Danny Pecorelli, managing director of Exclusive Hotels and Venues, has been named the 2014 Hotelier of the Year, sponsored by Casna Group. Janet Harmer spends a day in the life of a passionately committed hotel operator who regards people as the greatest strength of his business
It is just after 8am on a glorious autumnal morning and enthusiastic members are arriving at Mannings Heath golf club in the heart of the West Sussex countryside.
Greeting them at the door is Danny Pecorelli, along with the club's newly installed general manager Stephanie Hall. Many of the golfers are keen to chat and share their thoughts on how the greens are playing and the general running of the club, before setting off for the first tee.
The views of members, like those of hotel guests, are taken very seriously by Pecorelli in his role as managing director of Exclusive Hotels and Venues, a portfolio of four five-AA-star hotels, two venues and the aforementioned golf club.
The mantra of Exclusive Hotels is to create ‘wow' experiences for guests and keeping on top of the thoughts of customers is the best way to ensure this is happening.
It is one of many aspects of running the business that Pecorelli continually oversees, alongside ensuring people throughout the company are nurtured and the figures are on target. He achieves this not by sitting in an ivory tower of an office, but by getting out into each property and keeping on top of every detail of the operation Pecorelli's dynamic and inspirational leadership in creating a collection of impressively performing hotels, venues and restaurants, which have together accumulated an unprecedented 20 AA stars and four Michelin stars, while enjoying the support of a team of nearly 700 and having an ongoing involvement in the wider industry, strongly resonated with the judges as they unanimously selected him as the 32nd Hotelier of the Year.
After a day spent with Pecorelli, it quickly becomes clear that as well as having a strong vision about what customers want from hotels and restaurants, it is his warmth and genuine desire to cultivate an inclusive working environment in which people will flourish to the best of their abilities that makes him stand out
as an exceptional hotelier.
Based at the group's original hotel, Pennyhill Park, Pecorelli visits all the other properties at least once every fortnight and today I'm joining him at Mannings Heath before moving on to nearby South Lodge.
Having finished speaking with golf club members, we move into Hall's office. Hall is typical of many employees in the company who, with encouragement, training and support, have moved through the ranks. She was promoted into her new role last month from group business development manager, having joined the company four-and-a-half years ago, undertaking maternity cover for a sales manager role. So enthused was she by her experience in the temporary role, she applied to join Exclusive Hotels permanently.
"There are so many opportunities for both internal and external development," says Hall, who has been supported by Exclusive to take the one-year accelerated Cranfield University Talent Development Programme, after being named group manager of the year. "It was a life-changing experience," she says.
Today's meeting kicks off with a discussion on forthcoming investments required for paths and bunkers at the club, where Pecorelli started his career with the company that his father Giuseppe founded in 1981, with the acquisition of what was then the 17-bedroom Pennyhill Park. Discussions move on to the feedback
from members this morning and during the club's recent annual general meeting.
"It is vital that we keep the lines of communications with our members and guests open," says Pecorelli. "We are feedback junkies and listen to everything that is said about the hotels and golf club."
Pecorelli also signs-off the training programme for the club's retail assistant, David Williamson, who wants to become a golf professional and undertake his PGA qualifications.
"Some employees at other clubs have to selffund this training, but as well as paying over the minimum wage, we are always happy to finance opportunities for staff to develop their careers," says Pecorelli.
Hall then runs through a series of maintenance and health and safety issues: a new spike-proof carpet is required for the ladies' changing room, a 10-year inspection on a lake in the estate is due, and a fire inspection is set to take place next week. "We carry out our own internal audits with a fire expert, so that we are ahead of the game when it comes to external inspections," explains Pecorelli.
Other subjects touched upon include next year's Rugby World Cup. With Pennyhill Park the official training base for the England rugby team, Exclusive Hotels is already well ahead of the curve when it comes to the six-week tournament, which is expecting nearly three million spectators, including 400,000 overseas visitors, during September and October. Mannings Heath and South Lodge are set to benefit from matches being held in Brighton, just under 20 miles away. "We are now targeting sponsors around the event," says Pecorelli.
Pecorelli and Hall agree that the complexity of running a hotel - or a golf club - with myriad problems to attend to, is never-ending. "We have to prioritise what needs to be done now and leave aside what can wait," he explains. To help him work his way through, Pecorelli is an enthusiastic advocate of mind maps and is encouraging his GMs to use them. On to South Lodge, a hotel that has continually evolved since joining the Exclusive family in 1985, and we meet with catering and banqueting assistant manager Victoria Neilson.
She has recently completed the nine-month Exclusive Management Academy (EMA) programme, aimed at aspiring leaders within the business. It is one of several training initiatives run by the company alongside its Graduate Management Scheme and Exclusive Chefs' Academy.
A key task of each EMA programme is a project that will fulfil a genuine business need within the company. This year, the participants were asked to revamp the staff recognition scheme across the group to replace the systems operated by each property.
The result is the Wow Awards, a programme that enables any member of staff to nominate a colleague for a reward, whereas previously only senior managers could recommend recognition. Since its introduction in June 2014, there have been nominations for 360 awards across five levels, with the recipients being
offered a choice of prizes from shopping vouchers and spa products to digital cameras and Nespresso coffee machines.
Some tweaks need to be made, but overall, Pecorelli is hugely impressed by what the EMA graduates have achieved, declaring it one of the best projects to come out of the academy. For Neilson, the opportunity to be involved in the EMA has been a major boost to her confidence. "I feel much more a part of the
business, having got to understand better how it operates," she says.
Before meeting with human resources manager Jenny Dance, a member of the Exclusive team since 2011, Pecorelli breaks off to take a phone call from Penny Moore, chairman of Hospitality Action, the industry charity he supports. They speak about a re-run of the inaugural Back to the Floor event held at Pennyhill Park in which leading hoteliers became waiters for the night and raised £25,000. A second event, organised by Pecorelli and Philip Newman-Hall of Belmond
Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, is to take place next year at the Langham London.
Hospitality Action is just one of a host of industry bodies and charities that Pecorelli frequently champions. He has supported the work of Springboard and Macmillan Cancer Support through long-distance cycle rides and created a bedroom at the Edge Hotel School at a cost of £50,000 (as well as funding a £3,000
two-year scholarship for students). He is also a Master Innholder and actively involved in the work of the British Hospitality Association and the Institute of Hospitality.
Back to the HR meeting and Dance fills Pecorelli in on a possible "fantastic" cover for her while she is away. Also discussed is an issue with the high turnover of kitchen porters in the South Lodge kitchen. "We are trying to locate what the problem is," explains Dance.
Other issues up for discussion include the refurbished staff canteen, which will include a relaxation area with a tabletop games machine. "It is our attempt at a 'Googlefication' of the staff area, having been inspired by a visit to Google's London office," says Pecorelli, who always chooses to eat in the staff canteen rather than in the Michelin-starred Pass or main Camellia restaurant when visiting South Lodge.
The final meeting of the day is with the hotel's general manager, David Connell, an Exclusive Hotels employee for 12 years, the past two in his current role. He shows us around the latest improvement project, the refurbishment and upgrading of six bedrooms with interiors designed by BM Trevillion Interiors.
"Every time we do a new room, we have to think of a way of introducing an extra wow factor," explains Pecorelli. "Eventually those wow factors, such as heated mirrors in the bathroom and a tablet device in every bedroom, becomes standard throughout."
Moving into the newly renovated Arundel videoconferencing suite, created at a cost of £130,000, it is clear that a wow element has been well and truly installed here. "We found that we were not providing the same level of IT as clients had in their own offices, particularly at board director level, and so we have upped our game with an AMX Enzo system of sharing information via video screens," says Connell. The suite will now be used as a benchmark to create improvements to conference areas across the Exclusive portfolio.
Every element of Pecorelli's input into the business is focused on improving the staff and guest experience, and none more so than the plans for a £7.5m spa at South Lodge. Currently in the process of finalising the design of what will be a standalone eco-friendly building in the grounds of the hotel, it is hoped that planning permission will be approved by April next year with a view to complete its development by 2017. It will incorporate 10 treatment rooms, a nail bar and natural outdoor swimming pool. Funding will come from the 8.5% of the group's annual turnover, which is always put aside for capital investment
and the Allied-Irish and RBS banks.
Pecorelli and Connell discuss whether or not to incorporate a bio-mass boiler and the style of bedroom lodges alongside the spa. "There has to be a strong business case for such a major new development," explains Pecorelli. "The average room rate and occupancy at Pennyhill Park - our only property with a spa - is higher than at any of our other properties. We believe a spa at South Lodge will help drive leisure business."
Occupancy at Pennyhill has grown from 59% during pre-spa days to 70% today.
But while Pecorelli is focused on the physical product, once again he highlights that it is the staff that will make the spa a success. "Getting the right staff in to start with, ensuring they are enthusiastic and want to remain with us, is at the heart of what we do," he says.
When it comes to talking about his input in turning Exclusive Hotels into the tour de force that it is today, with a turnover that has doubled over the past 10 years, Pecorelli is humble about his achievements. He is, in fact, overwhelmed that he has been even considered for the Hotelier of the Year award, the ultimate accolade for a hotel operator in the UK, let alone be awarded the title.
"I feel something of an imposter to be following such eminent characters as Ramon Pajares, someone I very much looked up to when I worked at the Four Seasons," he says. "It is lovely to think your peers have voted for you."
Pecorelli won't blow his own trumpet, but his staff are eager to do it for him. Sheila Sheppard, his PA for nine years, speaks on behalf of the rest of the team.
"Danny is an amazing boss," she says. "He is a hard worker who doesn't seem to stop, but still remains so calm, caring, appreciative and honest with all levels of the team. Most of all he is extremely passionate about his people. Danny always finds time for his family in between his hectic day-to-day schedule."
As if to prove this final point, Pecorelli ends a busy day of meetings at Mannings Heath and South Lodge by driving directly to Heathrow Airport with his wife, Carolyne, and two children, Poppy, 17, and Luke, 15, for a short break in New York over half-term.
Pecorelli is a hotelier who continually leads by example, innovates, inspires his team and relentlessly works hard at helping those less fortunate than himself. He also shows that it is possible to achieve the seemingly impossible: a work-life balance.
The judges' verdict
Danny Pecorelli is a consummate hotelier who is helping to shape the future of hospitality, particularly in food and beverage. He also makes a very valuable
contribution to the industry.
Harry Murray, chairman, Lucknam Park hotel & spa and 1986 Hotelier of the Year
Danny Pecorelli is a dynamic, exciting, and energetic choice, who will be inspirational to a wider audience.
Gordon Campbell Gray, chairman, CampbellGray Hotels and 2002 Hotelier of the Year
Danny's great skill is to run a large organisation with the level of attention to detail and personalisation normally only seen in a smaller business. His relationship with his team and his customers, as well as his grip on the daily concerns of each of his hotels, is quite unique in a company of this size. Alongside this, he still finds the time to make a difference on the wider issues facing the industry.
Richard Ball, managing director, Calcot Manor, Tetbury, and 2006 Hotelier of the Year
If you were asked to paint a picture of the modern hotelier it would look like Danny Pecorelli! He possesses all the qualities required to operate hotels in
this day and age - an understanding that his people are at the core of everything he does, alongside an awareness that without making his businesses efficient and profitable there would be nothing for those people to do.
Andrew McKenzie, managing director, the Vineyard Group, and 2008 Hotelier of the Year
As someone who has a genuine passion for the industry, is totally committed to encouraging people to consider it as a career opportunity and fully supportive of those who want to progress and develop, Danny is a worthy winner of Hotelier of the Year.
Jonathan Raggett, managing director, Red Carnation Hotels, and 2009 Hotelier of the Year
Despite the fact that Danny's empire has continued to grow and go from strength to strength he has managed to retain a very personal touch with many of his key clients and his staff. He also has the accolades to prove that quality and service are equal to commerciality. In among all of this he makes time for more than his fair share of extracurricular industry participation and is one of the most significant fundraisers for industry charities in the country.
Andrew Stembridge, managing director, Chewton Glen & Cliveden House, and 2010 Hotelier of the Year
Danny Pecorelli champions the highest standards of traditional hospitality and hotelkeeping with dignity and integrity while at the same time having a thoroughly modern and innovative approach to driving the business through the mentoring and development of his people.
Stephen Carter, managing director, De Vere Cameron House, and 2011 Hotelier of the Year
Modest in his approach, Danny is tireless in the pursuit of developing success at Exclusive Hotels, while being actively involved in giving back to the industry. Danny is renowned for his strong conviction of attaining culinary excellence, through investment in training and development of young talent.
Stuart Bowery, general manager, Grosvenor House, A JW Marriott Hotel, London, and 2013 Hotelier of the Year
Danny is hugely respected by the teams in each of his hotels, and enthusiastically works tirelessly in putting back into hospitality and supporting the industry charities through good works.
Stuart Johnson, general manager, Brown's hotel, London, and 2012 Hotelier of the Year
Danny Pecorelli hates the idea of standing still. He is a restless innovator, always seeking new ways of making his hotels the best they can possibly be. He is not afraid to invest to achieve his aims, as shown by the remarkable collection of Michelin stars and other accolades garnered by the hotels' restaurants. Yet, despite his role as managing director of the group, he remains very much a hands-on hotelier, spending much of his time walking the floor to meet guests and
interacting with employees at all levels of the business.
Dominic Walsh, business reporter (leisure/drinks), The Times
Danny is an inspirational, modern-day hotelier who is totally passionate about his customers, his people and his hotels. His constant focus on delivering hotelkeeping excellence through hospitality and service and ongoing innovation continues to impress. He is also totally committed to developing young people and a strong food culture throughout the business, which has resulted in a destination restaurant in each hotel
Simon Numphud, hotel services manager, AA Hotel Services
Exclusive Hotels and Venues - the lowdown
Exclusive Hotels and Venues comprises four hotels, two venues, one golf club and Exclusive Hotel Management (a subsidiary that manages four independently-owned hotels: Storrs Hall, Windermere, Cumbria; Barton Grange, Preston, Lancashire; Lion Quays, Oswestry, Shropshire; and the Quay hotel, Conwy, North Wales)
Founded 1981 by Giuseppe Pecorelli, a former executive of Forte Hotels
Annual turnover £50m
Total staff 686
Business split Bedrooms 45%; food and beverage 40%; leisure, spa, golf and retail 15%
Pennyhill Park hotel & spa, Bagshot, Surrey
- 123 bedrooms
- Accolades Five AA red stars, five AA rosettes and two Michelin stars in Michael Wignall at the Latymer and two AA rosettes in the Brasserie
South Lodge hotel (plus Mannings Heath golf club), Lower Beeding, West Sussex
- 89 bedrooms
- Accolades Five AA stars, four AA rosettes and one Michelin star in the Pass and two AA rosettes in Camellia restaurant
Manor House hotel & golf club, Castle Combe, Wiltshire
- 48 bedrooms
- Accolades Five AA stars, three AA rosettes and one Michelin star at the Bybrook restaurant
Lainston House hotel, Winchester, Hampshire
- 49 bedrooms
- Accolades Five AA stars, three AA rosettes in the Avenue restaurant
EH VENUES - LUXURY CONFERENCE VENUES
Fanhams Hall hotel, Ware, Hertfordshire
Royal Berkshire hotel, Ascot, Berkshire
What the sponsor says
We are always proud to sponsor the Hotelier of the Year Award because it highlights the excellent work taking place in today's hospitality industry. Being successful in this industry at this level takes hard work, 24-hour commitment and a total dedication to excellence. These are standards and work ethics that we at Casna share. That's why we are so delighted to see our colleagues in the industry reap the fruits of their hard work and inspiration. To become Hotelier of the Year is an industry accolade of success that we are honoured to be associated with.
Nick Appell, managing director, Casna Group