With a young family and no previous industry experience, Hari and Colin Fell took over the 20-bedroom Tudor Farmhouse hotel on the edge of the Forest of Dean from Hari's parents just over a year ago.
Hari, 34, who was previously an estate agent, holiday rep and trainee solicitor, admits she has a "wishy-washy" background, while Colin, 38, was a customer services manager at a media-monitoring company before becoming deputy general manager at the hotel. He is now joint-general manager and company secretary. They have a son, Matthew, who's nearly two.
"This is more of a way of life than a job, and that's a big part of its allure," says Hari. "We moved on site to give us a better work-life balance. Now Colin gets to see Matthew more, and it's easier for me to work and manage the childcare. It just gives us that extra flexibility."
Their first year proved a difficult one after they had two head chefs who didn't work out. One by one the kitchen brigade left. Food costs went up, and staff costs soared as they hired temps to fill in. Continuity and stability was lost. Hari explains: "One month, GP was 35%. The biggest problem was managing our costs. It was a disastrous situation."
In April 2008 the Fells hired Blaine Reed, formerly of the Old Vicarage hotel in Worfield, Shropshire, who had also run his own restaurant, and now things are improving. The Fells employ about 22 people in the local area. Trade is mainly food-led with 73% dry and 27% wet. The Fells were pleased with turnover in the last six months of 2008 (just over £300,000), but January - with two weeks closed for refurbishment and then the snowstorms - meant business was "pretty crap".
Hari adds: "We haven't seen much direct effect of recession yet, but some of our regular business guests have recently been made redundant, which made it really hit home. Advance bookings are low, but they're not yet the lowest we've ever seen. People seem to be leaving bookings later now."
They are also aware of their shortcomings. Hari explains: "There are things we know we can improve, like the fabric of the hotel and a more polished service, but generally the hotel does pretty well in terms of guest experience, friendliness and food. It's the other aspects of the business we need help with - we have no financial or marketing training. It's easy to become entrenched in a ‘this is the way we've always done it' mentality, when actually it's not necessarily the best way. It's just that you don't know any other way to do it."
Mentor Robin Hutson admires the Fells' achievements to date, but adds: "I sensed a slight lack of confidence that may be holding them back. In many respects they have got it right: the staff are very friendly, which is really important, and the sense of owners who care is there in abundance, so they should definitely keep that going."
However, the hotel uses its "corporate rate" very liberally, he discovered food costs are about 3-4% too high, at 37% and the menu focus is perhaps a touch too fine-dining for the local market's needs. Hutson also suggests comprehensive training regarding the wines and adding more expensive bins at around the £35 mark. He aims to help generate an additional £50,000-£60,000 of profit for 2009.
The Farmhouse was shut for the first two weeks of January for planned refurbishment. Then the snow hit.
Although the snow never got so bad that guests were stranded, it was certainly a worrying time. With 80% of guests cancelling, Hari and Colin Fell saw what had looked like a reasonable week decimated. They also had to decide on whether to enforce their cancellation policy.
Hari says: "Most of our cancellations were either corporate or regulars who we didn't charge a fee. One group was a prospective wedding party, so it wouldn't have been in our interests to have charged them a cancellation fee. It's basically down to goodwill. Most of our custom is regular, so they've already booked back again."
Staff also struggled to get in, so multiskilling was necessary. Reception ended up doing the housekeeping, while Colin was busy scouring the county for grit, but failing to find any.
Hari says: "At least the people we did have staying all ate in."