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The Project – Woburn Hotel

Re-design and re-furnish rooms and interiors


Sue Crowley

Woburn, Bedfordshire

Unlike recent projects Hotel Owner has covered in this column, the beautiful Woburn Hotel in Bedfordshire was slightly more modest in scale. That said, it has still been a significant overhaul of the offering, as everything from the look and feel of the rooms and interiors, to the website, the branding and the computer system have all been changed or updated. Sue Crowley, general manager at the new Woburn Hotel, says it “has been absolutely hectic” but has moved the hotel from a 3-star to a 4-star offering.

At a cost of £1m, inevitably it did not involve the complete gutting throughout that many such projects need, although there was some significant structural work such as knocking through a wall to turn two rooms into one. A unique feature of the property is that it has a collection of seven cottages which make up part of the hotel and they are each named in a way that gives a nod to the man that owns the business, Andrew Russell, the 15th Duke of Bedford.

This is a key feature of the hotel, really. The Bedford Estates, which own the Woburn Hotel, are an extensive collection of properties which include garden squares in central London as well as a safari park and golf course on the Woburn Abbey estate. It is a big business of leisure facilities, and the revamped hotel came back into the fold only recently. The duke himself explains: “We owned the freehold of the hotel, and although it was on a lease that had less than six years to go, the leaseholder was not reinvesting in it. The brand was ‘with us’ in that it was Woburn, but it wasn’t ‘us’, if you understand. We had the idea of buying it out and bringing it into the existing family that includes the safari park and golf course, and so on.”

Crowley is an experienced hand at hospitality, having done a long stint at the now defunct Center Hotels, been GM of the Kensington Hilton (which has 610 bedrooms), GM of the Runnymede in Egham Surrey (a much smaller hotel which underwent a refurbishment during her tenure), and also some time working for Handpicked Hotels.

“I’ve been here [at Woburn Hotel] for three-and-a-half years,” says Crowley, “but when I was first interviewed I knew that this project was going to be on the cards. I asked if there would be money available, and the duke said yes, and he has been true to his word. They have been very supportive in what we wanted to do, but this is partly because we have values that we all stick to: community, integrity and so on. These values have been in [the duke’s] family for hundreds of years, so the way we do things is very important to the family.”

The duke and his family were not remote from the project, as you might expect from a family that owns extensive properties in the area and also in London. “Her Grace Louise Bedford,” adds Crowley, “was involved for some of the fabric-choosing and for other parts of the project.”

Crowley says that, in essence, this was a “smartening up” project, rather than an extensive project that required the closing of the hotel. The hotel comprises 55 bedrooms – which includes the seven cottages – and has function rooms, meeting rooms and the capacity for 100 seats for dinner or for conferences. There are 60 full-time staff.

Crowley explains some of the main staples of the project: “The biggest expenses were the wooden flooring in the reception, but other than that it has mainly been the fabrics, some new furniture, some re-upholstering. We did quite a bit of re-plumbing and some new electrical boards and re-wiring.”

The duke himself alludes to his wife the duchess and Sue being the combined driving force behind the whole project: “We’ve now found the right general manager,” he says, “we had a good one before, but Sue is a different league. It was mainly their project as Louise deals with Sue all the time.” Does he think the refurbished hotel has gone down well with the local clientele? “It seems to go down very well. I met a friend by chance at a restaurant the other day and he said he had stayed there, I asked him to give some constructive criticism and he simply said it had been a very good stay.”

Crowley’s hands-on view is also a positive one, in the wake the completed work: “Room rates have risen, midweek occupancy has been in the high nineties, and at the weekends also. It has been a dream role to work for a family that will never rest on its laurels, and we have a had a fabulous response from guests and locals: it’s always a good sign when guests say ‘where did you get that lampshade?’ or ‘what colour is that wallpaper?’ It’s very rewarding and I have love every second of it.”

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