The Andrew Brownsword Hotels chief executive talks to Janet Harmer about the devastating fire at the Royal Clarence hotel in Exeter and how the group is planning to rebuild the property as well as grow the wider business
What has been the impact of the loss of the Royal Clarence hotel?
The events of 28 October were heartbreaking for the family and for the whole company. A huge sense of sadness was felt by everyone at the loss of such an iconic set of Grade II-listed heritage buildings, which date back to the 18th century. However, there was also immense pride felt by us all at how our team reacted at the time and since. We can only take the positive and move on in a way that celebrates the outcome: that everyone was safe and uninjured and that we have the opportunity to rebuild (possibly leaving out the wonky floors this time and, as the housekeeper has advised, adding some plug sockets on the stairs!).
Has it been established what caused the fire?
The fire started in the art gallery that neighboured the Royal Clarence and spread to our building, initially through the roof space.
What are the plans for the future of the hotel?
We are completely committed to rebuilding the hotel and returning it to the people of Exeter, with the façade restored as closely as we can to the original so it sits proudly overlooking the cathedral once more.
Structural engineers Thomasons have been appointed as lead consultants on the restoration and rebuilding and are working closely with our team and the family. A team of expert engineers has already made fantastic headway on deconstruction and damage assessment.
What is the expected timeline for the rebuilding and reopening of the hotel?
We probably have another six months of work ahead of us to complete the deconstruction and save as many historical features as we can. We then envisage the rebuild taking around 18 months, so we are hopeful of a reopening celebration in the spring of 2019.
Joining Andrew Brownsword Hotels in March 2016 gave you your first chief executive role. What was your route to the top?
I'm originally from Cornwall. After studying for a HND at South Devon College in Torquay, I joined the excellent Crest Hotels management training programme at the Bloomsbury Crest in London, which is now a Holiday Inn. I made good progress and remained with the company for many years, with the ownership changing initially to THF, then Granada, and then Macdonald.
The first time I left the company was in 2014 when I went to Malmaison as operations director. Although I moved to the same role, the structure of Malmaison was very different from Macdonald. I felt the time was right to move on and see a different company.
What attracted you to join Andrew Brownsword Hotels?
I was not ready to move on from Malmaison as I loved the properties and the people, but I was approached for the role at Brownsword. It was a great opportunity for me personally and a good-sized group, with a small executive team and good owner, for my first chief executive appointment. The company has such a fantastic collection of hotels.
What were the key qualities you brought to the role?
I arrived with the experience of working with a fabulous collection of quality people. My most recent jobs have been about finding, motivating and developing great people. Macdonald is a well-controlled business financially, with strong disciplines and controls in place.
Malmaison has a very strong sales focus. What was your brief on joining Andrew Brownsword Hotels?
To grow the business and grow the people within it. Andrew Brownsword is very clear that he wants the hotels to be a happy place to stay and work, so it is important that we build the right culture across the company, as well as continue to expand the skills and hospitality standards.
What are your plans for the 152-bedroom Imperial hotel in Torquay, which Andrew Brownsword Hotels acquired in August 2016?
The Imperial is an incredibly exciting project and we are making sure that we make thorough consideration of the opportunity there. We have been working for months on variations of development and restoration plans and we are at the stage of architect and design proposals. Once these have been agreed, we will proceed to seek the appropriate approvals.
The Imperial is an iconic hotel in a beautiful seaside town. Andrew personally has great fondness for the property and he wants to be able to restore it to its former glory.
Another acquisition, last July, was that of the 59-bedroom Old Swan & Minster Mill in Minster Lovell, Oxfordshire.
What are you doing there?
The Garden Spa opened at the hotel in December and has been very well received. It has an indoor plunge pool, poolside rock sauna, aroma steam room, ice fountain, three treatment suites, a Rasul mud therapy area and tropical rainforest showers.
We've appointed Beverley Molmans as regional general manager and David Kilman as executive chef and are involving them both in further development plans we are currently considering for the site.
What are the plans for the Abode city centre brand, which numbers five hotels?
Abode is more of a brand than the rest of the portfolio, which is made up of individual country house properties. We are continually on the lookout for city centre opportunities for Abode and are focused on securing new sites that offer us the opportunity to operate with 100 bedrooms in character buildings in perfect locations - not much to ask! London is a possible location for a hotel, but again, it is about finding the right property at the right price.
At the Abode Manchester we are hugely excited about the development of the first Brasserie Abode, which will be an all-day to late night grand European brasserie and bar that will be glamorous but relaxed, serving the kind of dishes that everyone likes to eat and which are accessible and great value. There will be everything from breakfast eggs benedict to late supper lobster frites. The bar will showcase classic cocktails from resident mixologists and there will be a great music vibe Once Brasserie Abode Manchester is finished, we'll look at the possibility of expanding the concept throughout the other Abode properties, tailored to each building and local market.
Tell us about some of the major appointments you've made since joining the company
Alan Swinson [previously culinary arts director, Le Cordon Bleu] joined as group associate director, food and beverage. Given the company's history and relationship with Michael Caines [who left the business in January 2016], I am excited by the importance and success that F&B has always had in our hotels.
Alan's role is to develop and continually drive the excellence of our product, our team development and our commercial return across all F&B.
Providing strategic direction and growth of the group, together with grasping the commercial opportunity and return across all aspects of the business, is Karen l'Anson, who has joined us as associate commercial director.
She was previously group head of revenue at Malmaison and Hotel du Vin and has a wealth of industry experience and knowledge which will assist myself and the board to deliver our ambitious performance and growth targets.
And Michael Nizzero is newly appointed as executive chef at the Bath Priory. Michael is hot property on the chef scene, having previously worked at the Waterside Inn with the Roux family. He earned his own Michelin star at Hostellerie La Briqueterie in Vinay, France, and spent the past year at the Ritz in London, which recently won its first Michelin star. Michael is incredibly talented and driven to develop the excellent cuisine at the hotel.
What do you regard as the key challenges for Andrew Brownsword Hotels in the year ahead?
Every business in existence has challenges and 2017 has a few new hurdles for everyone to overcome. I don't generally think greatly about external challenges; I just stay focused on the basics of what we need to deliver to be successful.
That, to me, is all about people - both staff and guests, as a service provider and employer we have to deliver excellence in all that we do.
If we do that, in my experience to date, most challenges become insignificant. I believe hugely that the difference between a good organisation and a brilliant one is the quality, skill level and passion of the people who work within it. I have set about recognising where we have this in abundance within the group, as well as be fortunate to secure some professionals in new roles who will not only enable us to fulfil our ambitions as a group but also help us to meet Mr Brownsword's primary aim of delighting guests and creating a team who love what they do. We already have a fantastic portfolio of properties and I will keep my focus on not just expansion and growth, but driving and developing our people and service in the pursuit of persistent and consistent excellence.
Andrew Brownsword Hotels
After selling his greetings card business for about £195m in 1994, Andrew Brownsword, together with his wife Christina, went on to create a hotel business which today comprises 14 properties made up of some of the UK's most iconic country house hotels, alongside the Abode city centre brand.
They also own the Imperial in Torquay, which currently sits apart from the rest of the group. The full portfolio includes:
Gidleigh Park, Chagford, Devon - 24 bedrooms
The Bath Priory, Bath, Somerset - 33 bedrooms
Amberley Castle, Amberley, West Sussex - 19 bedrooms
The Slaughters Manor House, Lower Slaughter, Gloucestershire - 19 bedrooms
The Slaughters Country Inn, Lower Slaughter, Gloucestershire - 31 bedrooms
Buckland Manor, near Broadway, Worcestershire - 15 bedrooms
Old Swan & Minster Mill, Minster Lovell, Oxfordshire - 52 bedrooms
(37 in the Mill; 15 at the Old Swan) Abode Canterbury - 72 bedrooms
Abode Chester - 85 bedrooms
Abode Manchester - 61 bedrooms
Abode Glasgow - 59 bedrooms
Sydney House, Chelsea, London - 21 bedrooms
Abode Exeter/the Royal Clarence - 53 bedrooms (currently closed following
the October 2016 fire)
The Imperial Torquay - 152 bedrooms
Stephanie Hocking CV
Chief executive, Brownsword Hotels
Operations director, Malmaison
Operations director (England), Macdonald Hotels & Resorts
Regional managing director, Macdonald Hotels & Resorts
Regional general manager, Macdonald Hotels & Resorts
General manager, Forte Hotels