The Personality Test

There are some news headlines that stop you in your tracks and leave you with no alternative but to seek out more details. These aren’t necessarily the stories of national or international importance featuring the latest stunts of a comedy government. Sometimes they are far more mundane, but with a twist that makes them irresistible & almost unbelievable at the same time.

One such story broke at the end of January, and several months later I’m still trying to process it. If I were to classify it on a scale “a la Richter”, it would probably register between a strong 4 and a 5 – or in more descriptive terms this would have it sitting somewhere betwixt intriguing & mildly shocking.

The story concerned the opening of a new 10 bedroom hotel in Margate. Now we could argue that this story is only borderline newsworthy within the hospitality industry (which is where we first came across it), but for it to appear so prominently in the national press meant that there had to be more to it.

The “more” in question was that this new enterprise was the brainchild of those Noughties naughty-boys The Libertines. Remember them? Of course you do, they were all over the media in the first few years of the millennium. If you don’t, then please allow me to remind you of the salient points.

Initial interest in the band was due to them taking the rock world by the scruff of the neck & delivering a storming debut album – endearingly titled “Up the bracket”. Their backstory soon revealed reports of debauchery, squalor, scandal & squats in the musical underworld of East London. Soon the impact of this impressive offering was eclipsed by (band co-founder) Pete Doherty’s inability to control his rampant drugs habit. This, in turn, lead to incidents of a most dubious & frequently nefarious nature. His daily appearances in the tabloids became something of a ritual that would eventually lead to spells of incarceration in various penal institutions. Doherty was subsequently kicked out of the band following an episode of breaking & entering into his bandmates’ flat to steal a guitar to fund his addiction.

For a while, Doherty’s chemically induced journey of self-destruction was made even more newsworthy by his pairing up with uber-model Kate Moss. Together they represented the distillation of a heady cocktail containing equal parts Bonnie & Clyde, Gainsbourg & Birkin and Munroe & DiMaggio ….. with a side order of Keith Richards to keep the right balance of chemicals. They were the news.

Subsequently we were treated, in real time 24 hour rolling news, to deaths, breakups, reunions, overdoses, drug busts, rehab attempts, more breakups and more re-unions and a predictably disappointing second album. Before we knew it we were all reading about the Arctic Monkeys & Lady Gaga and the Libertines had squandered their fifteen minutes of fame in drug induced revellery & bad press.

Now at this point I have to say I love (most of) the Libertines’ music. Their first album provided the soundtrack to an extension I built onto our home in 2003 (along with The Datsuns & the White Stripes!) and it remains a masterpiece of ramshackle, drunken, DIY, pub-garage rock. However, at no moment have I ever considered that they would be good company. I have never had the remotest desire to spend any time in their orbit. They are the perfect example of an experience that is best enjoyed from a distance.

So, assuming I am not alone in this evaluation, how can anyone possibly believe that an hotel with the Libertines playing the “mien host” role would be anything but a commercial disaster? What sort of twisted mind could begin to consider promoting a holiday experience that could best be described as the bastard lovechild of Fawlty Towers & Trainspotting?

From a marketing perspective this could be a really tough sell. After decades as a holiday destination punchline, Margate has effectively reinvented itself as a cool place to visit, complete with resident artists, galleries, museums & numerous new restaurants & bars. Expectations have risen in terms of what the town has to offer and it’s difficult to see where this new venture will fit in commercially. How will the Libertines package their style & USP into a commercially viable proposition that will deliver beyond vanity project & into a sustainable business model – because their plan is to open more!

Maybe they do have a chance. There is always greater scope for an independent businesses to exhibit a degree of “personality”, thereby putting distance between its own offer and that of the competition. As businesses grow, however, they inevitably have to adopt a more corporate structure and it becomes harder to maintain that single site individuality. You start off with an owner (or a small group of likeminded owners) & employees who have all bought into the shared attitude, ethos & objectives. Critically, you don’t need too many paying customers at this stage – just ones who “get” what you are offering. As you grow, more staff have to be employed and that initial message can get diluted or lost. As a fiercely independent business operating five sites, we know just how much of a constant challenge it can be to hold on to the personality we exhibited when we traded from just one site.

As always there are exceptions to this rule. Brewdog spring to mind as a brand who have consistently retained their maverick style & punk-trader identity whilst experiencing massive growth. Or at least that was the case until last year when cracks appeared in their indie exterior to reveal an apparently litigious corporate core. In this case their actions clashed with the image they had cultivated for themselves & suddenly they were hypocrites rather than brewing anarchists. Their climbdown was apologetic and personal and went a long way to repairing the damage, but we had seen a clear indication that there had been a subtle & inevitable change in the Brewdog mindset – if not their priorities.

In many ways the Libertines’ past resembles a piece of art created by fellow Margate resident Tracey Emin. Like a sample taken from Emin’s infamous “My bed” installation, they remain a fondly remembered collection of dirty stains left on the heroin-chic bed sheets of the early noughties. Whether the intervening years have blessed them with the skills required to turn their “brand” into a hospitality empire remains to be seen.