Running hotels is more challenging than the world of motor racing, according to David Richards, owner of the Idle Rocks and St Mawes hotels in Cornwall. Katey Pigden reports on the on-stage interview at the Independent Hotel Show at which Janet Harmer quizzed Richards about his new career
David Richards and his wife Karen reopened the Idle Rocks hotel in St Mawes in 2013 following a multi-million pound transformation. The couple had acquired the property three years earlier and, in 2013, also bought the nearby St Mawes hotel.
So, after such a successful career in the world of motor racing spanning almost 40 years, what made them choose to open a hotel?
"Blame my wife," he says, jokingly. "It was her idea and imagination. She has followed in my footsteps and supported me in previous years, so it seemed like a good time to pursue what she wanted. Running a Formula One team is a good deal easier, I can tell you. But new challenges are great for me.
Karen Richards has designed the interiors of the two hotels herself."No two rooms are the same," says Richards. "Karen shares that pedantic attention to detail I have, which can be fantastic and frustrating in equal measures. The design features a mixture of modern influences with a dash of inspiration and a few older pieces."
Richards explains that they have gathered ideas from places they have visited and, in particular, referenced Firmdale hotels. He also says that he is impressed by the Pig group of hotels, created by Robin Hutson.
"It's important to put yourself into the shoes of guests and try to learn from that," he says. "Guests will spot the one failure. For us, it's about delivery; everything has to work. We have a great team of people who run the hotels on a daily basis and they are clearly focused."
Recruitment, admits Richards, has been one of the biggest struggles since entering the business. "In motoring it's easy to find the best staff. You can easily get a thousand plus applications for 40 apprenticeships and eight graduate positions. It's not the same with hotels - you don't get many applications, so finding the best isn't an easy task, but it is changing."
Location, believes Richards, has been a major issue in attracting staff. Situated at the far end of the Roseland, St Mawes is not the most convenient of places to reach, but he assures that it is great once you're there. "You have to build a reputation to attract good staff. It takes a few years for a hotel to get to maturity. We have to invest in people who are committed to the business and offer them career development. It's a slow process, but it's important to make the commitment. We've bought five other houses in the village just to house staff."
St Mawes hotel
However, he says that having a business within a small village does have plus points: primarily that with 48 staff, it is one of the biggest employers in the area.
The Richards are currently thinking of ways to attract more guests to the hotels in the winter months, as it is unsurprisingly summer that brings the best trade. Between June and August, occupancy runs at around 85%-95%, but only 40% is anticipated during November.
"Another small business I own has 14 staff, requires less capital and makes more money," say Richards. "Yet the feedback about the hotels and that rewarding feeling you get far outweighs the financial reasons."
Does the entrepreneur plan to expand his hotel portfolio? The answer is an emphatic no. "I draw the line with two hotels," says Richards, who says he is trying to better integrate the St Mawes hotel with the area in order to engage with the village.
"For the first hotel, locals just came for special occasions," he explains. "Making the hotels' restaurants destination venues in their own right is important to us in the long-term. We offer a casual, relaxed environment, but that doesn't take away from the quality.
"We're trying to find our position, but we're not quite there yet. We might have to go a bit more upmarket, but it's about trying to find a balance as people have different definitions of upmarket. The clientele has changed in the last couple of years already."
David Richards is interviewd by Janet Harmer
Richards finds it to be a great irony that there is a chef shortage at the same time there is a plethora of TV cooking shows. He namechecks Guy Owen, the Idle Rocks head chef, who was appointed in July 2015, whose enthusiasm he believes will help to recruit a strong brigade around him.
"Hospitality is the default career for many," he says. "Some of the biggest struggles the industry faces as a whole comes back to people, training and skill sets. There are good training schools out there, but I question - and I hope that I'm wrong - if the level of talent is higher elsewhere.
"I have spent my life building teams in the motorsport world, so will use that experience for the hotel business."
Looking to the future, the Richards are confident they can build on the initial success of the hotels, despite the challenges they face."In the first few years we set out to make people aware of the hotel. We're now doing well within our target group. We will have to make some assumptions and believe in our own views to stay true and consistent to our vision."
When asked "if your hotel was a car what would it be?" Richards instantly replies: "An Aston Martin. Why would I say anything else? A slow-moving one, but an Aston Martin nonetheless."
The Idle Rocks hotel
David Richards - need to know
After studying accountancy, David Richards became a professional rally co-driver, competing for the Leyland, Opel and Ford teams. Under Ford, he co-drove Ari Vatanen to victory in the British and Scandinavian championships and finished his competitive career by winning the World Rally Championship with Vatanen in 1981.
Turning his attention to business, Richards formed his own rally team and in 1984 created Prodrive, a company which has gone on to win a succession of World Rally titles and grow into a world-leading motorsport and technology business with a turnover of £60m.
Richards was awarded a CBE in 2005 for his services to motorsport and in 2007 he led a consortium that purchased Aston Martin from Ford. For six years he was chairman of the iconic British sports car manufacturer until he stepped down from the position in 2013.
In September 2007 Richards and his wife Karen survived a helicopter crash, unharmed, while returning from the Belgian Grand Prix.