Hired to oversee the Apartment Group's portfolio of restaurants, hotels and venues just months before lockdown, chief operating officer Debrah Dhugga talks about operating some of the leading wedding venues in the UK and the luxury lodge openings she has planned for the coming year. Emma Lake reports
How have your first two years in the role been?
It's been very challenging. I left London in the October and we were hit by Covid-19 from the March. I think I'm just finding my feet now as I've just been managing crisis situations.
Have you been able to benefit from the increased interest in UK holidays?
Things are actually really good. There's a lot more confidence coming from within the hospitality industry, which is nice. Obviously, it comes with challenges, particularly staffing – I think everyone's been challenged with that – but in general we're doing very well.
We are so busy with staycations – we could have sold our hotels over and over again. Since we opened after lockdown we have not had a single empty room. We've had 100% occupancy and we are 100% occupied until mid-November. The business is there – it's staffing that has been the biggest challenge. We've also got some of the leading wedding venues in the UK, including Le Petit Château and Newton Hall in Northumberland. We were really challenged for 18 months, and the past eight months have just been catching up. I think that will continue for the next 12 months. It's non-stop; we now have weddings every day of the week, not just Thursday, Friday and Saturday. It's really busy.
What have you been doing to attract staff?
There is a huge shortage of key staff – that goes without saying. I can't find the words to describe how our sector has suffered.
We've had to increase our staff accommodation. We've found a lot of people are looking to move out of big cities to work in rural locations, but we've only been able to attract these people by buying a lot more accommodation.
It's something I've never known in my time in hospitality. London was always the place people wanted to work, and I still believe London is the leading edge of our industry, but it's amazing to see the number of applications we receive from people who have worked in cities and are now looking for rural positions.
The Apartment Group is a diverse business comprising hotels, restaurants, bars and wedding venues. How do you see it expanding?
People don't realise how big we are as a group – we're a £25m turnover business. Our focus now is expanding into hotels, but our latest openings are four night-time venues in Newcastle. That has involved a £3m investment into the city, which had been delayed for two years as a result of the pandemic.
We're also building 25 luxury cabins in Northumberland, which are going to be beautiful staycation venues, almost Scandi-style, with outdoor hot tubs and outdoor showers, just a five-minute walk from the beach. Next year we will be opening two hotels we bought in the pandemic [Whitworth Hall hotel and Runa Farm hotel, both in County Durham]. Runa Farm [29 bedrooms] will be very much Soho chic, with lots of rural buildings and a great restaurant. It will be a wedding destination and includes a big six-bedroom farmhouse, which we will be hiring out for exclusive use, with a 10-person Jacuzzi on the terrace. It's so lovely with Shetland ponies, llamas and deer in the grounds.
Whitworth Hall hotel, which was part of Best Western, is a 30-bedroom country house hotel with amazing grounds and a big private lake. It will be an elegant five-star, luxury hotel.
Will you be looking beyond the north-east as you expand your hotel portfolio?
We're already starting to head south. We have two hotels in Northumberland and now we're going to County Durham. The idea is to target university cities, but we will never be looking at the city centre – we will always be rural. For example, if we were looking at Manchester we'd be looking at Cheshire and Wilmslow; if we were looking at Birmingham it would be Alderley Edge. We're also looking for a property in Europe. There's lots going on.
Not to mention the luxury cabins…
I think that lifestyle accommodation is absolutely key. People nowadays are looking for a great lodge or a shepherd's hut – it's a massive new trend that has grown unbelievably and that's going to continue into 2022. We already have shepherd's huts and they're always full. We even have waiting lists. As well as the 29 cabins on the Newton Hall Estate we also going to have glamping at Runa Farm. Our hotels are very much experiences; everything we do is a little bit different and the cabins are going to be a little bit different.
Have new openings been affected by the pressures facing hospitality?
One of the biggest challenges is supply and demand, especially with opening new venues. The costs have increased so much from what was originally forecast. It was almost two and a half years ago that our Newcastle openings were signed off, and the costs have risen so much, in terms of everything from building material to suppliers and concrete – everything is rising unbelievably.
How can you react to that?
You have to look at your pricing structure, because it affects everything: minimum wage has gone up, prices have increased, and it's very challenging. We've got to be really sharp to make sure we're on top of all our costs and we don't allow that to affect service delivery. That's what's imperative for every employer in hospitality – that they continue to attract great talent and retain talent. I'm so passionate about retaining great people within our business.
Le Petit Château, Otterburn, Northumberland A luxury French country manor hotel
Newton Hall, Northumberland Boutique hotel in an 18th-century country house in a coastal setting, with 21 bedrooms
Hotels, restaurants and bars
William de Percy Inn & Creperie, Otterburn, Northumberland Luxury bed and breakfast
The Joiners Arms, Newton-by-the-Sea Coaching inn with adjacent cottage offering ten bedrooms
Zarabanda, Newcastle Three-storey venue incorporating restaurant, four bars and terrace
The Holy Hobo, Newcastle Venue serving food and drinks from brunch until late night
La Fée, Newcastle Bar and nightclub with a secret members' lounge
Howlers, Newcastle Newcastle's first adult ball pool, with live entertainment every night
Cha Cha Bucci, Newcastle Venue offering food and showtime entertainment
Nancy's Bordello, Newcastle Bar, kitchen and terrace
The Palm, Sunderland Venue incorporating two restaurants (Liberty Brown steakhouse and Wildernest bar and lobster cabin), eight bars, nine street-food traders and live entertainment
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