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The Caterer Interview – Jonathan Thompson

23 May 2014 by
The Caterer Interview – Jonathan Thompson

Jonathan Thompson is the managing director of Hartwell House, a four-red-AA-star, 46-bedroom historic hotel in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, that has been gifted to the National Trust. He explains to Janet Harmer why he believes there is still a place for grand country hotels offering a traditional style of service

Hartwell House is celebrating 25 years as a hotel in 2014. What are the challenges of operating a 21st-century hotel in a Grade I-listed property that dates back to 1600?
Richard Broyd, the owner of the hotel at the time of its opening, had sympathetically restored the property with a vision of bringing it back to life. It has been my job to run the hotel efficiently and profitably, while ensuring we don't do any damage to the heritage of the property or its antique furnishings. At times this has made life difficult when we have needed to move furniture around, and hiding the wiring required for today's technology within such a beautiful environment is tricky, but we've done it.

What have been the key changes in the running of the property during that time?
We've had to make changes in the layout of the hotel to protect the heritage of the house. We initially used the library as a meeting room, but it was getting knocked around by the constant moving of furniture, so it is now used as a drawing room. Four meeting rooms were created in the stables and the riding school, which we converted in 1991, and this provided us with 16 extra bedrooms and a spa. The conversion allowed us to provide the right environment for business guests as well as good lighting and communications.

Have you maintained the formal service that guests might expect from such a grand hotel? We've always adopted a very traditional form of hotelkeeping, where we are focused on looking after the needs of the guests, but there have been changes. For instance, I used to wear a morning suit, and guests would instinctively know who I was, but that went in the 1990s and now I wear a lounge suit. Gentlemen were also initially expected to wear a jacket and tie in the restaurant, but over the years we have picked up on what the guests want, and there is now no formal dress code.

Where do your guests come from?
At one time, Americans were our largest group of guests, accounting for 60% of our business, but that all disappeared overnight after 9/11. The British market has since taken over and now provides 80% of our guests. The past couple of years have seen a resurgence in travellers from the US again, although now they account for only 5%-7% of our business, along with visitors from Japan, China and Europe.

We benefit from being only 40 minutes from Bicester Village, which the Chinese love for its designer shopping outlets. We're also close to Waddesdon Manor, an important National Trust house, and Oxford. Pride of Britain is a wonderful marketing consortium and it is very important to us for bringing British guests to the hotel. In the US we market through Royal Oak, which is the American arm of the National Trust. We also work with small travel agents, particularly with regard to small group tours on cultural and gardening trips.

Are traditional guidebooks still important?
People still look at the Michelin and AA guides to check our assessments and the property - we have four red turrets in Michelin and four red stars and two rosettes in the AA guide - but other guides have slipped away. What is more important is the cultural and garden guides, as well as, of course, the National Trust guide.

We do a lot of work with journalists and through the National Trust, which is very important for bringing business in.

What has been the impact of online travel agents (OTAs) on Hartwell?
Interestingly, Martha Lane Fox and Brent Hoberman visited Hartwell in the 1990s when they were setting up last Lastminute.com and we were one of the first hotels to join up with them. In those days, we used the site to promote Hartwell as a historic hotel, which people could book at the last minute at rates we were happy with. Now OTAs are all about selling rooms at low rates and taking high commissions.

We use two OTAs - Booking.com and LateRooms.com - but only for about 4%-5% of our business and to fill some rooms mid-week. We have to be very careful as we
don't want to bring the wrong guests into the house. If we give away a room at a low price, we need to make sure the guests know the cost of other things, such as a G&T or a bottle of wine. If you sell a room at pub prices, there is a danger the guest will expect to pay pub prices for food and drink. Then, if the guest is not happy, we risk a backlash on social media.

The biggest challenge for a hotelier today is getting a good room rate. It is easy to fill a hotel by selling cheaply, but is that worth our while?
It is often better to look after a smaller number of guests really well, enabling you to build up a good reputation. Hotels should stick to their market, otherwise there is the danger of devaluing the product. Having a guest who has paid £390 for a room sitting alongside one who has booked £95 via an OTA can create difficulties.

What is the mix of corporate and leisure business?
We have a lot of major corporate businesses who come to us during the week because they regard us as good value and like to support a high-profile British charity like the National Trust, while the weekend is primarily high-end leisure guests. The spa and free Wi-Fi helps to drive younger guests. We're also getting more young people who are used to a contemporary hotel, but want to come here for a more cultured experience.

The hotel has attracted some major high-profile political events, such as the meeting of the G7 finance ministers in May 2013. How have they come about?
The chancellor of the exchequer brought the finance ministers here because he wanted to show his guests the historical and beautiful setting of a traditional British country house.

They had exclusive use of the hotel and stayed with us for three days. We love organising events like that as the house is built for entertaining, with wonderful drawing rooms and impressive parkland.

Such occasions also bring great publicity. We pride ourselves on providing our staff with thorough training in social skills, so they are not overawed when serving people of great importance.

Is it more difficult to train young people in social skills in 2014 compared with 25 years ago?
Yes, young people now generally have fewer social skills. I blame it on today's culture, where young people communicate via a device, rather than face-to-face. Not until you look another human being in the eye can you sense their emotion. When you look after people, you need that connection. So we take a lot of time to train staff to ensure that those who initially appear shy come out of themselves and have the confidence to talk to people. Everyone has it within them to engage with other people - we just have to tweak it out of them.

How, after spending such a long time with the same hotel, does your interest in Hartwell remain fresh?
It is all down to the people - the guests and the staff. We have many loyal customers who I've got to know well, but there have also been many new guests, which always brings a new focus to the hotel.

We are lucky to have enjoyed a good group of local staff over the years. Developing these people is always great fun and keeps me enthusiastic.

It's fantastic to see young people who have started here go on to managerial roles elsewhere. For example, Chris Penn was a local lad who started at the hotel doing a weekend waiting job and is now general manager of the new Ace hotel in London. The chairman Richard Brody is a great inspiration and motivator.

He visits fortnightly and is involved in every aspect of the business.

Why have you remained at Hartwell House for 25 years?
I don't think I could find a more beautiful location in which to work. My life is really enriched by coming here every day. It has also benefited my family. We've always lived within the grounds and, once the children were in school, we didn't want to move them.

JONATHAN THOMPSON THE ROUTE TO HARTWELL

Born and brought up in Liverpool, Jonathan Thompson's interest in the world of hospitality started at home. His father, an orthopaedic surgeon, and his mother were
great entertainers, with a passion for food and drink. "I loved being around people enjoying themselves, and decided that this was what I wanted to do," Thompson explains.

After attending Liverpool College, Thompson studied for a HND in hotel management at Blackpool and the Fylde College before going on to work for large city centre properties belonging to Centre Hotels.

Following a year spent at a hotel in Akbar in Jordan, Thompson returned to the UK as deputy manager at the Compleat Angler in Marlow. His first general manager role was at Stratton House in Cirencester, before running Bodysgallen Hall in Lladudno, North Wales, in 1983.

The hotel, owned by Richard Broyd, was the first in a trio of properties, called Historic House Hotels, which would eventually encompass Middlethorpe Hall in York and
Hartwell House in Aylesbury. Thompson left North Wales in January 1989 to oversee the opening of Hartwell House six months later.

HARTWELL HOUSE A POTTED HISTORY

While the origins of Hartwell House date back almost 1,000 years, the present property was built in 1600 by Richard Hampden, one of Queen Elizabeth I's most trusted
lieutenants. Its most famous resident has been Louis XVIII, exiled King of France, who lived at the house from 1809 for five years.

In 1932, Hartwell was sold to Ernest Cook, an early pioneer of the conservation movement. Twenty years later, he transferred the property and its 90 acres of parkland
to the Ernest Cook Trust, which then leased it until 1983 to the School of Citizenship, a girls' finishing school.

In 1986, Historic House Hotels (HHH), under the chairmanship of Richard Broyd, leased the property and set about restoring it sympathetically before opening it as a hotel in 1989.

Ever since Broyd founded HHH in 1979, it had been his intention to give away the assets of the company to the National Trust to ensure their long-term protection. This he did in 2008 when his gift of the leasehold of Hartwell House (until 2111), together with the freehold of Bodysgallen Hall in Llandudno and Middlethorpe Hall in York,
became the charity's largest single donation.

All profits from the three hotels go to the National Trust.

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