When Luton Hoo opens its doors on 1 October, it will mark a big leap forward for Elite Hotels. The Grade I-listed building is easily the company's biggest project to date, as Rosalind Mullen discovers
Luton Hoo? Certainly it's an unusual name, and one you might not have heard of, but this 18th-century stately pile has seen a lot of action. It was used in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral, the Queen spent her wedding night here and Churchill was a visitor. And by next month, anyone with a relatively buoyant bank balance will be able to check in for a bit of R&R.
Elite Hotels, the small, independent hotel group, bought the dilapidated Robert Adams-designed house in 1999 for an undisclosed purchase price. Some eight years and £60m later, the company is about to realise its dream of opening Luton Hoo as a luxury hotel set in more than 1,000 acres.
It has been quite a journey. The company searched for a suitable site for years, and although it bought Luton Hoo in 1999, the fact it was Grade I-listed meant it had to spend several years negotiating planning permission and researching archives so work didn't start until November 2005.
"Our initial reaction was that it was too big a job," admits Elite Hotels managing director Graeme Bateman. "And there have been times when we have thought ‘why on earth?"
In fact, Bateman answers his own question, explaining that the long-term aim is to use Luton Hoo to raise the profile of Elite, which has three other hotels. However, as this has been such as massive project, it's perhaps no surprise that the company is currently not in acquisitive mood. It plans to spend up to three years consolidating to make sure "service standards are up there" and then move cautiously. Six hotels will probably be the limit.
"We see it as a UK-based company, because we like to have hands-on control," says Bateman, who visits every hotel for a day once a month. This gives heads of department a sense of involvement as they can discuss ideas directly with the managing director, meaning the decision-making process has fewer tiers. It also means Bateman understands the challenges his general managers face.
"We can provide a personal service and we don't demand that our general managers provide what isn't possible," Bateman says.
All four of Elite's hotels are in historic houses and only one - the Grand in Eastbourne, East Sussex - was bought as a going-concern. The brief for Luton Hoo illustrates the company's remit: the property had to be a historic house with acreage, two hours from central London. Ideally, it also had to follow the M25 corridor north, as Elite's three other properties are to the south and west. Luton Hoo ticked all the boxes, particularly as it has access to airports such as Luton and Stansted and is only 27 minutes by train to London.
But although the company targets buildings of faded grandeur that need to be refurbished, Bateman stresses the company is not pursuing a hobby.
"We are custodians for the future," he says. "But we are also a hotel business we buy in expertise from architects and consultants."
What hits you most about Luton Hoo, in this age of contemporary country house hotels and cutting-edge design, is that it has bucked the trend simply by remaining traditional. Its setting, design, and service style is purposely timeless.
The hotel will have 144 bedrooms and suites, divided between the main building, two new-build wings and the renovated Robert Adams stable building, which will also house a spa and golf club house.
The hotel won't be totally up and running until 2009, however. On 1 October 73 bedrooms will be open and by 1 November there will be 144 plus all the meeting rooms, which Bateman reckons is a good ratio. Next winter marks the final phase, when the self-contained Warren Weir development near the lake opens with 82 bedrooms and banqueting for 300. It will have its own operations manager who will report to the general manager, but the aim is for it not to be seen as a separate "conference" venue.
The reservations office has been open since August and has kicked off with the full room rates of £850 a night for the two-bedroom Queen Mary suite, through £325 for an executive room and down to £235 for the smallest room. Golf and spa packages won't come in until 2008, when facilities are up and running.
Return on investment
Bateman predicts that the hotel will start to provide a return on investment in three years' time and achieve a 10% return in year five. Within three to five years they are budgeting for 75% occupancy and an average room rate (per available room) of £190.
Luton Hoo's historic charms are expected to attract the US market, so it was a stroke of luck that business-class airline Silver Jet subsequently announced it was to fly between Luton and Newark.
The strength of the pound, however, means US visitors will account for just over 5% of guests initially, but Bateman predicts it will rise to 15-20% in five to 10 years - encouraged by "enormous interest" from the recent VisitBritain roadshow in the USA.
Even so, the marketing team is also looking at the Russian and Far Eastern markets, noting that the number of Indian visitors to the UK now surpasses the number from Japan.
"Everyone is predicting a hard market next year," Bateman says. "A lot of Americans will stay at home."
Luton Hoo is expected to be more of a destination hotel than its siblings, which is why leisure facilities such as the state-of-the-art spa and - by next year - the golf course are so important.
Planning restrictions on the Capability Brown landscape meant the team had to work hard to get a golf course - fortunately there was an existing Victorian golf course, which they have been allowed to build on. The par-73 course was finished in April to USGA (United States Golf Association) standards but it will have had a full season's growth by the time it opens. Bateman is not looking to use it as a championship golf course but decided on the high-quality spec in order to harness the demand for corporate golf and bring in room nights. Neither are they looking for much membership initially - at least until they get the balance right.
The good news is that with more than 1,000 acres of land, there is still scope to expand the facilities, perhaps using the lake for incentive boating packages, plus clay-pigeon shooting and country pursuits.
The size of the estate also means it will be easier to attract different types of customer. "The space means we can cater for different events, yet weddings, conferences and so on will not intrude on other guests."
Bateman points out that the short-break business has grown and Elite's historic properties have all capitalised on that. Conferences and weddings are also important - there were 77 last year at Ashdown Park.
The team is also looking to see how they can develop the children's market. Certainly, there won't be any bed charges for children and some 20% of rooms will have sofabeds. "The whole family market will evolve as we start trading," Bateman says.
Food and beverage will be used to capture the local market and will account for 35% of turnover. There are two restaurants, to provide an alternative for guests staying more than two or three nights: the Adams brasserie in the spa area and the Wernher restaurant, which is aiming for three rosettes under chef Ian Penn, formerly executive sous chef of London's Jumeirah Carlton Tower.
So, it's countdown time at Elite as their biggest project to date prepares to open its doors. For Sean Spencer, the general manager, it has already been a big year: he has recently got married and had a baby. He started with the company 11 years ago as deputy general manager at Tylney Hall and was made project manager at Luton Hoo in 2000, so 1 October must be looming large.
"It's exciting, although there's understandable apprehension," Spencer says. "We'll probably have to kick the contractors out of the door."
It has taken years of work by skilled craftsmen to restore Luton Hoo to its original standard of decor
Elite Hotels turns over £27m a year and is owned by a charitable trust, the Rodwick Foundation. HSBC bank is a major backer.
The first hotel in the now four-strong group, Tylney Hall in Hampshire, was a former school, which the company opened as a hotel in 1986. In 1992, former Barclays Bank training centre Ashdown Park in East Sussex was added and the Elite Holding Company was established. In 1998, the Grand in Eastbourne was purchased from De Vere hotels and Graeme Bateman was made general manager, taking over as group managing director in 2000.
The Green side of Luton Hoo
Even though Luton Hoo is an 18th-century building, the team worked closely with English Heritage to embrace some eco-friendly measures. For instance, insulation and energy-saving switches have been installed and there are key cards to activate the electricity in bedrooms. Similarly, the main kitchen runs on electricity and induction heating rather than gas, so the power cuts out when not in use, helping save energy and improve ventilation.
"The building forced us to do that," admits Bateman, "because we couldn't get ducting for gas. Looking back, the building did us a favour."
Local staff are encouraged to cycle into work and guests are transported around the grounds in electric buggies. The on-site laundry has heat-exchangers in the dryers to re-use heat, the golf course harvests its own water, some 70% of the 6,000 light bulbs will be low energy and waste is recycled where possible. In fact, Elite used waste management company Green Star for help in finding the right companies and products (www.greenstar.co.uk).
"We tried to use UK companies to be as carbon neutral as possible," Bateman says.
Elite certainly stayed close to home when it came to spa products. Beauty product company Circaroma has developed treatment products and soaps from plants on the estate and used eco-friendly packaging.
Looking after Luton Hoo's Heritage
Elite Hotels brought Luton Hoo back to life through research and painstaking sourcing of antiques and craftsmen - the archive work alone took two years. Even the fire doors have been made in the appropriate style. Some of the original pieces have been put back in, but a lot of the original collection is now at Rangers House in Greenwich, London.
Getting heating and water installed was a struggle - it took a year to agree the routes with English Heritage.
To maintain the sense that guests are arriving at a stately home, the reception is hidden in an anteroom off the main hall. The sweeping main staircase has been restored, with carpet made specially for each stair. The replica of the original statue for the bottom of the staircase took six hours to unload and place.
Lifts - necessary for disabled guests - were a challenge. They have been built into the light wells. Ironically, the disabled room had to be sited on the top floor as it is the nearest to the lift.
The ballroom, which hadn't been heated since the 1970s, still has the original chandeliers and will become the drawing room. The state dining room will become the fine-dining Wernher Restaurant and the family dining room, complete with Grinling Gibbons carvings, will become a tearoom.
The Russian Orthodox church has been deconsecrated and will be used for meetings as its status as a former church means it can't be given a wedding licence.
The Capability Brown-landscaped gardens could be used for operas in due course, but the gardens themselves are undergoing a 10-year restoration programme.
The hotel will open with 180 staff, which will rise to 350 when it is fully operational, but in one way this provides Elite with a big opportunity: the opening of Luton Hoo has driven the promotion of staff and motivated the management team.
That said, recruitment has been difficult simply because of the volume of enquiries - there were 2,000 applications in the first two months, with four recruitment open days pulling 600 people through the door. Jobs were posted at Luton and St Albans railway stations and the team also approached staff in restaurants and cafés.
One of the biggest challenges is keeping the service standards high across the four hotels so that guests will cross-fertilise. "We have invested a lot of money, and some of it has gone into training the staff so that we start at the same standards as the other hotels," says managing director Graeme Bateman.
This is also a concern for general manager Sean Spencer, so in a new initiative, some 25 mentors from across the other properties have been assigned to staff at Luton Hoo: "New people have different cultures and values so we have to make sure they come up to our service standards," Spencer says.
Training initiatives include the company's Service Excellence programme for all new starters. There are also inductions, management team-building events and group-wide training courses to get new heads of department up to speed, and a Maxima course to ensure managers give out the same message when doing show-arounds.
One unusual position will be held by Zena Dickinson, former assistant to the last owner, Nicholas Phillips, who died in 1991. She will work in guest relations, but will also train staff in the history of the house and do show-arounds for guests.