Tourism & hospitality

YO! heads home

We meet entrepreneur Simon Woodroffe, whose YO! empire encompasses sushi restaurants, hotels and homes. A motivational speaker and entrepreneur, he spent 30 years in the entertainment business prior to opening his famous conveyor-belt sushi bar. The latest brand, YO! Home, launched at 100% Design in September.

‘I started YO! Sushi because I was running out of money. I was unemployed and unemployable, and after two years down on my luck, I put my last 200 grand into opening a restaurant. The other contender was an indoor climbing wall. I couldn’t make up my mind which one to go with, but I’m kind of glad I chose YO! Sushi.

We opened on January 22 1997 and within two weeks had queues around the block. It was a bit like having a hit record – beyond belief. All I’d wanted to do was open one restaurant and earn a living, but suddenly we were up to four and then the brand started expanding. And then in 2007 we opened our first hotel.

I’ve never done anything simply because I saw a gap in the market and wanted to make money out of it. For me the idea is everything. Just sitting there with a blank sheet of paper thinking, “what would a hotel be if it was called YO!?” – that’s an incredibly exciting thing to happen.

International branding

Even ten years ago, conventional thinking for the venture capitalist was that you shouldn’t reach beyond where you know. But now conventional thinking states that if you’re going to create a brand, it’s got to be something that works internationally. So I’m always looking for what is radical and different, because I want it to be known all over the world.

When I first visited Japan in the early 90s, it was a very mysterious place. Lots of people see it in films but very few have been there – it’s not exactly a holiday destination. If Disneyland is the happiest place on earth, then Japan is the most different place I’ve ever been.

And I absolutely love doing things in America. We’ve just opened the first YO! Sushi in Washington, and once that starts happening it’ll roll out really fast. We’ve also opened a YOTEL in New York – it’s the most difficult place to build anything. My mum used to say there’s never a convenient time to have babies, and it’s the same with business. It’s always difficult to do stuff.

Thirst for adventure

When not working, I’m an adventure person – I like to go off and have new experiences. This year I bought an aluminium speedboat. I had it delivered to Norway and spent eight weeks in the fjords, climbing and walking and boating. Soon I’m going hiking and climbing in Bhutan, and then I’m doing a speech in Delhi. For Christmas I’ll be in Cape Town with my family, and in March I’m sailing a catamaran from Panama to Tahiti. I’ve also started learning how to kite surf.

Home is where the heart is

I’m very careful to take my time with the YO! company. Not everything has worked, but we have YO! Sushi and YOTEL, and now we’re launching YO! Home. In record company parlance, the second album is always the hardest, and this will be the third.

I started with a clean canvas, asking myself how we can reinvent the city centre home. I thought, “what about if you could change the rooms around at any moment, as smoothly as you pull out a cupboard drawer?”

So you can change it from a one-bedroom apartment to a two-bedroom apartment to a cinema to a lounge to a dining room to breakfast room to a study to an office and to a party room, all at the pull of a wall or the push of a button. I used to be a stage designer, so I used the principles behind mechanical stage scenery. And love it or hate it, you definitely won’t be disappointed.

Share your ideas

I suppose what I’ve always tried to do is to figure out what rich people do and give it to everyone else. I’ve been talking for years about doing YO! Zone at Battersea Power Station. This would be a spa for everybody, as close to a nightclub as it is a spa. Perhaps that’ll happen next, but one thing at a time.

As you go through life, you can figure out what you’re good at and then spend 90% of your time doing it. I’m good at, and like, having new ideas. And then I’m good at talking about them, and finding talented people to realise them. So, I put my own money into developing something and exhibiting it and saying to people, this is what I’m doing.

When I was a kid at school I used to think if you told people about your idea, they’ll nick it. In my old age, I’ve realised that’s not true – if you tell people about your idea, they get enthusiastic about it and it happens. Ideas are easy; it’s implementing them that’s hard.’

 This interview appears in the Autumn 2012 edition of Hotel Management International

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