A living and a life

08 September 2005
A living and a life

Back in 1980, when investment banker Tim Hart bought a large, rambling Victorian house in Rutland, spurred on by a desire to escape London and a career in the City, he had little idea that his dream of opening a luxurious country house hotel would turn out to be such a lasting success.

Twenty-five years on, the 15-bedroom Hambleton Hall, still privately owned by Hart and his wife, has become one of the UK's most well regarded small hotels, with a Michelin-starred restaurant and a listing in all the top hotel guides. So what has been the secret of this success?

According to Hart, an original idea and a lack of competition got things off to a healthy start. "We were one of the first to create a glamorous, interior-designed country house hotel," he says. "That meant we had the market almost to ourselves for the first five years."
Timing was also on his side in the early days. Not only was it the Thatcher era, with lots of new millionaires around looking for new, interesting places to stay, but the changing face of the media at that time gave the business a boost too. As Hart recalls: "Newspapers had just started to come out with more colour supplements, so there was an endless demand for glossy pictures of the hotel, the food and the surrounding countryside to fill pages. That coverage really helped us get established."

As Hart explains: "Luxury was seen to be inappropriate back then, and we lost a lot of business. Virtually all our corporate clients disappeared, and it was a very tough time for us." Further belt-tightening followed the 11 September attacks on the USA and the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Britain - the number of US visitors, previously one of the hotel's key markets, dropped by two-thirds.

Of course, no business goes without its lean periods, but it's how they cope with them that matters. Rather than make any panicky changes to boost bookings, the Harts' tactic during tough times has been to sit tight and wait. For them, running Hambleton Hall has always been about the long term, rather than the short term, a strategy they have resolutely stuck to over the years.

"We found that our competitors were sacking staff, slashing their marketing budgets and generally squeezing their businesses," says Hart. "But those are the worst things you can do, especially in a hotel. Yes, of course, the bottom line counts, and you might have to take a hit in your profits for two years. But what really matters is what you're going to make in five or even 10 years' time."

It's that philosophy that is, according to Hart, the secret to longevity. "But we don't really have that business culture in the UK," he says. "Unlike Europe, where people tend to think in terms of lasting more than one generation, most of the emphasis here is on building a business and selling it."

Competition But being around for a long time can have its disadvantages, too. Despite Hart's years in the business, some parts of it remain a distinct challenge. Increased competition is one - Hart admits that the country house hotel market is much more crowded nowadays.

PR and marketing can also prove tricky. Hart recently employed a PR agency to reach a younger audience who may not know about the hotel, but he says it's not easy to get attention when you're an established player. "Most magazines have already written about us," he explains. "Unless you're doing something new, it's difficult to get coverage. And everything seems to be about either modern hotels or spas right now, and we've got nothing to do with either of those things."

But, despite the changing times, Hart believes in sticking to his original concept. "I know lots of places constantly check out the competition and invest in constant make-overs," he says, "but we've never followed fashion. It's been far more important to develop our own identity."

Scottish restaurateur and hotelier Maurice Taylor shares that ethos. His Glasgow restaurant, La Bonne Auberge, celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. However, when Taylor opened it in the 1970s, his recreation of a French brasserie, Moulin Rouge-style, was met with bemusement. "I had French staff, French music and served French food, but everyone thought I was crazy because I was probably the only restaurant in Glasgow that didn't serve whisky," he says, laughing.

Yet, like the Harts, Taylor had a clear idea of what he wanted to achieve, even though his aim - to produce good-quality food in a relaxed restaurant setting - was, he admits, "unthinkable" in 1975.

"Eating out was all about being formal and getting dressed up to the nines back then," he explains. "But the restaurant scene has changed enormously. Nowadays, people want to unwind when they eat out. I've been lucky because that shift in people's attitudes has really worked for me."

Modest pricing Another strategy that has worked for Taylor is affordability. He has deliberately gone for widespread appeal, and pitched his prices at the middle, rather than the top-spending bracket.

"Unless you're in London, you do need to be modest with what you charge," he says. "Our average cover probably comes in at under £20, but we serve decent food. It's a combination of both of those things that's led our customers to stick with us over the years."

Both Taylor and Hart point out that it's not just loyal customers who can make a business work. Choosing a good team to work with is hugely important, too. At La Bonne Auberge, most staff have been with the company for more than 10 years, while Hart's head chef started at Hambleton Hall in 1984 and his restaurant director a year later. He says that having the right people in place "is one the reasons why I've made it. If you get chief staff right, everything else falls into place."

For Taylor, who, in addition to La Bonne Auberge, owns the Chardon group of hotel management companies, and employs more than 1,500 staff, it's training that makes the difference for retention. He has set up an in-house training company for his employees, covering areas such as hotelkeeping skills, management, and health and safety - which, he points out, is another way of making sure you stay ahead in the industry.

"It's ragingly competitive these days, and it will only get more so," he says. "You constantly have to try to keep things fresh." But rather than make any dramatic changes in design or decor, he has used the restaurant's menus as a modernising tool, introducing Asian and Mediterranean flavours alongside traditional French dishes.

Making changes Unlike La Bonne Auberge and Hambleton Hall, not every long-running hotel or restaurant will stay in the same hands for years. People move on, and taking over an established business, complete with a set of happy regulars, sounds like a recipe for success. But as husband-and-wife team Rachel Turner and Francesco Furrielo found out, when they bought long-standing Brighton restaurant One Paston Place last year, it can have its complications, too.

"The previous owners had run the place for 17 years and had built up a very loyal following," explains Turner, the restaurant's general manager. "While we didn't set out to scare those people off, we wanted to change the menu completely and modernise the decor." She admits it wasn't an easy process: "We had a very tight period when the old clientele didn't like what we were doing, and the people we were trying to attract just didn't know about us."

Wanting to focus on the food, Turner and Furrielo avoided doing any marketing for six months until they felt ready. But this had its own drawbacks. "When it came to attracting attention," Turner says, "we found it difficult because we'd already opened. The tried-and-tested formula of closing the business, refurbishing, then opening with a loud bang is probably safer."

More than a year on from opening, Turner estimates that they have now replaced 80% of the original clientele and feels they have turned the corner. "But, as the new owners, I feel we've had to work twice as hard," she says. "It's been a tough journey, building up trade almost customer by customer. Offering lots of value for the sake of it - from six different types of bread to choosing the fluffiest hand towels for the ladies loo - has helped. People might not notice all those things individually, but they add up."

She admits, with hindsight, that she might have done things differently. "Obviously, there are advantages to buying into something well-known," she says. "You're already on people's radar screens. But the downside is that it can take much longer to change things."

What is the secret of longevity? "Surviving in the business for so long depends on so many things, not least the willingness to adapt to change and not to accept that you've 'arrived'. Know your position in the marketplace and surround yourself with people in your top management team who know what they are doing, enjoy it and have a passion to achieve excellence."

Duncan Palmer, general manager, the Langham Hotel London, which celebrates its 140th anniversary this year

"I don't know the secret, other than hard work and trying to maintain standards. Restaurants are like works of art - they're totally subjective. Why does one person love one piece of art and another person hate it? And behind all of that, it's about the structure of the overhead - the rent or lease. That plays an important part, but people rarely talk about that."

Richard Shepherd, independent owner of five London restaurants, including Langan's Brasserie, which opened 27 years ago

It's about the whole package. You need to offer consistency, good food, ambience and consistency. Keeping up to date is important, but people make the mistake of changing everything they do the minute something's not working, which can be a disaster. After all, if you've got regular customers, it means you're doing something right."

Mark Hix, chef-director, Caprice Holdings, which includes long-established London restaurants the Ivy and J Sheekey

Blanc canvas This year, Raymond Blanc celebrates 21 years as chef-patron of Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons in Oxfordshire. Here, he shares his thoughts on building up a successful business and staying at the top.

  • You have to start with a clear vision, or an ideal, of what you want. Obviously, it must work commercially too, but the ideal should always come first. If you do it the other way around, you're in trouble.
  • Understand you're not God. You cannot do everything yourself and you have to trust other people. But surround yourself with partners who share your vision.
  • Know what your values are. I knew I always wanted to open a fantastic restaurant with a garden, but I was driven by the idea of a centre of excellence. Every part of Le Manoir, from the gardens to the cookery school to the rooms, is equally important.
  • The first three years in business are always the toughest. When I bought Le Manoir, it was a private house, we had no planning permission and the gardens were a mess. I always viewed the business as a long-term investment but it was very difficult at first.
  • Constantly refine and reinvent what you offer. I'm not led by fashion but I need to know what the modern consumer wants. Today, people are more stressed out, they have less time and are more demanding. But we live in exciting times. Gastronomy is changing because we're all connecting with food more than ever before.
  • Your staff are everything. I've got the most fantastic team and most of our managers have been with us for more than 10 years. If you nurture your staff, the payback in terms of loyalty and continuity is huge. Training is tremendously important. Chefs today can't just be craftsmen, they need management skills, too. That's crucial if we want to modernise the industry.
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