Oliver Smith began life at the grand Amberley Castle in West Sussex with just a GNVQ under his arm as a part-time runner and bartender. Seven years later at just 27-years-old he is the youngest General Manager the von Essen group has ever seen. Quietly shut away in one of the many grand and elegant conference rooms at Amberley Castle, and over a steaming cup of traditional English tea, Smith tells Becky Paskin why choosing experience over qualifications was the best decision for him.
“You have to decide whether you want to go to university and do a hotel management degree or start off as trainee manager,” Smith remarked. “For me it worked out because I chose not to go to uni and go straight into it. It was the best option. Some friends came out with a degree in hotel management and still had to start at the bottom.”
Smith fell into a part-time job at Amberley, one of the Conde Nast World’s Top 20 Leisure Hotels, during the summer holidays whilst studying for his GNVQ in Leisure and Travel at Chichester College. After securing his qualification, he began working at the Sussex country house hotel full time, before being approached to apply for management.
“The General Manager at the time, Clive Cummings said `do you want to do a management training course?`, and I thought about it for a while and thought `yeah, I like this, it`s what I want to do`.”
A two-year training programme saw Smith experience every side of the hotel, from the housekeeping and reception, to working in the kitchen and the office before he could become a duty manager.
“It was great because when you do eventually become a GM you get to understand how the other staff are feeling at certain times. Spending so much time in all those areas you get to see the stress and the pressure that they face, everything’s against the clock.”
Training for promotion
His training, conducted entirely by former owners and father and son team Clive and Martin Cummings, prepared Smith in good stead for the hand-over of the hotel to the von Essen group last year.
Appointed to the position of General Manager in March 2007 at the age of 26, Smith now manages a team of 40 full and part-time staff who all describe their young manager as a leader by example, hard work, dedication and passion for the job, attributes that led to him securing an Acorn Award earlier this year, and that he says have also justly rubbed off on his own staff.
“You can always have the best building in the world but if you haven’t got the staff to complement it it`s an uphill struggle,” he commented. “My staff are all praised on questionnaires. They’re a very welcoming, nice and friendly bunch that work hard. Everyone has to gel and everyone does - happy staff means happy customers.
“I treat this place like it’s my own business, and if anything goes wrong obviously it reflects bad on me. I want to reach the highest level of standards and be one of the best country house hotels in the country, or world, so we pitch ourselves up there with the best.”
Built in the 14th Century, Amberley Castle is now regarded as one of the top castle hotels in the world. Accepted as a Relais and Chateaux hotel back in 2003, the establishment has received numerous accolades including Johansen’s Country House Hotel award and the MSN Top Castle Hotel 2006, and now also holds four AA Red Stars and three AA Rosettes.
Its 19 bedrooms evoke a sense of medieval grandeur, and combined with modern comforts they make visitor’s stays feel luxurious. The hotel’s facilities also include a tennis court, 18-hole professional putting course, extensive landscaped gardens and a private tree house - Mistletoe Lodge - where visitors can choose to dine exclusively in their own natural setting.
“I think its probably one of the most unique properties you can come and stay at in the country,” Smith remarked with pride. “I really enjoy it here, it’s a good fun place to work. It changes everyday so you don’t sit behind a desk all day, and especially in the country that’s very important, for people to have a face to see and to recognise.”
Smith’s face is obviously a trustworthy one too, for the Cummings’ and von Essen to agree to appoint him the role of General Manager and oversee such an exquisite property at such a young age.
King of the castle
“My biggest achievement was becoming GM at 26, I don’t think many people get the opportunity to run a Relais and Chateaux property at that age. The old and new owners both gave me that chance to prove myself. At 26, for the old owners to say ‘right, run my business,’ is what I’ve always wanted and they’ve got the confidence in me to come in and do it. They’re not taking age into account and I’ve always believed you can either do the job or you can’t and age is pretty irrelevant really. Some roles you do need more experience, but to give someone the chance, I think that’s important as well.”
Smith has worked exceptionally hard for seven years, and is now in the biggest position of responsibility he has faced so far, having adopted the role of resident proprietor as well as General Manager. With his passion and love for his work, Smith makes a shining exception to the rule that an education is crucial in order to be successful, and is positive it was the best direction for him to take.
“At the time I think it was the best thing for me to do, to be hands on rather than sit in a classroom all day. I think experience is more important than the qualification. Although the more senior position you want you need to have the qualifications or the knowledge to back up your case. I’ve learnt as I’ve gone, and maybe in a couple of years time I’d like to do an MBA or something along those lines, to push myself to see if I can get to another level.
“Sometimes feel I missed out on travelling experiences, going on holidays, etc, but gap years aren’t my thing, I always wanted to get into a job and quickly rise through the ranks really. Sometimes when you’re in this industry and you see your friends going out on Friday and Saturday nights and you’re working, maybe I sacrificed a bit there, but hopefully at the moment I’m happy and doing well, and eventually it will reap its rewards. Everything has sacrifice.”
Amberley Castle is situated in the chalk South Downs village of Amberley in West Sussex, and became a part of the von Essen’s Classic Collection last year. www.amberleycastle.co.uk