Hotelier of the Year 2017: Sue Williams, Whatley Manor

10 November 2017 by
Hotelier of the Year 2017: Sue Williams, Whatley Manor

Sue Williams has been at the forefront of many a hotel reinvention during her 36-year career and is equally admired for her selfless nurturing and mentoring of the next generation of rising star hoteliers and chefs. Janet Harmer talks to the newly crowned Hotelier of the Year 2017

It is no surprise to discover that during the ‘monsoon' conditions that hit the country during Hospitality Action's annual cycle challenge in the Cotswolds earlier this year, Sue Williams rolled up her sleeves and provided a hearty welcome and generous hospitality under the most adverse conditions.

Hot towels and fabulous energy-boosting food were served to the weary and bedraggled participants, and when one cyclist swerved and came off his bike coming into the entrance to Whatley Manor, near Malmesbury, Wiltshire, Williams dealt with the injured cyclist, who broke his hip, with genuine care and calm.

The wonderful warmth and professionalism that Williams has exuded throughout her 36-year career led to her picking up the 2017 Hotelier of the Year award earlier this week.

Her success has always been quietly achieved; she has never been one to boast of her phenomenal accomplishments Craig Bancroft, last year's Hotelier of the Year, voices the views of his fellow judges when he says: "Sue has demonstrated total commitment and dedication to the hospitality industry throughout her many years of being at the forefront of cutting-edge hotels." He adds that she is "a shining star" in her passionate support and encouragement of her staff.

Whatley Manor hotel and spa
Whatley Manor hotel and spa

True passion

Williams was born and brought up in Epsom, Surrey. She studied for an OND in hotel management at Brooklands Technical College in Weybridge before embarking on a training programme with Concorde Hotels & Resorts.

But it was not until she joined Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons in Great Milton, Oxfordshire, as a restaurant hostess in 1989 that she felt she had arrived at her first "proper hotel", and discovered her "true passion for the business".

Working for Raymond Blanc opened up a whole new world for Williams, as she set about becoming an integral part of the team that transformed Le Manoir from 10 to 32 bedrooms.

After nearly 14 years at Le Manoir and a run of promotions to operations manager, she landed her first general manager role in 2002 at the Bath Priory hotel. Once again, she found herself immersed in a business (this time, Andrew Brownsword Hotels) that was focused on quality of the highest order. While most of her time with the group was spent based in Bath, Williams soon got used to spinning plates, helping to launch Sydney House in London, overseeing the refurbishment of Gidleigh Park in Devon, and repositioning Lower Slaughter Manor following its acquisition out of the Von Essen administration.

The next move came nearly a decade later to Cliveden, another casualty of Von Essen's collapse.

It was 2012 and L+R, the owner of Chewton Glen, had recently bought the leasehold of the five-red-AA-star, 48-bedroom hotel with a view to making the property "sparkle again".

Williams was appointed general manager to oversee the improvements and quickly became hooked on the history behind the property, whose landlord was the National Trust.

"Working at Cliveden was insane, but I loved it," she says. "The building was both a hotel and a visitor attraction, and as a result, I had so many bosses. Everything about the renovation work we undertook was on a huge scale. We had to restore 324 windows while continuing to run the hotel."

However, Cliveden was a two-hour drive from her home in Wiltshire, so during the week, she lived at an address closer to work.

When the role of general manager at Whatley Manor, just minutes away from her home, became vacant last year, she knew in her head she had to go for it, even though her heart was still set on seeing through the completion of the spa at Cliveden, the final element in the hotel's transformation.

The Dining Room
The Dining Room

hough Williams had always recognised the need for staff to achieve a good work-life balance, she now seriously had to consider her own position and a move back full-time to the home she shares with long-term partner, Chris Munn, a builder and restorer - "my quiet rock, who supports everything I do".

"I've always told my team that family tops all, and for that reason, I think the ideal commute to work is about 15 to 20 minutes," she explains.

New beginnings

After much soul searching, Williams eventually took her own advice and moved in September 2016 to Whatley Manor, another iconic hotel within an impressive property offering a strong food focus. The hotel needed serious change and she has taken to her new role with enthusiasm over the past 14 months.

For Williams, the five-red-AA-star, 23-bedroom Whatley Manor had been under the radar for some time - although it had achieved two Michelin stars under former executive chef Martin Burge. "The owners wanted change, and that has meant looking at the culture of the hotel, the people and, in particular, the food and beverage operation," Williams says. "While respecting the past, I am now taking steps to drive forward the business to achieve the real high notes."

While Williams is steeped in largely traditional country house hotels, she is only too aware that some of the changes she is making will need to reflect what is resonating with 21st-century guests and reference some of the most successfully operators in the business.

She says: "We need to consider what the likes of Soho House are doing to change the industry, and look at why that business is running consistently busy operations. We can't all aspire to be Soho Farmhouse, but we can adapt a percentage of what they are doing and apply it to us at Whatley."

Hence, as well as the successful appointment of Niall Keating as executive chef, who won a Michelin star for the hotel's 50-cover Dining Room last month, Williams has overseen the dramatic transformation of the hotel's second restaurant, which opens this week.

Niall Keating
Niall Keating

e previously Swiss-inspired Le Mazot brasserie has relaunched as the 74-seat Grey's Brasserie, a more chic space with a menu focusing on British comfort dishes that now has greater affinity with its location. In addition, what was previously a rarely used bar and function room has become the Green Room, with an open Gaggenau kitchen where lunches, dinners, cookery demos, food and wine tastings, as well as small music and private parties, are hosted.

Williams has appointed Laetizia Madsen, a chef from the three-Michelin-star restaurant Benu in San Francisco, to lead it.

It is hoped that the variety of food and beverage outlets now in place will play a big role in driving revenue from local diners, as well as offer hotel guests who are staying more than one night a serious alternative food option.

Meanwhile, room occupancy and room rates are being lifted by creating greater awareness through the hotel's membership of Pride of Britain and Relais & ChÁ¢teaux, the development of a new website with improved imagery, and the introduction of a revenue management policy for the first time. As a result, Whatley achieved an occupancy of 78% in July, the highest since the current owners relaunched the hotel in 2003. Average occupancy in 2017 is expected to be 64%, up from 55% last year.

Also key to the growth in business is the improved service levels being put in place among the 85 staff, in particular with the recruitment of people who embrace a can-do culture. "It is very much my style to offer an inclusive environment where I gain the team's buy-in to what we are trying to achieve," says Williams, who encourages and empowers every member of staff to come forward with fresh and creative ideas.


Top marks

Her nurturing approach towards staff, which will see her coaching the team as much as possible, is undoubtedly what drove Williams to co-found the Ten out of Ten training programme for the luxury hotel sector in 2010. The 25-month programme offers candidates aged around 19 the opportunity to spend five months training in five of 10 participating properties.

Over the past six years, Ten out of Ten has been hugely successful in launching the careers of some of the hospitality industry's brightest young stars. Many now hold senior positions, and they include Ed Fitzpatrick, operations manager at Chewton Glen, and Claire Thomason, general manager at Rick Stein in Sandbanks, Dorset.

While Williams continually enthuses about the operators of the future and the people who have inspired her - hoteliers Nicholas Dickinson, Philip Newman-Hall and Danny Pecorelli, and restaurateur David Moore, are those at the top of her list - she reluctantly recognises her own considerable achievements, including the Hotelier of the Year 2017 title.

"It is not false modesty, but I see so many other phenomenal operators out there, many who do more than me," she says. "I was not expecting the title at all, but I am absolutely thrilled to have been recognised by my peers."

What the Hotelier of the Year judges say

"Sue is a highly respected hotelier who has made an enormous contribution to the hospitality industry. She is totally committed to employee development and leads the industry by example with her highly successful Ten out of Ten initiative."

Harry Murray, chairman, Lucknam Park Hotel & Spa, Colerne, Wiltshire, and1986 Hotelier of the Year

"Sue could not be described as a showy peacock who loves talking and being centre-stage, but is much more of a peaceful dove, who is people-orientated, loyal, friendly, hard-working, a great team player and very well respected. Her

creation of the Ten out of Ten, conference chair for the Master Innholders and support for the south-west region of Hospitality Action are a few examples of what that she does outside of her daily work commitments."

Jonathan Raggett, managing director, Red Carnation Hotels, and 2009 Hotelier of the Year

"Sue is one of the most professional hoteliers, and puts so much back into our industry in a quiet, selfless and unassuming way. Previously an unsung hero,

it's quite rightly her turn to shine."

Danny Pecorelli, managing director, Exclusive Hotels and Venues, and 2014 Hotelier of the Year

"Sue sets an example for the whole industry with her dedication to developing young talent."

Andrew Stembridge, executive director, Iconic Luxury Hotels, and 2010 Hotelier of the Year

"Sue is not only a passionate hotelier always in the search of excellence, she also champions the development of young talented people in hospitality and supports the industry in so many ways."

Stuart Johnson, general manager, Rocco Forte Hotels, and 2012 Hotelier of the Year

"Sue is the most respected hands-on hotelier, a terrific ambassador for the industry and a highly regarded operator of renowned independent hotels."

Stuart Bowery, general manager, Grosvenor House, A JW Marriott Hotel, and2013 Hotelier of the Year

"Sue embodies a winning combination of warmth and professionalism, but what really marks her out is her unstinting enthusiasm for, and commitment to, the hotels she has worked in, to the industry as a whole, and to the young people starting out in it. She is a great hotelier, a great human being and a great role model."

Fiona Duncan, hotel critic, The Telegraph

"Sue Williams is the consummate hotelier, who epitomises everything that makes our industry so great. She is passionate, dedicated, incredibly hard working and a great mentor, who inspires and develops young people to be the future stars of

our industry. Sue always rolls her sleeves up and has worked tirelessly and selflessly to make the hotels she has managed the best they can possibly be."

Giovanna Grossi, adviser, AA Hospitality Services

What the sponsor says

We are extremely proud to sponsor the Hotelier of the Year award, as it highlights the excellent work taking place in today's hospitality industry.

Being successful at this level takes a huge amount of hard work, 24-hour commitment and a total dedication to exceeding excellence. These are standards and ethics that we share at Casna, and that's one of the reasons why we are so delighted to see our colleagues in the industry reap the rewards of their hard work, and take their place as a real inspiration to others.

The Hotelier of the Year award is an accolade of the highest honour, and we are delighted to be associated with it.

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