Andy Helmore, director of engineering at the Four Seasons Hampshire, is responsible for maintaining the five-star property to the highest standards, while ensuring the safety and security of the building and grounds. He talks to Janet Harmer about the essential work that he and his team carry out, and how he keeps it hidden from the guests.
Ensuring the Four Seasons Hampshire is impeccably maintained to the highest five-star standards at all times, with minimum disruption to guests, is a constant challenge for the hotel's director of engineering, Andy Helmore.
"There is always some form of maintenance to be done, but we have to juggle the times we can do it," says Helmore. "Should we do it during the day, when the guests are around and we risk disturbing their enjoyment of the hotel, or should we do it at night when any noise may keep guests awake?
"Everyone who stays here wants to experience a quality product, but no one wants to see any part of the hotel closed, or be bothered by necessary maintenance work."
It is a constant conundrum, which Helmore takes very seriously; so much so that when two of the guests lifts were recently out of action, the area that was being worked on was completely covered up and decorated to blend in with the surrounding interior so that no one would have known the work was taking place.
Everything Helmore does must appear seamless, even though behind the scenes, he and his team of nine staff - who include five electrical and mechanical shift engineers, two painters, a carpenter and an administrator - together with a team of regular contractors, are constantly hard at work across every department of the hotel.
A LONG LIST OF RESPONSIBILITIES
His responsibilities at the 133-bedroom hotel and spa, which is situated in 500 acres of the historic grounds of Dogmersfield Park in Hook, Hampshire, are extensive. While his day-to-day role involves overseeing the engineering and security departments of the property - which requires emergency repairs to be carried out as swiftly as possible and a preventative maintenance programme to be kept up - he also leads the hotel's green initiative programme for recycling and energy savings.
There are also health and safety regulations and local authority standards to be met, risk and chemical usage assessments to be carried out and the water quality throughout the property to be monitored. Helmore's work requires him to work closely with the local Hart District Council on planning permissions to further develop the hotel, English Heritage on implementing a 50-year landscape management plan for the estate and the local fire brigade to ensure the ongoing safety of hotel guests and staff.
While Helmore is now totally immersed in the smooth operation of a luxury hotel, he never imagined he would end up working within the hotel industry. He started his career as an apprentice electrician before moving in 1995 to become a facilities engineer at the property, which was eventually to be developed into the Four Seasons Hampshire. At the time the building was occupied by the computer company Amdahl.
"Undertaking repairs to the property when it was occupied by offices was never a problem as we just shut down parts of the property and worked around the staff - but you can't do that in a hotel," he says.
When the building was purchased in 2000 to be developed as a hotel, Helmore joined the asset owning company, Chamlore Developments, as site manager to oversee the installation of all electrical, mechanical, plumbing, heating, ventilation, air conditioning and IT systems.
It was a mammoth job, which was centred on maintaining the integrity of the Grade I-listed 18th century manor house at the heart of the project. An east wing had already been added to the property in 1986 following a fire in 1981 and Helmore had to oversee the building of the south and west wings, along with the restoration of the stable block into a spa.
By the time the hotel was ready to open in February 2005, Helmore knew the property so well that he was the ideal person to fill the role of director of engineering.
A significant part of his job today is to ensure the safety of the property and grounds, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Having all the necessary fire prevention measures in place and maintaining a good relationship with the local fire brigade is particularly essential.
Lessons have been learnt by the 1981 fire, which caused extensive damage because there were no readily available fire hydrants close to the property and no sprinkler system in place. Today there is a tank on site, containing 355 cubic metres of water, directly linked to hundreds of sprinklers located throughout the hotel, which will be activated in the instance of a fire, as well as a back-up system of hydrants.
The sprinkler system was activated recently when a joint on a hot water pipe broke above a ceiling in the east wing, resulting in a gush of water that flooded a bedroom corridor to a depth of six inches. Steam from the hot water caused the fire alarms to go off and the sprinklers to be switched on.
"The fire brigade were here within 10 minutes and they had to smash through the ceiling to ensure there was no fire before the sprinklers could be switched off," say Helmore. "Guests from 10 bedrooms were evacuated and then the repair work began."
Such incidents are part and parcel of running a hotel. It is how you deal with such emergencies and the way that it impacts upon guests that is important.
"There are a lot of hotel engineers who are good technically, but that is not enough in a property like this," said Colin Clark, general manager of the Four Seasons Hampshire.
"Andy is more than a good engineer; he is a great engineer as he knows what he is doing as well as being willing to help out and goes about his work with a sense of humour and relentless energy.
"Every member of his team has exactly the same attitude. They all know how their work will impact the guests and staff and will do everything they can to ensure the guests' expectation of perfection is met. Being able to communicate what they are doing in a friendly manner is absolutely essential."
Walking around the extensive hotel and grounds, Helmore's enthusiasm for the property and the workings behind the scenes - including the housekeeping room, the workshop where all day-to-day repairs are carried out, the boiler room, and waste management area - is palpable. Even the grease separator, which ensures that fat from kitchen waste does not block the drains, creates excitement.
Beyond the general maintenance work, Helmore is also in charge of the hotel's capital expenditure projects - all necessary to ensure the property remains at the very top of the quality league. For 2010, this includes the upgrading of the mechanical components of three steam and three sauna rooms, the restoration of the front-of-house marble floors, the replacement of 1,500 square metres of carpet in the guest room corridors, the upgrading of terrace furniture outside the restaurant and bar, and connection to the public mains drainage - in total, an investment of around £750,000.
Future projects include the redevelopment of the equestrian centre and a new conservatory restaurant with an open kitchen.
Helmore has no intention of leaving the world of hotels. If he does leave the Four Seasons Hampshire, it will be to transfer to a sister property, possibly in the USA, or maybe to join the design and construction team at the company's head office in Toronto.
"The engineering element of the hotel is fundamental to the business in that if something in the property fails, the business cannot be picked up and taken elsewhere, as the hotel is the product," he says.
"A director of engineering in a hotel has a crucial voice in the daily, monthly and annual strategic planning of the business - which is very different from an engineering role in an office building - and something I like very much.
"We have immense pride in the product at Four Seasons and that is why we have painters on the permanent staff. It is not a case of them doing a quick touch-up job as everything has to be carried out to the highest standards.
"I enjoy working in the industry and doing things for people; it's what the job is all about."
FOUR SEASONS HAMPSHIRE
Hampshire RG27 8TD
Tel 01252 853000www.fourseasons.com
The Four Seasons Hampshire is one of three UK hotels operated by the Four Seasons management company, the others being Four Seasons London, which is currently closed for refurbishment and due to reopen later this year, and Four Seasons Canary Wharf.
Founded in 1960, Four Seasons now has 83 hotels in 35 countries with more projects under development.
General manager Colin Clark
Executive chef Cyrille Pannier
Bedrooms 133, including 22 suites
Food & beverage Seasons restaurant seats 82 with the adjacent Salon Privé semi-private dining room for 32, Bar 1086 (seats 30), the Library (seats 38) for afternoon tea, and Santé spa café. Conference and banqueting space for up to 250 people.
Leisure spa with 15 treatment rooms, swimming pool, outdoor vitality pool, boating on the Basingstoke Canel, which passes through the estate, clay pigeon shooting, fishing on one of the estate's two lakes, equestrian centre, two all-weather tennis courts and croquet lawn.
Room rates from £195
HOW A DIRECTOR OF ENGINEERING CAN BOOST A HOTEL'S BUSINESS
Ensuring the hotel always looks stunning
This will not only attract guests but also encourage them to return. And if the property looks good, the staff take more pride in looking after it.
"The housekeepers are our eyes and ears," says Helmore. "If there is a problem in a bedroom - maybe a bulb needs replacing - they will not let it out again until we've fixed it."
Keeping all back-of-house areas well maintained
This is essential to help attract and retain staff. The Four Seasons Hampshire has 240 employees, with an annual turnover rate in the high teens, of which 8-10% transfer to other Four Seasons hotels.
Maintaining the safety of the property at all times
As well as ensuring all fire regulations are adhered to, maintaining good water quality is essential. Microbiological testing and chlorination of water systems in the spa and swimming pool, together with spot checks on the water temperature in en suite bathrooms - the hot water must reach 50e_SDgrC within one minute to meet legionella regulations - therefore, regularly takes place.
Introducing energy saving initiatives
Between 2007 and 2009 Helmore reduced the electricity usage at the Four Seasons Hampshire by 983,347KwH - a saving of nearly £100,000. He achieved this by installing speed controllers to 10 heating pumps and eight chilled water pumps which serve the hotel's air conditioning system, replacing 300 lightbulbs in the guest corridors with energy-saving lamps, and improving the hotel's building management system, which controls all the electrical and mechanical plant.
Encouraging the recycling of as many materials as possible
At the Four Seasons Hampshire all grass cuttings and leaves are turned into compost for use on the hotel's bedding plant areas, and 26 tonnes of cardboard and 182 tonnes of glass are recycled annually. This has resulted in total savings of nearly £18,000 per year, compared with landfill costs.
Being full of ideas to help move the business forward
"Andy is constantly brimming with suggestions for making better use of certain spaces around the hotel," says Clark. "For instance, it was his idea to turn an area we previously used as an office into a games room."
Communicating and dealing with problems in a friendly, efficient manner
This will help to win the respect and understanding of guests.