The prospect of meeting Julia Hands for the first time is daunting. She is, after all, the wife of Guy Hands, former head of Nomura's formidable Principal Finance Group, who has orchestrated deals such as the £1.9b purchase of Le Méridien from Forte last year.
She's also the woman he's backing to turn their private hotel company, the 16 former Arcadian Hotels, into a distinct brand, Hand Picked. And with a fortune estimated at £140m, Guy Hands doesn't back losers.
It's refreshing, then, to discover that Julia is down-to-earth and gently mannered, unassuming even. Success in her own right as a lawyer with Linklaters & Paines has nevertheless given her an authoritative edge. When asked whether it's Guy who actually controls the portfolio, for instance, her response is cool. "Guy likes to know what's going on," she replies.
It is a fair question, however. The Hands bought the hotels from Wyndham International for £75m in 1999, and while Guy is now a powerful player in the hospitality industry, Julia has no relevant experience, with the exception of a diploma in wines and spirits. In fact, her interest wasn't notable until last year, when the 10-year management deal with Macdonald Hotels was terminated "by mutual agreement".
It comes as a surprise, then, that when asked what she thinks of her new vocation, she says suddenly: "I'm passionate about it."
Her fervour is evident in the meticulous interest she shows in all areas of her hotels, from staffing to service. First, though, she explains why she needs to spend the £50m she's earmarked to rejuvenate the portfolio of mainly listed, historic buildings.
"We are creating a collection, not a chain. I know you have heard it all before, but this is different," Julia explains. "We are trying to make our mark and create a premium collection of hotels in the UK. There are, of course, single five-star country house hotels, but not a collection of more than a dozen."
To achieve her goal, Julia has been making a virtue of her lack of hotel industry experience, drawing instead on her instincts as a customer to refurbish the hotels. "I don't see [it] as a drawback," she says. "One of the nicest things anyone has said about the completed rooms is that they are like a home."
It is this philosophy that prompted her to bring in a designer who has no relevant experience either, John Minshaw of Minshaw Designs, who was responsible for redeveloping the Hands' £10m house in Sevenoaks, Kent.
Minshaw's ability to take an old building, restore it to what it should look like, and then fit it out for modern use impressed Julia. Newspaper reports claim her new home, once owned by Winston Churchill, now includes a £3m two-level fitness centre.
His remit for the hotels is similar - to upgrade the historic buildings and make them attractive to both leisure and business customers by balancing hi-tech facilities with homeliness.
No expense is being spared. The budget for revamping the bedrooms alone is between £25,000 and £45,000 each, and Minshaw's team has been busy buying antiques and paintings for properties such as Ettington Park in Stratford-upon-Avon.
The designers will be using luxurious materials such as silk, soft leather, marble and limestone. The same materials were used in the Hands' home, where Minshaw's remit was to ensure the materials could withstand use by her four children and three dogs. Julia is keen to see this practicality reflected in her hotels.
"We are not being foolish about this," says Julia. "There are expensive fabrics, but they are durable. I hate to see things done cheaply and get tired. It's a long-term investment. We are looking over a five-year period."
Each hotel is also being developed on merit. Julia's first aim is to eliminate what she calls "black holes", such as faulty heating and wiring, and then to tackle the design on a needs-must basis. The 59-bedroom Woodlands Park will be one of the first to benefit from the redesigned bedrooms. So far, a sample room has been set up and work starts on the other bedrooms this month.
Some projects will be more ambitious than others. One that is likely to take time, for instance, is Nutfield Priory, near Redhill. According to Minshaw, the local council is so pleased that this historic building is being refurbished, it has granted planning permission to rebuild a 1960s extension and increase the footprint of the hotel, despite its location in green-belt land. More ambitiously, a tunnel is being planned to keep supplies and other services out of sight.
All the refurbished hotels will be rebranded as Hand Picked and room rates will inevitably rise. Julia can't put a figure on by how much, but each completed hotel will be pitched against the top hotels in the area. At the Priest House, near Derby, for instance, rates have been doubled, but that won't be the case throughout. While she expects to lose customers, Julia also expects to gain new ones.
She dismisses the fact that she is in competition with other hotels, explaining that she is trying to differentiate, so competition isn't an issue.
"I respect the AA rating system," Julia says. "If any of our hotels were three-star, I would like them to be the top 6%. The top percentage of three-star hotels has its own value."
As an industry outsider, Julia says she has been surprised at a number of issues. One is the lack of female applicants for top jobs - there is only one female general manager and one female chef in her group. But most of all she was shocked at the reality of the skills shortage and the high rate of staff turnover. In a bid to combat these problems at Hand Picked, she is using her status as a figurehead to create a more personal relationship with the staff than was possible when Macdonald Hotels was managing them. For instance, not only does she stay in all the hotels, she gets involved in the appointment of key staff.
Similarly, service champions are now appointed to train younger employees the "Hand Picked way", which helps to underline the message that a career path exists. "There's no point having a jewel of a hotel and no service," says Julia.
One area she is steering clear of is food. Apart from appointing the chefs, she doesn't interfere in the menu or style, preferring each restaurant to find its own way. Having said that, the chefs are expected to aim for two AA rosettes.
Despite her cool determination, Julia admits that moving into hotels has been a steep learning curve. Modestly, she points out that she has surrounded herself with experts at the head office in Sevenoaks - for instance, ex-Forte Hotel Group international sales director Judith Speller has joined as sales and marketing director.
Back in the UK, Julia is keeping half an eye open for more properties, but it won't distract her from the job in hand. "By this time next year we will have made huge inroads into the collection," she says.
Hand Picked Hotels
Tel: 01732 471001
Chairman and chief executive: Julia Hands
Estimated turnover for year ending November 2002: £42m
Estimated pre-tax profits for same period: growth of 30%, up to £7.5m
The portfolio Norton House, Edinburgh
Gwesty Seiont Manor, North Wales
Brandshatch Place, Brands Hatch, Kent
Buxted Park Country House, East Sussex
Chilston Park, nr Maidstone, Kent
Crathorne Hall, North Yorkshire
Ettington Park, Stratford-upon-Avon
The Haycock, nr Peterborough
Mollington Banastre, Chester
Nutfield Priory, nr Redhill, Surrey
The Priest House, Nr Derby
Rhinefield House, New Forest
Rookery Hall, Nantwich, Cheshire
Wood Hall, nr Wetherby, West Yorkshire
Woodlands Park, Cobham, Surrey
L'Horizon, St Brelade's Bay, Jersey
John Minshaw Designs
Tel: 020 7486 5777
An impeccably dressed Julia Hands is standing in the sample refurbished bathroom at the Woodlands Park hotel in Cobham, Surrey, sharing her ideas on what's important in hotel bedroom design.
"You see, you can easily clean under the loos," she says, pointing out that the lavatory is cantilevered off the floor.
A mix of style and durability is important to Julia, so the bathroom floors and walls are slab limestone and bedroom cabinets are a tough but beautiful solid oak. Julia has also specified overhead lights as well as lamps, believing that the trend for just the latter makes many hotel rooms too gloomy.
But practicality is tempered by Julia's desire for homeliness, which is why she brought in the man who refurbished her new home in Sevenoaks, designer John Minshaw. He has used luxurious materials such as silk, but on easily replaceable soft furnishings or headboards only, and although the curtains are frivolously floaty, there are blackout blinds as well. More wanton, perhaps, is the fact Minshaw has specified soft leather chairs by Andrew Muirhead. He admits leather is not a fabric that a hotel would use traditionally, but says it makes a room feel "more domestic".
"The joy of it is that Julia and I have built up a relationship and have brought ideas from Julia's home into the hotel," Minshaw says.
But, as Julia quickly interjects, luxury doesn't necessarily mean being impractical: "I have three dogs and four children, so when we did our home we wanted durable," she says.
One help Minshaw has had in designing the bedrooms comes from developments in technology. For instance, the bedrooms have plasma TV screens camouflaged behind mirrors, so leisure customers are not overwhelmed by an overly hi-tech room. "We think the mirror and plasma screen is a first. There is flat-screen technology now, but nine months ago we couldn't have done it," says Minshaw.
There are also CD players and videos, so delegates can play back their conference presentations. As for the details, wiring is screened behind removable covers, so it can be replaced with minimum fuss.
Work will start in earnest at the 59-bedroom Woodlands Park this month. Most of it is being carried out by Hand Picked's own design and build company, so there are inhouse surveyors and architects who can oversee the work, check tenders and benchmark for quality. "We know what we [inhouse] can achieve and so we know what can be achieved [by the builders]," says Julia.