The general manager of Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, Raymond Blanc's luxury two-Michelin-starred country house hotel, tells Janet Harmer about the tricky task of improving on excellence
You have been at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons for just over a year now. How have you settled in?
Raymond and the team have given me every opportunity to understand the hotel, which is necessary as it is a complex operation.
What have been the highs and the lows?
The hotel has won a considerable number of awards, which says a great deal about the team. It is very humbling. Le Manoir was recently voted best restaurant in the UK and fourth best restaurant in the world by TripAdvisor.
Those awards mean a lot as they are decided from a combination of guest reviews. And, of course, we won the best food hotel in The Caterer's Top 100 Hotelier's Hotels 2016 [in association with Sky].
Competitions and awards help the team reach the highs - it is fantastic to see everyone strive to be their best. We don't always win, but taking part helps the team understand what is required.
There have not really been any lows, although I was sorry to see my number two, Paul Shanahan, leave to go to Gidleigh Park as general manager. But he was ready to move on and I wish him well.
Have you made any key changes at the hotel?
There is nothing that the guest would see, but we're working on some ideas. I probably have a different way of working than my predecessor [Philip Newman-Hall], but the outcome is the same. I arrived at a hotel that had two Michelin stars and a totally motivated team, so it would have been wrong for me to immediately start changing things. Le Manoir is already at the top of its game but I need to continue to strive for excellence for our guests. I have to be sensitive about what we do next, but if I can find little things to improve on, I will do it.
How do you go about growing and developing a hotel that is already performing so well?
My role is all about enabling others to excel by ensuring everything is in place so that they can be the very best - whether that's the building, the equipment or the attributes of the team. It is not about me at all. I'm the manager, but I'm not necessarily the one delivering the guest service every day, so I need to make sure the staff are empowered to meet the guests' expectations and make them feel pampered.
Are there any plans you can talk about?
We'll be refurbishing some of the bedrooms this year, as well as looking at enlarging the role of the garden. Le Manoir's garden is very important to us and our guests. We've almost completed our organic orchard, which covers 1.8 acres, and we are now getting a nice output of fruit [there are more than 100 varieties of apples and over 20 of pears]. We've concentrated on authentic varieties - the ones the supermarkets often ignore but are full of flavour.
We're experimenting with hand-pressing for juice and cider. We now always have a bowl of apples on the reception desk and the guests can help themselves. This introduces them to the varieties we grow and provides a talking point. It's little things like this that make a difference.
Another area we're looking at is our wine list - we want to move towards a more organic and biodynamic focus. This is something the team were working on before I arrived. It is not easy as there are not that many wines that meet the criteria, so we have reduced the number of wines on the list as a result. It is difficult to know whether we will ever be completely biodynamic as we must ensure we offer a very good list with choice of tastes and grape varieties. But it is Raymond's mission. Hence, our wine director, Arnaud Goubet, is a busy man at the moment.
How do you ensure the in-room experience remains relevant for guests and that you also surprise them - in a good way?
We listen to our guests, many of whom are well-travelled. We travel too: Raymond, for instance, has just returned from China and Singapore - and he always has ideas to share.
How important is in-room technology?
It is very important - we know by tracking how much television and what channels our guests watch. The majority want to watch the news and movies, so we offer the full Sky selection of channels. But in-room technology is a
moving goalpost. We are always looking at how we can improve what we offer, but we have to choose the right moment to change - you have to go with something that is a stayer, rather than a fad. The most important thing
for guests today is to be connected and that has to be done in a convenient and seamless way, so they spend as little effort as possible. That is the luxury - not five remote controls.
What were your thoughts on the UK voting for Brexit?
Well, I'm hoping it will benefit the country in the long run, as it already appears to be doing with regards to the devaluation of the pound. It is cheaper for overseas guests to come here and we saw that in the fantastic summer we had last year with the growth of visitors from abroad, which increased around 15% to 20% of our business. In particular, we are seeing more guests from China and the US.
How concerned are you with regards to employing European staff in the future?
We have just over 200 staff, 52% who are from within the EU. Nothing is going to happen overnight, but people will think twice about making a decision to come here and that is going to be challenging. So we're working more closely with British universities, such as Bournemouth, which delivers wonderful students. Also, as a company, Belmond is blessed with having a worldwide network of hotels and we have staff from the other properties who like to come and spend time here, particularly within food and beverage.
We as an industry have an obligation to educate and inform our audience that being in the service industry is a wonderful thing to do. In the past it has been difficult to get the industry to be taken seriously. We need people with emotional intelligence, which everyone has to some extent, but some have it more than others. This is something I would like to see recognised.
Le Manoir has a long-held philosophy on working sustainably. Do you have anynew initiatives?
We are working with a company called Mitie, which is helping us to look at how we can improve our composting and recycling, whether that is soap or food waste. We are looking at how everything can have a new purpose - we don't want to throw anything away. There can be a lot of waste in hotels, particularly in luxury hotels, but Raymond believes in sustainable luxury. Guests expect us to be at the forefront of improving the environmental footprint.
How are you looking to expand the business?
A couple of years ago we built a conservatory next to the private dining room, and it is very popular for celebratory events, which tend to be held over weekends. We are now expanding this for corporate business during the mid-week and ensuring we meet the needs of these guests by providing technology. We are in a great location - the fast train from London to Haddenham & Thame Parkway takes only 38 minutes and then we're a further 10 minutes by car. We also have a helicopter landing pad. It was something Le Manoir was already doing, but my experience in this area is helping us grow our business to a corporate audience.
Le Manoir has also rejoined the Oxfordshire Experience, the regional tourist board. It is important to co-operate with local support networks and it is useful to have a helping hand with overseas visitors, such as the increase in Chinese guests, who like to tie in lunch here with a shopping trip to nearby Bicester Village.
What personal qualities do you bring?
I think that is something you should ask the team! One thing I can do is put my ego to one side. I think the most important thing is to help the staff excel, be themselves and deliver the best possible service for the guests. People don't come here for me - they come for Raymond and the excellence of the team.
How would you describe your management technique?
I always appreciate and value the input of my team. I am here to make decisions, but I am always prepared to give the team an opportunity to add to the decision-making process to ensure they feel valued. I ensure the administrative part of the business enables Raymond and the team to concentrate on the food and gardens.
How different is the working environment between your last role in the Netherlands and the UK?
In the Netherlands it would be impolite to take a decision without the senior team being involved. If they were not, they would feel undervalued. Here, the team are happier to be spending more time with guests.
How has your extensive international experience helped you at Le Manoir?
It has enabled me to quickly adapt to the local culture, as well as understand the increasing number of different cultures who come to stay here. The Chinese, for instance, have a different way of interacting - for example, they are likely to get up and leave the table to take a phone call, even when dishes have already been served to them. We are also now providing more Asian flavours at breakfast.
While we want to offer the authentic experience of a British country house
hotel run by a French chef-patron, we also want breakfast to be an experience where they can do what they do at home.
How long do you expect to remain in the UK?
I have no doubt that I shall settle here for the foreseeable future. I chose to move here for Le Manoir and Raymond's enthusiasm and philosophy, and I believe I can help the team continue to excel and grow.
2015-present General manager, Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, Great Milton, Oxfordshire
2011-2015 General manager, ChÁ¢teau St Gerlach, near Maastricht, the Netherlands
2010-2011 Career break to travel in Africa with family and undertake consultancy projects
2008-2009 General manager, Sankara Nairobi & Angsana Spa, Nairobi, Kenya
2004-2008 Resident manager, director of sales and marketing, interim general manager, interim director of rooms, InterContinental Hotels & Resorts,
Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; and Amsterdam, Netherlands
1999-2004 Senior sales manager, Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group, New York, US
1997-1999 Sales manager, Okura Garden hotel, Shanghai, China
1991-1997 Hospitality degree with a major in marketing, Hotelschool, The Hague,