With the original opening planned for 2012, the luxury Hampshire country house hotel, owned by billionaire Gerald Chan, is still yet to launch
Heckfield Place – the luxury country house hotel in Hampshire, which has delayed its opening for the past five years – was in fact ready to open in time for the London 2012 Olympics.
This information emerged during investigations by The Caterer to discover why the property, which was originally heralded as becoming a “world-beating” hotel, has failed to launch.
Details of the transformation of the 18th-century manor house, near Hook, from what used to be a training centre and wedding venue into a 70-bedroom hotel, were first announced in February 2011, with a prospective opening date of April 2012. Planning permission for the development was granted by Hart District Council in April 2009.
However, despite The Caterer being told on numerous occasions that Heckfield would definitely be opening within the next 12 months, no opening date has ever been confirmed.
Meanwhile, a host of staff who left high-profile positions elsewhere to join the project – lured by the prospect of working for a world-class hotel – have come and gone. Many have experienced frustration and anger at effectively putting their careers on hold for one, two or more years, without ever seeing the hotel operational, despite assurances to the contrary.
One person said the period spent working at Heckfield had been “career- limiting”.
There is also upset at what is described as “the extreme wastefulness” involved in destroying and discarding finished aspects of the hotel. One former employee said the situation was “immoral”.
No opening date has ever been confirmed for Heckfield Place. Key personnel to have joined the business and then moved on include Charles Oak, appointed from the May Fair hotel, London, as the original general manager, and husband-and- wife team Henry and Char Gray, who were brought on board as joint general managers in 2014 and left two years later. Meanwhile, two executive chefs – Chris Staines, who joined from the Mandarin Oriental hotel in London, and Barnaby Jones, who has extensive experience in luxury hotels in the Caribbean and Far East – have passed through its doors.
Food writer Tom Parker Bowles was initially brought on board as ‘food curator’, while former Michelin-starred chef Skye Gyngell, who was appointed culinary director in 2012, now runs Spring restaurant at Somerset House in London.
Numerous interior designers have also worked on the project, from Inge Moore to Summer Williams and Carole Roberts, but none of them are involved any longer.
So what exactly is going on at Heckfield Place, a property that initially set its sights on becoming “a unique country escape location”, with a highly sustainable food policy featuring a menu using ingredients from the hotel’s own farm on its 450-acre estate? It is clear from a number of former staff who have spoken to The Caterer that the prime reason for the delays is the poor management stemming from numerous changes in direction for the project over the course of the past five years.
Although the building work was initially completed in 2012 and a valuable piece of business secured for the duration of the Olympic Games that summer, the hotel failed to open because the owner, Gerald Chan of Morningside Group, a private equity company he co-founded with his family in 1986, was not happy with the result.
One individual who was involved in the early stages of the project said that although Chan would approve all designs, he would often dismiss them once they were put in place. As a result, work would be frequently ripped out, resulting in any budget that existed being blown out of the water by hundreds of thousands, or possibly millions, of pounds. Walls were built and then taken down, while a whole wing was reconfigured because the bedrooms were deemed not large enough.
A string of planning applications received by Hart District Council over the past 10 years highlights the ongoing indecision behind the design and development process of Heckfield Place. Just four months ago, the council approved plans to
amend an application – originally received in 2011 – to the spa building, which sits separate from the main hotel. The application for the amendment was made by Pomegranate Investments – which isn’t registered at Companies House.
Chan, originally from Hong Kong, is based in the US. He holds degrees in engineering, medical radiological physics, and radiation biology. Gerald and his brother Ronnie have a combined fortune of £2b, according to Hong Kong’s 50 Richest List published by Forbes.
Morningside, which continues to operate as a family-owned business, has investment interests in railroads, stone and tile manufacturers, machinery manufacturers and refined product tankers.
A spokesperson for Quintessentially PR, which has represented Heckfield Place over the past six years, declined to say who was now overseeing the development of the property.
Paul De Meo, who was running the project in the early years as a director of both Heckfield Management and Operis Management, the contractor on the building, appears to have stepped away from the venture in 2015 and is now based in Houston, Texas.
Chan was a director of three companies connected to Heckfield, but resigned in 2012. The current directors of Heckfield Management Holdings and a myriad of related businesses include Lars Sorensen and Seen Ai Ting. Building services consultancy Apex Core is now believed to have taken over the project.
Quintessentially also declined to answer questions regarding the ongoing delay surrounding the opening of Heckfield Place. However, it issued the following statement: “The development of Heckfield Place is progressing well and became a larger project than originally planned. Much of the time has been invested into developing estate infrastructure to address conservation and self-sustainability of the estate while delivering best in class experience of future guests, the community and employees alike. Like all complex infrastructure projects, specialists have been brought in over time to execute different aspects of the development but the key management team remains the same and actively involved. There will be an announcement when an opening date is agreed.”
Quintessentially added that it expected to be able to announce “a date for the launch very soon”.
It remains to be seen when that may be. Several former members of staff are uncertain that Heckfield will ever open.