Sitting in the great library at Althorp House, Northamptonshire, surrounded by fabulous paintings and objets d’art, talk of average spend and mailshots sounds incongruous. These days it is hard to make stately homes pay their way and this “uppity little hotelier”, as David Horton-Fawkes describes himself, was brought in last year as general manager to apply commercial nous.
He was general manager at Hunstreet House, the Bath country house hotel, when Earl Spencer made him the offer to join Althorp House in 1995. It took some negotiation because Horton-Fawkes was happy at Hunstreet House. “I adored it,” he says. “It was a most beautiful hotel; a proper country house hotel, not some sort of Chelsea-on-Avon.”
He trained at London’s Savoy hotel, one of two students out of 22 to survive the five-year course. He went to the Savoy from Eton, where the masters were “utterly horrified” by his childhood ambition to run a hotel.
His next job, at Edwardian Hotels as a deputy general manager, was a culture shock. “They saw me as some sort of alien being,” he recalls. “I felt very conscious that the Savoy had taught me how to do things beautifully, but I didn’t feel I had any business skills. Edwardian was and is an aggressive, up-and-coming company run purely by businessmen, not hoteliers.”
Huntstreet House had been sold to the Arcadian Group by John and Thea du Pays when Horton-Fawkes joined as general manager in September 1992. Turnover had dropped from £1m a year to £600,000, the place was badly in need of refurbishment and its image needed restoring.
Horton-Fawkes fought to run the hotel the way he wanted and succeeded in increasing turnover by 35%, resisting Arcadian’s attempts to impose a corporate identity on the hotel.
“One of the prime attractions of a country house hotel is the owner/operator image,” he declares.
“I felt that people who come to an intimate 21-bedroom hotel want to feel as though they are guests in someone’s home.”
Despite its grandeur, Althorp House has the “lived in” feel that Horton-Fawkes is keen to promote. “Stately homes have a questionable reputation as providers of hospitality,” he admits. “The public perception is of a cold, forbidding, unfriendly place.”
The owners and their advisers often have few commercial instincts, he believes. “A potential client’s first contact is usually with the land agent whose background and training is based entirely on farm management. The first thing you get presented with is a list of things you can’t touch and ropes you can’t cross.”
Horton-Fawkes has changed all that. With the house open to the public for only 30 days a year, corporate clients can also enjoy it and functions are tailored to their requirements.
Clients can choose from six magnificent venues and can even use the solid silver cutlery service that belonged to the great Duke of Marlborough. Four cellars contain some “cracking” wines and an in-house chef is employed. “It’s a certain extravagance,” Horton-Fawkes confides, “but we see it as an investment for the future.”
On the kitchen noticeboard, letters from grateful clients are pinned up for staff to see. “That sort of interaction is not necessarily common in this sort of setting,” he points out. “In a hotel, guests tend to feel secure with the staff being available, but not in a house where the idea is for the staff not to be seen.”
He adds: “If I miss anything, it’s the day-to-day contact with staff. The level of business is sporadic so you have to work hard to generate vision and enthusiasm.”
His faith in his ability to achieve the aim of breaking even within three years has met with “extreme cynicism” from some of the old guard, but that has made him all the more determined.
A new hotel-style brochure has replaced the traditional guide book and a database has been compiled to target appropriate companies. Horton-Fawkes hopes Althorp House will soon be wired to the Internet. Won’t the Spencer ancestors be turning in their graves? “I think some of them would actually have liked that,” he smiles.