Michele Mella landed his first GM position ‘covering’ the role of the launch of Barnsley House until a suitable person was hired. The owners quickly knew they’d struck gold when Mella and the luxury country bolthole became a match made in heaven. Zoe Monk sat down with the charismatic manager to find out about his journey and what it’s like to be part of the Calcot Collection, a group of five-strong luxury properties, that is dominating the Cotswolds.
Michele Mella started out his hospitality career a world away from the cosy front lounge at Barnsley House I found myself sat in for our chat. With roaring fire and windows looking out to the pretty hand-pruned gardens outside, it’s nothing like the bright lights of London where Mella first found his feet. With more than 25 years in the hotel sector, he started out as a room service attendant at Claridges, before moving on to The Dorchester to take up a very similar role.
Working at two of the most prestigious hotels in the capital – which at that time were real institutions with the Savoy Group’s chairman Sir Hugh Wontner living in a suite at the top floor of Claridges – he would be on hand 12 hours a day to help with luggage, room service and guests’ requests of any kind; nothing was too much trouble.
It was a position that opened his eyes to the habits and demands of some very high profile guests – he even looked after Nelson Mandela and a whole host of US presidents as well as worldwide royalty – but also allowed him to perfect his art of hospitality down to a tee.
He says: “I think that helped me to put things into perspective– if you are a human being, you look after people, if you are passionate about the industry, it doesn’t matter who it is, I do it because I want to do it.”
While this background stood him in good stead for a long and illustrious career in the capital, it was only when he uprooted and moved to the Cotswolds to join Calcot Manor that Mella really felt he had found his niche. Free of the constraints of a bigger, more corporate company, he was able to bring to life his charismatic character and deliver an experience that was a lot more relaxed.
“Sometimes in bigger companies your personality can be a little bit stifled by the rules and there is a more regimented approach to hospitality which is expected – so I like to think I’ve found my place in country house hotels here. Once people get to know me, I’m all hugs and kisses – you can’t really do that in the Dorchester or Claridge’s!” he chuckles.
Mella joined Calcot in 1998 and by then the property was already almost 20 years old, but with just eight bedrooms and a small 30-cover restaurant it had a long way to go. While it ticked all the boxes for a traditional country house hotel but it was only in the late 80s and early 90s, that Calcot Manor’s proposition started to really establish itself.
The luxury hotel, situated in 220 acres of pictures Cotswolds meadowland, was finding increased fame with the family market, and it made sense for this to be developed into the real USP for Calcot Manor. Now the 14th century country house comprises of 35 bedrooms, a restaurant, pub, spa, leisure centre and a crèche and has become one of the top family friendly hotels in the UK.
Mella was a driver of this growth, moving up the ranks between various senior management positions, before settling on deputy general manager. He explains that despite the success of Calcot Manor, the owners were never out to seek rapid expansion and that a second property would come as a result of natural growth for the company. When Calcot Manor was deemed as a ‘completed’ project and firmly established on the right track, it was then that thoughts turn to new acquisitions.
Mella explains: “We love hospitality, we love hotels, we love good food and good wine and the desire to expand came out of joy of what we are doing. We always felt that if Calcot as a project couldn’t get any further in terms of expansion then we’d start looking at other properties.
“One thing we really love is iconic, old historic buildings and that’s what we really find attractive in potential propositions. So when Barnsley came on the market we thought ‘wow’.”
In 2009, the owners of Calcot Manor knew they’d struck gold when they acquired Barnsley House, former home of garden designer Rosemary Verey. It was a competitive bidding process with a few parties interested in purchasing the hotel, that came onto market after the owners had fallen into a state of financial difficulty.
After winning the bid, they inherited a building that was already magnificent and had so much potential to be a huge success; it just needed refining in terms of business structure and market repositioning. Barnsley House stayed opened throughout the changeover period and what followed was a 24-month phased renovation process that saw all the bedrooms, public areas, and restaurant updated.
Barnsley House was already home to the bolthole spa and cinema, which had opened about eight years, when the Calcot Collection stepped in, operating the main house, plus three bedrooms in the courtyard with further bedrooms coming on later. This is where Mella says the previous owners may have financially overstretched themselves.
“The bulk of the work the previous owners did was exceptionally good,” Mella says, “but perhaps it was a little too urban and masculine to be in-keeping with the country house hotel model, so we softened it up a bit. We moved the reception downstairs too and doubled the lounge space this way.”
Given Barnsley House’s extensive history, the building needs constant upkeep and Mella is conscious that the old property requires lots of TLC to meet customer expectations that are rising all the time.
“This year we redone the kitchen and we are on average do three full bedrooms and bathrooms every year, so it’s an ongoing process. It takes lots of looking after, but it adds charm and flavour and makes it exciting.”
Both Calcot Manor, Barnsley House – and newest property The Painswick – have all been designed by Nicky Farquhar, who has a genuine love for the hotels. Having worked with the businesses for a number of years, she has developed a broad understanding of the importance of practicality going hand in hand with good design.
“We occasionally see in business that design can take over from practicality and the end product is pleasing to the eye but as a guest, you come in asking lots of questions,” says Mella. “Nicky’s rule of thumb is simple; if it’s good enough for my hotels then it’s good enough for my house and vice versa.”
Luck would have it
With an infectious love for his job, you cannot imagine Barnsley House without Mella. But it was never officially in the plans that he would head up the 18-bed boutique hotel. Richard Ball, chairman of the Calcot Collection asked Mella to go and oversee the launch of Barnsley House ‘just for a few weeks’, and he hasn’t been back to Calcot since; the owners had a lot of confidence in him to run their newest venture and do it justice.
“I always see myself as a very lucky general manager; I didn’t have to apply for the job – your first GM position is always a big thing and I wasn’t interviewed, all they did was bought me a hotel, so I can’t complain!” He laughs.
He now sits on the board of directors, but stresses that this doesn’t mean they all sit idle in their offices; each member of the team has a genuine love for the properties and takes a real interest in every aspect of the business.
“Having our owners being so respectful of the work we do on the floor is so important and they totally respect our opinions; we are a really close tight knit team with lots of years of experience and we project manage well and can be really open with it all too.”
So now with Calcot Manor and Barnsley House operating at really high levels, focus turns to fine tuning each offering to ensure the properties are well-established slick hotel businesses.
“I think it’s important to differentiate yourself – having an identity and knowing where you belong; we are stereotypically country and we are not gentrified in any way to detract from the whole experience,” explains Mella.
As a Londoner myself, Barnsley House offers a retreat that is so far away from my everyday life that it’s enormously refreshing, and this is something that Mella says the majority of his guests are looking for, and something that Barnsley really has over its competitors.
“Mainly we see a large majority of London-based professionals who want to get out of the city – you walk outside here and you can hear cows and you experience the real peace and quiet of the countryside.
“Nowadays when people travel, you try to detached yourself from everyday living, to be taken into a comfort zone but where you can also experience something real, but a bit different from what you do every day.”
Alongside the rise in more general guest expectations that means even hotels at the top of their game like Barnsley and Calcot cannot get complacent, Mella says that it’s the younger generations who really take more of interest in the origins of their hotel experience as a whole.
“I feel younger generations are hungry to learn – if you asked me 10 years ago, guests would’ve come here to just sit by the fire, use the spa, eat in the restaurant, but now they want to know a little bit more what the spa is about, the food they are eating, the best local landmarks; they are eager and interested in knowledge.
“A lot of it is down to the past of life – we are no longer passive travellers, we want to know what things stand for and businesses are adapting as a result. Interaction between staff and guests plays a major part in that too.”
Even before the tidal wave that was Soho Farmhouse hit the Cotswolds, the region was a competitive place to run a hotel. With the likes of Dormy House, Cotswold House and Lower Slaughter Manor all calling the Cotswolds home, how does Mella thinks its impacts business at Calcot and Barnsley and how do they set themselves apart?
He says: “We get really excited by competition – partly because we are nosey! – but I always feel in business that where there is competition, there is a vibrant market, so if you believe in what you do and deliver than there is nothing to fear.
“Also there is something to be said about the indirect marketing exposure you receive by other people putting a lot of money into marketing a new place; I can guarantee when you as a customer are hearing about a new hotel opening 20 miles from here, you will look at that, and then you’ll look at what other hotels are near in the area -we all do it. Before you know it, people start benchmarking you against the new place. I think there is never any harm in having new competitors come into the area. If you have people raising the game, it keeps you on your toes – I also think you mustn’t underestimate the cross-marketing. The area gets more publicity and if you’re up there, you’ll benefit from that.
The more luxury boutique hotels helping to put the Cotswolds firmly on the map not only brings more visitors to the area, but also makes the region a lot more attractive to potential employees who can bring a new set of expertise to the area.
But what about these new properties pinching staff? Mella lost five of his senior managers at Barnsley House in the space of three months last year, with four of them going to work for Soho Farmhouse, which was challenging to say the least. How did Mella react? He was flattered.
“Yes that was tough, but I also saw it as quite a compliment; if someone like Soho House is happy to take on my managers then we must be doing something right! Luckily we had lots of people underneath them who grew up into their roles and who have done exceptionally well.”
The time is right
Calcot Collection has proved that slow and steady is right way to approach expansion, especially for a brand that is based on high quality, relaxed top-notch hospitality. Due to its size, flagship property Calcot Manor can cater for a wider variety of guests – the hotel is home to a leisure centre that has 800 members and numerous event spaces – while Barnsley House offers a more intimate getaway with a smaller spa and general footprint. A stone’s throw from Barnsley House is The Village Pub, also coming under the Calcot umbrella, which provides guests with a nice alternative to the hotel’s dining space.
Three years ago, the company acquired the Lord Creme Arms in Northumberland on a ten-year leasehold. Home to 21 bedrooms in a 15th century building, Calcot’s ‘little brother up north’ took a year and half to get off the ground and didn’t come without its challenges.
“It’s challenging as we are obviously based here and we’ve never had to manage a property that far away,” explains Mella, “but we love it! We’re a little bit like kids in a toy shop when we get a new project going!
“People ask me what industry we are in, and yes we are in hospitality but I think it has very strong links with the entertainment industry – we entertain people and make it fun; I am a true believer that if you’re excited about something it can become quite contagious!”
So now with five properties in the Calcot family – Barnsley House, Calcot Manor, The Village Pub, Lord Creme Arms and the newest property The Painswick – it’ll be interesting to see where the brand goes next. Ambitious expansion has never been part of the brand’s business plan and decisions are more based on feel, fit and natural evolution.
“Strategically we never set a target on where we want the company to be,” explains Mella, “if any opportunity came along we are very willing to sit down with our owners and bring it to them. We like to be self sufficient now – we like to purchase properties through a mixture of investment from the owners – but also with the profit that we make, if we can, we reinvest in the business or in buying a new property.
“But there has never been or there never will be, the case that we want to have, say, a multiple of ten in five years. We only take one project on at a time. Lord Crewe is now in its third year and so now was a good time to take on a new project,(The Painswick) we are also conscious that we don’t want to overstretch ourselves – we are hands-on operators and we want to stay that way.”