Allen, who is also very excited to see the new guest rooms at Troon.
An avid golfer himself, Allen said for someone to come from the transactional world into this role is a little bit unusual, but one he cherishes. He has been with AJ Capital for four years, predominantly helping develop the Graduate brand, and said M&A will continue to be a key role at Marine & Lawn. “I’ll still be leading the efforts to find new products and new properties – that’s not going to change,” he said. “But at the same time, I want to make sure that we’re delivering absolutely top-notch quality service, great food and beverage and a memorable experience. I also want to make sure Marine & Lawn delivers a consistency of experience across the various properties and that our guests are being recognized for their loyalty and having unique experiences – but one that’s similar in terms of the quality.”
Lastly, Allen is also very excited to relocate to the U.K. with his family, ‘following in the footsteps of another great American, Ted Lasso.”