What prompted you to start working in the hospitality industry?
My family has always had a heavy background in hospitality, going to back to my grandparents and great grandparents. Hospitality was always there in my formative years, although I didn’t get involved purposefully since, usually, you run a mile from the stuff you are surrounded by when you are a kid.
An opportunity came up in 2009 to get involved in a small local hotel in Newark on Kent in Nottinghamshire called Kelham House. My mother-in-law ran the property and she approached myself and wife because her business was struggling, asking if we could try and find a solution to the problems that property was going through.
My wife and I went in initially with the view of seeing if there was any value left in the business before moving it on. So we formed a plan and worked out of a way that we could take the business forward instead of disposing of it. My wife has a background in tourism and studied hospitality management at university, so we both had a mix of different interests and experiences in the hospitality industry.
We spent the next seven to eight years making the business into a very strong success, which then allowed us to look at Cockliffe and invest in the property to replicate the original success with we had with Kelham House.
When did you join the hotel?
We bought Cockliffe House Hotel in June 2014, from a couple who had owned the property for about 20 years and were looking to retire. The previous owners had built the business up from nothing when they originally took it on as a conference centre. They had built it up to be a strong business for a period of time, but unfortunately it suffered from a lack of energy, investment and attention, so we picked it up at a time when it was on a low ebb with a view of following a similar to path to the one that we did with Kelham.
Could you tell me a bit of history about the building?
Cockliffe House is itself is around 440 years old. The earliest solid date that we can pin it to is 1678, we believe it was a built as a residence or a farmhouse for the Ceely family. The family were a very prominent and successful Nottinghamshire family and owned lots of land and properties around the area. The property then became a private residence for a period of time, before turning into a conference centre around 30 years ago.
How would you describe your management style?
My aim is to be the least qualified person in the room whenever I am speaking to my team, so whether its the general manager, the chef, front of house team or our reservations managers. My aim is to employ people who can do a better job than me, so that I can let them get on with it, without having to worry what they are doing. I think it is safe to say that I have got a very relaxed management style. I am always on hand to help, but am still more than happy to let the team run with the role they have. A lot of trust goes into the people we pick. Lets just hope I am doing it right and everyone else is doing it wrong and not the other way around.
Tell me about the renovation work that has recently been completed?
We took the property on four years ago and at the time we knew that we would have to invest very heavily in the property. All the bedrooms have been renovated, in addition to the common areas of the hotel and the kitchen. We are just in the process of finishing off the last piece of work, doubling the size of the commercial kitchen, which meant knocking down a wall and combining two rooms together.
One of which is the existing kitchen, the other is an old staff accommodation/office that we had earmarked for this purpose for a long time. The reason is that we need to provide a facility for the commercial kitchen to operate to the volumes that we know we are going to get to eventually. The kitchen was originally very small before and we wanted it to be a busier and more productive kitchen.
As well as the front of house areas, the back of house has also received a lot of attention. Last year we finished our 2500 sqft purpose built banqueting suite which has a 100 seat capacity, as well as a changing dressing room for our brides to use. We have looked to create a unique and special space for the wedding and event side of our business, which is where we see the greatest opportunity to grow and develop.
What was the main aim of the refurbishment?
The main focus was to create a business that operated very strongly in each of the directions we wanted to put it towards. We wanted to stand alone as a wedding and events business, so for that we needed to move away from the marquee model to a fixed non-seasonally dependant facility. We needed solid walls and solid rooms with proper air conditioning. I wanted to reassure customers that if they want to use Cockliffe in November they would have the same experience as if they were to use us in July.
The seasonality of the business was what was really holding us back when we took it on. We also wanted to lift the standard of the bedroom accommodations and the standard of the dining experience. The justification was if we were asking people to spend their hard earned money with us, we would give them something that they wouldn’t get anywhere else.
What has the guest response been like?
Fortunately we have had a terrific response to the work. It was important for us to keep everybody updated on the progress. The only gripe was that it should have only taken two years to complete. Unfortunately, it ended up taking an extra year due to various challenges.
The property is a grade II listed building so the planning and the conservation process took longer that we had hoped for. But the customers have been massively supportive and reacted to everything we have done in our favour. Thanks to the renovation work we have doubled bookings, in terms of weddings and events year-on-year.
Do you have plans for future refurbishment work?
In a nearly 450 year old building you never finished refurbishing, there is always something that needs to be done. In terms of what we felt we had to do to get the property up to the standard it is now, I feel that we have really achieve those goals. There are some further improvements that we would like to make to the property, including an outside ceremony space in the gardens. We want to continually be improving and making the property better and stronger and more relevant to our marketplace. That isn’t just to do with weddings either, we want to improve the dining and corporate sides of the business as well.
How many weddings do you cater for in a year?
When we first took the property on all those we catered for about 19 weddings that year. This year we are going to be doing 75 weddings. That definitely isn’t where we want to finish up either. Although I suppose what we do want to do is balance the amount of weddings and events we host, so as not to compromise other areas of the business. We still want to develop our restaurant so it can stand on its own two legs and offer an enticing accommodation for tourists and business travellers. It’s definitely not about trying to shoehorn a wedding every two days for the full year.
What does the surrounding area offer for the guests during their stay?
This area of Nottingham is quite rich in terms of tourism and availability. We sit in Burntstump country park, so the property is right in the middle of a very naturally beautiful area. The park has lots of walks that are available to guests. We also sit right on the cusp of Sherwood forest and are just around the corner from Newstead Abbey, which was the former home of Lord Byron. So there any many big tourist attraction in our immediate area.
What other services does the hotel offer?
We are restricted by the fact that the age of the property doesn’t mean we have a spa or leisure as such. Instead we offer a good traditional, country house boutique hotel. We offer a fresh food restaurant, where everything is made on site, whether that is breakfast, lunch or afternoon tea and evening meals.
We also have a relaxing bar/brassiere area where people come to sit and ‘chill out’. As well as extensive outside seating, which is quite nice since we are sitting on almost three acres of grounds. I would say its a traditional country house hotel, which has state-of-the-art banqueting and conference facilities which are a great compliment to each other.
What other guests do you tend to see?
We see a lot of tourists, especially those who are attracted to visit Nottingham but don’t necessarily want to stay in the city. We also tend to attract guests who are looking for peace and quiet and to not be disturbed while they are with us.
What are your personal and business goals for 2018?
The business goals are to develop and to enhance the offering we have, further to what has have already been done. We want to get the word out and to build the reputation of our new version of the hotel and the differentiators we have put in place, making sure that more people in Nottingham and the surrounding areas are aware of who we are and what we do. Unfortunately personal and business goals tend to go together, because when you own the business there is no such thing as having any time off.
This article first appeared in the May issue of Hotel Owner.