Best known as a not-for-profit social enterprise, the weddings and conference venue Dartington Hall in Totnes, Devon, has recently relaunched as a 50-bedroom hotel following a major upgrade to its accommodation. Janet Harmer reports
Need to know
Situated within a 14th century, Grade I-listed building on a 1,200-acre estate, Dartington Hall today comprises a 50-bedroom hotel, 200 hostel bedrooms, 12 meetings rooms, the White Hart pub, Roundhouse Café, and Barn Cinema.
It was originally set up under the umbrella of the Dartington Hall Trust in the 1920s by Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst as the base for an experiment in rural regeneration. Dorothy used her inherited wealth to restore the estate buildings and establish a host of educational, experimental and enterprising projects. Over the past 80 years, the estate has been a magnet for world-renowned artists, writers and musicians including Igor Stravinsky, Benjamin Britten and George Bernard Shaw.
The 21st century Dartington remains true to the ethos of the Elmhirsts and is committed to drive equality and fairness in society through three charitable areas: the arts, social justice and sustainability. All the commercial activities within the estate - including the hotel, café and pub - are used to support the trust's charitable programmes.
The decision to upgrade what was previously student-style accommodation was taken following a fall in revenue from conference business - often public funded - at Dartington, as a result of the recession. Opened in April following a £1m refurbishment, the 50-bedrooms - set around a medieval courtyard - are equivalent to a four-star standard.
With a new emphasis on a hotel-style operation, Deborah Heather, who has previously held general manager positions with Principal Hayley and QHotels, was appointed general manager of Dartington Hall nearly two years ago. "Coming here has provided the rare opportunity of working in hospitality for a good cause," explains Heather, who has recently returned from a two-week international hotel administration course at Cornell University, the location where the Elmhirsts first met in 1922.
Located in Totnes, which has long been renowned as a hub for alternative lifestyles and green-minded folk, Dartington is well supported by the local community and for the various arts programmes, such as the International Summer School of Music, and festivals. For instance, the Telegraph Ways with Words festival which is currently running from 6 to 16 July, will see 23,000 people visit the estate. Up to 110 rooms (a mix of the courtyard and hostel rooms) are taken during the festival, with the rest of the participants visiting on a daily basis.
However, with the new focus on a more upmarket hotel offering, there is a need to spread the word about what the estate has to offer during those times when major events are not taking place. Hence, Karen Gough, who previously worked as personal assistant to the trust's chief executive, has been appointed as business development manager to attract leisure business from all over the country.
The word about Dartington is being spread via social media - both Twitter and Facebook - membership of Johansens, public relations and third-party websites such as laterooms.com, expedia.co.uk and lastminute.com.
"There is a great deal that guests on a leisure break do when they come to stay with us," says Heather. The extensive grounds are great for walking and incorporate a Japanese meditation garden and the River Dart, where there is the opportunity to go kayaking. There are also exhibitions often held throughout the estate and the cinema shows two films a day.
As a result of the opening of the hotel bedrooms, the team of staff has been boosted by about 20 - all from a hospitality background. "Having a mix of staff, which includes those from the creative background of the trust as well as those experienced in hospitality, is working very well for Dartington," explains Heather.
"Before I was here, the training of staff was very lax. We have now introduced a full induction and training programme for everyone to ensure they feel totally supported and nurtured in their jobs - something which is very much a part of the Dartington ethos."
The remaining 200 student-style bedrooms are located in a 1960s building, with one bathroom to every six rooms. According to Heather, they are no longer fit for purpose and the long-term plan is to replace them with a highly sustainable building with 100 to 150 en-suite bedrooms, at a three-star level. "This will allow us to provide a good quality of accommodation at two different price points," says Heather.
There are also plans to introduce the opportunity for camping on the estate with space for up to 100 pitches, including the possibility of 20 upmarket "glamping" tents
In fitting with Dartington's focus on social enterprise, the new element of the business would be run as an apprentice hotel in conjunction with South Devon College. About 40 to 50 apprentices would be supported by teaching staff.
"We are currently looking for sponsors to help us develop the project as well as drawing up a feasibility study," says Heather. "The local authority has indicated that it would support the plan."
Spotlight on sustainability
Sustainability - central to the philosophy of Dartington since its foundation - was sharply thrown into focus when the Schumacher College, a leading international centre for sustainable education, was set up on the estate in 1991. Providing teachings on climate change, biodiversity and sustainable living, the college attracts people from all over the world.
As well as offering numerous opportunities for guests and visitors to lead a more sustainable life through various training opportuntities, such as the Devon School for Social Entrepreneurs which helps people start up businesses with a social purpose, and the new Abundant Life Project which enables older people to remain active and confident, Dartington also operates with a strong sense of social justice.
For instance, it has formed a partnership with nearby Channings Wood Prison which enables prisoners to work around the estate on a series of programmes including manufacturing and selling furniture, working within the food and beverage operation, gardening, providing laundry services, and recycling and waste management.
Deborah heather's revelations
Favourite hotel Hotel Tresanton, St Maws
Favourite restaurant Restaurant Nathan Outlaw at St Endoc hotel, Rock, Cornwall
Motto "Life is too important to be taken seriously" (Oscar Wilde), although my team would probably quote me saying "ho hum"
If you were not in hospitality, what would you have been? A travel writer
What book has inspired you? Wait for me: Memoirs of the Youngest Mitford Sister by Deborah Devonshire
Who do you most admire? My grandmother
Describe Dartington Hall in five words Beautiful, inspiring, innovative, complex, unusual
Facts and stats
General manager Deborah Heather
Staff 90 (full and part time)
Annual turnover £3m (£1.5m on food and beverage)
Average room rates £90 (hotel rooms)
Average food and beverage spend £28