Chris Staines and Silvana Bandini both have a stellar background in the industry, but they still faced unexpected challenges upon opening their first hotel together. Russell Brown discovers how the couple took the property from chintzy countryside hotel to beautiful boutique
However well prepared you are, and despite all the research and planning, starting your own business inevitably throws up unexpected challenges. Doing it the right way, keeping your eyes wide open and having industry knowledge gives you the best chance of meeting those challenges head on.
Chris Staines and Silvana Bandini without doubt meet the criteria to face the challenges their first business, the Ollerod in Beaminster, Dorset, has thrown at them.
The pair met at Heckfield Place in Hampshire, where Staines was head chef. Their move to Bath, the first step on their road to owning their business, saw both of them take on roles at the Abbey hotel, with Staines becoming chef-patron and director and Bandini front of house manager. Bandini expanded her experience with a year at the Bath Priory before being offered the position of assistant general manager at the Pig near Bath. During this time the pair were searching for a property to call their own, and Staines gave up his role at the Abbey to concentrate on it. Neither of them felt a move would have been feasible if they had both been working full time.
The Bath area was favoured for their hotel, but they found that the room rates in the area meant they were priced out of the market, so properties in the Cotswolds, the New Forest, Somerset and Dorset were all considered. The criteria were that the hotel had to be within a viable distance of London and the Home Counties to woo the weekend break market, and that the property didn't need to close down for a major refurbishment.
The Bridge House hotel in Beaminster was being marketed with an asking price of £1.25m and met the couple's criteria. Around two and a half hours from London, it had 14 bedrooms (one since converted to a treatment room), ample grounds for Staines to create a vegetable garden, a lounge, space for a bar, breakfast room and a 40-cover restaurant.
"We did end up overspending on the refurbishment – as, I believe, many people do – in an effort to achieve as much as possible"
The sale was agreed at the asking price and financed through personal investment alongside a 10-year loan from RBS. The loan term was short, meaning larger monthly repayments, which added to the financial squeeze. However, the pair were mindful of advice they received prior to opening, on the importance of ‘cashflow, cashflow, cashflow'.
Another significant piece of advice Bandini received was ‘Have patience. You don't have a huge budget behind you, so you can't do everything all at once'. She explains: "This was a big challenge for me, and we did end up overspending on the refurbishment – as, I believe, many people do – in an effort to achieve as much as possible."
The existing business was very much in the traditional country house mould, serving a fairly narrow demographic – some way from the type of establishment Staines and Bandini wanted it to be. Added to this was the fact that there had been a degree of underinvestment in the property over a period of years.
Unfortunately, there was another hotel just seven miles trading under the same name of the Bridge House, which meant that rebranding and repositioning became an urgent task. This came on top of the extensive refurbishment of all the public areas and a partial refurbishment of five rooms.
Robin Hutson, chairman and chief executive of Lime Wood Group and Home Grown Hotels, was one of the few who advised a name change with the proviso that the name rooted the property to the area and gave it a sense of place. A book owned by Staines's mum, who was brought up in the area, yielded translations of old Dorset dialect, where ollerod is the Dorset word for cowslip, the delicate yellow flower that was once a common plant in hay meadows.
Changing the perception of the hotel to their new vision meant getting the word out there about the newly named Ollerod, but without a huge budget. First came the creation of a brand identity, and here Staines and Bandini enlisted help from Studio Bowden in Hastings, which executed the website design, logo and brand image. The simple colour palette of sage green gives a feeling of calm, solidity and assurance without gimmicks, a feeling matched by the interior design of the hotel.
"We want the locals coming in for a drink, a cup of coffee, maybe a couple of small plates"
One particular aspect of the hotel's remodelling that has been an intrinsic part of the marketing strategy is the bar. Many of the interior design ideas have come from Bandini, but local company Partners in Design played a prominent role in creating the bar and restaurant areas, key elements in tempting in guests to view the refurbishment.
Staines says: "There is a perception in the UK that you can't come into a hotel unless you are a resident or coming for dinner."
Bandini adds: "We want the locals coming in for a drink, a cup of coffee, maybe a couple of small plates. We need to get people through the door to feel the difference, to see it is an inviting place."
The new bar has proven to be a success and is well-used by residents and non-residents alike. On a Thursday evening the local book club meet there, often enjoying a cocktail and some small plates – exactly the kind of business the hotel wants to encourage. Wet sales have increased dramatically, with August's sales rising from £9,382 in 2017 to £20,878 after the new bar was created in 2018. Figures have only settled slightly in 2019 to £18,267.
The official relaunch of the hotel came in July 2018, just four months after the purchase was completed. A garden party marked the occasion, with live music, canapés and drinks, an event that also attracted some solid media coverage.
Facebook and Instagram have played their part in marketing, but more traditional forms of media have been equally important and Bandini believes the social platforms will play a less significant role in future.
Events such as wine dinners, barbecue Sundays, art exhibitions, supper clubs and the ‘Faulty Towers dining experience' have formed another significant strand of the multi-faceted marketing package. The idea for a Christmas market in December 2018 came out of the blue, but proved to be hugely successful, where a carefully curated selection of local traders, festive food from Staines and mulled wine drew in more than 300 people, which was improved upon this festive season.
Last year's Christmas bookings are evidence of the couple's success. "From December 2018 to December 2019 it's like a different business," Staines says. "By September last year all the rooms had been sold and lunch on Christmas day was fully booked." Bandini adds: "We hadn't even finalised the Christmas lunch menu before filling that service. It shows how much trust people have in Chris's food."
Despite this, overall trading is difficult – much as it is currently for much of the hospitality industry – but the couple are optimistic about the future. Falling short of forecasts has caused some frustration in that the programme of room refurbishment has been delayed, which in turn has meant that the pair aren't ready to take on a PR company and push for wider publicity. They are currently exploring the idea of outside investment, which would allow them to complete the refurbishments in a shorter period of time.
In the meantime, they are still working on transforming the hotel, and have recently converted one small bedroom into a treatment room, built an outdoor kitchen with a barbecue and pizza oven and are working on a series of events for this year.
Add to this the recent plethora of awards for food and bedrooms, including an excellent review in the latest The Good Food Guide, and it is clear that having the right career experience, tenacity and a real empathy with their customers is, and will continue, to drive this business forward.
Facts and figures
The Ollerod, 3 Prout Bridge, Beaminster, Dorset DT8 3AY
Covers 40-cover restaurant and 30-cover function space
Facilities Lounge and bar, treatment room, walled garden
Occupancy rate 65%
Staff Tim Spiller, operations manager, Andrew Taylor, sous chef
Awards Four AA stars; The Sunday Times Top 100 Places to Stay 2019; The Guardian 50 of the best hotels and B&Bs in the UK; Dorset Tourism Awards Restaurant of the Year; Dorset magazine Food and Farming Awards Chef of the Year; finalist in the Trencherman's Best Hotel award
Chris Staines and Silvana Bandini
Both Chris Staines and Silvana Bandini are long-serving industry professionals with impressive CVs.
Staines has worked as a chef all his life, starting aged 12 with a part-time washing-up job. He went on to attend West Suffolk College before a summer stint at Llangoed Hall led to full-time work at the hotel. Next came Lucknam Park, two and a half years at Chez Nico, rising from commis to junior sous, followed by two years at Marco Pierre White's three-Michelin-starred Oak Room.
From there Staines took on the role of head chef at Foliage in London's Mandarin Oriental hotel (now Dinner by Heston Blumenthal), where he held a Michelin star for seven years.
An executive chef role at Heckfield Place came next, followed by a critical and calculated move to the Abbey hotel in Bath as chef-patron and director, working with renowned hoteliers Ian and Christa Taylor.
Bandini's CV is no less impressive. She was born in South Africa and when it came to choosing her career, she made a last-minute change of direction and instead of studying law chose hotel school. Her Italian roots and a father who owns a highly successful cheese manufacturing business shed some light on her motivation.
After graduating from hotel school in Johannesburg, she took on a role with hotel management software company Micros-Fidelio, which ultimately led to a move to the UK in 2007. She spent a year at the Bath Priory before being offered the position of assistant general manager at the Pig near Bath.
An obvious draw and a key part of the hotel's offer is Staines' cooking; expertly executed classical techniques are mixed with Asian flavours, and one of his real skills as a chef is to balance complex tastes.
The menu offer is extensive, with à la carte, set lunch, small plates, a vegan menu and children's menu. The à la carte has four choices at each course, plus sides and cheese, with a typical three-course meal coming in at a very reasonable £42.
The menu changes with the seasons and Staines reacts to the availability of ingredients from his suppliers.
From the menu
- Whole grilled giant prawns with saffron aïoli
- Char siu pork belly bao, pickled red onion, peanuts and fried shallots
- Prawn and garlic chive fritters with sriracha mayonnaise
- Tartare of yellowfin tuna, foie gras and ponzu dressing, pickled white radish and wasabi ice-cream
- Roast haunch of venison, braised red cabbage, crispy polenta, king oyster mushrooms and sloe gin sauce
- Bitter chocolate delice, cacao nib ice-cream, mandarins and chocolate tuile
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