When I started Hand Picked Hotels I was totally new to the industry. I faced an enormously steep learning curve but I was struck by how much time and advice I was given by senior members of the industry.
I have learnt to embrace change and see it as a positive rather than a negative. The hospitality industry is very mobile and even people who you think are happy in their jobs do move on – initially this phased me but I have learnt that very often it is for the best. A new person with fresh ideas, eyes and enthusiasm can be a real bonus for the group.
How I run the business has changed. As my head office team has developed I find I have more time to spend on certain things – like expanding the group and looking at new hotels – and less on things that I used to do - like proof-reading the Christmas brochures.
Once a year I go on a road show with my three directors and we visit all of the hotels in the group in a two-month period. It is an ideal opportunity to compare and contrast the portfolio and of course we also meet the staff.
The past five years have undoubtedly been challenging. In general hoteliers have had to deal with lower average rates and significantly higher costs and this is especially true outside of London.
I don’t think the market is getting any worse and occasionally there are glimmers of hope that things might be getting better.
In a good market you think you are doing well when actually you are just riding on a good trading cycle. I suspect when things get difficult it exposes the flaw in your management of the business – problems with expenditure and profit levels.
We are very cost-conscious. We spend money on essentials rather than on ‘nice-to-haves’ but not at the cost of the quality of our product. I have been very clear with colleagues that we do need to continue to invest fully in our products.
I am immensely proud of the culture at Hand Picked Hotels.
Last year we won the AA Hotel Group of the Year for the second time. I was really proud because the AA said the quality of the group was not centred on a few of our properties but extended across the whole portfolio.
I had always said I didn’t want to grow beyond around 20 hotels because we are at heart quite a small company. We feel very much like a family – I think once you get beyond a certain size you lose that family feeling.
It is actually quite difficult to find the right property in the right location. We have had a few false starts with properties which purported to be on the market and which were in the end withdrawn which is a waste of time and money.
The fact that we have acquired two properties in the last year is not so much that we are in an expansion phase but merely the result of finally finding two properties which did fit the portfolio and were actually for sale.
We do aim to achieve a good geographic spread across the British Isles. We do still have gaps like the west coast of Scotland where we would still like to find a suitable property to partner with Norton House.
The remoter parts of the country – Cornwall for example – we would find difficult to manage because we do like to visit our properties regularly.
It is good for our marketing to have hotels in widely disparate areas of the UK. People can visit if they happen to be in the North East or Sussex and Surrey – there are hotels nearby.
Across the group we have minimum brand standards and every hotel is expected to adhere to those. However, our hotels are all individual and I want to celebrate that individuality and not brand-stamp them too much – we give the hotels freedom to be creative.
We don’t like to include properties within the collection until it is ready. Bailbrook House was a three-star conference centre and it will be a four-star country house hotel. Quite a lot of change goes into that – both physically and with the staff. That hotel will be ready by September.
Customer feedback is vital. We recently launched an online comment card which goes out to all the customers we have email addresses for shortly after they have leave. They mention all manner of things they wouldn’t necessarily put into a letter.
My tip for anyone entering the industry is talk to people and listen to their advice. You learn an enormous amount by talking to people who have been in the industry a lot longer than you have.