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The Caterer Interview – Simon Rhatigan

06 December 2013 by
The Caterer Interview – Simon Rhatigan

The managing director of the Devonshire Hotels group oversees a collection of country houses, traditional inns and a luxury spa all located among the picturesque landscape of the Yorkshire and Derbyshire dales. He tells Janie Manzoori-Stamford how's he's opening up the countryside to the corportate client with his grand plans for growth

You joined Devonshire Hotels & Restaurants as managing director in May. How have you found it being in charge of such a diverse business?
That's the reason I came to do this job; the watercooler conversations I have at each of the businesses are entirely different and I enjoy that. But it does have its challenges.

Everything in the Yorkshire side has gone really well. The Devonshire Arms at Bolton Abbey has progressed really well this year, financially. The Cavendish Pavilion has done brilliantly too, but that's been helped a lot by the weather.

The Devonshire Fell has also had a good year, but by 5%. That's single-figure growth and we want double digits for our businesses. So I want to give it a new lease of life because it has been in its present form for about 10 years. It does a cracking trade in weddings; it's a great exclusive-use venue. I'd like to add bedrooms and boost the weekday exclusive use business in the corporate market.

Can you see the potential for double-digit growth in every element of the Devonshire group's business? Absolutely, why would you be doing it if you didn't? You've got to think that way. Pilsley will grow by double digits because we're looking to add bedrooms. Beeley's accommodation trade is not huge, but we're reinvigorating its food and beverage. The Fell is similar to the Cavendish, in that unless we do something else with it, we will be talking about small growth and I want to talk about bigger growth.

The Fell is an interesting economic case study actually, because it's turning over similar money to the Cavendish. It has a very healthy hotel business at certain times of the year and a great function business. But in my view,
it doesn't make enough money in the busy months to cover it for what are inevitably the quiet times. It needs an increase in capacity to be able to get that equation right. The quiet months will be quiet anyway; you need to be able to make enough money in the busy 
periods to make the whole thing balance.

How do you communicate your vision 
for Devonshire Hotels & Restaurants? When we had a brainstorm meeting recently, I told each of the general managers to come to me with their plan. I'll help them, but it's their plan. One of the difficulties of having an MD like me is I've got so many things I want to say that there's a risk that everyone will think they've got to do what Simon says, but actually I don't want that. I want them to do their own thing, and I'll come along and critique, help and support. They've got to take on the energy and the ownership of their business. It can't be a pyramid with one person at the top, because that limits its size. You've got to give them the breadth of skill, knowledge and understanding that allows them to manage.

What are your plans for the Devonshire Arms
at Bolton Abbey? We'd like to add 16 new suites, not bedrooms, which is an important point. This is a special occasion place so bigger is better. The demand is there for that sort of experience because a better product can be sold for less on a wet Wednesday in November, but at least you can sell it. But you can't if you've got something that is not special enough. That's certainly the formula we adopted at the Feversham Arms [at Helmsley] and that worked for us there.

I've also got big ideas for the spa - that and the extra bedrooms will be 12 months in the planning and they've still got to be built after that. They're such big projects that we need to start looking at them right away. They are in essence the big picture for the Devonshire Arms. That's what will take it forward. So while it's getting me excited, there's an awful lot to do in the meantime.

What are your big ideas for the spa business? We plan to increase the number of treatment rooms and offer a very different food and drink experience. I'm working on a plan with a guy who was the consultant on the spa at Lime Wood in the New Forest, which includes an outdoor journey across an adjacent meadow that will include hot tubs, showers, big relaxation areas, a fun pizza food-counter and relaxed dining area, as well as a big retail area.

People used to think spas are about being healthy, but they're an escape - a day out. You're more inclined to have a big afternoon tea and a glass of Champagne at a spa than you are almost anywhere else. That's counter-
intuitive in a way, but a spa is actually a hospitality experience. People will tell you a spa is all about treatments, just like chefs will tell you restaurants are all about food, but they're not.

What size business is the spa on its own and how much are you looking to invest? It's only turning over about £250,000 a year, which is rubbish really. That's with three treatment rooms and the membership, which is worth about £100,000 of that. But I think it could be twice that. The other elements of it - the pure spa elements - could be three or four times the current turnover. The 
investment required is only about £2.5m and that's not a monster in today's terms. It's a commercial opportunity in its own right. The hotel's drive radius gives us access to nine or
10 million people. There's a huge opportunity.

What makes a great leisure hotel? You need two food and beverage outlets now. A lot of country house hotels are quite small and would find that hard to do. We're a bit bigger and that helps. We've got rooms, great service and a great art experience. If you go away for the weekend and you haven't gone home with some sort of aesthetic experience beyond the technicalities of the food and beverage 
and service, you haven't had value for money.

But you need the spa experience as well because people work intensively and I think 
they relax intensively too. We're reaching a point where it's a need. It's an expected service.

Adam Smith took over as head chef of the Burlington at the Devonshire Arms at Bolton Abbey in July. Was there disappointment the restaurant lost its Michelin star in September? No, we all expected it, to be honest. When
I interviewed him, I said: 'You know we're going to lose the star, don't you?' because
I didn't want to have that conversation when it happened. We had all reconciled ourselves to that, so it's fine. But we do want to get it back because, actually, that's where I think the 
restaurant deserves to be.
If we had put in a chef who had already had a star in two places before, we might have got the benefit of the doubt, but with Adam not being a chef who's had a star before, and being as young as he is, we were never going to.

The Devonshire Arms at Bolton Abbey has a renowned wine cellar. What are your plans? We're putting in a new list called the Cellar Master's Choice in addition to the existing one, which is quite traditional and classic. It will be made up of eight whites and eight reds from obscure and interesting producers. Our cellar master Nigel Fairclough will select them, and there might only be two cases of them, meaning when they're gone, they're gone. Access to classic wine is already available, but we can offer access to great wine that you probably haven't heard of, and that probably isn't going to cost you as much as a claret.

Have you changed the group's marketing strategy since you came on board? Absolutely. First of all we didn't have a PR company for a long time, so I brought one on board. We're doing a lot of regional PR at the moment because we want to cover the bases and start from the ground up.

We're beefing up the marketing. There was only one person doing it for the whole group when I started, so I've brought another person in to help. But planning for next year's 1 April restart involves having a really good think about what we need to do to fulfil all these marketing ambitions, so I think we're going to have to beef it up further. We need a bit more oomph in the tank.

In the past, we haven't been energetic and focused enough on shouting about all the things we do. For example, we were trundling along with a situation where the Devonshire Arms at Bolton Abbey was running along at 65-66% occupancy annually for decades, and actually that's not even competence these days. There are so many routes to market that you have to be 75% just to be in the game. There's no conversation about spend versus volume until you're at 75% in today's market.

We have to change the ways we think about it. We can no longer be satisfied with being 1% better than last year. We need to ask what everybody else is doing and where we should be at.

Where do you get the majority of your bookings at the Devonshire Arms at Bolton Abbey? We get over 50% of our bookings over the 
telephone. When I came here, only 8% of the accommodation business at the Devonshire Arms at Bolton Abbey came from the website. That's now up to 12% or 13%, but it needs to be closer to 25% in the long run. We've changed the booking engine and graphics to make it much easier to book and give the sense that you get the best deal by booking direct online.

We take almost no business through third-party agents. If you go to all the marketing 
conferences you hear that online travel agents are the reality of the world now, but for businesses like us that's rubbish. If you're selling an undifferentiated accommodation product in somewhere like Manchester and you're one of 15 hotels people can stay at, then why wouldn't they book through a third party?

It's the PR and marketing that gets our guests to want to search for the Devonshire Arms, so why pay for a third-party booking agent? You're paying two people then and it's not sustainable. The hoteliers that get angry about online travel agents are allowing themselves to be flotsam and jetsam that rise and fall with the tide instead of actually creating their own stream, as it were.

But people aren't coming here for a hotel; they're coming here for a leisure experience that is much more personal and individual. They like to talk to somebody about their booking. If you look at the search engine stats, they show you that almost everyone that turns up on the Devonshire Arms' website searched for it directly. They didn't search for 'a nice hotel in North Yorkshire'.

What do you see as the difference between service and hospitality? We've progressed managerially to a point where it's actually easy to give good service in the systematic sense. But what's going to make the difference, especially if you're a small boutique operator in a world of big brands and TV advertising, is the personalisation of the customer experience and making people know that it is for and about them, rather than to them.

Danny Meyer talks about this much more articulately than I ever could, but when something really succeeds - any kind of product but particularly service - it is when it crosses the line to make you feel something about it rather than think something about it.

How many middle-aged cardigan-wearing blokes have you spoken to that can go all misty-eyed about a car or a football team or an iPad? It crosses a line from what's good in a cognitive sense to something they feel 
emotionally attached to. We have to create emotions in our customers and we have to make them feel, not think, something. That can happen in different ways, be it design or personal contact, but it's all emotion.

You bought the Feversham Arms with your 
wife Jill in 2003 and built it up to be an award-winning business. How hard was it 
to walk away in 2011 following your divorce?
Hard is not a word that even begins to describe it. It was heart-breaking, if I'm honest. It's sad when a grown man cries, but I almost could. I put seven years into the Feversham. When 
I first bought it, it was a 17-bedroom pub with rooms. By the time I left, it turned over five times what it did at first, with 33 rooms, including 22 suites, and the spa and everything else. There wasn't an inch of it that hadn't been touched in that time. There's nothing that was the same.

If I'd had the Feversham for another seven or eight years, I could have made it the equivalent of Le Manoir. Not as restaurant-orientated, but as well known. I could have made it that good. I used to look at Le Manoir and think [about how] Raymond Blanc did it and in that sense he's a very good example. I know in the first few years he went through some dark times and that was a comfort to me; that if you believe in it and you work hard and you keep focused on the goal you can do great things.

Devonshire hotels and restaurants

  • The Devonshire Arms at Bolton Abbey - a country house hotel with 40 bedrooms and two restaurants.
  • The Devonshire Fell - a 12-bedroom hotel with views across the Dales.
  • The Devonshire Arms at Beeley - a 14-bedroom country pub on the Chatsworth Estate in Derbyshire.
  • The Devonshire Arms at Pilsley - a traditional inn on the Chatsworth Estate in Derbyshire.
  • Cavendish Hotel - an associate hotel owned by the Duke & Duchess of Devonshire on the Chatsworth Estate, Derbyshire.
  • Cavendish Pavilion - a riverside cafe and events venue in Yorkshire.

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