The Caterer interview: Nuno César de Sá, general manager, Grantley Hall

22 November 2023 by

The general manager at Grantley Hall in Ripon, Yorkshire, wants to hit the pinnacle of luxury for guests, with superlative service at all times

Your last position was at Rudding Park in Harrogate, where you were hotel manager for 10 years. What was behind your decision to move to Grantley Hall this summer?

When I was at Rudding Park, I observed the opening of Grantley Hall from a distance. When Andrew [McPherson, former general manager at Grantley Hal] was leaving and the opportunity arose to go and meet the family who own the hotel, I couldn't not take it. We talked for five hours and I knew straight away it was a different challenge and there was the amazing prospect of making this hotel the best facility in the UK. And for someone who has mainly worked for two companies – the Mandarin Oriental and Rudding Park – coming to Grantley made me feel alive again.

What's been the biggest challenge in moving to Grantley Hall?

It is out of my comfort zone. After having worked at Rudding Park [cumulatively] for more than 24 years, I knew every nut and bolt, and suddenly, when I moved here in July, all my bearings were put into question. For example, I changed my leadership style. I am democratic; I manage people by bringing them together, and before I decide anything, I let people know. But here, I am the boss of one of the biggest hotels in the country, so I had to set boundaries and standards very high and say I am not going to accept certain things.

This place is pure perfection, so even if I see a tiny weed in the grass, I will not accept it.

I know in the grand scheme of things it is not a big deal, but it is the message that's being sent to people. You could say it is a more autocratic style of leadership, which is not my natural habitat, but here, I want to get that message of pure perfection across while also wanting work to be fun – because if it isn't fun, it's pointless.

You have been in the high-end hotel sector for 30 years – what can you learn from Grantley Hall and vice versa?

Ultimately, all guests have the same need: they want to be cared for. From my training at the Mandarin Oriental and at Rudding Park, the guests were the very centre of the company and that's what I want to pass on to the organisation. What I can learn from my new role is about respecting the integrity of a place, because a lot of money and thought was spent at Grantley during its refurbishment. I am learning more and more about the pure luxury that Grantley offers – it's a different ballgame.

When Grantley Hall opened in 2019, the focus was on attracting the UK market, particularly London. Is that still the case?

We have many Americans and Asian guests, especially from Singapore, coming here. They first go to London, then to Grantley Hall, then they visit Edinburgh and then go to Gleneagles. For the UK market it is still very London-led, but there are locals with a lot of money who visit us. I would say the split is 75% UK market and 25% overseas guests.

How has occupancy been this year?

Occupancy is good – August, for example, was 93% with a net ADR of £550. Guests often stay three nights. On average, because we are very food and beverage-led, they will stay three nights to try the different restaurants.

And how are room rates holding up?

Our room rates are incredible; they are comparable to London average room rates at £750. Our premier rooms, the Royal Suite at over £3,000 a night and the Presidential Suite, at over £2,000 a night, are always full. Again, it's a mixture of international guest bookings and people from the UK who book a room as a treat. Guests know as soon as they arrive they are taken to a different dimension of perfection and are treated like royalty.

How do you ensure guests feel they've had value for money?

There are different facets – first, it is the hardware. We are lucky that the owners have spent what they've spent and that the hotel is beautiful. That's the easy part.

The hard bit is making sure the mindset of the staff is as passionate and obsessed with guest service as I am. So many of them do an amazing job already, but what I need is for everybody to be focused, by two million per cent, on the guests. I tell them to not just serve guests, but to get into the brain of the guests and pick up on what makes them feel special.

I am implementing a guest experience team, so I will have eight members of staff whose sole job is to go round picking up important information from guests. They're the cream in the Irish coffee. If there's a problem, they sort it out. I want every guest to leave Grantley Hall thinking it's the best experience in the world.

There have been some significant openings in the luxury country house hotel market in the past couple of years – what are your plans to make Grantley Hall stand out?

It's all about experiences. From the person who wants to spend £300,000 on a wedding to that guest who works really hard and wants to spend £750 a night, we're here to make that person feel special. That means emotionally connecting with the guest and that is where my guest experience team come in, to be intuitive to the guests' needs.

But to have that opportunity, we need to get guests into the hotel, and we do that through all the classic attractions. We have clay pigeon shooting, yoga classes, beautiful gardens to walk around, an F1 simulator as well as the four amazing F&B outlets. And we have a club! It's called Valeria's and it's a Champagne and cocktail bar that's cool and trendy. So, you attract guests with those offerings and then, when they arrive, you get to their heart.

How do guests typically make use of the multiple on-site restaurants?

We have four restaurant offerings, and we prefer guests finish with the top offering, which is our one-Michelin-starred restaurant Shaun Rankin. That way, there's an elevation – the grand finale. They usually start with Fletchers, which is a classic luxury brasserie, and then they go to EightyEight, which offers Far Eastern flavours with Yorkshire produce. Many will also try our afternoon tea in our Main Hall, which is unbelievable – we have 11 pastry chefs, just for afternoon tea – and then they head to fine dining.

Are there plans to add or alter the offering?

In time, there are plans to improve the kitchen garden. One of the owners and my boss, Richard Sykes, is a visionary and he wants to build things for our guests so they can have great experiences all the time. Other nearby hotels' kitchen gardens are better and we need to improve ours.

What is unique about Grantley's spa?

There's a lot of potential with the spa. The gym is incredible, but I only have 20 members.

I feel the spa is a jewel that has not yet been opened up properly. We have just added a Nordic Spa Garden with some ice baths outside and, in January, we're going to build some additional Jacuzzis. It is a beautiful and gorgeous and, in time, it will get better.

Grantley Hall has Grantley Academy, to train, develop and retain talent, tell us more about it

We have a talent and development manager who is in charge of the academy, but I want to introduce a management training programme. I also want alternative training, such as actor training. I'm completely wacky about certain things! My staff are not just servers, they have to be actors. Guests want to see you acting; they don't care if you have a problem with your wife or other issues, they want to feel special. It is as if you were going to watch Lion King – you pay to see people performing as a lion. So when I go around the hotel to the different departments, I say, "roar!" and the staff know what I mean: be the lion. Some people are naturally good at acting, others are not. To develop the art of acting, you have to be natural, not fake.

What have you learned elsewhere that you would like to implement at Grantley?

I've learned that the most important people in the organisation are the ones who are paid the least, because they have more power than any of us. I can shift the culture, but if the woman who is serving in the bar or the guy who polishes the silver is not on tiptop form, all my work is gone. To make them feel special they need to be empowered. If they know the power they have in the organisation, they can feel proud in their job. I tell them: "Guys, you have more power than anyone else. You can make a guests laugh or cry with happiness." No one else has that power.

Nuno César de Sá's CV

July 2023-present

General manager, Grantley Hall, Ripon, Yorkshire

June 2008-July 2023

Hotel manager and resort operations, Rudding Park, Harrogate, Yorkshire

August 2006-June 2008

Interim general manager, Wood Hall Hotel and Spa, Wetherby, Yorkshire

July 2001-August 2006

Food and beverage manager, Rudding Park, Harrogate, Yorkshire

July 1995 – June 2005

Various roles including hotel management trainee, food and beverage co-ordinator, and, restaurant manager, Mandarin Oriental, Macao, MSAR

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