ABTN speaks to Danny Pecorelli about 30 years of Exclusive Hotels, and what the next three decades are likely to bring.
Can you start by telling us about the history of Exclusive Hotels…
The first one was Pennyhill in Surrey, which we bought in 1981. Over the years we added South Lodge in West Sussex, Lainston House in Hampshire, and the Manor House in Wiltshire. Then there was a need to add leisure to hotels so we bought two golf courses – Mannings Heath Golf Club in West Sussex, and the Manor House Golf Club – and we built the spa at Pennyhill Park.
The market keeps evolving – you need leisure facilites and great food to make an individual property into a great destination. In the last five years we’ve bought Fanhams Hall in Hertfordshire and eight weeks ago we bought Royal Berkshire. They’re part of what we call our Venues brand. We’ve had such a loyal client base over the years, and our biggest reason for turning business away and not being able to accommodate people, especially small groups, has been rate, because our rates are top end of the market.
And Venues is aimed at a different market – MICE for example?
Yes. We developed a meetings and training package that isn’t five-star, it’s slightly more fun, quirky and relaxed. We have ice cream vans, and we bought a little tuk tuk with a coffee machine on the back so that people have their break-outs outside. We drive the tuk tuk up to them and serve them a latte. We also built a kareoke bar – we spent £200,000 on a full-blown thirty-seater kareoke bar, just to be a bit different.
So, now we’ve evolved and we’ve got the full-service core Exclusive brand and two hotels under the Venues brand. But they have similar features running through them. They are all listed or heritage buildings, and all at good strong locations. There are lots of grounds, and lots of similarities coming through, and the same staff attitude, in terms of service quality.
Your Dad founded Exclusive Hotels 30 years ago. How did you start out as a hotelier?
I deliberately went outside Exclusive Hotels to start with and did a bit of a DIY training programme. I worked at the Savoy in the Grill Room, both in the kitchen and front of house. I then went to the US and worked at a Sheraton in Washington DC – a huge 1500-bedroom conferencing hotel – in the sales and marketing department, which was fantastic. In those days the States was way ahead in terms of sales and marketing. I then worked for Four Seasons for a couple of years, on Park Lane.
I took the best bits of all of those, and got inspired by different bits within each of those properties. I then went into the family business and have been here for 20 years. After all this time, lots of people in the industry still tell me they used to work with my Dad, and that he was a tough boss!
Are you as tough a boss, or is your management style somewhat different?
I would say different… management has changed.
What do you think about staff today, especially the youngsters coming through?
We have quite young staff in some positions, and our retention is very strong. We work really hard to be a good employer. If you’re a good employer, you can attract good people. There are lots of good people out there.
I went to South Downs College a few weeks ago – we have a good relationship with them – and I sat at a dinner where all the second and third year teams cooked and served the meal. The quality was fantastic. You’re served by bright, young, bubbly people. Really enthusiastic. The cooking isn’t Michelin star, but you see the potential shining through. There are lots of people out there, and we sometimes do ourselves a dis-service in the industry by saying there aren’t. It’s up to us to encourage them with work placements. There are different avenues. If we support the colleges and other institutions, there are pipelines there.
One of the issues that I think as an industry we have is we’re not always good at retaining people because of some of those bad old practices. We do staff surveys every year to see how we’re doing with our staff. If you act on that feedback, and if you train, motivate and encourage people and promote from within, your retention is low so you need less new people coming in anyway. I think the future is a lot brighter than some people would say.
As an independent hotelier, do you worry about being able to attract those bright young stars? Are they more attracted by what chain hotels can offer?
No, I think it’s the opposite, especially with our chefs. We’ve got two Michelin starred chefs, and another who is tipped for two. What they like is they get that balance of a professional, well-run back-up organisation alongside the possibility for their independence, character and personality to shine through.
There’s a fit both ways. Some people want the big corporate machines, but other people want a good canvas and a background to promote them. I feel the independent hotels can give them a little bit more autonomy. There’s less of a brand stamp that they have to conform to. Part of our brand is that each of the properties have their own personality. The continuities of service and the quality of service mean there are certain brand feels, but it’s not a 300-page manual that says you have to do this and that.
What is it about the hotel industry that inspires you after all these years?
There’s a creativity. You’re creating experiences for people. When you get that right, there is nothing like it. Part of the fun is innovating different products – something we’ve had a real push on. We’ve built a bakery in Pennyhill Park with a huge glass window where we set up for coffee breaks for conference delegates. It means they literally see the croissants coming out of the oven and being put out for their coffee break. People get so engaged.
And at South Lodge we’ve built a restaurant called the Pass, with a really bright young chef called Matt Gillan who is tipped for great things. He is very talented. There are 28 seats, in the kitchen – it’s not a chef’s table, it’s actually a restaurant in the kitchen. We’re trying to push the physical product and the service is the buzz at the moment.
How have you seen the luxury model develop over the past 20 years?
It’s much more competitive today. There are a lot of fantastic properties out there. It’s become much more comprehensive in terms of the offering. Take dining, for example – many country house hotels these days have a high quality of food. The competition is high. Customers also have a huge amount of choice these days, which they didn’t used to. I think that’s good for them and good for us, because it keeps pushing the product forward.
The luxury market is constantly evolving. If you look at the conference requirements, the technology has improved massively, and we have to stay ahead of what the client wants. We’ve put 100MB leased lines into each property. Clients’ expectations change very quickly and you’ve got to stay ahead of that.
What’s next for Exclusive. What should we be looking out for in the coming 30 years?
We really want to grow the Venues brand and differentiate through that, the corporate training side especially. I feel that there are a lot of chain properties that deliver a very dull, sterile training environment and I think you can really engage the customer on that journey, as with any other journey. I think nobody’s really done that properly.
Many training spaces are soulless classroom with no windows and at the break’s there’s just stewed coffee. There’s nothing about it that inspires. You should be able to come out to a coffee break and think: “Wow, that’s fantastic! I’ve enjoyed the experience and it’s genuinely helped me in my work.”