|by Barry Napier, May 2007
Keith bought his first hotel in 1988, the Idle Rocks in St Mawes, Cornwall, and extended it from 17 bedrooms to 27. He also added an adjoining period property, giving an extra 6 rooms. Managers told me that he can magically turn the oddest spaces into extra rooms. At one hotel, the Metropole in Padstow, there was a Victorian central servants’ stairway with a number of small broom cupboards. “Keith brilliantly saw potential. He removed the stairway, cleared the cupboards, and suddenly we had seven more rooms!” Rooms are added to each hotel he buys.
Five years later came the Beech Hill Hotel in the lovely Windermere area of Cumbria. This now has 57 beds. Three years after that came the Fowey hotel in Fowey, Cornwall, with 37 beds. Keith caught his breath for a while, before buying his next hotel in 2003, The Grand in Torquay. As with every other hotel, he managed to add more rooms. The Grand now has 131.
Hotel number five, the Metropole in Padstow (57 bedrooms), came in 2004, and then the Falmouth in Cornwall, in 2006. This was quickly followed, this year, by the addition of Eaves Hall in Clitheroe, Lancashire (34 beds).
Keith’s love of architecture led him to employ a team of architects and builders, who work exclusively for him. Between them they purchase run-down Georgian, Victorian or Edwardian buildings, and turn them into fine apartments or hotels (mainly four-star). Keith takes delight in saving these magnificent edifices from demolition or decline, and leads each new development personally, working like a dervish to ensure that details are just right. The result is accommodation in historically grand buildings, with interiors and rooms that are updated to complement the period of the hotel. This is what makes them essentially English, traditional yet modern.
The Grand Hotel, Torquay
This hotel is at the western end of Torquay, an imposing Edwardian building with magnificent sea views, plus a panoramic view of the curve of Torquay Bay and Torquay itself.
The Grand was “built on the first suitable seafront where the Great
Western Railway met the coast” back in the days when steam locomotives
made their debut. Torquay was only just developing into a resort town,
so the combination of rail and resort began a successful vacation destination
that has lasted to the present day. The railway station is opposite the
hotel, and is one of the most inconspicuous stations I have seen.
Originally the Great Western Hotel, it became The Grand in the late 1800’s and was extended in 1911. Such was its fame at the time, that the thriller-writer Agatha Christie spent her honeymoon there in 1914. Another extension was added in 1926, when central heating was installed… something very new for hotels.
A bomb-and-gas-proof shelter was installed in the basement in 1939 and this proved to be an essential marketing feature! After the war the hotel went into a period of fluctuating fortunes, so land was sold to enable it to be modernised. Keith Richardson has now restored the building. This involved ‘de-modernising’ to return it to its mainly Edwardian roots.
From my own perspective I can see a subtle mix of Edwardian and Victorian. And if you look to the top of the building in some parts, you see the influence of Middle European. Inside, rooms are of good proportion with high ceilings, completed to a fine standard, within the remit of ‘Edwardian’.
The entrance is large and modern, and there is immediate access to the lounge ahead, with tremendous views all around the Bay. Just off the reception area to the left is a spiral stairway down to the pool and leisure suite. A very large meetings room is immediately off the reception area. To the right of reception is a big restaurant, decorated to a high standard, with superb service to suit.
The elevator near Reception has traces of Art Deco, which can be glimpsed in a variety of locations around the hotel, and a magnificent Murano glass chandelier hangs beautifully down the stairwell from first floor to the lower leisure area.
As you would expect, the Hotel’s services and staff are thoroughly modern, and I was very impressed by one member of staff for his sheer professionalism. Only in the hotel industry for about six months, Ashley Hoare makes an excellent Assistant Manager. He looks the part and seems to have a good blend of authority & friendliness, but humility about his expertise. The other staff I found to be equally friendly and evidently well-versed in giving good service.
The welcome-tray items in my room were well chosen, and there was ample provision for making tea and coffee. Fresh fruit was in the room, a drinks mini-cooler, locally-made fudge, and a selection of mineral waters. Interestingly, cupboard space was conveniently outside the bedroom itself, and there was more than ample storage space for clothes, etc., plus a large safe.
My room had a small balcony, where I had my coffee, as I overlooked the swimming pool below. At night, the view is of Torquay’s twinkling lights.
The corridors and main staircases are wide, with plenty of pictures, some of which appear to be authentic original paintings of ships and the sea, as one old seadog (well he looked like one!) pointed out to me before he went into his own room. There is even a nicely decorated library leading off both a main corridor and the lounge. The whole hotel exudes space and airiness.
I just loved the room-service menu, too, though I didn’t need it after such a great dinner! The restaurant menu is both delicious and believable. It is believable because it has been pruned to reduce wastage and yet expertly chosen to give a superb eating experience. Beware menus that are extensive!
As Group Marketing Manager, Yvonne Scott, told me, “We are moving on. Consolidation is being done at a trot, as Keith pushes onwards. We are now considering the real direction of our hotels – do we want to become restaurants with hotels, or hotels with restaurants?”
Personally, I see their future in being restaurants with hotels, where excellent food is prominent. They already have a head-start from what I could see and the restaurant is already destined for a major face-lift. The end result will no doubt depend on which way the group intends moving. So long as the chain retains its English-ness, it should not go far wrong.
The Metropole, Padstow
About two hours to the west, you leave Torquay in Devon and get to Padstow, north Cornwall. The main roads are currently being widened, and new roads are being built, so Cornwall is not as remote as it used to be. (I preferred the remoteness, but it makes things easier for tourists).
Padstow is a well-sheltered cove, a working harbour with catches of
fish, crab and lobsters, coming in daily. Though a long-standing tourist
area in its own right, its fame is greatly enhanced by the presence of
Rick Stein, the celebrity chef. He has about eight businesses in this small
town, all accommodation and food related, except for one, which is a gift
shop. His famed Seafood Restaurant is in a building below the Metropole,
and used to be the granary for the Hotel. There are still two approaches
to one side of the hotel from the restaurant, one a narrow walkway to the
left of it, and the other a road going up the hill on its right, and then
left into the Hotel courtyard.
The Metropole is late Victorian in build, though it was completed in 1904, and its interior still has many of that period’s features. Its position on a slight hill is unrivalled in its views, and it has a lawned garden to the front. Local Cornish flowers hedge its roadside approach. It gained an extra seven beds when Keith Richardson roamed through the building with his eagle eye and vivid imagination, making space from the most surprising of unused areas.
Its sister hotel in Torquay is very open and sense of its Edwardian style is cleverly muted. At the Metropole, from outside to inside, it is Victorian. It has smaller but still spacious public areas, yet still looks Victorian and beautifully crafted. The front desk is smallish, as is the entrance foyer.
The General Manager, Andrew Jenkins, is genial and open and continually works on the hotel’s presentation. I must say that I liked him immensely. At the time of writing, he is opening up a long-hidden Victorian fireplace in the entrance hall, which will give a wonderful period look to visitors who come in winter, whose first sight will be that of a roaring log fire.
The Metropole was built and owned by the shipbuilding magnates, John Corey and Sons, based in South Wales, UK. However, the founder, John, was originally a shipmaster of Padstow in the mid 1800’s. When it was built, the Metropole (then called the South Western) was intended to be a family retreat for vacations. Not bad at a cost of £12,000/$24,000.
Why Padstow, when, at that time, the harbour town was very isolated? The family were relying on the completion of a railway link. When it finally came, with a direct line to London, a number of Members of Parliament were frequent visitors.
The Prince of Wales (before he became the ill-fated king) stayed in room six, and his valet and detective had rooms either side. (I stayed in room 9, so maybe his dog stayed in that one). The hotel had its own boat, which the Prince used to cross the River Camel, so that he could play golf. Though there are no written evidences (not a surprise), it seems that Mrs Simpson often stayed with the Prince at the Metropole.
In 1936 Trust House bought the building, making it a part of the mighty Forte group. Three years later, it was requisitioned by the Royal Navy and was an operational base for the duration of the war. In 1960 refurbishment was undertaken, and again later, when Keith Richardson bought it.
Left of the concierge is a large but compact room, used for a lounge and for group meetings and weddings, etc. To the right of the concierge is the smallish bar, leading to a glass-fronted conservatory lounge with tables. This has an amazing view of the harbour, which is literally below the garden. You can also see across the river to another of Keith’s hotels. Another quiet sitting area is off this conservatory.
Both lead to the restaurant, which is furnished to suitably complement the architectural features. It even has a large potted plant near the entrance that would not be amiss in a period TV series. Large windows allow a wide-angle view of the river, the opposite countryside, the harbour below and another section of harbour to the left. In the morning the restaurant is flooded with light, as you choose from a fairly extensive breakfast menu. Being four-star, the evening menu is excellent and very tasty. I have never eaten such delicious red pepper soup!
Andrew, the General Manager, told me that the Hotel has a restaurant rosette, as does Rick Stein’s famed Seafood Restaurant. This tells you just how good the Metropole restaurant really is. He also said that they will always try to offer alternatives to the menu if necessary. There is no stuffy, formal dress code and people can even elect to eat in other parts of the hotel. That’s called customer orientated service!
Locals eat at the Metropole, which is a good sign, and he says that visitors who come to try out Rick Stein’s eatery often end up eating at his hotel, and find the food just as excellent (if not with more variety).
I liked the Grand, but I also liked the Metropole, but for different reasons. Whereas the Grand had an expansive feel to it, because it was much bigger, the Metropole was cosier with a palpable link to its Victorian past, which appeals particularly to its American visitors.
Staff are what you should expect from a smaller hotel, and seem to be very friendly. Andrew is very friendly, leading by example, and offers his help with genuine concern and an easy-going but professional manner. I must say I liked him and his hotel.
My room had high ceilings, with furnishings fitted sympathetically to the Victorian space. There was plenty of cupboard space, with the usual items on the welcome tray. The bathroom was beautifully tiled, and had both a shower and bath. And, as with the Grand, I was glad to see that Richardson Hotels have not succumbed to the budget hotel idea of ‘service’ by providing pornographic TV channels! This reflects his family-value ideas, which I commend.
Keith Richardson is described as an aggressive entrepreneur with heart. His style does not suit everyone, but this might be because he keeps everyone on their toes! Even so, most of his top-layer staff have remained loyal to him, which says a great deal.
Keith is also described as “having his own approach” and being a bit of a renegade in the hotel business. He tends to buy what he likes the look of and just makes it into an hotel. Some staff feel he does not leave too much time to consolidate and that it is “like working for a Tasmanian devil”. But, in business, you can spend too much time at this task as other opportunities slip past you. His aim is simple – to buy up interesting architecture and to drive them upwards until they become luxury hotels.
To the consternation of some, Keith does not use diaries, but retains all the information in his head! I suppose that’s okay when he is directly available, but, as his business grows, he will probably have a need for something a little more, well, permanent. But, that’s his style, and it works.
As yet there is no branding, which I found surprising. On the other hand, each hotel is run by individual managers who put their own stamp on their particular outlet. Keith certainly holds the reins, but he also lets his managers get along as they see fit. Keith admits that he can’t please everyone in his company, but “I break a leg trying to reach my goals”. Then, everyone benefits.
His business is still at an organismic stage, growing and expanding vigorously, and so its management teams are equally dynamic – they have to be anyway, to keep up with the boss, who “has a magnetic personality”, pulling everyone else after him!
Keith is unusual in that he believes in two main things – professionalism and decency. I applaude him for this, in a time when I tend to feel cynical and jaded about businessmen and their dubious activities.
His hotels have good occupancy statistics, prices are favourable, and they all concentrate on good food. Possibly, his habit of sending all his chefs out to eat in other restaurants helps. He pays for everything and says “Go out and see how people eat. See what they like and dislike, and see if there is anything we can do.”
He keeps a tight control by monitoring figures and chasing up lost bookings, wanting to know why something does not work and what attracts. His targeting of client segments is very precise and accurate. He readily admits to making big mistakes, but he also goes out of his way to make sure he does not make the same ones again.
There are many businessmen who work along traditional lines. But Keith is a typical entrepreneur, so that places him in an unique category of people. By that I mean he is aggressive in pursuit of his goals and will leave no stone unturned to make them a reality. Everyone else must run to keep up, but that is the nature of enterprise. Like all entrepreneurs, he is successful, but he also makes big mistakes and can get frustrated. This, however, does not really bother him, because whilst others might get stuck on details, he continues to drive at breakneck speed to bring about his overall plan.
Thus, he is a passionate man with a big personality. He knows his skills are in figures and money control, so he leaves management to those who are experienced and skilled in hotels. Between them they are building a mightily interesting company, with hotels that are very English, yet plush with excellent food, in places that are themselves interesting.
Keith now has a beautiful large yacht, with a five-star rating, which he has added to his range of hotels. When it is not being used by customers, he uses it for his own relaxation. That is, when he is not up in the air with his new acquisition, a helicopter. I will be interested to see what happens when his hotel chain gets a bit bigger… will he brand his company? Or will he keep each hotel individual? One never knows with someone like Keith Richardson! He can sail very close to the wind – but that is what keeps everyone alive and active.
© Barry Napier
The Grand Hotel: email@example.com
The Metropole: firstname.lastname@example.org
|Also See:||What is the Difference Between a Five-star and a Six or Seven-star Hotel? / Barry Napier / April 2007|
|Jumeirah - Dreamers or Actualisers? / Barry Napier / April 2007|
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