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The Caterer Interview – Jeanne Whittome

27 April 2011 by
The Caterer Interview – Jeanne Whittome

When the Hoste Arms' charismatic proprietor, Paul Whittome, died from cancer last summer, his wife Jeanne took on the daunting task of running their Norfolk business alone. Rosalind Mullen met her 10 months on

It's been a tough year for you Well it's been a tough few years really. We always knew Paul wouldn't pull through. He was diagnosed with secondary cancer in 2009 and was given three months to live. We went to The London Clinic and managed to get some more time. It meant we could work on the journey of where I was going to go. It wasn't easy.

So, what was the response when you took over the running of the business? A lot of people didn't realise that I had been involved in the business since we opened the Hoste Arms in Burnham Market in 1989. Paul was always the front man, he was larger than life and had a great presence, but behind every successful man there's a woman and I've been with him every step of the way. We shared everything.

I actually stepped in to oversee the company when he was undergoing chemo. The treatment meant he couldn't work. But if he hadn't had confidence in me, I wouldn't have been able to do it because it's a tough business. We have 112 employees and they needed to respect me.

Can you briefly describe the business? We have three types of accommodation in the area and last year turned over £4.7m. Paul and I opened the Hoste Arms 22 years ago with just eight bedrooms. It now has 34 bedrooms, six restaurant areas and a new £150,000 Hoste Wellness and Beauty Spa. In 2008 we opened the boutique seven-bedroom Vine House, which is balanced by the more affordable eight-bedroom Railway Inn. There are also three three-bedroom self-catering holiday cottages.

The opening of the spa this January must have been a challenge Paul and I knew that after he died I would need a project. At the end, when Paul was very poorly, I was sitting in his office and I just couldn't imagine that anyone would want to work there after he was gone. I had a vision that we could turn it into a spa. I told him and he thought it was a fantastic idea. He said: "It's a great project for you. Let's get planning permission."

And it chimes with Paul's mantra of constantly reinventing the business? Yes. I love the hotel to be exciting. Paul always said you have to reinvent your business and provide theatre. People love to see change when they come in - even if it's just new wallpaper, a new recipe or new brochures. For instance, my daughter Lauren runs Beautiful Bottoms, a lingerie company, so we've started selling her products in the spa. It's sexy and fun and gets us talked about.

Presumably the spa also increases business? Yes. Paul reckoned that the downturn would last several years. Most of our bedrooms are still full, but in the current economy they are discounted or on special offer so we needed to get people to increase the amount they spend and to have more reason to come here.

The spa looks after existing customers - including locals - as well as bringing in new customers. A lot of people might not feel they have the money to spend on fine wines nowadays, but they will buy themselves a spa treatment, so the money still comes to the hotel and we don't lose out. It's also a great environment for men. It brings the whole thing together.

Has the downturn seen you diversify? Absolutely. We spend a lot more on marketing and the web nowadays. When we first opened we used to do conferences, but that market isn't there so much now. Our Moroccan Garden, however, is ideal for wedding receptions and I plan to extend the kitchens in response.

Burnham Market is a wealthy village and a lot of wedding parties book accommodation, too, so there's huge growth in that. Meanwhile, the spa is used for hen nights.

So you've generated extra business? It's a complex balancing act because room rates are down, but we are full and have seen an increase in future bookings in March and April for next year. Most secondary areas outside London aren't reporting that.

November 2010 was difficult, but I restructured the business in December and made some redundancies. Business has now increased by 22% at the lower end in our Railway Inn property and by 8% at the averagely priced Hoste. However, it is down by 1.5-2% in our top-end Vine House property. Our self-catering cottages have grown, too. So there is growth, but clearly people want affordability.

What about staff? You seem to have a lot of key women employees It is a woman's domain. We have one man, our finance director Andrew McPherson. He handles us well, although sometimes I think we need to sit back and let his thought processes come through.

Emma Tagg is our managing director and - knowing that Paul wasn't going to be with us for long - we brought in a company secretary, Janie Thompson, who used to work in my travel business years ago. My daughter, Lauren, has a marketing degree and now works on web optimisation. My other daughter Natasha is in the middle of her architectural degree but she also works with me on the interior design side.

And many of your staff have been with you through thick and thin Well, Andrew used to be our head chef and he's been with us for about 23 years, while Emma has been working with us for about 20 years, having started as a housekeeper. The benefit is that they know all about the business and they're very flexible.

Why do you think the Hoste keeps its staff turnover low? We have a fair structure, we provide accommodation and we're good at working together. We do have a lot of key female staff and so we make sure they can comfortably return to the business after they have been on maternity leave.

One of our front-of-house staff is about to have her second baby and she'll tell us what hours she can manage when she wants to come back. We have to retain good staff when we find them.

How difficult has it been for you and the staff to adjust? It would have been extremely difficult if there was no Andrew or Emma after Paul. But if I hadn't known the business it wouldn't have worked either. I knew and valued them. They work with me under the new regime and respect me. Paul and I were different. Paul was a lateral thinker and fantastic delegator. He always found key people. But he wasn't a systems person. The business is now too big not to have systems, so I am very hands on. I am making staff more accountable for buying goods at the right price, managing gross profit and controlling their departments.

Were you working in hospitality before you met Paul? Before Paul, I had a travel business. He was my customer and I was unhappily married. We ran away together - it was scandalous,but romantic.

Any more projects on the horizon? I've just pulled out of a project that I was about to sign last week. It was a pub leasehold and it didn't feel right in this economic climate. I am always looking at new opportunities but I've got to look after what I've got.

Do you ever think about selling? In the early days following Paul's death I knew that any decision I made would be a catastrophic one. Now I know that I won't sell. My daughters are in their twenties and may want to be more involved. I don't want to push them, but it would be good to nurture a family empire. I miss Paul, we complemented each other. The sadness is not sharing with someone. However, Hoste has given me a purpose - I have to get out of bed and do something.

Jeanne Whittome's Top three tips on retaining key female staff

â- Work together as a team, listen to your staff
â- If a key member of staff leaves to have a baby, find out how many hours she can do and help her to edge back into the business

Jeanne Whittome in a nutshell

1984 Moves to the UK from native South Africa
1986 Sets up a travel business in Norfolk. Meets Paul
1989 Paul and Jeanne buy the 17th century Hoste Arms freehold for £425,000
1992 Carries on the travel business from the Hoste Arms
1995 Closes travel business to concentrate on interior design at Hoste Arms. Projects included refurbishing Hoste, buying and refurbishing Vine House, Railway Inn and the self-catering cottages. In 2002, she opens the Zulu Wing at the Hoste, including eight Zulu-themed bedrooms and a staff flat. More recent projects include the Japanese Garden and spa in January
1999 Paul Whittome wins Pub and Bar Operator of the Year Catey
2009 Paul is diagnosed with cancer, Jeanne steps in to head up the business while he undergoes treatment and appoints Janie Thompson as company secretary
July 2010 Paul loses battle with cancer aged 55. Jeanne takes over
January 2011 Jeanne opens the £150,000 Hoste Wellness and Beauty Spae

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