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The Caterer Interview – Peter Banks

24 May 2013

Having run Rudding Park since its opening in 1997, managing director Peter Banks has overseen the resort's development from holiday park to four-star hotel that has won three Hotel Cateys and tops TripAdvisor's UK Traveller's Choice Awards. He tells James Stagg how the hotel has significantly grown both its infrastructure and its reputation for service

Rudding Park opened as a hotel in 1997 and you've been there since the beginning. How did the opportunity come about? I saw the advert in Caterer for the opportunity to come up here and open a hotel. As a hotelier, you don't often get the chance to open a hotel, so it was a great opportunity.

What was great about this property was I would be working with the owners, who gave me a blank piece of paper. They said: "We're going to have a hotel. What do we do?" Literally my first two weeks were working out what our market segments were going to be and how much staffing we needed.

In terms of funding, did that mean a blank cheque too? None of this funding is back pocket. Every penny we have spent has been funded on the open market. We borrow the money from our bank and we repay it. For our latest £8m loan, we will repay over 10 years. It's run on proper commercial lines.

I don't understand how some hotels can ever consider a return on investment on the vast sums they spend. Everything we do here is unashamedly commercial. We are here to make money; otherwise, it's not worth doing. This is not a trophy asset; it's a business.

Are the owners hands-on?

We have all worked together long enough that if someone thinks something is a silly idea, we'll say so. And in terms of investment, I never have to scrap to keep the place up to scratch. They know I'll spend as much as necessary to maintain standards.

We've got a collaborative approach and I think a vital aspect to our success is an absolute symbiosis between ownership and management. It's a progressive relationship - we all love change.

The hotel is now famed for its customer service. How is it developed and maintained? Most of what Nuno [César de SÁ¡, hotel manager] and I do every day is creating a culture. It's a culture of care. It starts with who you employ. We don't employ people who don't seem to care. I don't care how qualified someone is, if they're using the word customer - or, worse, client - they don't get the concept. Hoteliers have guests. It's a fundamental way of thinking.

At induction, I prance around and point out that 90% of British hotels are either average or poor. I tell them working for one of those hotels will be easier, so go now if they don't think they're up to it. Not one has left yet.

We can tell within three months whether someone is our type of person or not. If they are not, they're out. We don't want the bad apple effect. Once they're in, it's about developing people. You have to care and love your guests and your team. We try to develop and keep our Rudding people.

The hotel is a regular award winner, including being named No 1 hotel in the UK at the TripAdvisor Traveller's Choice Awards 2013. How do you go about marketing yourself? We have three people in the marketing team and are assiduous in our database management. We have segmented it down to wedding guests, leisure guests, golf, spa, and so on. We also go down further to discount leisure guests and full rack-paying leisure guests. So I know when we're struggling for business and I 
want to reduce rates, I can market to my discount leisure guest who is turned on by a cheapo rate.

Golf is also split into society, residential, 
corporate, 2 for 1. It's all about market segmentation. You need to know why your guests are coming. Once you know why they're coming, you know which buttons to push to get them to come back.
It sounds simple, but then when people do come, you must make sure they have a good time. I always tell the team to look after our guests as if they were your guests at home. If you have friends over and you go out for a drink, when you get in at 1am and they say they're hungry, you don't say the kitchen's closed. We want to be selling stuff. Anyone can make a bacon sandwich.

Where do your guests come from? Usually within a two-hour drive time radius. You can get down to Leicester, up to Newcastle, across to Hull and across to Birmingham and Liverpool in that time.

If we're getting 80% occupancy with our northern guests, I'm not too worried about looking further afield. It would be lovely to be as much of a destination as Gleneagles, but they have taken 100 years to build that reputation. A golden thread of service runs through that place and we are only just starting out on that journey.

You have put down online review sites in the past, but really they do wonders for your business, don't they?
Completely. It's a double-edged sword. What they do is an independent hotelier's dream. Before TripAdvisor, we were fighting with the likes of De Vere and Marriott, the big boys with massive marketing budgets. TripAdvisor has levelled that playing field.

Some 75% of hotel stays are made after a referral to a third-party website. In January, 43,000 looked at our TripAdvisor page. That's one a minute. Admittedly, some of the views are misinformed but the site throws your doors open to thousands of people.

How do you keep your ranking so high? You work hard. We have something that I 
like to call my homage to Billy Ocean: "Red light spells danger". So when a guest complains and there's a problem, that same guest tends to find another problem, and then another.

If there is a problem anywhere in the 
business, it is reported to the front desk, who send out a 'red light spells danger' email to everyone. Then every member of staff knows that this guest has had an issue and we need to look after them and knock that complaint on the head.
We also have a complaint log of every problem a guest has. It's the guest service manager's responsibility to see them out when they go and check that they're happy and follow 
up with a call or a letter. It's not just about 
getting great reviews; it's about keeping bad ones off.

Does this mean that traditional guides aren't relevant any more?
I had the same discussion with the AA inspector this year. They need to work out whether they are an awards grading system or whether they are consultants. Don't get me wrong, though - they are extremely skilled consultants who understand the business, but they can't be dishing out awards too.

Does it bother you that the hotel is four-star and not five-star? Not at all - it's a deliberate decision. Why should I have a 24-hour chef? I don't need a concierge and a doorman. People won't pay the price in Yorkshire. Also, many banks 
and pharmaceutical companies won't use five-star properties.

Did you manage to maintain occupancy when you added more rooms? We'll finish this year at 80%, which is pretty solid for this type of business. We got up to 80% with 50 bedrooms, and we put a further 40 bedrooms on, taking it to 90, and within two years of full operation we'll be back to 80%. There was that much latent demand.

The problem is that we're at the top of the market price because people will not pay any more. So we're looking to grow the spa with four more treatment rooms. This means that we will have surplus capacity, so we can discount our spa breaks to targeted days of the week and, with a bit of work, get our occupancy up to 85%.

Our average room rate is £110. Many hoteliers will be surprised with that, but it's good for here. People won't pay more.

You're clearly making a success of it here. What's the secret? It is possible, even in these straitened times, to succeed. You really must know your market and have a fundamental understanding of your guests. I empathise fully with what our guests want and try to provide them with it. Don't be ashamed of being commercial.

Ask your guests what they want and then sell it to them. And just provide decent service. Every single day you have to care about every single minute.

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