For Andrew Stembridge, becoming managing director at Chewton Glen two-and-a-half years ago wasn't so much a new start as returning to familiar territory. The 34-year-old Scot had already worked as operations director at the renowned five-star country house hotel in New Milton, Hampshire, and when the opportunity arose to take over the reins, he jumped at the chance.
"Over the years, a lot of people have looked to Chewton Glen for inspiration because it has set something of a benchmark in the industry, so I feel very lucky," says Stembridge, as we settle into a couple of leather club chairs in the cosy hotel bar. "I think one of the reasons it's successful is that we never feel we've arrived - we are constantly looking ahead."
It's also about reputation. Celebrating its 40th birthday this month, Chewton Glen has come to represent something of a benchmark in the industry, growing from an eight-bedroom property to a luxury 58-bedroom hotel and spa, thanks to a continual programme of reinvestment by owner and founder Martin Skan. It has also notched up almost every award and accolade going, and the hotel has had only four general managers since it opened, including hoteliers Robin Hutson and Peter Crome.
Equally, Stembridge brings an impressive pedigree of his own to the job, including stints working for Ken McCulloch, firstly at boutique property One Devonshire Gardens and then at the inaugural Malmaison hotel in Edinburgh, not to mention opening the brand new Scotsman hotel in Edinburgh at the tender age of 30.
"I learnt a lot from Ken and he taught me attention to detail like no one else," says Stembridge, recalling occasions when McCulloch, driving past the hotel, would phone up reception if the window blinds weren't pulled down to an exactly matching level.
Now fully settled in at Chewton Glen, Stembridge has been developing his own management style. He's happy to be hands-on - "I can do pretty much everything in the hotel, except maybe the massages," he jokes - but rather than hover in the background, he prefers to allow his staff to make their own decisions. "If you're always there to bail people out, they don't focus on solving the problem themselves. It's important to encourage people to grow."
Stembridge also likes to have a direct dialogue with his staff. For that reason, he has introduced regular innovation sessions where all levels of staff are encouraged to come up with creative ideas for the hotel. "It's a chance for everyone to get involved," he says. "For example, one idea we've taken on board is to provide free internet access in the staff restaurant, which is great for overseas staff who want to check e-mails."
Monthly management meetings are another new idea he has introduced. Each head of department takes turns to present a business breakdown of what they have achieved in the month. "I want people to feel as if they're running their own business, so it's really about getting them to understand that," Stembridge says. "We try to hold it in a different venue each time, because it helps to keep things interesting."
One recent meeting was held in the health club's dance studio, with staff sitting on exercise balls, with smoothies taking the place of the usual teas and coffees. Another meeting had a football theme. So far, it's going well and feedback from staff has been positive, he says. "Most meetings can be so boring and you're lucky if everyone shows up. But we get 100% attendance. It's all about communication and sharing ideas and everybody can get involved with different parts of the business. After all, when would the head chef ever normally go to the dance studio?"
For Stembridge, it's all about creating a consistent level of standards in the hotel. A forthcoming leadership programme for senior staff will aim to do just that by ensuring everybody has had the same training in areas such as communication. "I think that nowadays, being consistent is the biggest issue facing any hotelier or restaurateur," he says. "I want to know that all our managers manage, not in an identical way, but in a consistently high-standard manner."
He also expects his people to be accountable. "For that reason, I prefer a lean team. That way, it's less likely that people will pass the buck, either upwards or downwards."
Aside from management issues, Stembridge is also upfront about his ambitions for the hotel. "Our traditional market is getting older every year, so it's essential we attract a more youthful audience to the hotel and that means, to some extent, throwing the rule book in the bin,"
A more relaxed dress code, for example, means that jeans are now allowed in the restaurant - and although that might affect only a few guests, Stembridge believes in making the hotel more user-friendly for everyone. "The last thing people want is a load of dos and don'ts when they come to stay," he says.
Nevertheless, Chewton Glen's style is very much in the traditional country house hotel bracket. Does that make it harder to appeal to a younger market? Stembridge doesn't think so. "We've never set out to make our rooms to be groundbreaking," he says. "It has always been more about comfort and functionality. But by adding modern technology - we have plasma screens in every room, for example - you can create a contemporary feel without being super-trendy, which, let's face it, can wear out quickly."
The strategy seems to be paying off. Guest feedback forms reveal that more than half of new guests are aged between 30 and 44. "To be honest, that surprised me," he says. "But it's possible people have tried the funkier hotels and been a bit disappointed with the service. After all, not everyone wants to be called by their first name or have waiting staff sit down next to you when you order, and I think if you're paying a lot of money, you expect to be looked after. It's not about being stuffy - it's about polish."
Reinvestment, rather than redesign, continues to be a priority. Last year saw a £3.5m investment into the spa, as well the installation of a bespoke induction range for the kitchen and a total refurbishment of the hotel's meeting areas.
Investing large sums obviously isn't without its risks, however. "People thought the Skans were mad to build a health club in 1990 because it was relatively unheard of," Stembridge says. "Then borrowing rates rocketed. It was a tough time for the hotel, but it did mean we were in a strong position after the recession because we were an all-year-round resort."
However, Stembridge is more than aware that simply sitting back and expecting the bookings to roll in won't wash in today's competitive market. He has employed a revenue manager and sales forecast meetings are now a regular fixture. "I enjoy bringing that commercial focus to the hotel," he says. "It's not about waiting for the phone to ring. We want to offer the right packages to the right people through the right channels."
Currently, annual occupancy lies at 70%, with repeat business forming a healthy two-thirds of that. More than one-third of bookings come from a growing incentive trade, which he hopes to expand further. "Our weekends are full throughout the year and there are only so many leisure travellers prepared to stay on a rainy Tuesday, so to grow, we need to focus on midweek business."
As for the potential of international markets, Stembridge declares himself as "sitting on the fence", particularly with Russia, the hope of many hoteliers at the high-spend level. "The effort we've put in so far is only just starting to pay off," he says. "But as 85% of our guests are from the UK, I think you have to be careful not to spend disproportionate amounts of time and money trying to generate new markets when you've got a strong one sitting right in front of you."
On the issue of taking children, Stembridge is also cautious. But he gives a respectful nod towards Calcot Manor and what it has achieved as a family-friendly hotel. "It's slightly different for us, because although children are a definite growth area, and we've recently started taking under-fives during certain holidays in the year, we just don't have the right kind of property to be completely child-friendly for every age group."
But that might be set to change. Future plans include building 21 lodges, complete with family facilities, and a second, brasserie-style restaurant in the grounds surrounding the hotel. It's only in the early planning stages, but Stembridge is excited about the idea.
He also outlines the possibility of extending the existing nine-hole golf course to develop a golf academy, though he is quick to point out that Chewton Glen will never become a golf hotel. "It's more about diversifying, using the land effectively and bringing in an additional income stream to make the business more efficient," he explains.
As for Stembridge himself, his ambition to become a general manager at 30 has been ticked off the list, so what's next for him? "Well, during stressful moments I do have dreams of running a pub," he jokes. "But no, seriously, I've got no desire to move anywhere else for at least five years. I'd really like to get the golf academy and the lodges, so I think there's more than enough for me to get my teeth into here."
Born: Edinburgh 1971.
Married with one son.
Training: BA honours degree in hotel management and tourism, University of Strathclyde. Won a scholarship to take the General Manager's Programme at Cornell University in the USA.
Career: In 1993, he became front-of-house manager at Ken McCulloch's One Devonshire Gardens hotel in Glasgow before moving to the first Malmaison hotel in Edinburgh as food and beverage manager a year later. In 1995, he moved to the USA to become assistant manager at the five-star Relais & Château Blantyre hotel in Lenox, Massachusetts. Once back in the UK, he was appointed operations manager at Chewton Glen, working under Peter Crome, before becoming general manager of the new Scotsman hotel in 2001. In October 2003, he returned to Chewton Glen as managing director.
Tips from the top
- Have eyes everywhere. Involve your entire management team in checking your product. Remember they'll see far more by lying in a bath, on a bed or sitting in the restaurant than walking round with a clipboard.
- Make time every day to speak to staff and guests. This gives you a far better understanding of how your business is performing than waiting for the mystery guest report or monthly management accounts. And you'll be respected far more if you're seen by your team.
- Meetings are for making decisions. Have a clear communications strategy and stick to it. For quick meetings, stand up instead of sitting to help keep to time.
- Always innovate. Often your team have the best ideas to reduce costs or improve your product or service. Involve them and reward them.
- Avoid sending e-mails all the time. Pick up the phone or go and see your staff in person whenever possible.
- Take time out. Being too close to the business can be dangerous. Visit other hotels, restaurants or spas to come back with a healthier mind or a fresh appetite for tackling challenges.
- Use the network. There are some amazing people in the industry who are willing to help or share ideas. We could all save a lot of time, energy and money if we consulted each other more.
Chewton glen at a glance
Opened: January 1966
Owners: Martin and Brigitte Skan
Bedrooms: 59, including 23 suites
Leisure: award-winning spa with 10 treatment rooms, indoor and outdoor tennis, nine-hole golf course
Restaurant: the three-AA-rosette, 120-seat Marryat restaurant
Head chef: Luke Matthews
Rooms start at: £205
Andrew Stembridge's favourite country house hotels
Sheenfalls Lodge, Kenmare, Ireland "A beautiful setting and good food, but it was the staff that made it for me. They're so welcoming; you're just allowed to relax and enjoy. It's that magic minute of welcome when you know you're going to be looked after. That's so important."
Whatley Manor, Malmesbury, Wiltshire "They're just starting out but have achieved a lot so far. Again, the location is great and the rooms are fantastically well done. It's a young management team and I have a lot of admiration for what they're doing. It's a very strong product."
Calcot Manor, Tetbury, Gloucestershire "They've been very clever, both in developing their business and seeking out new markets. They're light years ahead in that sense because they've been extremely innovative. It was also the best holiday experience I've ever had as a parent."