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Club Hotel & Spa: When Huggler met Hutson

25 May 2006

When Caterer asked Lawrence Huggler, the owner of Jersey's Club Hotel & Spa, who he most admired in UK hotel business, he was unequivocal. Robin Hutson, co-founder of Hotel du Vin, former Hotelier of the Year, and multi-Catey winner, was the man he had always wanted to meet.

So - in true fairy godmother style - we decided to grant him his wish and asked Hutson, a friend of the magazine over the years, if he wouldn't mind taking a trip over to Jersey for a day.

As we sipped Champagne in Bohemia, the hotel's Michelin-starred restaurant, it was clear that, no, Hutson didn't mind a bit. We had arrived earlier in the morning, had sunned ourselves on the terrace, and even managed a massage in the hotel's spa. When Hutson's mobile rang, he announced to the caller: "I'm in Jersey and I feel like I'm on holiday."

Of course, the day had a more businesslike mission. As owner of a Caterer Adopted Business, Huggler wanted to pick Hutson's hotel brains for advice on his new venture. The hotel is still under a year old, and Hutson, with his business acumen, is someone whose opinions Huggler could really value.

First, then, came the tour of the rooms. It was clear that while he may have elevated himself several rungs up the hotel industry ladder, Hutson still had the general manager's eye for detail at room-level.

He was impressed by the compact layout of the smaller rooms, their pull-out writing desks and bespoke cabinets, including sliding drawers for snacks and the Mile High Kits Huggler discovered at a hotel in New York. These naughty packages include condoms, lubricant and personal massagers and Hutson agreed that they were exactly the type of fun detail hoteliers needed to look out for to give their business character.

Extra comfort Hutson was also jealous of the featherbed mattress covers, saying he would have liked them for Hotel du Vin. Huggler pointed out that as well as adding an extra level of comfort, they enabled you to use zip and link mattresses without the guest ever being aware of a divide. He was also keen on the marble designer Jane Gough had used in the bathrooms (apparently taken from one 40-tonne slab) but thought that the sinks looked a bit low. "I was always told that sinks should be dick height," was his professional view.

He also noticed the super steel baths, which Hotel du Vin had used until chipping and marking made Hutson switch to cast iron. "We couldn't afford it at first," he said. "But you'll want to change them when you can."

Looking at the bigger picture, Huggler explained that he was now questioning whether he had got the room numbers right - in terms of the share of suites, junior suites and normal bedrooms. "I also ask myself whether we should have given more space for extra treatment rooms in the spa," he said.

Unfortunately, however much planning you do, these questions are best answered by watching the hotel run. But Hutson did have some general advice. "You need to have a small number of small rooms, so you can advertise a good start-from price, plus a couple of really big show-off rooms for PR and journalists," he said. "But most people want the upper-middle area."

Hutson then asked whether Huggler had ever thought about knocking some of the double rooms together into junior suites - of which there are currently only two. Huggler said he wanted to wait for a couple of years, adding that there was also office space to one side of the property that the hotel could expand into. However, even that expansion had its pitfalls. "I'm afraid of making the hotel too big," he said.

Hutson agreed that was a real danger, not just because of managing the extra rooms and maintaining standards, but in financial terms as well. "There is a chance that you would have to bring the rate down," he said. "It is very rare in provincial towns that the biggest hotels achieve the highest rates."

Before lunch Hutson admitted that he had been very close to bringing a Hotel du Vin to Jersey, but that the sale of the chain had put a halt to the next stage of expansion. That was vindication of Huggler's vision for a fresh approach to designing a hotel on the island.

Hutson understands more than anyone the need to challenge the hotel business status quo, and how to shift the market's expectation. With Hotel du Vin, he and then business partner Gerard Basset helped open up a whole new market. "What we said to the AA was we don't want to be classified with stars," he said. "They decided to put us as a townhouse hotel, but we were part of the thought process that helped come up with that new category."

Third parties? This led on to the issue of joining marketing consortia, and whether it was worth getting exposure through third-party representation. Huggler's dilemma is that he wants more publicity, but the cost of joining a marketing consortium quoted to him has been anything between £25,000 and £40,000.

"It is astronomically expensive," he said. "But I read the books and I think it might help get more journalists over here."

Hutson, however, felt it unnecessary. "If the figures that you told me earlier are correct, you don't need their help," he said. "We never joined anything in the first place - and, anyway, people didn't understand the concept. If you know what your business is about you could spend the money better yourself on a marketing strategy."

It remained for us to have our meal, which, hats off to executive chef Shaun Rankin, impressed Hutson no end. A starter of local oysters on vermicelli he described as "truly memorable".

"I think as an industry if we don't do good food and beverage we are not only leaving a lot of money on the table for someone else but we are also copping out on the most exciting part of our business," Hutson said. "You might as well just own a block of flats!"

When Huggler admitted to sleeping with a notepad by his bed, Hutson said he remembered exactly the stage - the anxieties, the sleepless nights, the obsession with getting every last detail right.

"I remember my wife banned us from eating in the restaurant," Hutson said, "because I could never relax." Huggler looked amazed: "I'm still the opposite. I want to eat in here all the time!"

With a very successful first year under his belt, and a definite seal of approval from one of Britain's most successful modern hoteliers, maybe Huggler might just now be able to treat himself to a bit more time out. But then the pair started talking about the merits of expansion, so maybe not.

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