Supermarket-chain iceland cofounder Peter Hinchcliffe and his wife Deborah embarked on their first hotel venture together two decades ago and now operate three properties under the Alexander Hotels umbrella. They say the secret to their success is getting along so well, in fact in our ‘mr and mrs’-type interview they didn’t disagree over anything except ‘who works the hardest?’ — each saying the other
Whose idea was it to open the first hotel?
Peter: We opened our first hotel in 1994. We had wanted to open a luxury spa and health club so we were looking for properties to convert into a destination spa, including hotel properties with a view to adding on and converting. Rowhill Grange came up on our radar and fitted the bill in that it was well located, had lovely grounds and opportunities to put on a new spa extension and that’s how we got into it.
Deborah: I went to a gym and health club and Peter came to meet me and while he waited he saw how many people were coming in and out and he’s such a number cruncher, he thought ‘wow’. It wasn’t something we’d always wanted to do, it evolved from there.
How do you divide the duties?
Peter: We’ve both always been very involved in the operation. In more recent years we’ve had very good, experienced general managers running the hotels so we’ve been more on the development and strategy side of the business, and I concentrate on the development, the finance and the numbers.
Deborah: The first two years were very much hands on. As we bought more hotels we brought in more people and structure. We both visit the three hotels every week and we’re both involved in discussions with general managers, operations, sales and about new projects. I tend to do the interiors, which keeps me busy. Peter has become a lot more involved in the architecture, design and finances really.
Who wears the trousers?
Peter: We get on incredibly well together — you have to when you’re working together day in, day out — and we don’t have very many disagreements about what we’re doing. We debate things sometimes but we always come to a consensus in the end.
Deborah: If you’re a close couple and you talk a lot about your business, there isn’t an overall boss and if you asked our staff they’d probably say that as well. My mother always taught me that life’s too short to argue and I agree with that.
Who works the hardest?
Peter: Deborah works the hardest because she has a home to run as well as everything else; she’s pretty full on — a very hard-working lady.
Deborah: Peter works very hard, he thinks about the business all of the time and is very dedicated.
What do you like most about running the business together?
Peter: It’s good to be involved in the same business, be it a hotel or any other, otherwise you can’t really talk about your day-to-day problems or opportunities to the same extent. We know what’s going on in all areas of our business and spend a lot of time discussing it.
Deborah: I’m very lucky because I get to see and work with Peter and if you’re a happy couple that’s good. We both enjoy what we do, we are fortunate to have lots of lovely staff and as we have got bigger and better we’re pleased and proud of our success.
AT A GLANCE / ALEXANDER HOTELS
Founded by: Peter and Deborah Hinchcliffe
Number of hotels in group: Three
Names of hotels: Rowhill Grange; Langshott Manor; Alexander House
First hotel opened: 1994
Number of staff (approx.): 300
Number of total rooms (approx.): 100
Average occupancy: 85%-plus in August, 2013
Is there anything you don’t like about being in the hotel business with your beloved?
Peter: No, I don’t think so.
Deborah: I’m a bit of a perfectionist so if things aren’t right I get a little frustrated, but in the real world things can’t always be right and Peter’s probably calmer than me in that way.
If you were running the business single-handedly, is there anything you’d change?
Peter: Not particularly, I’d probably need more support on areas Deborah’s active in.
Deborah: I probably couldn’t do it, I’d need another Peter.
What do you do when you’re not being a hotelier?
Peter: We love gardening and we like travelling — we’re fortunate enough to travel a lot. We like to go walking; I’m quite keen to get out into the country.
Deborah: I love baking, cooking and I also like knitting. We both travel quite a lot, we’ve got a 13-year-old Westie dog and we walk quite a lot. We renewed our membership to National Trust so we’ve been going around those properties quite a bit.
What has been your favourite hotel stay so far?
Peter: The ones that stick in mind are those that we’ve been to two or three times, Four Seasons Resort Maui [at Wailea, Hawaii] is a very good operation and a good place to go.
Deborah: We’ve stayed at a lot of lovely properties in America. In fact in the UK, we recently stayed at Limewood in the New Forest, Hampshire and I really enjoyed that. I didn’t know what to expect and it was really good, a very well-run property with lovely staff.
Would you recommend going into the hotel business with your loved one?
Peter: Only if you get on incredibly well together and you can tolerate each other and not fall out easily.
I think there has got to be some give and take and you have got to be the sort of person who can give and take a lot, and you have got to be prepared to work really hard. It’s a tough industry, particularly when starting up and getting things underway.
Deborah: Some of our staff have gone off and done that and they enjoy it, but it is very hard work and it is all about being like minded and having good staff, but it’s hard work setting up. It’s not like any other business where you can sometimes close doors and all go home.
It’s 24 hours, seven days a week so it’s very rewarding but it’s very hard work. As with most businesses it’s all about getting your people right, but particularly in the hotel business, don’t take risks with people it’s just not worth it because they’re your face really and if you get the wrong staff it’s not good.