Andrew Stembridge: his road to Hotelier of the Year 2010

11 November 2010 by
Andrew Stembridge: his road to Hotelier of the Year 2010

Andrew Stembridge, managing director of Chewton Glen hotel in the New Forest, has just been given the 2010 Hotelier of the Year award, which is sponsored by Casna Group. He talks to Janet Harmer about the secrets of his success

When it comes to producing top-notch hoteliers, Chewton Glen can rightly claim to be one of the very best. The winner of the 2010 Hotelier of the Year, Andrew Stembridge, 39, managing director of the five-AA-red-star, 58-bedroom hotel in New Milton, Hampshire - which has now produced four winners of the industry's most prestigious hotel award - considers why this is so.

"I think it goes back to Martin Skan, who opened the hotel in 1966," he says. "He always worked hard to get the right people here. Each of us has great respect for this iconic hotel and, I guess, has been the right person to run the hotel at their particular time."

Skan was the first of the Chewton Glen foursome - in 1991 - to be named Hotelier of the Year, followed by Peter Crome, Stembridge's predecessor, in 2000. Then in 2003, Robin Hutson carried off the title as founder of Hotel du Vin, having made his name in the industry as general manager and then managing director of Chewton Glen, between 1986 and 1994.

For Stembridge, winning the award is the highlight of his career; one he admits he fell into. "When I was 14, I stood in for a friend washing dishes at a brasserie in Melrose in the Scottish borders," he explains. "By lunchtime, I had cleaned the entire kitchen and organised all the shelves. The head chef offered me a job immediately and I've worked in the industry ever since."

After graduating in hotel management at Strathclyde University, Stembridge began working as front-of-house manager for One Devonshire Gardens in Glasgow, then owned by the founder, Ken McCulloch. It was from McCulloch that he learnt the importance of attention to detail and ensuring the aesthetics in a hotel are just right.

"Ken would drive past the hotel every night and if the blinds were not lowered to exactly the same level in every window, he would ring us," Stembridge recalls. "If the phone was not answered within three rings, he would want to know why. As a result I can't walk past a cushion today without plumping it up."

After a spell in the USA working as assistant manager at Blantyre, a country house hotel in Lenox, Massachusetts, Stembridge made the most significant move of his career. "I decided that I wanted to work on the south coast of England and to remain with Relais & Châteaux - Blantyre was a member. It just so happened that Chewton Glen, a member of Relais, was looking for an assistant manager," he says.

an influential period

Soon after joining the hotel, Stembridge was promoted to operations manager and so began his long and successful relationship with the property. Working alongside Skan, the owner, and Crome, the managing director, in those early years was an influential period.

"Martin was brilliant at PR and taught me everything about the importance of keeping in touch with people. So, for instance, if a guest wrote to thank us for their stay, he would always reply with a thank you letter," he adds. "Meanwhile, Peter was hands-on in every aspect of the hotel. He was also brilliant at encouraging people to develop their careers, which is how I came to leave Chewton Glen."

Stembridge had come to love the hotel and if it hadn't been for a long-held ambition to become a general manager before the age of 30, he would have stayed where he was. But with Crome's encouragement, he applied and was appointed in 2001 to the top job at the Scotsman, a new five-star hotel that was just about to launch in Edinburgh. The role proved a real learning curve, and the challenge, Stembridge says, provided 15 years of experience in the space of two-and-a-half.

"The hotel opened at a difficult time - it was right in the middle of the foot and mouth outbreak and then we had 9/11," he explains. "We were £1m over budget and we welcomed guests while we still had a list of 100,000 snagging items on the property. Initially I was managing a building site, not a hotel. It was a nightmare and my darkest day came when I had to make 20 members of staff redundant - a move I regarded as totally short-sighted.

"Every day was laced with disaster, but amazingly we achieved the AA hotel of the year for Scotland. It was a real baptism of fire and gave me a commerciality which, if I hadn't experienced, I don't think I would have become managing director of Chewton Glen."

Unsurprisingly, it was an easy decision to return to Chewton Glen in 2003 to replace Crome. Things were now different as he was in charge operationally, although the Skans were still the owners, with Skan continuing to look after the hotel's PR, and his wife Brigitte overseeing refurbishments.

A major change came two-and-a-half years later when the Skans sold the business for a rumoured £30m to Ian Livingstone, who with his brother Richard operates London & Regional Properties, which owns several hotels including the Hilton on Park Lane and the Cumberland. Chewton Glen, however, is a private investment for Ian Livingstone.

Initially, the most significant change for Stembridge was to run the hotel in a more commercial manner. "It wasn't that the Skans didn't run a profitable hotel, but many of their decisions on capital expenditure were driven by the heart," he explains. "However, Martin's visions often achieved wonderful commercial results. For instance, his decision to build a spa here 20 years ago has proved a great success and today accounts for £2m of the hotel's £11m annual turnover."

Stembridge strongly believes that ensuring the 230 employees are happy and motivated is the key to running a successful business. "I love to see the staff grow and am very keen to encourage them to take on responsibilities which will help them develop their careers. Previously, the Skans provided the vision for the hotel, now I want the departmental heads to have that vision, something which helps to make their jobs more rewarding."

While Chewton Glen majors on personal service, Stembridge says he isn't prescriptive about how the staff should deliver it. "I want their contact with guests to appear effortless, natural and friendly," he explains.

In the future, there are plans to develop six eco-friendly woodland lodges, but more immediate is the £1m overhaul of the restaurant and its menu, which will involve the creation of a glamorous eating space, increasing in size from 96 to 156 seats.

"We are creating a hybrid restaurant where diners will be able to enjoy everything from a simple one-course meal to a gastronomic dinner. It will be fairly cosmopolitan, but will not be out of place for Chewton Glen."

Due to open by Easter 2011, the restaurant will be headed by a new chef de cuisine who will work under executive chef Luke Matthews.

"I very much feel that I am the custodian of Chewton Glen," Stembridge adds. "Whilst retaining the ethos of the hotel as created by the Skans, I hope that I have also been able to move the business forward."

ANDREW STEMBRIDGE CAREER HIGHLIGHTS

1993 on graduating from the Scottish Hotel School at the University of Strathclyde, Stembridge joined One Devonshire Gardens in Glasgow as front-of-house manager

â- 1994-1996 Worked for Malmaison hotels in Edinburgh and Glasgow as food and beverage manager

â- 1996 Moved to the USA as assistant manager of Blantyre, a Relais & ChÁ¢teaux property in Lenox, Massachusetts

â- 1997-2001 Stembridge's first stint at Chewton Glen, as assistant manager, then operations manager

â- 2001-2003 Appointed to his first general manager position at the age of 29 at the Scotsman Hotel, Edinburgh

â- 2003 Returned to Chewton Glen as managing director

â- Present He plays an active role in the industry as a member of the steering committee of the UK & Ireland delegation for Relais & ChÁ¢teaux, and a member of the executive committee of the Master Innholders

Focusing on the family market

Stembridge describes the decision to target the family market as one of the best he's made as managing director. Having young children himself, he is keen to welcome the whole family and finds there is particular demand from inter-generational groups who are celebrating a special family occasion.

"I've learnt a lot from Calcot Manor, which is somewhere we love to go as a family, and what they do to keep everyone of all ages happy," he says. "We're not trying to be a family resort, but we do have a kids' club, which allows parents some respite for a spa treatment.

"It has given us an occupancy of 90% over the summer months, whereas the average occupancy across the year is 70%."

With a lot of the old rules and regulations - regarding dress codes and where guests can eat - being thrown out, the introduction of organic products to the spa and bedrooms, greater flexibility for corporate groups and free Wi-Fi available throughout the hotel, it is inevitable that the average age of guests is now lower than before.

Future developments at Chewton Glen are also likely to appeal to a younger clientele. An application for six two-bedroom eco-friendly woodland lodges, to be built in a valley within the 130-acre grounds, has been lodged with the local authority. Aimed particularly at families, it is hoped that the £6m development will be ready by the end of 2011.

WHAT THE JUDGES SAY

Andrew has set the benchmark for country house hotels. He is an inspirational leader and has created a highly motivated and skilled team that consistently exceeds guests' expectations.

Harry Murray, chairman, Lucknam Park Hotel & Spa, and 1986 Hotelier of the Year

Andrew's passionate enthusiasm for both his guests and employees allows him to achieve impressive results and sets a highly respected benchmark for all of us in the hotel industry.

John Stauss, regional vice-president and general manager, Four Seasons London, and 2005 Hotelier of the Year

Andrew has a modern inclusive style of management and goes about his business with great humility and a refreshing lack of ego. His management of the transition of such an iconic hotel as CG from such iconic owners as the Skans has been seamless and the hotel is in better shape than ever, with a great team of people who want to work for him.

Andrew McKenzie, managing director, the Vineyard Group, and 2008 Hotelier of the Year

Andrew possess all the qualities of a truly great hotelier - attention to detail, a great sense of humour, commitment and passion. Chewton Glen enjoys world renown, due in no small part to Andrew's enthusiasm, drive and dedication.

Jonathan Raggett, managing director, Red Carnation Hotels, and 2009 Hotelier of the Year

Andrew Stembridge is a superb choice as he is the perfect example of a dedicated hotelier who is young and will bring gravitas and encouragement to a new generation.

Gordon Campbell Gray, chairman, Campbell Gray Hotels, and 2002 Hotelier of the Year

Andrew understands hospitality and that the team are the soul of any hotel and make or break most guest experiences. He juggles the challenge of any good hotelier of successfully dividing his time between meeting guests (an expectation of many at Chewton) and driving the business forward.

Simon Numphud, hotel services manager, AA Hotel Services

Despite the innumerable garlands bestowed on Chewton Glen in the past, Andrew Stembridge has taken the hotel to new heights. The service and quality remain as fantastic as ever, but the family friendly policies and new style of restaurant operation are symptomatic of a much-needed contemporary approach.

Dominic Walsh, leisure industries correspondent, The Times

Andrew Stembridge crowned Hotelier of the Year >>

Chewton Glen 40 years on >>

Stembridge is named MD at Chewton Glen >>

E-mail your comments to Janet Harmer here.

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