How did you get into the hospitality industry?
Julie and I both used to work in London – we are not from the hotel or hospitality industry. I used to work as a management consultant in the City and I just got fed up of the grind. I was flying a lot to see clients and just working really long hours. I used to spend a lot of my time travelling and living in hotels for work, and so did Julie, and we also like to travel for pleasure. It got to a point where we thought we’d just combine our love of travelling and the knowledge we had gained of hotels and restaurants with our business experience. We thought ‘let’s put this into effect and buy a hotel’. That was the idea behind it.
How did you end up purchasing The Cottage in the Wood?
Having been a management consultant everything was always very analytical to start with. As a result we had very strict criteria to what it was that we wanted; it had to be within a two-and-a-half hour radius of London and near other large cities, Birmingham and Bristol are very nearby; the numbers had to stack up on the business; and then we were looking for something with a USP. There were only about five hotels at the time that fitted the criteria, but when we came to view the cottage it ticked all of them and the views from the hotel are just incredible. The history is also amazing it was Margaret Thatcher’s favourite hotel; Elgar played here; C.S Lewis came here; and Tolkien is said to have come here as well. It has a fantastic history and it was all of those things together that drew us to the hotel.
Could you tell us a bit more about the history?
We have the cottage, which is probably the oldest element on the site, and that dates back to the early 1700s and was a woodsmans cottage. The main property dates back to the mid-1700s, when it was built for the lady of the Godolphin family when she moved from the family estate house. It became a commercial building in 1919 and we have named our restaurant after that date, which will hold for a good party in 2019. It became a restaurant called Key Rooms in 1919 and then over the years it developed into a hotel. For a long time in the 70s and early 80s it was owned by the Ross family, and they really did a lot of development work and turned it into the restaurant with rooms. It was then purchased by the Paton family and they built a lot of the rooms and turned it into a 30 bedroom hotel. Our idea is to take it even further on from there.
You’re in the process of a £2.5m refurbishment now?
We have just finished phase one and that involved a brand new kitchen, a new expanded restaurant and a new bar. The bar is a whole new business for the hotel, it used to have a wet trade but with the views and putting a nice cocktail bar in there I think we saw some real potential for growth in that space. We really want to turn the business model on its head a bit and do something more destination restaurant and bar with rooms. It just so happens that we have 30 bedrooms and are a country house hotel. We have a new head chef, Mark Redwood, who has joined from the Old Passage – a very nice fish restaurant in Gloucester. We have also just had a gentleman named Gianluca Rizzo, who trained with Michel Roux Senior, come in as our food and beverage manager. He will very much be taking over the front of house operation of the business, and really give it that personality and welcoming feeling. We very much want that boutique hotel feel, a very cosy and elegant country house hotel is what we are going for.
Do you have your eyes on a michelin star?
We are currently two rosette, I would like to go to three as I think that sets a very nice standard. If a Michelin star comes to us that’s great, if it doesn’t then it doesn’t matter because we just want to produce products, food and service that guests really enjoy.
What will the next phase of the refurbishment involve?
There are three aspects to the refurb. We have three buildings on the site and they all vary historically. We plan on doing three different styles of rooms for the whole hotel. The main house will be very classic Georgian; the cottage will be very ‘cottagey’ Georgian and quite twee; and the third style of room will be something a bit more contemporary and that will be in the coach house that was built 14 years ago. To get the true Cottage in the Wood experience guests would try all three buildings to really get a feel of what we are doing at the hotel. The next phase of the refurbishment will be looking at the rooms in the main house, we will be looking to upgrade all of the rooms, upgrade the bathrooms, make them a bit more ‘boutiquey’ and bring them very much in style with the way we’ve designed the restaurant. We have the same interior design team who have done the whole hotel and that has really worked well.
In terms of your role, how hands on are you?
I am very much on the business side of things, so I do all the contracts, business strategy and all of that kind of stuff. I don’t work front of house but Julia does rather enjoy that aspect of the business. She works in the front of house as well as working on the business strategy and doing all of the marketing and PR side of the business.
How will the business have changed since you first bought it?
Well I think the business will be busier and I think the food offering will be slightly different. The overall plan is to also have a spa on the site as well. That is the ultimate goal and that will really make us a destination hotel where guests come and stay for a number of days.
Is the spa something you are working on at the moment?
We are planning it but it’s not something we are doing just yet. That will be the final phase of the refurbishment.
It’s your first time in the industry, how have you found the experience so far?
It’s been good, it’s been stressful and it has been busy. Julia and I both come from very busy previous careers so we are used to doing long hours and pressured work but I think what makes it more pressured is probably that it’s all our own money now. It has been a great experience and it has been a learning curve for us because we have had to learn the operational side of running and owning a hotel.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learnt?
Making sure your customers are happy, but that goes for every business really. I also think having faith in your team is crucial, you need to make sure you have the right team around you who can deliver that consistent product and that consistency is the biggest lesson for me.
What are your future plans?
In five years we see this project finished. After that we see us potentially opening a second property, and we have business plans to own a couple of hotels and to create a a hotel group with a complete concept. That all depends on how The Cottage in the Wood does and this property will be our template to get all of those ideas in place.
This feature first appeared in April 2017 issue of Hotel Owner.