What drove Muj and Amelia Rana to drop promising international careers and take on a knackered old textile warehouse on Newton Street?
There's been much recent handwringing over the pace and quality of Manchester's development. Not least in our city’s most idiosyncratic neighbourhood, Northern Quarter, where the creeping hand of property speculation threatens to chip away at the area's raggedy charm.
That's not to say we should stamp our feet and shake our fists at all property development. Some are a bit shit, yes (Zoku, Nuovo, for example), while others seek to adopt and improve what we already have, such as the splendid renovation of the long underused Mackie Mayor building.
Take husband and wife team, Muj and Amelia Rana, who, weary from international careers in finance and marketing, and with a desire to dabble in interior design, took on a knackered former textile warehouse next to a police museum on Newton Street.
It certainly hasn't been easy for the Ranas, particularly managing the conversion overnight from Hong Kong. And it hasn't been quick, with preliminary works beginning in 2014. But, with a little love and a lot of effort, Cow Hollow Hotel opened in January.
And what they've created is a 16-bed, three-storey stunner, marrying industrial features (lift shafts, factory doors, railway sleepers) with stylish colonial flourishes and hi-tech goodies - Netflix on huge HD TVs is a great touch. It's pure boutique, for a very decent price (from £99 per night), in a building oozing Victorian Cottonopolis charisma.
We caught up with Muj to ask why and how...
So, why drop it all to open a boutique hotel?
Muj: "It really comes down to our passion for interior design, we figured this would be a great way to express our creativity. I was working in finance, at an American Bank and then at Credit Suisse, and Amelia was working in marketing for Universal Records. They were fairly stable careers, we did seven years in London and three years in Hong Kong, but we always wanted to try our hand at design. We're also hospitable by nature, we're always the ones organising our groups of friends, so a small hotel seemed the perfect environment for us to design and host."
It's been four years in the making... what's been the hold up?
M: "It’s been a real passion project, but we had our day jobs to focus on so couldn't dedicate all of our time to it. We wanted complete control over the design aspect, it had to be done at our pace, which meant it took longer than if we were on site, or even in the country. A lot was done via Whatsapp from Hong Kong, we'd do day shifts there and our evenings on the phone to the project manager. But we tried to get back to the UK every couple of months. We needed to, the design was very specific."
"People need to understand that you don't have to knock down the old and start again..."
How did you decide on the building?
M: "We spent two days walking around the Northern Quarter, finding buildings which were dilapidated, empty or just looking like they needed some TLC. Some had boards over the windows, some were write-offs, but when we saw this we got straight in touch with the freeholder.
Do you worry about the way the NQ is heading?
M: "I certainly don't think you should remove the things that bring life to an area. Replacing bars, cafes, shops and restaurants with mundane residential developments has failed elsewhere. People need to understand that you don't have to knock down the old and start again, we've managed to save an incredibly dilapidated former textile warehouse which nobody wanted to touch - it just takes time and effort.
"We really shouldn't be knocking down old buildings unless we're going to replace them with beautiful, modern, well-designed buildings which compliment the area. I'm afraid many of the new developments here add nothing to the Northern Quarter."
"We'll make you feel like a rock star"
Back to the hotel, there's an interesting blend of industrial and colonial. Where'd that come from?
M: "The colonial aspects come from our travels in Asia, such as the ceiling fans from the Metropole in Hanoi, and the greenery from Raffles in Singapore. Realistically we had to tailor those to our budget, make it look part of the area, so we worked with the building's industrial features to keep that Northern Quarter vibe - without the dive bar or exposed wiring everywhere. People have said the hotel feels like something you'd find in Shoreditch or the Meatpacking District in New York, which is great because that's what we're going for. Industrial with a bit of glamour."
Your room rates seem pretty low...
M: "You can find great boutique hotel experiences in other major cities which aren't going to break the bank. Manchester didn't really have that. We've not gone for a five-star spa and swimming pool, which we've been able to reflect in the room rate. There's no other hotel in the city, at this price point, offering the type of experience that we are; the touch points, the turn downs, the cocktail bar, the Netflix access, the Ren toiletries, the hostess showing you to your room. We're not a 'here's your key and off you go' kind of place, we'll make you feel like a rock star."
Are you going to do any more Cows, so to speak?
M: "We’re going to try do another one in Manchester once we've settled in here. We're looking at securing investment to open on the other side of town, towards Spinningfields, maybe try a different design angle. If we can get hold of the right building, of course."
Finally, what is a Cow Hollow?
M: "It's the name of an area in San Francisco. It's where we first holidayed together, where we first came up with the idea to open a hotel. It has the same laid back vibe we're trying to capture here."
...is that bar open?
M: "It is, and it's open to the public. Fancy a sharpener?"