For Richard Ball of Calcot Manor, being named the 2006 Hotelier of the Year sparked a mixture of shock, disbelief and excitement.
"To be nominated by one's peers for such an award is highly gratifying, but to be singled out as the winner by a panel of past Hoteliers of the Year is a huge honour," explains Ball, who has worked tirelessly for the past 23 years in creating the perfect country retreat at Calcot Manor, Gloucestershire. "The highs and lows of my career suddenly became very meaningful to me and I'm just immensely grateful to the many individuals who have enabled me to succeed in my chosen field."
Indeed it was Ball's handling of these highs and lows - including a dire financial crisis with the then family-owned Calcot Manor spiralling into debt during the late 1980s - which so impressed the judges of last year's Hotelier of the Year award.
"Taking on the running of an established family business is never easy," said Dominic Walsh of the Times. "Richard has managed to turn a fairly bog-standard traditional country house hotel into a leader in the family market."
Another judge, Harry Murray, managing director of Lucknam Park hotel, Colerne, Wiltshire, agreed that Ball had transformed Calcot Manor. "His father ran it in a certain way. Richard has literally changed direction and very successfully," he added.
The key evolution of Calcot Manor began in 1992, when Ball sold the hotel to a valued customer, Michael Stone, and was retained as managing director and a minor equity partner. Far from being disillusioned by the sale of the family business, Ball was spurred on to use the injection of new finances into the hotel to demystify the image and experience of a stay in a country house hotel by introducing informality, flexibility in dining, facilities for families and lots of leisure, all sewn together with genuine, comfortable spontaneous hospitality.
After a period of continual development, Calcot today boasts 35 bedrooms, a state-of-the-art spa with 500 local members and a waiting list of 600, the busy Conservatory restaurant, one of the UK's most successful gastropubs in the Gumstool Inn, a new conference and banqueting suite converted from a medieval barn, and a thriving outside catering company.
Alongside the ongoing growth and improvement of Calcot, Ball has also contributed enormously to the wider industry through his membership of Pride of Britain and chairmanship of the Master Innholders - a fact that did not escape the judges' notice. "In terms of his contribution to the industry as chair of the Master Innholders, he doesn't leave a stone unturned - he prods you continuously," commented Murray.
For Ball, winning the Hotelier of the Year has been all the more special because of his belief that it was an award that would always be beyond his reach. "I've been very proud to display the trophy in the hotel reception, where I hope the whole team can share and be part of the sense of achievement," he says.
The success of the award brought Ball nearly 200 letters and e-mails of congratulation - many from people he didn't know or had been out of touch with for a long time - and invitations to speak about his career and business at several industry meetings, including the Master Innholders' General Managers Conference.
"I hope that my story may give encouragement to the many aspiring managers in the country house field," he says. "I would like to ensure that as many as possible enjoy the same opportunities that I've been given."
Ball hopes the entire staff - whom he regards as the backbone of Calcot Manor - have felt involved in the award. "I made it very clear from the start that I could only accept the award on behalf of the whole team who continue to be dedicated to Calcot's success," he says. "They must have been listening, since they clubbed together to send me to the Monaco Grand Prix! I'm sure it should have been me sending all of them."
"Hopefully, winning Hotelier of the Year may have highlighted to the industry that Calcot is a good place to build a career and to the industry at large that you don't have to be based in a five-star London hotel to make an impact."
"I've been very proud to display the trophy in the hotel reception," he says.
Now the search is on for the 2007 Hotelier of the Year, and the judges are keen to find as equally an inspiring winner as Ball. Murray, who himself was one of the earliest winners of the coveted title 21 years ago, says that a future Hotelier of the Year will require a great passion for hotelkeeping combined with the ability to meet customers' requirements.
"He must be an inspirational leader who has a clear vision and the skills to create a highly motivated and passionate team with high self-esteem," he says. "He must also listen to his managers and staff and support them and develop their skills. To achieve these objectives, he must delegate and be a good communicator.
"The challenge for the future will be to develop a strategy that meets the requirements of the customers, creates an environment where staff can achieve their own aspirations and rewards and meet the needs of all stakeholders. When developing this strategy, he must take into consideration the growth in international tourism and the different requirements of the traveller and their various cultures. We have also seen a major change in the staff profile and with their varied cultures and languages, all of which have to be considered."
But what about Ball himself, who will now join the judging panel to find the next Hotelier of the Year. What characteristics will he be looking for in his successor?
"Leadership, vision, humility, innovation, trust, consistency, a sense of value, a communicator, a clear commitment to hospitality-based service, and a concern for the industry and all who work in it," he says.
2006 Richard Ball, Calcot Manor, Tetbury, Gloucestershire
2005 John Stauss, Four Seasons, London
2004 Patrick Elsmie, Gleneagles, Auchterarder
2003 Robin Hutson, then at Hotel du Vin
2002 Gordon Campbell Gray, One Aldwych, London
2001 Karen Earp, then at the Four Seasons Canary Wharf, London
2000 Peter Crome, then at Chewton Glen, New Milton, Hampshire
1999 Nick Ryan, the Crinan, Argyll
1998 Nicholas Rettie, then at the Metropolitan, London
1997 Peter Lederer, Gleneagles, Auchterarder
1996 Chris Rouse, then at Turnberry, Ayrshire
1995 Ricci Obertelli, the Dorchester, London
1994 David Levin, the Capital, London
1993 Ken McCulloch, then at One Devonshire Gardens, Glasgow
1992 Dagmar Woodward, then at the Mayfair Intercontinental, London
1991 Martin Skan, then at Chewton Glen, New Milton
1990 George Goring, Goring hotel, London
1989 Grete Hobbs, then at Inverlochy Castle, Fort William
1988 Ronald Jones, then at Claridge's, London
1987 Eion Dillon, then at the Copthorne Tara, London
1986 Harry Murray, then at the Imperial, Torquay
1985 Terry Holmes, then at the Stafford, London
1984 Ramón Pajares, then at the Four Seasons, London
1983 Richard Edwards, then at the Chester Grosvenor, Chester
The 2007 Hotelier of the Year will:
Exhibit strong attention to detail
Be willing to impart knowledge to staff
Have an exemplary business track record
Have the personal touch with guests
Be totally dedicated to the industry