Ashdown Park Hotel GM Ben Booker on maintaining successful independence in hotels

By Emma Eversham contact

- Last updated on GMT

Ben Booker: "Guests seek an experience when staying in an independent hotel"
Ben Booker: "Guests seek an experience when staying in an independent hotel"

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As Ben Booker approaches his 10th year as general manager at Elite Hotels Group's Ashdown Park Hotel in East Sussex, he shares his tips on running a successful independent hotel

Tell us about your background in the industry?

I left school at 16 after I was thrown out by an eager headmaster who didn’t think I had good enough grades to carry on into A Level. I went home and told my mother and she said ‘well you better go and get a job’, so I went to get a job in room service and the restaurant at the Royal Crescent Hotel in Bath. Hospitality was never on the agenda at the school I went to in the late '80s, so I'd never thought about it before then. 

I worked at the Royal Crescent Hotel for a couple of years, then took a short break working in the car trade before going back to the sector and working at the Swallow Royal Hotel in Bristol. I started as a doorman and worked my way up, leaving about eight years later as a food and beverage manager for a job at Stapleford Park in Leicestershire. I was there for a year, then at the Lygon Arms in Broadway as F&B manager for a couple of years before moving to The Grand in Eastbourne (also part of Elite Hotels Group) where I was deputy manager for four years. In 2007 I moved to Ashdown Park as general manager.  

Ten years in one place as a GM is a fairly long time, how do maintain your momentum?

I think it depends a lot on where you are and Ashdown Park Hotel is an amazing place to work. I also live on-site and have always felt very at home in these surroundings, so why change a good thing?

Some of the greatest hoteliers have worked in the same property for 20 to 30 years and that I think helps them develop a sense of style for their property and service, which is what guests come to know and return for. There’s an element of myself within this hotel and I think it's the same for many hotel managers - you'll find their personality comes across in the service and in the building.

It’s easy to keep it fresh and different because we are forever going to different places and seeing what others do, as well as reading industry publications, so you constantly get inspired from all areas.

Also, guests stay for different reasons and have different ideas of how they want service to be. You have to judge what they want, so that can help it feel new and different - and it makes it all the better, I think. 

Figures show that independent hotels are in decline, how do you manage to avoid being snapped up by a large hotel group or closing?

We are fortunate in that we’ve had a very stable ownership at Elite and there’s never been any threat of the big boys scooping us up, so that’s always positive.

Trying to keep ahead of what they [branded hotels] do is relatively easy because we offer a different style of service, style of hospitality and style of property. There’s nothing wrong with big hotel chains, but they often operate in a very different way to us. We generally offer a more personal service and people will come here for a more traditional style of service, more independent style and I think that’s what the traveller needs and wants – something different.

You can stay in a hotel room in any city in the world and it doesn’t tell you where you are and that’s fine for all sorts of reasons - I've done it - but if you want a hotel with more character and depth that’s where we hold our own. I mean that for all independent hotels, not just Ashdown. 


What is the secret to running a successful independent hotel? 

Location is important, of course, but our success is not just where we are, it’s about our overall package. Guests don’t just get a nice hotel bedroom room, they get a nice hotel room with a view and great food and beverage as well as staff who will bend over backwards to ensure they have a great stay.

Service is what it’s about for us. Very rarely will I get a complaint about the colour of the carpet, but if service goes wrong I’ll know about it. However, more often I’m likely to have comments about the great service, rather than the look of the bedroom. Guests here are looking for an experience, so for us it’s about getting the service, the food offering and the spa offering right.

The industry has been hit hard over the last 10 years, but you have to adapt and move with the times and move with where the business is coming from and what’s important is to ensure that if you have three different types of business in the hotel at the same time – you might have a wedding, a conference and a private dinner – they feel like they are the only ones there and aren’t being affected by what else is happening. It’s a case of juggling it all at the same time and making it look like it’s been done effortlessly, when of course there's lots of hard work going on behind the scenes. 

This year's industry buzzword is storytelling - how important is Ashdown Park's 'story' to the business? 

Having a story attached is important for some but not others. We have one, so we’re lucky. We are in a historical building which has been around since 1860 and we were also a convent for many years, which brings in interest. All that stuff adds to our story, and yes, it's good to have, but does it affect business?

Maybe it does for those looking to stay somewhere with character. The architecture we have just doesn’t get mirrored today, so for the people who want to come away from their more modern home and have a step-back in time, it will assist, but it isn't the most important factor. 

What impact has Brexit had on your business? 

It hasn’t changed things hugely over the last couple of months, but I’m convinced it’s set to increase. The last two months have been turbulent to say the least with regards to the Sterling position and it’s very expensive now for us to go abroad, but on the flipside it’s now cheaper for Europeans and Americans to come here.

I expect there will be an uplift from this point forward because the Sterling isn’t going to make any dramatic recovery over the next year, so without a doubt we'll see an uplift from both international and UK guests. That's what I'm hoping for anyway. 

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