Von Essen Hotels founder Andrew Davies hans't enjoyed the happiest of relationships with the press. During a helicopter tour of the company's properties, Mark Lewis found him anxious to put the record straight.
Andrew Davis is bouncing from foot to foot in an excited jig. My whistle-stop helicopter tour of Von Essen Hotels properties with the group's chairman and founder has brought us to Somerset's Ston Easton Park, where the general manager's guided tour of the hotel is clearly proceeding rather too sedately for its proprietor's liking. As our guide points out another architectural detail in the stunning Print Room, I sense Davis willing him to move on to another chamber, and another, his body language betraying the energy levels of a puppy in the park.
I've met Davis once before, at Cliveden - perhaps the most iconic of the hotels his company owns. Now, as then, he is courteous and elusive, endearing and laugh-out-loud funny, tantalising and teasing, with a habit of hinting at future acquisitions that leaves his attendant PR advisers burying their heads in their hands.
He is also mischievous: a reference to his helicopter fleet as a "vanity project" in an edition of Caterer last summer leads to a brief stop-off at one of his air hangars near Farnborough. Leading me through the maze of Sikorskys and private jets he either owns or maintains for the likes of JCB, Abramovich and Rothschild, Davis turns to me and smiles. "What do you think of my little toy box, Mr Lewis?" he asks.
Pride and enthusiasm
The pride and enthusiasm Davis demonstrates for Ston Easton and the other properties we visit might surprise those in the industry who have viewed his land grab of country house hotels over the past decade with suspicion. Yet he makes no secret of the fact that, when he bought his first hotel in 1997, he had no intention of building an empire.
"I'd love to say I got out of the car at Mount Somerset and thought, ‘I must become a hotelier today'," he says. "The fact is that we bought it as a corporate toy, for entertaining for our other businesses. It provided services and facilities."
Other hotels followed. The sixth purchase, Bishopstrow House in Wiltshire, was, says Davis, "my perfect model - not too large, 20-30 rooms, a two-tier dining experience, all the leisure facilities, all the toys, and discreetly located conferencing."
It's a model that Von Essen has worked to ever since, with the purchase of landmark properties like Cliveden, Sharrow Bay and Bath's Royal Crescent. The acquisitions, this year, of the four hotels that comprise the Luxury Family Hotels collection, and Ynyshir Hall in mid-Wales, have taken the portfolio to 22. "We're always looking for buildings with a fantastic setting, and the ability to mimic this model. Purchases must be architecturally interesting and valuable pieces of real estate," says Davis.
If the expansion of his hotel portfolio has been smooth and steady, his relationship with the press has been less so. Questions have been raised in the nationals over his finances, family, and motives for buying hotels. And in 2004, the Good Hotel Guide dropped several Von Essen hotels from its pages, including Sharrow Bay. "Not even I could wreck a hotel in two weeks," protests a still-outraged Davis.
Our day together has been arranged to allow Davis to set a few records straight, and to demonstrate that claims that Von Essen will not invest in its properties are unfounded. The question of whether Davis views hotels purely as short-term assets is answered categorically at our first stop, the New Forest's New Park Manor. The hotel boasts one of the first fruits of Von Essen's £58m, pan-portfolio development programme, the Bath House Spa, which is the first of a number of planned signature Von Essen spas. With its pool and hot tub with views of forest, ponies and deer, it's a stunning space which its creator, Von Essen's creative director and architect, Andrew Onraet, describes as "ranch lodge rustic chic".
"We've bought long-term assets, iconic properties," says Davis. "We've reached critical mass, so we can spread the research and development prelims for properties across the board. I like assets. Our assets are worth more than the business is, so there's no fear factor - we can't be held to ransom. We pay cash, then fund."
Over lunch, I learn more about this funding, as plans are pulled out for radical, yet sympathetic developments across the portfolio. These include exquisite spas at Thornbury Castle and Cliveden - the latter could occupy a subterranean space under the existing pool.
The group's three-year refurbishment schedule forms one part of a three-pronged capital expenditure programme that's been four years in the planning and encompasses attracting key staff and making further acquisitions.
In total, the group has a breathtaking half-billion pound facility to invest. Some £2m has been set aside to set up a group management structure including the recruitment of a chief executive officer. Already, Nick Wyatt has been recruited into the role of HR director, a position that, Davis predicts, will make recruitment less ad hoc.
London acquisitions are also in the offing ("We'll have a substantial London presence within six to 12 months that will blow your mind"). And the purchase of Château de Bagnols in France, in the first week of the new year, is the first of 10 acquisitions in Italy and France that are expected to close in the coming weeks. These overseas properties will provide Davis with a new route to market for his helicopter and jet fleets, which will enable guests to tailor-make cross-channel itineraries.
Davis is a rich man. Many journalists report having tried and failed to see beyond the smoke and mirrors of his finances. His wealth stems from a huge windfall from the sale of Redland Tiles in the nineties, and from a trust fund set up by his aunt, Countess Von Essen of Austria. When a Daily Telegraph journalist questioned her existence, Davis rang his benefactor and put the writer on to her.
From this enviable head start, Davis - a lawyer by profession - has done his bit to swell the coffers, through his dealings in art, fine jewellery, property and farming - his farming interests look set, incidentally, to yield a production line of organic produce for his hotels. Yet despite a CV that lists his interests as polo, "fixed and rotary wing" flying, fishing, art, and membership of the Aston Martin and Bentley owners clubs, Davis talks of his wealth frankly but never gauchely.
"My family is worth millions of pounds - I'm a trust fund babe, but I've worked hard for my money", he maintains. "And I don't worship the buck. If I sold our antiques and replaced them with fakes, I could release £20m. "This is a way of life for me," he yells, as we hop back into our helicopter. "I tell people I'm like the National Lottery - every time I buy a hotel I make someone else a millionaire."
Access to funds
Access to such funds has enabled Davis to say a polite "no, thank you" to cash offers for his business that would have generated a £100m profit, and allows him the luxury of picking and choosing his acquisitions.
"I could give away all my hotels - it wouldn't affect my lifestyle at all. Around a hundred properties a week pass over my desk. Only about three fit the bill, but many more are very profitable. If I wanted to make pure money, country house hotels are not the way to do it. Budget hotels are where the money is. But I do it because I enjoy it - I think I enjoy it a lot more than the great and the good do. Hotels take up 70% of my time, though they only represent a small percentage of my interests in the UK. I like the lifestyle, and I like the staff."
Davis's rapport with his staff offers another clue to his long-term commitment to his hotels. True, one of the two resident spaniels at Ston Easton is said to dislike him, but as we hopscotch from hotel to hotel, other employees receive Davis with a blend of warmth and deference. Having a photographic memory that enables him to greet every member of staff by name helps his cause, as does his rule of speaking to every member of staff on the day of a takeover. But it's quickly apparent that Von Essen employees don't view Davis as an asset-stripper.
Others in the industry have been less charitable. It frustrates Davis that some hoteliers continue to view Von Essen with a suspicion that borders on disdain. "There's a lot of jealousy out there and it aggravates me," he says. "I'm not some megalomaniac. At the end of the day, people choose to sell their hotels to us. They could always tell us to get lost - we'd soon get in the helicopter and go away. I don't think we've done anything inappropriate and I don't think we've hurt any property. We have a £1m-£1.5m weekly turnover, so we please an awful lot of people. And our wages bill is £15m a year - we bring a lot to the industry."
Davis bears his aggravation bravely. "The odd couple of hundred million gives you skin like a rhino," he admits. "And if I want to hack someone off, I only have to land a couple of helicopters on the lawn!"
Davis is far from being the archetypal country house hotelier. In the introduction to Von Essen's 2006 annual report, which resides on the company website, he states: "The days of country house hotel owners imposing their vision of lifestyle on customers are long gone." But he maintains that the perception of Von Essen as a corporate vulture preying on ailing independent hotels is unfair. "I'm amazed at the number of people that call to say, ‘we've got a big stately home, are you interested in a conversation?'" he reveals.
And it's untrue, he says, that he falls out with former owners as a matter of course. On the contrary, he says some welcome the injection of funding he can supply for the "spas and toys" they've never been able to finance. "It's not always the end of the affair. Nigel Lightburn is still a consultant at Sharrow Bay, Lord Astor is at Cliveden every week, and Baron Taylor [erstwhile owner of Thornbury Castle] is a great friend."
The Von Essen management approach is to give autonomy to general managers plans to streamline purchasing across the group this year will still leave responsibility for a hotel's spend at GM level, but allow them to take advantage of Von Essen's corporate purchasing power. "Anyone can buy lots of hotels and employ a massive management company. We've bought a lot of real estate, but we've kept the personality, with central management helping, not dictating. Hotels should have a flavour of their own."
A pretty simple premise lies at the heart of the Von Essen success story. "We want guests to come, have a nice time, get value for money, and want to come back. From Monday to Friday we're upselling to Telegraph readers and retired professionals. On Saturday and Sunday, [we target] people coming out of London."
Of course, not even Davis's wealth can guarantee everything goes according to plan. London's Lanesborough hotel remains tantalisingly out of reach, and other opportunities have also gone begging. "I'm furious we didn't buy Hotel du Vin," Davis admits. He also remains irked by continuing insinuations about his group's financial dealings.
"Too right, we haven't always paid on time - our administration has been very poor, and what business doesn't push its credit terms? But things have improved and, with the additional staff we're recruiting in 2007, will only get better," he insists.
In general, though, these are buoyant times for the Von Essen Group. As it expands through 2007 and beyond, Davis is likely to remain, as ever, amused, exasperated, excited and impassioned by all that goes on around him. "I'm a mercurial weirdo," he says, "and I'm unlikely to change."