Northcote's status as one of the UK's premier luxury hotels has been hard-earned by Craig Bancroft and Nigel Haworth, who have spent three decades at the property. Janet Harmer reports
Craig Bancroft and Nigel Haworth
Sitting down over a plate of seafood, accompanied by a chilled white wine, was the chance for the young Craig Bancroft and Nigel Haworth to chat through their vision of creating a destination restaurant and hotel.
It was the mid-1980s and the two 20-somethings had only recently come together to run what was then a rather unexceptional Lancashire hotel. Thirty years on, their vision has been realised to a level that even they never envisaged would be possible.
But there has been a cost, because today Bancroft and Haworth rarely have the time to sit back and take stock of the fact that their far-reaching vision, together with 30 years of hard graft and a significant injection of cash, has propelled Northcote into the elevated position of being one of the UK's top 10 luxury hospitality venues.
"The only criticism I have of what we have created is that we are just too busy now to enjoy those relaxed times that were a regular occurrence," explains Bancroft, who with Haworth, is speaking to The Caterer about the new lease of life that has stemmed from the £7m refurbishment of the 19th-century manor house.
Selling a major chunk of the company was required to finance the total transformation of Northcote, which has grown from what was originally a six bedroom 19th-century country house in the 1980s to the 26-bedroom property it is today.
Alongside the new bedrooms, there has also been an overhaul of the décor, extensions to the kitchen and restaurant, and the addition of a private-dining suite, cookery school, staff facilities and a cocktail bar. The one element still to be completed is the five-acre garden, which is set to be a five-year project. "We intend to create a really beautiful Victorian kitchen garden," says Haworth.
With Northcote firmly catapulted into the premier league of hotels, the partners have continued to remain at the coal face of the business, with Haworth overseeing the kitchen, gardens and back of house, while Bancroft takes charge of the bedrooms, housekeeping and front of house.
"Every area of the hotel is now highly generative with business levels growing all the time," says Bancroft.
Turnover has doubled to almost £5m, with average room rate rising from £128 prior to the redevelopment to £167 today. Revenue per available room, which was not monitored before, currently stands at £105. Meanwhile, following the increase in bedroom numbers, it is no surprise that occupancy has fallen back from 77% to 64%. "We're aiming to get that figure up to 75% and we'll be fine," says Bancroft.
New revenue streams include the 60-cover Louis Roederer private-dining suite, which, with a monthly turnover of between £45,000 and £50,000, is heading towards its target of £60,000 per month. "Celebratory events such as 50th birthday parties and golden weddings have been enormously popular," says Bancroft. Additionally, the new cookery school, which can be transformed into a private-dining space for up to 14 covers with a view of the pass, is currently achieving an annual turnover of £225,000 from dual revenue stream.
The seeds of the new-look hotel were sown 12 years ago with the changing of the name from the original Northcote Manor, to simply Northcote. "Nigel drove it as he felt the old name had the connotations of a creaky old manor house, whereas we were looking to create a more contemporary image that would attract a younger market while continuing to appeal to our regular guests," explains Bancroft.
Opulent and contemporary
"During the first five or six years of running the hotel we attracted high-flying entrepreneurs in their 40s. Those customers are now in their 70s and still come to us, along with their sons and daughters, who are now in their 40s themselves."
The Northcote of old had the feel of a gentlemens' club with brown leather chairs in the bar and chintzy furnishings in the bedrooms. Today the public areas are glitzy with a mix of studded felt chairs, white leather bar stools, and cushions in black and white animal prints and vibrant fuchsia-coloured raw silk. The well-spaced tables in the 70-cover restaurant - with deep black and white banquettes and leather chairs - project a feeling of generosity, while a vast chandelier of crystal icicles has a striking impact.
Interior designer Jill Holst, co-founding director of Newcastle-based Ward Robinson, came out of retirement to oversee the project, which she worked on with Jackie Dent. Their aim was to provide an opulent, yet contemporary feel to both the public areas and individually-designed, spacious bedrooms.
Behind the scenes
Meanwhile, equal thought has gone into creating exemplary back-of-house facilities for the 76-strong team. In order to achieve excellence throughout the business, Bancroft and Haworth fully understand the need to nurture and support their employees, especially in rural Lancashire where it is a challenge to recruit and retain staff. Hence, much consideration has been given to the impressive staff wing, which includes changing rooms, showers and lockers; a lounge with television, computers and library of food and wine books; and a canteen serving three meals a day with an emphasis on healthy dishes. Key benefits include the offer to all staff of flu jabs during the winter.
There are also six single bedrooms and one double. "This means that we can look after young trainees, on work placements from catering schools in the UK and overseas," explains Haworth. "We can accommodate stagiaires from the two-Michelin-star Vila Joya in Albufeira, Portgual - which we enjoy a reciprocal arrangement with - and other leading restaurants in the UK and Europe."
Following on from the completion of the fabric and aesthetics of Northcote, the management team at the hotel has now also been consolidated. Acorn Award winner 2007 Lisa Goodwin-Allen returned last August from maternity leave as executive head chef, alongside head chef Aled Williams, while Craig Jackson (Acorn Award winner 2015) has been promoted from hotel manager to general manager.
Now, the focus is on building up business, something which has been enhanced by being accepted into membership of Relais & ChÁ¢teaux (R&C) a year ahead of Bancroft and Haworth's target date of January 2016. "The focus R&C has on food and wine makes the body an attractive one for us - becoming a member is a way of positioning ourselves alongside the likes of Gidleigh Park and Whatley Manor," says Bancroft. "But we have to give it three years to see whether it works for Northcote." The hotel is also a long-term member of Pride of Britain.
Joining an online travel agent has been a new experience for Northcote. Some 57 bookings - all at a non-discounted rate (from £260 for a double room up to £605 for the King Suite) - were achieved during the first four months after signing up to Booking.com.
Other marketing activities include a back-to-back promotion with fellow R&C member Gilpin Hotel and Lake House in Windermere, Cumbria; e-mail shots to Northcote's 67,000-strong data base, and cross promotions with the five Ribble Valley Inns.
With the expectation that awards and accolades boost booking, Northcote has firmly set its sight on achieving a second Michelin star and increasing its AA rosettes from four to five. "Accolades help to drive occupancy, but our priority is to ensure everyone who comes to Northcote has a good time, with or without Michelin stars," says Bancroft.
Bancroft and Haworth may no longer spend the quality time with one another they once enjoyed, but it is clear that their enduring partnership has been central to the creation and success of the Northcote that has endured over more than 30 years. Along the way they have scooped the Catey award for Independent Hotel of the Year (1999), with their special relationship honoured 10 years later when they were jointly presented with the Catey Special Award.
In all their years together, there has barely been a cross word. "It has worked because we have great respect for one another - our bond has grown out of that," explains Bancroft. "I think it is significant that we weren't friends before we started working together."
Haworth adds: "There is absolutely no competition between us at all. We implicitly trust one another and have total confidence that we will always be there to support the other".
Time, perhaps, for the two to take time, sit back and raise a toast to one another and the distinct and unique business they have created.
Obsession food festival
The creative vision of the Bancroft-Haworth partnership has perhaps best been highlighted by the phenomenal on-going success of Obsession, the food and wine festival held at Northcote each January.
Originally suggested by Haworth as a means of boosting business during a dreary January, the event is equally exhausting and inspiring for staff, while the PR benefits are huge.
Guests pay £120 per head, with all 16 dinners, each serving 120 covers, sold out for this year. While Haworth oversees the kitchen, Bancroft uses the occasion to introduce new wine pairings.
This year's plethora of culinary stars, with 19 Michelin stars between them, include Annie Féolde of Restaurant Enoteca Pinchiorri, Florence, Italy (three stars); Hideaki Matsuo, Kashiwaya, Osaka, Japan (three stars); Arnaud Bignon, the Greenhouse, London, UK (two stars); Jean-Luc Rocha, ChÁ¢teau Cordeillan-Bages, Pauillac, France; Mark Jordan, Ocean restaurant, Atlantic hotel, Jersey (one star); and Tom Sellers, Restaurant Story, London (one star). Read more about this year's festival in our February cover story.
Growth of home-grown talent
While the physical development of Northcote has transformed the hotel into a new era, Bancroft and Haworth know only too well that success will not come without a talented pool of staff. Much time and money is therefore invested in growing a stable team delivering top-class food and service.
Catering apprenticeships with NVQ qualifications are run in conjunction with the L20 Hotel School in Liverpool and other local colleges. Trainees combine work and study, with Haworth going into colleges to work with tutors to develop a style that will suit Northcote staff. There are currently 27 chef apprentices who are expected to progress to full-time positions at either Northcote or one of the Ribble Valley Inns.
The appointment in November 2015 of 27-year-old Craig Jackson as general manager is a great example of a member of staff who has worked his way to the top, having started as part-time waiter at the Three Fishes pub at the age of 16. On leaving school at 18, he eschewed a university place in favour of a four-year management training scheme with Ribble Valley Inns, during which he achieved a foundation degree in hospitality and license retail management from Lancaster University.
After a spell in management roles with Ribble Valley Inns, Jackson took a year away from Northcote Leisure Group working for London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, arranging accommodation for the British swimming team during the London 2012 Olympics. He returned to Northcote at the end of 2012 as guest relations manager, later being appointed hotel manager and then general manager.
The dynamic duo
The formidable double act of Bancroft and Haworth - both Lancashire born - stems from a chance conversation between extended members of the each other's families. At just 22 years of age and after time spent on the Trusthouse Forte management trainee scheme, Bancroft found himself running the then-named Northcote Manor as general manager when the chef walked out. His grandmother happened to have tea with Haworth's aunt, who mentioned that her nephew - then a college lecturer after spending time working in kitchens in London and Switzerland - was looking for a position as a chef. The year was 1984.
Bancroft, 54, and Haworth, 57, acquired a stake in the business in 1986, buying the hotel outright three years later. Together they set up outside-catering arm Northcote Offsite in 1999, before going on to sell the catering firm in 2007 to the company's operations director, Martin Jones so that they could concentrate on developing the hotel and expanding Ribble Valley Inns which they had launched three years earlier. However, they continued to run Northcote at the Rovers, the corporate hospitality at Blackburn Rover's stadium.
Ribble Valley's first pub, the Three Fishes in Mitton, Lancashire, was an instant success on opening in 2004, scooping the Catey for Pub and Bar Operator of the Year in 2005. The Three Fishes was later joined by the Highwayman in Kirby Lonsdale, Cumbria (opened in 2007), the Clog and Billycock at Pleasington, Lancashire (2008), the Bull in Broughton, North Yorkshire (2009) and the Nag's Head, Haughton Moss, Cheshire (2013).
Following a slow-down in business during the recession and a lack of investment stemming from the banks unwillingness to lend money at that time, the pubs are now enjoying a resurgence. Work is now underway to accelerate the growth of Ribble Valley Inns, with the recent acquisition of a sixth pub, the Stag's Head in Great Alderley Edge, Cheshire. Currently closed for refurbishment, the pub will reopen in July 2016.
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