Danny Pecorelli, managing director of the privately owned Exclusive Hotels and EH Venues, talks food, finance and families. Amanda Afiya reports
Your father has been a hotelier in England for many years, but your family originally hails from Italy. Tell us about your background Dad came over to England in the really early 1960s on a Forte management training programme. He came from a dirt-poor Italian background, one of 12 kids. His dad died really young, so he came to England, with no relatives or anything over here, and got a job with the Forte training programme and basically became the youngest ever MD of Forte.
He actually started with Trust Houses and then they merged with Forte Holdings in 1970 [it became known as Trusthouse Forte in 1979]. There was a big cull of the Trust House guys and he was one of the few to survive - I think it might have helped a little bit that he was Italian. And so he ended up running the THF hotel division for years and years and was Rocco Forte's boss for quite a few years. He also ran the Aga Khan's hotel group, Ciga, and then in 1981 started this [Pennyhill Park].
As a kid I would be tagging along with Dad, and so I know Dennis Hearn, Jeremy Logie, all of those sorts of people were floating around.
So you were very much exposed to hotel life from a young age. Did you think you would like to follow in your father's footsteps? Yes, I absolutely knew. I am one of four children and none of the others had the remotest idea of going into hospitality. We were all encouraged to do whatever we wanted to do, but I knew from day one that this was what I was going to do.
Being the son of a hotelier doesn't make it any easier, and in some cases can make it worse, as you feel you have to prove yourself more. We do a lot of work with family businesses. It has its own dynamics and there has to be some competency framework in there. You can't just be there because you're a family member.
Dad was very good at having this framework built into the business, because it can be the easiest way to kill a business if you don't. Not a lot of businesses survive from first generation to second generation, and even fewer from second generation to third.
You work a lot harder, especially when you're family. I worked outside the business for a long time, which I think is a really healthy thing to do, because that's the one downside with working in the same business: the longer you stay there, the greater the chance of tunnel vision. It's important that you get fresh input, so I deliberately spent five years outside the business getting a good grounding, and when you come in you're wired and you work twice as hard as everyone else because you've got to prove that you're up to it.
You must have had lots of new ideas when you did join the business in 1991. Was it hard to influence your dad or was he open to your suggestions? It was as tough on him to let go as it was on me to put my ideas in. I think the good thing is that we've got very different complementary skill sets, so it was quite easy for me to start off with marketing, food and beverage and HR, and he loved the accounting side of things.
The business has taken a different shape in recent years with the introduction of the conference and wedding business, EH Venues The venue side was really created because one of our key assets as a business is the relationship with our clients, which are evenly split between leisure and corporate customers. Sometimes these clients don't want - not just for financial reasons but just perception - to be seen in a five-star hotel. I was very keen to create something to keep that relationship with the client, and almost strengthen it, so you might see the board having a meeting here [at Pennyhill Park] and like what we do and want to send, say, 10 guys on a training course but want an offering that was slightly different.
It's a much more easy offering, with rolling coffee breaks with ice-cream vans and space invader machines. It's been really good fun creating that. There are certain threads that are exactly the same [throughout Exclusive Hotels and EH Venues] such as the people philosophy and good attitude towards service, but the EH Venues products are pared down and easy and a little bit more generous, inasmuch as everything is there all the time so you can just help yourself, there's less formality and structure. It's interesting that those two properties - Fanhams Hall hotel and the Royal Berkshire - are absolutely flying at the moment and growing hugely while the top end of the market is tougher.
Tell me about your role exactly, how much do you travel around the business? There's an overarching brand, but each property should have its own personality, be unique. I'm based here [at Pennyhill Park] but I try to go to all the properties on a regular basis, because hotels and restaurants are a really touchy-feely thing - sit in a hotel lobby and you'll soon see if something's working or not working. So really it's about getting the support structure in place to allow our talented GMs within the group to behave like MDs running their own business, making sure that they are staying true to the brand and the people philosophy, marketing, etc.
How aware are customers of you at Pennyhill Park? Do you walk the floor? I try to walk the floor, and if I walk round the building and don't bump into a customer that I know, I'm not doing my job properly - and that's both leisure and corporate clients. I have a route, and if I need just 10 minutes of not looking at a spreadsheet or sitting with the auditors, I'll walk by the bar, through the restaurants, so that I can see and talk to people.
Is your dad still involved? He's chairman. He comes in maybe every two weeks. He's a pretty young 72. He's always been passionate about quality and he'll still pop out occasionally. He doesn't pop out as much as he did, and he prefers me to walk round and introduce him to people. Pennyhill Park is still his baby and he still has a brilliant eye for detail, which is nice to see.
You have amazing chefs in the stable. Has food always played a large part in the business? We've had talented guys through the years, even when I was first starting out. Marc Wilkinson was here. He failed to get his star, but then went on to win one at Fraiche but was always so capable. Tony Tobin was at South Lodge early on. So we've had some really good guys through. But it's definitely become more of a focus. Food and beverage is the heartbeat of the hotel. You can create a beautiful bedroom, but you're there for the overall experience.
I think I can say we are the only hotel group with three separate Michelin-starred restaurants, but we haven't chased stars. We have just focused on great talent and it then becomes easier. Our retention of chefs at the top level is really, really good because they know they get a senior team that is passionate about food, and they've got an infrastructure and a resource around them that allows them [to have a clear focus].
And now Michael Wignall has delivered two Michelin stars for Pennyhill Park Exceptional food and having some of the best British chefs has always been of the utmost importance to us. Five years ago none of our properties had Michelin stars, and now Michael Wignall at the Latymer has been awarded two, while Richard Davies at the Bybrook restaurant, at the Manor House, and Matt Gillan at the Pass at South Lodge have retained their one stars in the newly published Michelin guide.
It's such an incredible achievement for our chefs and their teams in a relatively short space of time. Michael is a huge credit to us all: two Michelin stars is no mean feat and they're the first in Exclusive history.
The emphasis on food, however, goes beyond our kitchens. Between our four Exclusive Hotels properties we have stunning kitchen gardens and orchards, and our extensive grounds are home to pigs, chickens, quails and beehives. By way of example, Andy MacKenzie at the Avenue, Lainston House, is incredibly passionate about sourcing food locally, and during the spring and summer months 80% of the ingredients on his menu are directly sourced from the hotel grounds.
Then we have the Pass and Camellia at South Lodge, which is aiming to have zero food waste by recycling leftovers and using it as compost for its kitchen garden. Last year Lewis Hamblet, executive chef at South Lodge, managed to recycle an impressive 95% of food waste.
We are incredibly determined to keep food as the key focal point that unites all of the properties. We are doing well so far, but there is plenty more work to be done.
You acquired the Royal Berkshire last year. What work have you done there? We don't tend to shut somewhere and do it up, we prefer constant investment. We've just done the meeting rooms and put in glass walls that you can write on as well as a bean-bag room. First thing was the bar and lounge, because it was a huge investment. Take one area out, give it a good working over, and put it back in. It's more of an 18-month project.
Anything else on the horizon? We're constantly looking at really exciting stuff. You've got to keep evolving. We've got a fantastically strong competitive set, so you can't stay still. But not everything comes off. You could work on something for a year and the deal or idea doesn't come off.
Did witnessing the downfall of Von Essen worry you as a hotelier? The only thing that worried me was I got to the point of thinking "There's something wrong here; there's something wrong here." But then when it went on for so long I thought "Maybe I'm missing something." We're a really simple business. There are other hotel companies that are actually asset companies and they turn them over. We're good old-fashioned operators. I don't spend it until I've earned it - that's one of Dad's really simple lessons. I'm always conscious of that. If I'm having a really good quarter, I'll be working on three projects. If we're having an average quarter, we'll only work on two. We don't borrow, borrow, borrow.
If you're looking for investment, do you tend to go to the banks? It's always been the banks, because we've got a good relationship with a number of banks. We've never broken a covenant; we've never not delivered on something we've said we're going to do. We might have had tougher trading years, but we've always done better than the worst-case scenario that we've given. There's a lot of vanity hotelkeeping out there.
BACK TO THE FLOOR FOR HOSPITALITY ACTION
On Friday 25 January 2013 Pennyhill Park will be playing host to a "Back to the Floor" event in aid of industry charity Hospitality Action. The exclusive fundraising event will see key figures from the industry go "back to the floor" for one night only.
Guests will have the unique opportunity to choose a waiter for the night - on a first-come, first-served basis - from some of the UK's leading hoteliers, including Danny Pecorelli, Philip Newman-Hall, Sue Williams, Andrew McKenzie and Jonathan Raggett.
Tickets are available at £125 each, or £1,200 for a table of 10, and include a four-course meal, wines and Champagnes.
THE EXCLUSIVE HOTELS GROUP
The Exclusive Hotels group comprises Exclusive Hotels, EH Venues and Exclusive Hotel Management.
Pennyhill Park hotel & the Spa Bagshot, Surrey
Accolades five AA red stars, five AA rosettes, two Michelin stars
South Lodge Hotel (plus Mannings Heath Golf Club) Lower Beeding, West Sussex
Accolades five AA stars, four AA rosettes, one Michelin star
Manor House Hotel & Golf Club Castle Combe, Wiltshire
Accolades four AA red stars, three AA rosettes, one Michelin star
Lainston House Hotel Winchester, Hampshire
Accolades five AA stars, three AA rosettes
EH VENUES - LUXURY CONFERENCE VENUES
Fanhams Hall Hotel Ware, Hertfordshire
Royal Berkshire Hotel Ascot, Berkshire
A keen cyclist, and self-dubbed "mamil" (middle-aged man in Lycra), Danny Pecorelli was among a group of hospitality professionals who completed the Exclusive Hotels 30Thirty30 charity cycle ride in aid of Macmillan Cancer Care and Springboard last year. Raising a total of £152,000, some 29 participants completed a 475km cycle ride over four days. They were joined by many more fundraisers who took part in the stages between Exclusive Hotel's Royal Berkshire hotel, Pennyhill Park, Manor House in Castle Combe, Lainston House in Hampshire and South Lodge in West Sussex.