June 2007 | Sujata Agrawal

The travelling man

Ian Hurst has 30 wonderful years of experience in the hospitality business. In the true spirit of an itinerant, he has made use of every opportunity that came his way and enjoyed each new destination

Ian Hurst, the general manager of the Crowne Plaza London-St James and 51 Buckingham Gate, is the quintessential hotelier. His many years in the hospitality industry have given him a vast experience of people and places.

Mr Hurst truly has a backpack full of travel memories — Africa, Australia, Bangkok, Dubai, Europe, Indonesia, Seychelles and the USA. “It’s difficult to say which is my favourite,” he muses. “It’s like a good menu: Different dishes have different sensations.” The destinations destiny has led him to have rarely been of his own choice: “It has been more about doors opening, opportunities given and sometimes being forced to go and then realising with surprise that it’s actually a great place!”

Born in Africa of British parents, Mr Hurst had a conventional education at a boarding school in Britain with holidays back home in Africa. It was a magical world for a child to grow up in — in the shadows of Mt Kilimanjaro in Tanganyika, an outdoor life peopled with giraffes and lions and children from many different lands.

“When you are a child you don’t recognise differences; to a child everyone is the same,” says Mr Hurst, who went to a playschool run by an Indian when he was five years old and had his first cross-cultural meal — an Indian vegetable samosa — at the house of a playmate. “I liked it and can still remember the taste,” he says. “It was the best samosa that I ever had.” His love for Indian food continues and he’s now proud of having a great Indian restaurant at the Crowne Plaza London-St James.

His memories of the sights, sounds and smells of Africa are vivid: sitting by the harbour of Dar-e-Salaam, watching Arab merchants at work, the dhows sailing in with the day’s catch, young boys selling roasted nuts, the cries of seagulls mingling with the chatter of people in Swahili. “I have to say that my childhood was a happy one. I remember people having fun and always laughing. They were very poor but they enjoyed life. It was the first thing I learnt — to always be humble.”

Mr Hurst’s unique characteristic is that he relishes the opportunities that life has thrown at him and treats each as a new voyage of discovery. And there have been many such voyages.

He trained as a hotelier in London, having chosen that as a career after listening to his father’s sage advice: “You may not earn much money but you will never go hungry!” He was offered a job as a trainee in Paris and started off at the bottom, as a waiter.

Invited by an American girl to visit America, he packed his bags and flew across the Atlantic to get a taste of that incredible place called New York. In his early twenties, he flirted with the hippie revolution, wore his hair long, worked at a bar and earned a lot of money through tips. However he had to return to London as he did not have a work permit. Seizing the opportunity to spend more time with his family, he accepted the job of a butler in a big bank in London.

Mr Hurst’s career really took off when he joined the Hilton property in Stratford-upon-Avon. He moved around in the UK (London and Gatwick), before moving on to more exotic locales around the world. His itinerary included Dubai (“before it became the metropolis city it is today”), Germany, France, Bangkok (“Not a bad place to be in: great food, friendly people and an exciting lifestyle”), and Kunming in China (“sort of off the beaten track, disappearing into no-man’s land, but surprised by the beauty of the place. It is the flower capital of China and called ‘the city of eternal spring’”).

“I have really been quite fortunate, haven’t I?” asks Mr Hurst engagingly, “Being in the right place at the right time, or with people who suggested a new place of opportunity, and I would just pick up my suitcase and travel to the next destination.”

And then he got a call to go to Australia. “I didn’t want to go to Australia. I didn’t even know where it was. But I went there and it changed the course of my life.”

When Mr Hurst arrived in Australia, the customs officer asked him point blank: “Do you have a criminal record?” “That was my introduction to the Australian sense of humour,” laughs Mr Hurst.

He loved Australia not only for its outdoor lifestyle but also for its people, who were very friendly. “I could make friends easily and friends are important in your life. When you move around the world so often, you make many friends but you also lose friends.”

So taken up was he by the continent and its people, that Mr Hurst decided to adopt it as his country; he became a citizen five years later. It was also a feeling of wanting to put down roots and have a place to call home. “I didn’t feel familiar with the UK or have a sense of, if you like, of being British, so I couldn’t call it my home. I was more like a visitor to the UK. Now when someone asks me where I live, I can actually say my home is in Sydney.”

Three years ago, Mr Hurst was interested in joining the Taj Group. He admits that he didn’t know much about the Tatas or the Taj then but, “Taj is a brand name like Hilton, Bentley or Rolls Royce and as a hotelier it has always been my ambition to work at the Taj Mahal in Mumbai.”

Then last year a letter arrived from Raymond Bickson, managing director of Indian Hotels, and Mr Hurst was very happy to join the Taj Group as GM of the two London properties.

Having started his career at Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s birthplace, Mr Hurst has now reconnected with the famous bard through the Shakespearean frieze carved on the walls of the façade of 51 Buckingham Gate: “I feel as if I have been on one of those 15th century vessels that take a long voyage around the world and discover parts unknown.” Talking about his years as an hotelier, Mr Hurst likens the job to that of a priest. “You have to have a calling and a passion about it. You’ve got to enjoy meeting people,” he says. Looking good and leading by example are essential attributes, and stamina, energy, drive and determination are key success factors.

“Someone who keeps knocking on my door demanding to see me will eventually get in. Someone who is hesitant will stay out. You have to push your way through but you must do it with style, with class, with distinction,” Mr Hurst adds. He feels that hospitality is a great profession that offers equal opportunities for both men and women — the opportunity to travel around the world, experience different cultures, and enjoy world cuisines.

As the consummate hotelier heads back to work, in some quiet corner of his mind is the thought that one day when he stops travelling and returns to Sydney, he will have the time to read the books that he wants, cook for his own pleasure, learn the fine arts of painting or carpentry, and of course down a few cans of beers with friends old and new....