Chewton Glen was named the UK's most popular hotel by the UK's leading operators in The Caterer's inaugural Hoteliers' Hotels Top 100 list, in association with Sky, last year. Janet Harmer discovers what makes the Hampshire venue a winner.
Chewton Glen may be a multi-award-winning hotel, but its operators never sit back and bask in glory. When one new project at the five-red-star, 70-bedroom property has been completed, the senior management will probably already be planning the next one.
Andrew Stembridge, managing director of Chewton Glen, says that his team constantly consider creative ways of improving the hotel. "We think outside the box all the time about how we can enhance the guest experience, as well as how to make the hotel a fun and interesting place to work," he explains. "We keep the DNA the same, but we build on it all the time."
As well as consistently delivering a top-notch product with impeccable service, the hotel has frequently led the way when it comes to new initiatives, whether it was the launch of one of the UK's first hotel spas in 1990 or the development of six treehouse lodges in 2012.
Every time the hotel creates something new, you can be sure that owners and managers of competing businesses will want to pay a visit and check out what it has to offer. And Stembridge is always keen to welcome them.
"We've always been accessible and are very happy that hoteliers look to us as a reference. We're very open, honest and friendly and we are proud of what we do, but we'll also admit when we have got something wrong. I think that gives us integrity and people respect us for that," he says.
Chewton's Glen latest project was the opening in March of the £2.6m Kitchen, a combined casual-dining restaurant and cookery school with celebrity chef James Martin as its public face. The history of the Kitchen stems back some 10 years, when the hotel decided to welcome children under the age of 12. At the time it was a bold, but enlightened, decision for a luxury country house hotel to create a family-friendly environment, one that boosted occupancy to over 90% during the school holiday period, when up to 80 children can be on the 130-acre estate site, compared with around 70% during the rest of the year.
"The restaurant was very much a hotel space with a table d'hôte menu that wasn't really right for children or families," says Stembridge. "So we created fine dining and casual areas in the same restaurant. That worked well for a while, but then once we opened the treehouses, which were a big attraction to families, we outgrew the one-size-fits-all operation."
A decision was taken to develop a cooker school on the site of a cottage that Chewton Glen had acquired by the entrance to the hotel. Adding a 40-seat restaurant with an open kitchen into the mix meant that the two sides of the business would feed off one another. Stembridge looked closely at how other hotel cookery schools operated and found that the most successful are those that are linked to another element of the business, such as at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, which benefits from the vibrancy of the adjacent hotel kitchen.
Getting the required planning permission, however, wasn't straightforward, as Christchurch Borough Council was concerned that having the proposed licensed premises close to the nearby residential area could be disruptive.
The planning issues were eventually ironed out and the Kitchen - featuring a fresh, contemporary interior created by architect Terence O'Rourke, who also designed the treehouses - is proving to be a valuable addition to the Chewton Glen portfolio. The menu's selection of charcuterie, salads, pizzas, burgers and grills has widespread appeal.
"We can do 60-70 covers during a busy service," says Stembridge. "We are keeping guests in-house who previously would have gone to the pub, and lots of locals are using us, who wouldn't otherwise come into the hotel to eat. The quick service works well for families, but it's not for everyone - some of our older residents don't want to eat burgers."
Not everything has run smoothly, though. Rob Cottam, the chef-tutor who was previously head of the cookery club on board P&O Cruises' Britannia ship, fell and broke his hip playing tennis three weeks after the school opened. During the three months that he will be out of the business, the hotel's executive chef, Luke Matthews, and head chef of the Kitchen, Adam Hart, are running the classes.
Some courses are selling very well - the ones run by James Martin sell out instantly - and those revolving around seasonal menus are popular. Classes that feature a specific topic, such as chocolate, are harder to shift.
Stembridge and his team - led by the hotel's general manager, Mark Bevan - are continuing to build up business at the Kitchen, alongside working on Chewton Glen's next project, the development of a seventh treehouse lodge.
The original treehouses, featuring a total of 12 suites, has been one of the hotel's biggest successes, with the £7m development cost paid back after four years. The new £1.5m treehouse, with two suites, is due to open in the autumn.
"It will be larger than the previous treehouses, with each key being able to accommodate families of between four and six," says Stembridge. "Guests love the space because they provide something different. They are popular with families who use them as an extension of the hotel and enjoy all the other facilities on offer across the estate, while other guests, particularly celebrities, use them as a hideaway because they provide great privacy."
The treehouses can also be used to accommodate an intimate wedding, with the hotel providing the witnesses, or as the focus of a four-night 'Treetox' package, where for £2,750 per head guests can experience a digital, emotional and physical reboot.
Beyond the new treehouse, attention turns towards further expansion of the hotel's family experience by taking the offer for children up to the next level. "We have 130 acres of grounds at Chewton and we want to make more use of that space," explains Stembridge. .
The existing children's club, which operates at weekends and during school holidays, will be expanded into a new stable yard to provide a wide range of activities for different age groups, from toddlers to teenagers, with everything from painting to snooker and football.
Then there is the ongoing bedroom refurbishment, with a new look being created for around 12 rooms, 10 years on from their last decoration. Meanwhile, around £400,000 has just been spent on renovating and landscaping the bar terrace.
"We're constantly challenging ourselves to do better, as we never think we are quite good enough," says Stembridge. "When we won Hoteliers' Hotels we thought we were not worthy of the award. We therefore have to always strive to live up to the accolades we receive."
Such humility is an endearing quality, and it goes hand in hand with the integrity and generosity that runs through everything Chewton Glen undertakes, whether it is the open communication Stembridge enjoys with his staff or the support the hotel gives to the wider industry and a host of charities.
"It is important to operate in an honest and positive environment - it's something the staff appreciate," says Stembridge. "Every quarter I hold a team talk and tell the staff exactly what we're doing and what is working and what is not. It was instilled in me as a fundamental part of my training to never lie to your staff or guests, as you will always be found out if you do."
When it comes to supporting those in need, Chewton Glen has hit the headlines - and the airwaves - for the past 10 years for its ongoing support for the BBC's Children in Need charity.
The opportunity to work with the charity arose after the Radio 2 DJ Chris Evans, a regular guest at the hotel, asked Stembridge if he would provide 30 bedrooms and a dinner for his annual pilgrimage across the south of England in a procession of luxury cars. In return, Stembridge was told there may be "an outside chance" of a broadcast from the hotel.
"Some hoteliers may have worried about the cost of giving up the income from 30 rooms, but I immediately said yes and have never looked back," says Stembridge. He is now interviewed live for the event every year on Radio 2's breakfast show, in front of 14 million listeners.
"I didn't say yes just for the publicity, but that has undoubtedly helped us, although it is difficult to quantify exactly how much business it has brought over the years. However, the timing couldn't have been better. Ten years ago, we were regarded as a chintzy country house hotel, but we had taken the decision to become more relaxed and open ourselves up to a new audience. Chris Evans, as an ambassador for the business, has undoubtedly helped us do that."
While there may never be a chance for the team to stand still at Chewton Glen, Stembridge says the aim of every member of staff is really quite simple: "By working hard at creating the very best experience for everyone who comes through the door, the staff motto is to ensure guests will want to return."
New Milton, Hampshire BH25 6QS
- Owner L+R
- Managing director Andrew Stembridge
- General manager Mark Bevan
- Executive chef Luke Matthews
- Bedrooms 70
- Room rates From £325 for a Garden Room; up to a £1,400 for a Treehouse Hideaway Suite
Chewton Glen was founded 51 years ago by Martin and Brigitte Skan and it was bought in 2006 by billionaire property developer Ian Livingstone. Today it is one of four UK properties within the newly formed Iconic Luxury Hotels collection, which sits within a wider portfolio of 105 hotels owned by L+R, a £9b company that Livingstone founded with his brother, Richard, in 1987.
Stembridge is overseeing the four Iconic hotels which, in addition to Chewton Glen, includes the five-red-AA-star, 48-bedroom Cliveden; the four-AA-star, 78-bedroom Lygon Arms in Broadway, Worcestershire; and the 56-bedroom 11 Cadogan Gardens in London.
Owned by Cadogan, 11 Cadogan Gardens is the first hotel to be operated by Iconic Luxury Hotels under a management contract.
Alongside the ongoing work at Chewton Glen, all the other Iconic hotels are also undergoing improvements. Cliveden, whose freehold is owned by the National Trust, was acquired by L+R on a long lease for nearly £30m in 2012. Next month it will complete a multi-million pound investment with the opening of a new spa.
Lygon Arms, which joined the L+R portfolio last year, will complete a top-to-toe refurbishment in September.
The new interior has been created by designer Anita Rosato, who has previously worked on the bedrooms at Chewton Glen, and overseen by the L+R in-house team.
Meanwhile, 11 Cadogan Gardens, which is currently not graded, is working towards achieving five red AA stars. Around £2.3m is being spent on tweaking some of the bedrooms and creating a new neighbourhood restaurant with direct access on to the regenerated artisan food and drink area of Pavilion Road, near Sloane Square.
The core behaviours of Chewton Glen – confidence, intuition, teamwork, flexibility, respect, ownership, passion, pride and integrity– have been introduced at Cliveden and are now in the process of being rolled out at Lygon Arms and 11 Cadogan Gardens.
Iconic Luxury Hotels is expected to expand through the addition of properties that will complement the existing portfolio.
Sky and Hoteliers' Hotels Top 100 2017
The Hoteliers' Hotels Top 100 2017 list, sponsored by Sky, will be announced on 10 July at the Ned, the newly launched hotel from Soho House & Co and Sydell Group in the City of London.
Bronwyn de Cholewa, director - hotels, Sky, said: "Sky is delighted to once again support the Hoteliers' Hotels Top 100. We are committed to providing the best TV entertainment to help the UK's best and finest hotels enhance the guest experience, and so we're proud to be associated with these awards, which recognise the exceptional level of detail that goes into ensuring every guest has a perfect stay."