Chris Penn sitting on a hammock in the summer.

Talk Straight | Think Smart with Chris Penn

Talk Straight | Think Smart with Chris Penn

For Chris Penn, an enforced work experience at school turned into a career spanning more than 25 years in the hotel industry. But even since the early stages of his career, Chris felt there was scope for the industry to do better.
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We've created a great business, but now we've got to plot a path to become stable

Chris Penn, Co-founder, Birch

Having intended to launch just as the pandemic hit the UK, The Birch Community were forced to shut everything down two weeks before they were due to open to the public.

In this podcast episode, not only do we hear Chris talk about Birch's turbulent beginning, we also hear how choosing the easiest work experience placement at school kick-started his passion for hotels. This led to him doing a hotel management training programme rather than go to university. Chris progressed through the ranks quickly and became a Deputy General Manager at just 24 years old. But even in the early stages of his career, he felt there was scope for the industry to do better.

Birch is a different kind of hotel experience. They've intentionally called it the "Birch Community" rather than the "Birch Hotel". Two things have been important throughout the Birch journey: purpose and agility. For Chris, purpose is everything - the business always comes back to the importance of community, without it they are nothing. Being agile and adapting to the changing world allowed them to survive and it continues to be an important building block in their business.

What's in store for the future of Birch? Their current focus is to plot a path to become a more stable business. What they have right now is a great product and great people, and with the right strategy and priorities in place, they have the foundations to build something incredible.

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Quick fire round

Each episode we ask our guests quick fire questions. Hover below to see what this revealed about this week's guest, Chris Penn....

Best hotel you've stayed in?

Why us down arrow

Don't like hotels! I like Airbnb.

Is Zoom here to stay or distant memory?

Why us down arrow

Here to stay but shouldn't replace human interaction.

Grow, sell or start again?

Why us down arrow

Not sure at the moment as still in crisis mode.

People or tech - where would you invest?

Why us down arrow

People

Perfection or launch and learn?

Why us down arrow

Launch and learn. Make mistakes, learn from them.

A little more about this episode…

Chris's career in the hotel industry came about by chance. His school work experience placement led him to doing a hotel management training programme and he progressed from there. 

In 2013 Chris joined the ACE hotel, which was an incredibly positive and developmental time for him. He learned that being able to be yourself at work allowed you to provide a better service, connect with customers and build long-lasting relationships. Chris's time at ACE also taught him that the industry could be different, and he wanted to be a medium for change. So he decided to start his own business. 

Birch is a different kind of hotel experience, so they've intentionally called it the "Birch Community" rather than the "Birch Hotel".  They wanted to connect with people in the right way and didn't want to confine themselves to being just a hotel, they're more than that.

Chris's ambition is to help people improve their lives. So it's intended to be a place where you can be free from the shackles of modern life, don't get judged, can be yourself and experience things in any way you want (including running naked through the woods, apparently!)

But the journey to opening Birch wasn't straightforward. Having intended to launch just as the pandemic hit the UK, they were forced to shut everything down two weeks before they were due to open to the public. Despite this, they created an incredible experience and just 60 days after re-opening they were awarded "Hotel of the Year".

The key to staying alive has been agility, something Chris very quickly had to understand. When the pandemic hit they thought they knew where they were going, but realised that if they didn't adapt they wouldn't survive. And it's something they'll keep working on as challenges arise every day.

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