When Simon Rhatigan bought the Feversham Arms Hotel in 2003, it was an understated pub and B&B. Now, after a £5m investment, it boasts 33 rooms, an award-winning luxury spa and fine dining restaurant Aaron Morby reports
Need to know The hospitality bug bit Simon Rhatigan during a gap year working at his father's small hotel on the east coast of Scotland.
After a hospitality management degree and stint with Ladbrokes, he joined Blanc Restaurants as general manager of Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons. Under his stewardship, the next five years saw Le Manoir double its turnover, open an école de cuisine and raise the room count by a third to 32.
Rhatigan then moved on to become managing director of Tom's Companies, running four restaurants for three years before deciding the time had come to break free and run his own business. A wine supplier tipped him off that the Feversham Arms hotel in Helmsley, North Yorkshire, was on the market. Rhatigan paid £1.65m for the 17-bedroom pub and B&B, which back in 2003 was little more than a dormitory for the nearby Star Inn.
"I felt spiritually at home with the atmosphere, which was like an inn. It was an understated place with a huge potential," he says.
During the ensuing years of easy bank credit, Rhatigan took the opportunity to steadily expand the business on the back of strongly rising profits.
"The Feversham always had that potential to be a bit bigger, a bit better, exploiting what it had to begin with, which is a real lovely informal hospitality feel," he says.
Target audience Some £5m later, the Feversham Arms hotel boasts 33 individually designed rooms, 22 of which are suites; a spa; heated all-year swimming pool; and fine-dining restaurant.
Typical clients are middle class, middle-aged, Mercedes-driving, empty nesters living within a two-hour drive of the hotel.
All bedrooms are fitted with Bang & Olufsen televisions with integral DVD and CD players, L'Occitane toiletries, Egyptian cotton bedding and luxury bathrobes.
Rhatigan says the Feversham is neither a stuffy country house hotel, nor a designer hotel where looks come before comfort. He prefers to see it as a leisure hotel where couples can relax and escape from reality. These represent three-quarters of his guests.
The moorland location also attracts shooting parties during the winter, who account for 15% of trade, while corporates make up a further 5%.
The hotel's proximity to Ampleforth draws in the balance of guests, consisting of wealthy expat and foreign parents visiting children boarding at the public school.
Growing the business Rhatigan is an experienced managing director and works to a meticulously set out business plan. When he took on the Feversham in 2003, it turned over £700,000; by 2009 it reached £2.2m, and is set to top £4m this year. Each year the Feversham steadily trades up, lifting operating margins from 18% to 24%.
"Customers keep returning even though they were probably paying half as much six years ago," says Rhatigan.
"Our customers are flexible as long as the value-to-quality equation is maintained."
The addition of the Verbena Spa in 2008 completed the plan to create an escape hotel. Rhatigan called in professional spa consultant Neil Howard who had worked at the Lanesborough and the Berkeley.
"We spent £1.2m just as Lehman collapsed, the media was a bloodbath of bad news stories and we thought we couldn't have picked a worse time to open," he recalls. "But credit crunch or no credit crunch we were fine. If you are doing something a bit new, a bit different and have a story to tell, there's still business to be done."
The Verbena Spa decor is country chic, similar in style to the interior of the Feversham Arms hotel. It features stonewalling, with modern touches, but avoids the clinical or Thai-inspired style.
The future Last year turnover at the Verbena Spa reached £900,000 and Rhatigan confidently predicts that half of the business's future growth will come from this direction. The Feversham does not shy from telling guests that Cheryl Cole has used the spa and now nearly half the visitors are non-residents.
That said, the next stage in development is a focus on food and drink, and building up a quality fine-dining experience. Michelin-starred chef Chris Staines has been brought in as the food and beverage director to ramp up the Feversham's offering.
"We want to raise our customers' experience so they come back and pay more money," says Rhatigan.
The Feversham offers all guests a five-course tasting menu or a three-course à la carte menu at around £45 a head, based on local produce and boasting one of the most talked-about cheese trolleys in Yorkshire.
Favourite supplier Rhatigan's favourite supplier is Aro, an Irish web design and development company that specialises in hotel websites.
The Feversham's website is designed to tell a story. Videos, interviews and local area guides sit neatly alongside a comprehensive breakdown of individual rooms, suites, dining experiences and special offers.
Around 10% of bookings are now taken online and Rhatigan aims to grow this substantially.
"Aro is very hotel-focused and has a positive energy, which is great when you are working through ideas," he explains.
"The design team are happy to develop bespoke systems so long as they can be used elsewhere. They have helped to grow the business hugely."
Spotlight on the outdoor swimming pool
The Feversham came with a basic swimming pool, which has been transformed into a luxurious heated pool that is open all year round.
In the winter the steaming water, lit from below, is an atmospheric attraction. Even during the big freeze, guests braved -16°C temperatures for a dip.
In the summer the secluded courtyard area is a natural sun trap and provides a central focus for guests.
"It's done beautifully, and better than anywhere else in the region," says Rhatigan.
"The outdoor swimming pool defines the hotel - it's lovely and warm and is the essence of the Feversham experience."
Facts and stats
Owner Simon Rhatigan
General manager Catherine Feather
Average weekly occupancy 79%
Room rate £153