Ebullient Mark Leyland is like a man whose numbers have just come up on the lottery. In a professional sense, they have.
One of the reasons he is fizzing is because he has just learned he has become a £6m man.
Portsmouth and its hinterland took me totally by surpriseMark Leyland
For that is how much his company is giving him to invest in his business later this year.
Mark, a 36-year-old fire-cracker of a man, is thrilled for two reasons. The first is that he has only been in his job since November. The other is that the £6m investment is a big vote of confidence in Portsmouth, a city which has quickly ensnared him with its charms, as it does to so many who are not expecting it.
He is the new manager of what many people would consider to be Portsmouth’s leading hotel, the 174-bed Marriott in Southampton Road, North Harbour.
And that £6m is about to be spent giving the 34-year-old, four-star hotel a facelift.
‘It’s going to be a transformation,’ he says excitedly. ‘People will see a big difference from the outside because in June the cladding and the exteriors of the windows will all be replaced and in August we’ll start refurbishing all the bedrooms.’
It did not take Mark long to pick up the positive vibes about Portsmouth which are crackling through the ether at the moment – the opportunities coming with the arrival of Sir Ben Ainslie’s America’s Cup investment and the national and international publicity that is already attracting.
It all came as a surprise for, like so many northerners, he admits, perhaps a little shamefacedly, he had no idea Portsmouth and the surrounding region had so much to offer.
He became general manager in November, arriving from the same position at the company’s York hotel. He did the two jobs in tandem until Christmas. ‘Bit of a baptism of fire that was,’ he concedes. ‘And an interesting commute,’ he adds, although you suspect for a man with his energy he would have taken it in his stride.
‘York depends almost entirely on the tourist market, especially the exploding Chinese tourist market,’ he says.
‘When I applied for this position I’d never been to Portsmouth. All I knew was that it was a naval city and, of course, was by the sea and that was a big attraction,’ adds the man who was born in Yorkshire and who grew up in landlocked Derbyshire.
‘I’ll be honest. My initial impression as Mark From The North was that Portsmouth would be very industrialised with lots of manufacturing industry, very business-orientated with little tourism.’
But that view changed dramatically when he and his wife, a hotel and restaurant inspector for the AA (‘she never does Marriotts or any of my competitors,’ he laughs) booked into the Portsmouth Marriott under cover as a normal guest.
‘I was a secret shopper and I was blown away. Obviously I thought the hotel was great, but it was Portsmouth and its hinterland which took me totally by surprise.
‘Yes, I’d heard of the Mary Rose Museum, but I’m ashamed to say I knew nothing about Victory or Warrior. Now, if I could, I’d spend every weekend in the Historic Dockyard.
‘With Gunwharf and that iconic Spinnaker Tower, I can see why the city attracts so many tourists, something for which I was completely unprepared.’
Mark was equally unprepared for what happened in the Marriott lobby on his second visit, this time one in which he revealed his true mission.
‘I’ve got a son who’s coming up for one so he’s not quite into Peppa Pig yet, so I’m not really on that wavelength. Yet.
‘But I couldn’t get over the number of guests who were asking for directions to Peppa Pig World at reception. I would never have guessed what a huge market there is for it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes.’
This led to him examining the wider map of the region, not just the one of Portsmouth on which he had concentrated to that point.
‘It made me realise what the area had to offer – the South Downs, the New Forest, wonderful National Trust properties, Brighton, Southampton, the cruise ship industry – now in Portsmouth as well as in Southampton – Goodwood.’ He trails off. ‘Perhaps you take it for granted, but this really is a wonderful part of the world. I can see that now. I still feel like a tourist in my own city enjoying what all my guests do.’
Mark has never wanted to do anything but work in the hospitality industry and it is the only job he has ever had, albeit working from the bottom up.
‘I fell in love with it at 16. I was living in Derbyshire and got a part-time summer job working in the Palace Hotel, Buxton. I worked in the bar, restaurant, banqueting suite and the front office. It gave me a good grounding and I knew from that moment that this was what I wanted to do with my life.’
He studied hotel management at Leeds Metropolitan University and kept working in different hotels to build up his knowledge of the profession.
After 9-11 when the jobs market collapsed, Mark and his girlfriend, now wife, decided to travel. ‘When we came back nine months later I wanted to get back in with Marriott so I rang them up and said I’d go anywhere.’ They sent him to Aberdeen as food and beverage manager.
From there it was Sunderland, Newcastle, Leeds and Manchester Airport before getting his first general managership at York.
‘As you can see, I haven’t exactly done much in the south,’ he adds. ‘But I’m beginning to regret that now.’
In his first whirlwind four months Mark has started forging relations with the University of Portsmouth and Highbury College. ‘I had no idea how big the university was and how important it is to the city.
‘And as for Highbury, it’s turning out wonderful caterers and its facilities are superb.
‘I’m really keen to provide jobs for graduates who want to make the hospitality industry their career. Both the university and Highbury are producing quality graduates and as an industry it would be wonderful if we could keep them in the city where they can use the great skills they’ve acquired.’
One of his other goals is to try to welcome more local people across his threshold.
‘There is definitely an invisible barrier across which many people will not cross,’ he says. ‘Many local people feel that an hotel is only for the people staying there, they don’t see it as an important part of their community.
‘I want Portsmouth people to feel that they can pop in for coffee, or a drink; have their birthday parties or weddings here or come for Sunday lunch.
‘We’ve got 500 people, local people, who are members of our leisure club, which is great, but there’s so much more we can do and that £6m refurbishment will certainly help.
“I can’t wait.’
One of the biggest debates in Portsmouth at the moment is whether the city needs what the politicians call ‘a top hotel’ – one with a five-star rating.
Mark Leyland is fully aware of the topic and discussed it with Councillor Donna Jones, the Tory leader of the city council, last Friday.
As a new boy in the city he is still assessing the market, but he can see the merit.
‘The Marriott is certainly not afraid of competition, but I would suggest that the city needs more time to look at the bigger picture for what is needed,’ he says.
‘In my opinion you need different classes of hotel to attract the different kinds of business – one five-star, a couple of fours, a three – there is space for the whole range.’
Mark thinks a five-star hotel might be the catalyst to take Portsmouth ‘to the next level’ after the boost given it by the opening of Gunwharf Quays and the Spinnaker Tower 14 years ago.
‘My own company is interested in having another hotel in the city and, yes, I’m surprised that no-one has moved quicker to put a spade in the ground,’ he says referring to the De Vere Group’s acquisition of a 3.1-acre site at Lakeside, North Harbour, three years ago – a site on which nothing has so far materialised.
He suggests the city would also be ideal for a branded mixed use building – half hotel, half executive apartments.
‘We do it well at Canary Wharf and I’m surprised their isn’t one in Portsmouth where we have so many long-stay project workers who come here for months at a time.
‘There is a big market there that could be tapped into.’