Ellenborough Park GM Oliver Williams: My first year at the top

ellenborough-at-dusk

Just ten months into his debut GM role, Oliver Williams at Ellenborough Park is fired up and raring to go. With big plans in the pipeline and a solid hospitality background standing him in good stead, Williams is ready to ramp up the profile of the 60-bedroom boutique and take the property from steady to showstopper.

Ellenborough Park is a familiar name in the industry, but, as new general manager Oliver Williams stresses, how much do we really know about the luxury hotel on the cusp of the Cotswolds?

Eight months into his new role, which marks his first as GM, Williams is striving to put the 60-bedroom boutique on the map and cement its status as one of the finest in the ever-competitive picturesque region.

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Five years ago Ellenborough Park opened after an extensive restoration project that began in early 2008 when it was acquired by new owners. Nina Campbell was brought in to bring new life to the bedrooms and Williams was recruited from Limewood, where he spent four years perfecting the art of hospitality.

The hotel is also under the remit of management company Michels & Taylor, which works out nicely for Williams in terms of support and advice, aside from the day-to-day operations.

While Ellenborough Park is a beauty to look at and has all the ingredients there to make it a success – 60 well-sized bedrooms, a picture-postcard location on the edge of Cheltenham Racecourse, plus a spa and two restaurants – now Williams wants to really put the property on the map.

“The building, the location, the size of it, the facilities are all very attractive,” explains Williams, “but it was clear that the business had come on a bit of a journey and had faulted a bit recently and it had now been righted and it was stable and ready for another boost of energy.”

The team has been refined and business strategies are being finalised; Ellenborough Park is firing from all cylinders and Williams is poised over the starting gun. We sat down with him to discover exactly what plans are top of his agenda as he nears the completion of his first year as head honcho.

How did you feel coming to the hotel to start your first job as general manager?

I was really excited and a bit nervous. I was approached for the job through an agent, it didn’t take much convincing – I was ready to move – probably 12 months before I did. It got to the stage where I’d been there (Limewood) for five years and needed to make a decision as I knew nothing else was going to open up ahead of me. This came up and I looked at it and wanted a GM’s role – I enjoy being in charge and I enjoy being where the buck stops.

I believed in the owners as well, I trusted them and liked them and so far it’s been great, we have a really good base. There is a lot of opportunity and potential that is just sat there waiting to be unlocked in terms of profile, growth and standards and markets that haven’t been tapped into. It’s very much a blank canvas – it’s not a relaunch, but it’s close.

We are on a journey to make our standards better – we have a fantastic team, they were here when I arrived and they’ve been great, which I was worried about. They are really passionate and they know what they want to do they just need help getting there.

How’s business been in the last eight months since you joined?

July was the best month we’ve ever had since the day we opened.

We’ve had a bit of a boost since the referendum, from in bound, domestic and overseas tourists.

I think we’ve done a lot of marketing , PR and profile work since I’ve arrived. We are getting a good amount of press at the right level and we have big ambitions for that too. We’ve done a lot of work with journalists and bloggers and we are very open and accessible to anyone who wants to visit and write about us, which previously wasn’t happening.

I only knew a tiny amount about it before I came here and it’s a great story. It is a stunning building, loads of history, only five years old and with massive potential, not to mention the investment of £13m.

What was your plan of action when you first came on board?

I had quite a clear idea of what I wanted to do. Having been and stayed too, I thought I had a good radar for the business. You could see what was lacking immediately and then it was fairly straightforward to see right what can we do with this now, what’s the first two months, six months, two years, going to look like.

I sometimes tend to barrel into things a bit, I try and pace myself but I’ve always got on with stuff quite quickly. I arrived just before Christmas so in my first three months I’d done Christmas, which is one of the busiest times of year, January, which is one of the quietest and Race Week in March. We have direct access to the racecourse as well.

Within that time I’d seen all facets of the business which was really good. Oddly our financial year July to June, so when it came to writing the budget I’d seen six months of business so I was in a reasonably good position and knew what to expect.

What have been some of the challenges you’ve had to face?

The profile is probably the biggest challenge; it’s a bit of a hangover mentality. The hotel had gone through a period of austerity and come out the other side of it. But nobody had told them that. Things were bad for a bit, but then the problems were fixed so move forward – it doesn’t mean that we pull the plug, means if we have a problem, let’s find the solution. If that means buying a piece of equipment of employing someone then let’s just do it. It was about allowing the heads of departments the freedom to make decisions that they hadn’t really done before. It was clear within a few months that, because of the struggles the hotel had had that there was no direction, no plan, no strategy, no vision, so we did some work on that early on.

Have you had to recruit anybody new and how has that been?

Recruitment is a nightmare, as it is with everybody who I speak to, whether they are based in a town or the country and I don’t get why it’s so difficult; you just need to be pleasant, have common sense and be ready to work hard and the rest is straight forward. It does astonish me.

I recruited my deputy while I was serving my notice at Limewood – he was from Careys Manor and started two weeks before me. And we had quite a few changes and new people come into business leadership, and now it’s really energetic and lively.

Going through a difficult period at the moment as we are a lot busier than we thought we would be. It’s great because the business is growing, but we’ve grown a bit fastest than we expected and still struggling to recruit.

How are you looking to position the hotel now?

 There is loads going on in Cheltenham all the time and we want to make the most of this. There has been a lot more energy going into tourism developments too, so the regional tourism boards have improved.

A lot of the agenda for the last six months has just been talking openly about what we do.

We don’t want to over expose ourselves but in the right pieces and the right places.

We are doing a lot of local engagement stuff, through supporting local events, partnering up with the festivities, working closely with the racecourse. It’s about being a bit more creative and laidback – not inappropriately cool and quirky, but accessible and challenge a few assumptions.

Who do you see as your main competitors?

Locally, not much at all; nobody else in the immediate vicinity does what we do. Obviously there are people who sell bedrooms, but not many people trying to sell the experience that we are. In terms of what we look at in terms of competition, is down to the destination, so it could be anywhere in the UK. So if you’re going to leave London for the weekend where are you going to go?

We consider Limewood, Luckham Park, The Pigs. Those are who I’d like to be our competition and I’d like to be there’s too. We’ve got a while to go, and we are very aware of that.

There are a lot of options within two hours of London and that’s who we should look at in terms of competition.

What are your plans now for the hotel?

For now, we will carry on how we are. We’ve got a nice bit of growth forecast for this year which we’ve budgeted for and we are reasonably confident in – had a strong first quarter. Now it’s about rally trying to re-establish those luxury five star standards, trying to increase value for guests in terms of the experience and then we can enhance our rate.

We’ve got big plans for next year. We are going to redo the ground floor; we already have initial plans for that, so the concept is ready to go. We will move the front door, reception, re-dress all the rooms on the ground floor, plus change the restaurant concept and go from two restaurants to one.

We have the brasserie and the 3 AA Rosette fine dining restaurant (headed up by executive chef David Kelman) at the moment, so we aim to pitch the new one somewhere in between the two.

We are self funding it too, we aren’t building it around a budget the money has come from the business. We hope that will happen next year.

The bedrooms are five years old so the general upkeep is ongoing, but in terms of investment in rooms, not this year. I’d like to update the technology we’ve got.

We have a milestone in terms of operating profit which we are hoping to reach this year. Then the next project will be the ground floor and then after that, we’ll see!

There are a couple of things we want to look at, including our spa offering. Plus, maybe even a new build, but planning permission is tough! We own land surrounding us, but it would have to be something pretty special to get the go ahead.

I’ve got two more years of operating the business to get it to where I think it should be and can be. And then see if there is more journey to go on, then I’ll continue; I’d like to think my future lies with the owners or management company one way or another because I think there are a lot of opportunities there.

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