Better business – Hope House

01 July 2011 by
Better business – Hope House

Paul Hageman looks after his ancestral home, Hope House, which offers boutique accomodation - it's definitely not a £600 per night B&B, he tells Neil Gerrard

Need to know Paul Hageman has enjoyed a long career as a hotelier, including time as a general manager at various hotels in the Oberoi group in India. He then came back to the UK and ran his own hotel businesses, Fardell Hotels, before selling up and going on what he refers to as a "double geriatric gap year" - two years away travelling.

But eventually he returned to help look after his ancestral home, Hope House in Woodstock near Blenheim Palace , which his family has occupied since it was built in 1704. His mother, Julia Hageman, had been running the business for decades, renting out the top two floors of the house and outlying cottages. But she had been managing it remotely since 2005 when she reached 80 and Hageman decided it wasn't working. The house was in a poor state of repair so the Hagemans decided to completely refurbish it and turn it into a commercial business, which opened in 2009.

How it stands out Paul Hageman doesn't like the term B&B when it comes to describing Hope House. "A B&B at £500-£600 a night doesn't work in the UK, people get very confused," he says. "Our strapline is an ancestral home offering boutique accommodation. The Americans like that, they go very gooey about it being in the family for 11 generations." In fact, US customers make up 50% of Hope House's clientele. Whether American or not, they also tend to be very wealthy and often fly in by private jet from the nearby Oxford Airport.

There are three suites in the main house, which have recently been joined by the Six Bells suite, an apartment in a former pub which used to belong to the family's estate. The suites are typically much larger than standard hotel or B&B rooms, and can be up to 90sq m, which Hageman reckons is about the same size as a small two- or three-bedroom house.

The refurbishment The original budget for refurbishing the house was £150,000, and Hageman set out to do much of the work himself. That grew to about £400,000 as some of the problems and idiosyncrasies of such an old property came to light. "I am not a builder or a decorator," Hageman says. "I had to look up how to do horse hair plaster on the internet but I did a lot of the labouring myself. Of course, I got artisans in to do the electrics, the plumbing and the other legal stuff."

Marketing "I would love to sit and say I had some jazzy, snappy sales and marketing technique," Hageman says. "Word of mouth sounds rather tame but has been massive for us, as has the website, winning awards and 100% ratings on review sites."

TripAdvisor is a particular favourite of his because it is very popular in the US, his core market. And happy customers generate even more calls from abroad as they recommend Hope House to other people on their travels. Meanwhile, Hageman is pleased that the well-publicised issues with TripAdvisor and fake or malicious reviews have not yet applied to him. "I don't think we have had other people I am up against causing any difficulties. Out of 100 reviews we have only had two ‘goods' and two ‘very goods' and the other 96 were excellent. Thus far it is fair to say we have been very fortunate," he says.

Coping with the recession Hageman began to plan Hope House's transformation in 2007, got planning permission in 2008 and opened in 2009, just as the country was at the depths of the recession. "A lot of people said when I opened that it was probably not the time for an accommodation and breakfast offer costing £400-£600 a night," he says. "It goes against the grain but is it was fantastic. We did three or four times the turnover I was expecting and more importantly we got the rates which was important to me."

Because the clientele he is dealing with comes from such a high wealth background, he also suspects that even if they were hit by the recession, their lifestyle remains largely unaffected.

Future plans In the short to medium term, the plan is to develop a dining experience with chef Stephen Bulmer (see spotlight) as well as launching a voucher offer on the Hope House website with tie-ups with local suppliers such as Bicester village, local Michelin restaurants, and Blenheim Palace.

Hageman is also looking at launching what he call "dynamic packaging" on the website, which will allow guests to buy things like Champagne and fine wines, helicopter flights, or private jet hire to Paris for dinner. Other ideas for the dynamic packaging include beauty treatments at Hope House, tours of the Cotswolds, and chauffeuring services. In the longer term, Hageman and his mother are looking at taking on other suites or hotels to manage.

Business advice For Hageman, the most important thing is that the entire team at a hotel should be an ambassador for the business. "Any interface with any member of the team is a sales opportunity and I have always felt very strongly about that," he says. "If you are opening a business, don't just brief your head receptionist on availability and unique selling points of your business, make sure everyone in the team knows. I hate being in five-star hotels and asking staff something you consider everyone should know and they refer you somewhere else."

Spotlight on bespoke dining experiences

Chef Stephen Bulmer of Brook Hall
Chef Stephen Bulmer of Brook Hall
Although Hope House does not generally offer dinner to guests, Hageman has struck up a business relationship with Stephen Bulmer (pictured), the co-owner and head chef of the Brook Hall Cookery School. Bulmer was previously chef-director of the Raymond Blanc Cookery School at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons and can be called upon to cook for dinners in the house's ground floor Vanbrugh restaurant. The only stipulation is that guests have to book the whole restaurant, which means a minimum of six people. For £95 a head they get a seven-course seasonal menu, served at an antique table. Matching wines are an optional extra at £95 per head.

The scheme has already taken several bookings and Hageman says he already has several more bookings from VIP guests coming up. "It sounds expensive but to get a Michelin-standard taster menu you are looking at £75-£125 a head," he says.

Facts and stats

Owner Julia Hageman
Managing partner Paul Hageman
Staff 4 (including one apprentice)
Average room rate £387
Number of suites 4

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