The Caterer and Hotelkeeper interview – Philip Newman-Hall

17 May 2012 by
The Caterer and Hotelkeeper interview – Philip Newman-Hall

Philip Newman-Hall has risen from the ranks of a waiter in an Eastbourne hotel to become managing director of one of the UK's most lauded country house hotels, Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons in Great Milton, Oxfordshire, and right-hand man to its inspirational creator, Raymond Blanc. He speaks to Janet Harmer

How ambitious were you to reach the top of your profession when you started out as a waiter at the Wish Tower hotel in Eastbourne? I was not at all ambitious at that age. As well as not being academic and hating school, I was cocky and pretty rebellious. But getting my first job - as a waiter during the summer holidays - introduced me to responsibility for which I received praise for. I was quite impressionable and enjoyed the fact that the better you looked after a guest, the more money they gave you. I left at 16 and joined the hotel - then owned by Kingsley Windsor Hotels - on a chef apprenticeship scheme and later moved to a management training scheme.

Your training was done very much on-the-job. How has this influenced your thoughts on training? I'm a great believer in the importance of vocational training, as I'm not an advocate of classroom teaching. It certainly worked for me, but I understand that it's not for everyone and that academic training suits other people better. At Le Manoir, we have a good mix of both university graduates and people who have undertaken vocational training. We need that mix as their different backgrounds provide a balance.

Who have been your most inspiring mentors en route to Le Manoir? George Goring, who owned the Spa hotel in Tunbridge Wells, as well as the Goring in London, was the consummate hotelier who realised the importance of and really looked after his team. He was a very caring employer who was great at rewarding the staff. Ivo Vannocci, managing director of the George of Stamford, was the first person who really showed me the true essence of hospitality and that the ability to say yes to a guest is really quite easy. He was absolutely fantastic at being the mine host, who was the person on the door, meeting and greeting guests. The person who provided me with a solid commercial grounding was Michael Herriott, managing director of Virgin Hotels. And then, of course, there is Raymond, who has the desire and total passion to bring the best out of everybody. He really wants everyone to go on and understand the same journey as him. At Le Manoir, Raymond is the leader and I am the manager who facilitates the Blanc vision and delivers it to guests.

You first arrived at Le Manoir in 1999, but left after five years, why was that? I felt I had achieved everything I'd been asked to do - including a refurbishment of the property, an extension of the bedrooms from 19 to 32 and the building of two private dining rooms. It had been my job to change the emphasis of the business from a restaurant with rooms to a hotel with a stunning restaurant and bring in new business. I had planned to leave a little earlier, but when Richard Branson sold his majority shareholding of Le Manoir to Orient Express Hotels in 2002, I was asked to stay on to oversee the transfer of ownership.

Where did you go? Initially I went to a job where - for only the first time during my career - I was lured by vast sums of money, which seemed foolish to turn down. I went to run Bovey Castle in Devon, which was then owned by Peter de Savary. Although I'd known him for many years, working for someone who had such strong, immovable opinions was difficult and I left after six weeks. The experience taught me to learn from your mistakes and move on, which I did. The very next day after leaving Devon I started a consultancy and immediately flew out to Morocco, where I took over the temporary management of the Kasbah Tamadot, near Marrakech, for Virgin Hotels.

What drew you back to Le Manoir? It was 2009, which was not a great year for consultancy work as the recession had taken its toll, so I decided to look for a permanent role again. I happened to be attending a celebration at the French ambassador's residence to mark Raymond's OBE when he barricaded me in the men's loos and asked me if I would be interested to go back! The time felt right - another five years had gone by, which is about the time I've spent in each job. And I was lured by some specific new jobs to get on with - such as the development of four new suites.

What impact did the Orient-Express Hotels ownership have on the operation of Le Manoir? There has been no real impact as Orient-Express is not a demanding owner and tends to remain in the background. Raymond Blanc and Le Manoir are such strong brands in their own right and are what people know. On the plus side, Orient-Express has invested money in the property.

What impact has the recession had on Le Manoir? I don't think I can say that Le Manoir is recession proof, but we have seen turnover and profit rise over the past three to four years. Le Manoir is a place of celebration - many of our guests save up to come here for a very special occasion and spend more than they have ever spent before on one night. They regard it as worth it. With only 32 bedrooms to fill, I think there are enough silver and golden weddings and special birthdays to ensure there will always be people wanting to celebrate here.

Turnover last year was £14.83m, up from £14.3m in 2010, with an average occupancy of 73%. We first broke £500 for average room rate in May 2010 and have just broken the £600 barrier in March 2012. Our growth in turnover is definitely being pushed via the room rate, which has been helped by the opening of the four new suites, which sell at £1,250 or £1,500 for a weekend night.

How have you achieved such impressive figures? We've proved that there is a demand for the kind of special experience we provide here. The hotel and restaurant are spotless and we offer impeccable service from friendly staff. Every bedroom is unique and beautifully decorated, full of the best fabrics and artefacts. What we do - which helps drive business for the future - is increase what we give to our guests. We don't cut costs. We are constantly putting more toiletries and better-quality towels in the guest bathrooms and extra goodies in the bedrooms. We ensure the guests feel that they are submerged in luxury. Something very small that we do - and the guests love - is to provide them on arrival with four postcards of Le Manoir, which we will post to anywhere in the world. There is always water, fruit and cakes in every bedroom, which is perceived as being of greater value than it actually is.

The culture and care that you have built up for the staff at Le Manoir were a key reason why you won the 2011 Catey award for Manager of the Year. What is your philosophy when it comes to nurturing staff? With a full-time staff of 210 - and an annual payroll cost of £5m - looking after the staff is a self-fulfilling element of what we do. I appreciate immensely the support I received in working my way through the industry, and understand the importance of mentoring and training our team. For the staff to understand what it is like to be a guest at Le Manoir, we give everyone of them the opportunity to come for dinner and stay overnight. Raymond wants the team to treat guests as they would want to be treated - and by staying with us, they really know how to do that.

The standards you set are the standards you get. If the boss is miserable, it will cascade down through the staff. It is very important that all the senior team are happy, smiling, and approachable at all times.

The biggest compliment we receive from guests is regarding our charming staff - they are often surprised to find them to be much friendlier than they expected. For instance, our guests enjoy taking photographs when they are here and we encourage every member of staff to get involved with the picture taking.

How do you describe your management technique? Primarily, I manage by walking about. It really works as it enable me to catch people doing things right and give them instant praise. And when someone does something exceptional for a guest, we will reward them with shopping vouchers of £10 denomination. For instance, when a guest checks in to the hotel, they are asked if they would like a newspaper. One guest, half jokingly, asked for a caravan magazine. On hearing this, the host manager collected one on his way home and delivered it to the guest the next morning. The guest was astounded - he said he had made the request at some 50 hotels in the past and had never actually previously been given the magazine. It is this kind of service and empowerment we give our people that makes Le Manoir unique.

What are the key future plans for Le Manoir? One of Raymond's current passions is the development of the orchard, with the planting of apple, pear, plum, damson and cherry trees, as well as soft fruits. It is a seven year project and there is still another three years to go. Then next year we're looking ahead to hold a major festival at Le Manoir - L'Art de Vivre. And, of course, we are always constantly improving the business with two or three bedrooms being refurbished every year.

Next week, Raymond Blanc is guest editing Caterer and Hotelkeeper, what is your advice for working with him? Always ensure the final decision is his (even if it hasn't been!). He will provide you with plenty of seeds from which you will be able to germinate ideas. You should allow him the freedom to expand. He will want to say things in his own words and I can assure you he will want to change things. Good luck!

2009-present Director and general manager, Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, Great Milton, Oxfordshire
2005-2009 Self-employed consultant, involving stints with Clayton Hotels, Halifax; Stapleford Park Country House Hotel & Sporting Estate, near Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire; Wasing Leisure; Virgin Hotels; and Mallory Court hotel, Leamington Spa
2004-2005 Gap year, which, said Newman-Hall, provided "a great means of rejuvenation."
1999-2004 General manager, Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, Great Milton, Oxford
1994-1998 Director of operations, Virgin Hotels
1990-1994 General manager, Crathorne Hall Hotel, Crathorne, Yarm, North Yorkshire
1987-1990 General manager, The George of Stamford, Lincolnshire
1985-1987 General manager, The Spa hotel, Tunbridge Wells, Kent - first general manager position, after being promoted from deputy manager

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