Conference connections

01 January 2000
Conference connections

Rudding Park Hotel is Harrogate's first new hotel in more than 20 years and if its first two months of trading are any pointer, it is going to be a major success.

The hotel, privately owned by the Mackaness family, was built to complement an existing conference and banqueting business: set up 10 years ago in a restored, Grade I-listed Regency house, Rudding Park House is located across the courtyard from the newly built hotel.

The Mackaness family bought the 2,000-acre Rudding Park estate in 1972. In the years that followed, they set about restoring the house: the conference and banqueting facility opened in November 1987 after a £1m refit. The estate now also includes an 18-hole golf course (opened in June 1994), an off-road track and a holiday and leisure park.

As early as 1988, the family had begun investigating the costs involved in building a hotel to service the conference business. They employed London-based hotel consultants Pannell Kerr Forster (PKF) to conduct a costs and feasibility study.

"We knew we had a good product - not many venues have the range of conference room sizes we offer - but residential accommodation was the key to our continued success," says Simon Mackaness, managing director of the hotel, conference and banqueting facilities.

"The quoted cost of £10m killed off any immediate enthusiasm to get started," says Mackaness wryly. "We're a cautious family when it comes to outlaying that kind of money. In the event there was a recession, and we were extremely pleased we had taken the decision to build in our own timescale. Harrogate has been over-supplied with hotel beds until recently. The last hotel built was the Moat House, during the 1970s."

By the time PKF updated the report in the early 1990s, the estimated cost had spiralled downward to an acceptable £3m. In April 1996 work commenced and on 15 April 1997 Rudding Park Hotel opened its doors for business.

The hotel is an all-Yorkshire affair, designed by a Harrogate firm of architects Bolton & Crosby; built by Bradford-based Totty Construction from Ashlar limestone quarried at Cadeby, near Doncaster; and with interior decoration by designer Sue Horsley of Ilkley.

The 50-bed hotel, which includes two suites, has achieved its rack rate on 25% of bookings since opening, a fact manager Peter Banks is delighted with. "We have an expected occupancy rate of 60% for the first six months. Obviously we don't achieve rack rate on all bookings, as the conference rate is £145, all-inclusive of bed, breakfast, lunch, dinner, morning and afternoon tea and conference facilities, but to have had 59% occupancy in our first two months with an achieved room rate of £74.57 is very encouraging."

Banks has overall control of the hotel and its 29 staff, from bedrooms through to the restaurant. The 60-seat restaurant is still being finely tuned, with Banks and executive chef David Parker constantly tweaking the menu to find the right mix. Average covers during the daytime are still fairly low - between six and 10, with an average spend of £13 on food and £2 on beverages. At dinner, between 30 and 65 covers are served, with the spend averaging £17.50 for food and £7.40 for drink.

Banks comes with experience from some of the big players - most recently the Hilton on Park Lane in London, and earlier stints at the Savoy, London, and St Andrews Old Course Hotel in Scotland. He is keen to see the hotel promoted as "a hotel in the country, not a country hotel. We are realistically set up as a businessman's hotel, with all our other facilities complementing that pattern, although we are naturally more than happy to cater for other guests," he says. "This is where the industry needs to head, with staff having time to chat with guests, rather than being merely administrators pushing papers around."

All the latest technology has been installed in hotel bedrooms. Modem points, voice mail and electronic key locks are not what you expect to find in the provinces, but Rudding Park has invested heavily in the latest toys in its attempt to attract the cream of business into its lair.

The Mackaness family is looking for a good return. The family invested £2m of their own money and borrowed £2m from Lloyds Bank.

Simon Mackaness expects the loan to be repaid in eight years, and is looking for a projected £3.2m turnover in the first full year to help achieve his goal, with a further £850,000 expected from the golf course. The conference facility alone turned over close to £1.5m last year, up from £447,000 10 years ago.

Mackaness never doubted the hotel would be a success. "We had the customers and the business. What we need to do next is ensure our customer base knows we are now residential," he says. "The future is in 50- to 80-bed hotels. Above that they become impersonal machines. This is not too voluminous and we're aiming at the top end of the residential market. I'd like to see an extra 20 or 30 rooms in the future.

"I'm an accountant by trade; my brother Mark is a chartered surveyor. We know nothing about running hotels so we've employed top staff who are professionals in their area. Planning and forethought are the keys to success.

"Our unique selling point is that we are a modern unit with the largest conference facilities in the North of England; we have a historic Grade I-listed Regency building; the parkland is superbly landscaped with many 200- to 300-year-old trees and several lakes; an adjoining golf course with a driving range; an off-road driving track; and the adaptability to try anything. We are a mini-resort complex, privately run, offering high-quality service throughout."

Marketing the hotel isn't a problem. Virgin has just added Rudding Park to its stable of 30 properties. The investment by Rudding Park (an annual fee of £13,000, plus commission of about 8%on accommodation bookings made by Virgin) has already been recouped in £15,000 worth of business, says Mackaness. He has a figure of £100,000 per annum in mind: "We are the second- largest unit for Virgin in the UK, and for the corporate market we are ideal."

The hotel is definitely on its way to success, only six weeks after openingit already has four stars from both the AA and RAC and one AA rosette. As Mackaness says: "The best business is repeat business and we've never been short of that."

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