When big names like Michael Bublé, Sir Anthony Hopkins and Floyd Mayweather need a place to lay their head in Newcastle, it’s the striking Vermont Hotel that becomes the place they can call home.
The award-winning hotel is the jewel in the crown of Gainford Group, a hospitality and leisure business which is driven by its founders Susan and Mohammed Khaliq who started out in 1995.
After triumphing in the North East’s healthcare sector, building over a dozen care homes across the region, the pair ventured into the world of leisure and hospitality with the help of their children and other members of the Khaliq family.
Their youngest, Imran Khaliq, joined Gainford Group’s head office in 2008 as an ambitious 21-year-old, shortly after graduating from Northumbria University with a degree in business management.
Now 31 and a proud director of the business, he has been, and continues to be, a driving force behind its growth.
“Mum and dad achieved great success on the healthcare side of things,” says Imran. “Dad was, and still is, a builder, and managed site acquisitions and the construction of purpose-built care homes, while mum took it upon herself to learn everything she could about all aspects of the industry, taking on the role of an active manager.”
“Together, they built a 53-bedroom nursing home in Chester-le-Street and went on to open the doors of 14 more across the North East.
“Their hard work has earned Gainford the title of one of the best independent healthcare providers in the North East from the CQC, which is incredible.”
“My main aim when joining Gainford, though, was to broaden our horizons and diversify our portfolio,” he says. “And so, after helping build four more care homes, I shifted my focus to childcare, creating two nurseries in Birtley and Chester-le-Street under the brand Bright Stars Nursery.”
“Today, they look after over 150 children and continue to receive Outstanding rated reports from Ofsted – something I’m really proud of. After that, I set my sights on the hospitality and leisure sector – it felt like the perfect industry for us to move in to and, hopefully, conquer.”
And boy, did they. After getting their hands on their first venue, The Vermont Hotel, in 2012, Gainford Group’s portfolio has gone from strength to strength, now stretching from award-winning hotels and luxury aparthotels, to leading bars, restaurants and nightclubs.
All have their own unique style and personality, attracting not only legions of locals, but visitors and celebrities from all over the world, helping to put Newcastle on the map as a go-to destination for a stay to remember.
“Buying The Vermont Hotel will always be a stand-out moment for me – it was the beginning of what’s been an amazing journey so far into the world of hospitality,” says Imran.
After years of standing tall but falling short in efforts to draw in the crowds, the hotel was put on the market and quickly caught the eye of Imran and his team.
“We had admired the building for years, we knew just how much history and character it had, so when we discovered it was up for grabs, we snapped it up,” he says.
Gainford Group took the hotel, which lies in the heart of Newcastle, moments away from the city’s most famous landmarks, under their wing, retaining over 100 jobs and pouring millions of pounds into its revamp.
“As a business, we have a real skill for looking beyond what’s in front of us and seeing a venue’s potential – and The Vermont was bursting with it.”
“It was like a sleeping giant; a grand, but tired-looking, building, high above the city, that needed waking up and a new lease of life.”
“Our vision was a luxury hotel with a nod to the 1920s, but with a modern edge. Somewhere for visitors to relax and enjoy afternoon tea or a few drinks after a day of exploring the city, as well as people celebrating special occasions and life’sbig moments, like birthdays, anniversaries and weddings.”
Seven years on and The Vermont’s popularity continues to soar; big-name celebrities from the worlds of film, music and boxing have all spent the night here, it remains at the top of the list of Newcastle’s most iconic hotels and has recently been awarded Newcastle’s Best Wedding Venue by the N.E.W Awards 2018.
Its success also inspired Gainford to inject new life into Newcastle’s Quayside – a part of town close to Imran and his family’s hearts.
After transforming The Vermont’s next door bar (formerly known as Martha’s Bar) into a glamorous cocktail spot, Livello, the Group went on to open two more show-stopping venues, The Vermont Aparthotel and Aveika, as part of a £35 million bid to bring the area back to life.
“As a kid, I remember hearing all about my uncles’ fond memories of the Quayside, but I didn’t experience any of that during my youth,” says Imran. “It had become a neglected, unattractive part of town and many people had lost faith in it. Tragic, really, because I’ve always considered it to be the heart of Newcastle. It’s where our unique bridges are and where our great river is. Nowhere else represents the city’s rich history quite like it.”
Imran’s goal, he tells me, was to make people fall in love with the Quayside again. And judging by the sheer number of locals and visitors you’ll find drinking and dancing the night away there every week, it appears he’s achieved that.
While some are living in luxury at one of The Vermont Aparthotel’s jaw-dropping self-serviced apartments, others are living it up at Livello, which has been awarded Newcastle’s best bar and late night venue.
Complete with an upstairs members lounge, personal and bottle service and private seating, it’s a late-night playground for grown-ups that goes above and beyond to make every guest feel like a VIP.
“I wanted to create a venue that really raised the bar when it came to service and exclusivity,” says Imran. “Many bars in Newcastle only come alive at the weekend, but what’s great about Livello is that the standard of service, cocktails and atmosphere stays the same every night of the week. Like all of our venues, it remains true to its identity.”
Aveika, meanwhile, has become one of Newcastle’s most sought-after spots, not only for decadent drinks and live music, but for unbeatable food. A one-of-a-kind one-stop shop that brings a smile to party people and diners alike.
“Opening Aveika, which is essentially a nightclub, restaurant and bar in one, was a bit of gamble, I’ll be honest,” says Imran. “It was a unique concept – and one that does well over in places like the USA and Dubai, but something Newcastle hadn’t seen before.”
“Still, we wanted to bring something new to the table, so we decided to go full steam ahead, working tirelessly to make sure we got the branding, the decor, the entertainment and the quality of the food spot on.”
“It all had to feel new, exciting and original – which is probably part of the reason why I wanted Aveika to serve Japanese food – there wasn’t anywhere in Newcastle serving up food like it.”
“I asked myself, ‘why not go for it?’ and, well, the rest is history really. We’ve gone on to win Best Restaurant in Newcastle at the National Restaurant Awards, beating off big names like Marco Pierre White and Cafe 21, which tells me it was a risk worth taking.”
After conquering the Quayside, Gainford turned their attention back to hotels, taking over The Great Victoria Hotel Bradford – the Group’s first venue outside of the North East – in 2014 and The County Hotel, opposite Newcastle’s Central Station, in 2016.
“To get our hands on The County, the oldest hotel in Newcastle, was a real honour,” says Imran.“Like The Vermont, it’s an iconic building, but it was in need of some TLC. So, we modernised it, improved the quality of its bedrooms and gave it a brand new bar and restaurant, now known as The Hudson.”
“And as a luxury extension of the hotel, we also went on to open The County Aparthotel on Westgate Road, which opened late last year. We created 20 new self-serviced apartments, bringing together elements of The County Hotel, such as concierge and chauffeur services, with the comforting freedom that living in your own space offers.”
As we head into a new year, it appears Imran and his family are showing no signs of slowing down or stopping. In fact, 2019 is set to be their biggest year yet.
Soon, work will begin on their latest purchase, The New Bridge Hotel. Over the coming months, the site, formerly a Premier Inn, will be lovingly transformed into a 200-bedroom hotel, making it Gainford’s largest, most ambitious, project yet.
“It’s going to be unlike anything we’ve done before,” says Imran. “We have big things planned; not only will it be home to Newcastle’s largest conference facility, it will also have its own state-of-the-art spa and gym, a number of bars and restaurants, plus a rooftop bar, similar to The Vermont Hotel’s Sky Lounge.”
“We’re planning on opening its doors in 2020 and we can’t wait to welcome our first guests.”
In true Gainford style, many, if not all, jobs will be retained and countless others will be given when the hotel opens – something Imran is particularly proud of.
“Our staff are the backbone of our business, there’s no doubt about it,” he says. “Sure, we can come up with ideas and design the projects, but without our staff flying the flag for us our progression over the years would not have been as vast.”
“We employ more than two and half thousand people across the North East and we make sure we look after them, acknowledge them and reward them for their hard work. It’s incredibly important to us. The way we see it is, if you’re a part of Gainford, you’re a part of the family.”
It appears these are exciting times for Gainford Group, but as things get busier, Imran believes the bonds between family only gets stronger.
“I know some people would find it impossible to work with their loved ones, but I still enjoy it. My father and I work very well together – we share the same vision and goals.
“I work closely with my brother, Yasser, too, which is great. He’s been key to establishing and driving the brands we have created. He really understands the importance of great customer service and ensures everything we do always has the customer in mind. We understand each other really well and are constantly challenging each other to push the boundaries.”
In the last two months, Imran’s sister, Cyrenne, and brother-in-law, Nigel, have left corporate careers in London to help drive the group’s ambitious plans.
“My sister is a qualified accountant and has over 15 years experience in corporate banking and the property and leisure industry. Her knowledge will be key to ensuring the business operates efficiently as
Nigel, meanwhile, spent eight years as a partner within Knight Frank’s Residential Development business, working on some of London’s most exclusive sites. His focus is to drive Gainford Group’s acquisition strategy across diversified property assets throughout the UK.
“Everyone brings something different to the table and there’s a real trust between us all. It’s nice to know that I can rely on the people around me to keep things afloat when I’m away from the North East or taking some time out – though that’s quite rare!”
“I’m a bit of a workaholic, I’ll admit. If I do ever give myself a bit of a break, I’ll socialise with friends in other parts of the country, or travel abroad. I like to see what other places are doing and come home feeling inspired.”
“I’m always thinking ahead to the next idea. But I guess that’s what happens when you love what you do. My work is a huge part of who I am and I don’t ever see myself doing anything else.”