The Ellenborough Park hotel underwent an extensive refurbishment to its ground floor, creating an exciting new reception space and atrium lounge for its guests. ALESSANDRO CARRARA spoke with general manager Oliver Williams to find out more about the renovation works and hotel’s rich history.
Tell me about your history in the industry?
I started off working in a really good restaurant in Manchester, and then ended up in London working at the Connaught hotel in the Angela Hartnett restaurant for Gordon Ramsay.
The first hotel I worked at was the Zetter in Clerkenwell as a food and beverage manager. I realised working in hotels opened up a whole other world beyond restaurants, so I wanted to explore this further. From there I went to Limewood where I worked for six years and then I ended up here at Ellenborough Park where I have been the general manager for just over two years.
Tell me about the hotel itself?
The building was built in the 1500s and it is a beautiful, old building. It has been family owned from the 1500s through to the early 20th Century. A lot of work was done by lord Ellenborough in the mid 19th Century, who made some adaptation and extended the house. The hotel was very scruffy, worn down and unloved at the time and the whole building was in a state of disrepair.
The owners saw an opportunity and basically saved the building, knocking down the outbuildings they were allowed to remove and reconstructing the bedroom block and the outdoor swimming pool. Ellenborough Park then opened in 2011 as a five-star hotel.
What drew you to work at Ellenborough?
It is a unique, beautiful building with a stunning location located just under the Cotswolds and overlooks the Cheltenham racecourse. It has 60-bedrooms so there is a lot of adaptability to what we can do in terms of the leisure, corporate and wedding markets. It had been a bit of a rough journey since 2011, however when I arrived it was stable and operating well and seemed like a really exciting project and ultimately an amazing property.
How would you describe your management style?
This is my first general manager role and when you get to that position by nature you have to become a generalist. Because my background is in food an beverage and marketing there was a lot to learn here about the elements of property management, revenue management and sales. I try and make sure I engage with every area of the business on a daily basis and have regular meetings about the strategic and commercial side of things.
I make sure I am catching up with each of the operational teams and offering them support and seeing if I can help. It’s just about trying to be around and about as much as possible for team. It is about making them know what we are working towards and that their hard work is appreciated.
Talk me through the latest refurbishment?
In September/October we had a significant refurbishment in which we revamped our ground floor of the main house. We created a new reception space and new atrium lounge, rebranded our brasserie into a upmarket pub called the Horsebox and then we made some changes to our restaurant with our new executive chef revitalising the menu.
Is that still ongoing?
No the work has finished. In terms of the project it was a full week project and the hotel was still open at the time. It was about juggling things around and making sure the guests and the staff knew what was going on to make sure it didn’t have much of an impact. Luckily there wasn’t much structural work to be done, so there was less banging and it was more delicate work. It think it went really well.
What was the main aim in the refurbishment?
It was a combination of things, since the hotel needed a bit of injection of new life even if it was just a lick of paint. The flow of the ground floor was also just a bit clunky, it didn’t move in the right way; the front door was in the wrong place and the reception arrival experience was not great. Another part was to improve the flow and make it easier for staff to de-formalise the arrival process for guests, making it grander and more of an impact as you walk through the front door.
From a commercial standpoint our competitors are spending a lot of money or have done refurbishment work, so we wanted to keep up with that. We made a couple of contemporary additions to the hotel, nothing in congress with the original building, but a couple of things to update it and also commercially give us a chance to get out there in terms of marketing and PR.
How has the guest response been so far?
They love it, the guests who have been to us before said it is much improved in terms of the flow and they like the new food. Guests who haven’t been before do not really notice any difference, but I think it has that much more upmarket five-star feel than it did before. I think it is just a little bit sharper.
I hear you have a helipad?
Not a helipad as such but we do have a helicopter landing site, yes.
And is that used by guests?
Yes we have people flying in a couple of times a month coming in for lunch or a stay. There are also people coming in to to go to nearby racecourse, meaning we have helicopters coming in frequently. Sometimes if they are staying they will actually park the helicopter with us.
What other services does your hotel offer?
We have two dining outlets, a spa, an outdoor heated swimming pool, a really good mix of event spaces suitable for all different occasions and a nice ceremony room. In addition to spaces for small events, dinners for corporate meetings.
We have great grounds around the hotel in terms of team building activities and we also offer the hotel exclusively for weddings, birthdays, corporate events, car launches and those sorts of things.
What is the most notable achievement for the hotel?
We were listed in The Times’ top 30 most romantic hotels in the country and were in The Telegraph’s top 30 best country house hotels. We won a southwest tourism award for ‘Large Hotel of the Year’ in February this year. So it is more the press recognition for being in the market we are in and the fact is in an award which is judged on merit following an inspection, which ultimately was great to win.
How does your hotel stand out in the area?
I think that the building itself is absolutely unique, with nothing like it in the area. We are also the only five-star hotel in the county. We offer weddings and events that don’t impact the rest of the hotel operation. Geographically the property is very easy to access by train from the London and is only around half an hour away from the centre of the Cotswolds. The location of the building, the age and heritage and the accessibility is what makes us unique.
So is Cheltenham racecourse a main attraction?
The racecourse is a big thing, and we have a private track that runs straight to the racecourse. There are around 16 race days a year and every race day we have a chauffeur driven transfer service that runs from the front door of the hotel to the grandstand across the fields.
That is unique and not many places in the UK or the world. We are not actually a hotel on the racecourse but we have that private access to chauffeur our guests which is a really special experience.
What kind of guests do you see?
Given the size of the hotel we have to market ourselves and appeal to all the segments you can think of, so we are not small enough to be just a leisure based hotel and not large enough to be a corporate hotel. But we wouldn’t want to be just corporate anyway.
So during the week there will be corporate guests, spa retreats and weekends for families and couples and there is a large leisure market as well.
What are your goals for 2018?
To develop the commerciality and the profitability of the business. We have the strongest team that the hotel has ever had and we have engaged with a new PR company, so now is the year to build that profile, to build that commerciality. We also want to keep a good eye on the costs and make sure that all the revenue we are generating at the top is filtering down to our staff at the bottom.
The top goal?
Having the best and most profitable year the hotel has ever had in its lifetime and continuing to build our profile as one of the top destinations in the Cotswolds area.