The Caterer and Hotelkeeper Interview – Andrew Thomason

25 May 2012 by
The Caterer and Hotelkeeper Interview – Andrew Thomason

Andrew Thomason was appointed managing director of Gravetye Manor, one of the UK's most iconic country house hotels, last month. He tells Janet Harmer why he is so thrilled about his new role, the ups and downs of working for Von Essen and his fond memories of a four-year stint at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons

Your appointment to the helm of Gravetye Manor came after four months out of work following your departure from London's Hotel Verta in December. How did the job come about?
Four months without a job is very difficult, but I knew it was important to hold out for the right position. Jobs cropped up in London, but I knew in my heart that was not where I wanted to be - the country house market is what I'm accustomed to and love.

When I received a call out of the blue from Neville Ablitt, the representative of the owner of Gravetye, Jeremy Hosking, about the newly created role of managing director, I knew instantly that it would be a perfect fit. The hotel is a member of Relais & Châteaux - who I know from my days at Lower Slaughter Manor and Le Manoir - so I understand exactly what the property stands for. My wife and I actually got engaged at the hotel in 1984 on my 30th birthday, so it is somewhere which is very dear to me. And the icing on the cake - it is only 45 minutes' drive from my home in Brighton!

What is the key focus of your new role?
It is now two years since Gravetye was bought out of administration by Jeremy Hosking. The hotel closed for a few months early last year for a major refurbishment. With the fabric of the hotel in place, I've been taken on as the name and face behind Gravetye, and to consider the whole business strategy. It is important that I'm seen to both run the hotel as the mine host and represent Gravetye outside, whether that be through Relais & Châteaux or by other means.

The owner has made a big investment in the hotel and has done so because he loves what is a very special historic and magnificent house. He hasn't done it for a quick financial gain. The refurbishment has been overseen by Jeremy Hosking's wife, Elizabeth, and is totally sympathetic to the age and style of the property.

Why is Gravetye so special?
It is very different from any other country house hotel, with its key attraction being the beautifully preserved Elizabethan building in which it sits and the surrounding world-famous William Robinson garden which people travel from all over to visit. In refurbishing the hotel, Jeremy and Elizabeth Hosking intended that there should be "change, but no change". So what you see is meticulous decoration throughout, without any glitz, while hidden away are all the modern accoutrements, including great plumbing and free Wi-Fi throughout. The public areas are supremely comfortable and cosy, but without being overly grand - they are somewhere you can curl up and read the paper; while the bedrooms are top rate with everything the modern traveller needs, such as iPod Bose docking systems and flat-screen TVs.

There are no added gimmicks, such as a spa or gym. Instead, it is the honesty of Gravetye which makes the place so special, with the people who come here creating a special atmosphere and ambience.

Is the founder of Gravetye as a hotel, Peter Herbert, still in contact with the property?
Indeed he is. He is now in his 80s and lives just at the end of the drive to the hotel. Since I arrived here, I've paid him a weekly visit. His philosophy very much lives on here and he is thrilled that the new owners have been so passionate about restoring the hotel and gardens.

Peter Herbert famously founded a members' club at Gravetye. Does it still exist?
It does and we are currently bringing it into the 21st century. When it was established, it cost one guinea a year to be a member. Today, the annual subscription for couples is £200 or £150 for a single person. Members are entitled to one free night at the hotel during the year and receive rewards from money they spend on overnight stays and in the restaurant.

How will you be driving business forward?
Over the past year average occupancy has been around 50% with an average room rate of £250. A key part of my job is to get the name of Gravetye out there and drive these figures up.

Guests are currently largely from within the UK, but we are going to start looking at the international market. We are only a few miles from London Gatwick and I want to make sure everyone flying in knows that we are here. I'm familiar with the Japanese market from my time in the Cotswolds and hope to build up business from the Far East. The hotel's sales and marketing manager, Celine Jorgensen, will also be making a couple of trips to the USA later this year to meet with travel agents.

I'm building up relationships with the other 30 or so member hotels within Relais & Châteaux around the UK - as well as those abroad - and will be highlighting the unique elements of Gravetye and encouraging as many of the owners and managers to come and visit us.

The gardens are key to the uniqueness of Gravetye and we are planning to tie in a stay at the hotel with tours of other nearby well-known gardens such as Wakehurst Place and Nymans. We are also using our contacts to arrange exclusive visits to nearby country houses which are generally not open to the public.

Prior to Gravetye, you spent five years with Von Essen Hotels, which collapsed into administration in April 2011. How would you sum up the experience?
I loved my time at Lower Slaughter Manor, which I joined halfway through a £2m refurbish­ment. I helped reposition the property as a key player in the Cotswold country house hotel market, grew the staff from 11 to 35, and gained Relais & Châteaux membership for the hotel. It was a challenging role, but after four years I felt the job was done and was ready to move on.

At the time, Andrew Davis (founder of Von Essen) was looking for someone to open his new London property, Hotel Verta. I had never worked in London before and was happy to take on a new challenge. The theory of the hotel looked good - it's situated on the Thames, it was part of the London Heliport, and it had the backing of the Von Essen brand. But the positioning of the hotel in Battersea - away from the centre of London - was its downfall. Guests staying at Cliveden or the Royal Crescent in Bath didn't want to stay in a hotel which was 20 minutes' drive from Mayfair.

We started to change our strategy and turn Verta into a destination hotel, attracting the likes of the music, fashion, media and hi-tech industries. We were also doing well with football teams staying in London which were playing Chelsea and Fulham.

Were you surprised when Von Essen went into administration?
It came as a bolt from the blue. I received the news when I was with Joan Reen at Ynyshir Hall (another Von Essen hotel, in Powys) and we cried together. Only a week before we had attended a general managers' conference, when Andrew Davis had been confident that new investment - which would have got rid of the company's debt - was just days away from being signed. So when news about the administration came through, it was a real blow.

Then, very quickly, I discovered that Verta wasn't actually part of the administration. It was a difficult time, particularly with regards to staff morale. Verta itself went into administration in July, which actually made my job easier as the team from Ernst & Young (the administrators) were lovely and supportive and were there to maintain the five-star standards of the hotel in order to protect the asset in preparation for its sale.

Did you not want to stay at Hotel Verta once it was sold?
I didn't have any choice. The new owners brought in a management company - Rhombus - to run the hotel and the position of general manager was made redundant and replaced by a house manager.

How did working at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons impact your career?
I was thrilled to work there as Raymond Blanc had long been my idol as a restaurateur. The first thing I noticed on arrival was the inclusive atmosphere that existed among the staff - there was a real culture of belonging to Le Manoir family. Raymond's attention to detail and passion is phenomenal. I remember him taking me around the gardens and encouraging me to smell the shrubs. Working in that environment was a dream and I think my style as a general manager today was very much moulded by my time at Le Manoir, where the focus is on both staff and guests enjoying themselves. I think everyone would benefit from having a touch of Raymond within them - I don't think I've ever met anyone more inspiring.

April 2012-present Managing director, Gravetye Manor, West Hoathley, West Sussex
2010-December 2011 General manager, Hotel Verta (Von Essen Hotels)
2006-2010 General manager, Lower Slaughter Manor (Von Essen Hotels)
2004-2006 Hotel director, the Forbury hotel, Reading
2001-2004 Resident manager, Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, Great Milton, Oxfordshire
1999-2000 General manager, the Grapevine hotel, Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire
1997-1999 Deputy manager, Bishopstrow House hotel, Warminster, Wiltshire
1979-1997 Proprietor with Tim McEntire, Partners 23, Sutton, Surrey, and Partners West Street, Dorking, Surrey

Peter Herbert was a pioneer in establishing Gravetye Manor - which he opened with his wife, Sue, in 1958 - as one of the earliest country house hotels. Set in a stunning Elizabethan manor house, surrounded by 35 acres of award-winning grounds and gardens, the 17-bedroom property attracted a loyal following.

A key feature of Herbert's ownership of Gravetye was his restoration of the gardens - including a one-acre kitchen garden - originally designed by William Robinson, a former owner of the property until his death in 1935. Robinson created a natural English garden, a style which has since been widely copied.

Following Herbert's retirement in 2004, Gravetye was sold to Andrew Russell and chef Mark Raffan, who both previously worked at the hotel. Unfortunately at the height of the recession in January 2010, Gravetye went into administration owing to the excess debt it was carrying. Within two months, the property was bought for an undisclosed sum by Jeremy Hosking, co-founder of the London hedge fund Marathon Asset Management and a long-standing guest of Gravetye.

From the outset, Hosking's intention has been to reverse the recent decline of the property and return it to being one of the leading country house hotels in the country, an ambition which, no doubt, led to his appointment of Andrew Thomason as managing director. The hotel closed last year for three-and-a-half months to allow for a £2.5m overhaul - both structural and decorative - of the property. Outside, work began on what will be a five-year project to recreate Robinson's garden.

Gravetye, which was established by Herbert as the first UK member of Relais & Châteaux, holds four AA stars and three AA rosettes.

the GUEST editor says
A good hotelier is someone who really cares for his or her staff - and Andrew is that person. He really shines and I wish him well with his new role at Gravetye Manor.
Raymond Blanc

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