Hand Picked Hotels chairman and CEO Julia Hands talks us through her transition from lawyer to hotelier after acquiring 16 hotels, ditching the operator, hiring a new management team and taking the reins
Like many first-time hoteliers, Julia Hands was entering the unknown when she bought 16 hotels in 1999 with her tycoon husband Guy Hands, who is chairman and founder of Terra Firma Capital Partners.
The purchase was originally intended as a passive investment with a third-party operator on board, but it wasn’t long — a year and a half — before Hands, who is a trained lawyer, decided to become more hands on.
“We had a rethink in 2001 because the hotels were very individual and demanded individual attention. The management company grew substantially within that period and we felt the hotels were being lost in the mix,” she recalls.
Hands terminated the contract with the operator and took the reins.
“It was a huge step into the dark and a very steep learning curve thereafter as I had no experience of running a company — let alone a hotel company, so it was a big move; a big change,” says Hands.
“I spoke to a lot of people in the industry and people are incredibly generous with their time and advice, so that was a huge source of help.”
Step one — set up office
The first step was to set up a head office as many of the existing central-management team had been employed by the operator. The hotel general managers and service teams, and several department heads remained with Hand Picked Hotels, the newly formed owner and operator.
“I found The Old Library building in Seven Oaks, Kent which was ideal, then I began to recruit finance, operations, health and safety, marketing and so on. One of the first people I recruited was my personal assistant, Louise, who still works for me today — she was a great asset,” says Hands.
Hands was now ready to “put some confidence back into the properties”: “There was a lack of confidence and a lack of pride in the business so we set about trying to create a Hand Picked culture to create the hotels we were looking for”. At the crux of this new culture was creating a personal experience.
“We wanted to have common brand standards in terms of service but encourage the hotels to deliver over and above that as they saw fit, so hotels could embellish the standards with extras just to make it more personal.
“I didn’t want to create a group of hotels with people wearing white gloves, all hush-hush. I wanted people to feel like they were walking into a home,” she says.
Communicating these new brand values was just as important as creating them. Hands and the new management team carried out a series of road shows, visiting each hotel, talking to the staff and inviting their ideas on how to make the guest experience a better one.
“We got some lovely ideas, many weren’t practical but many were; little things like the country houses are in quite rural locations so someone suggested offering Wellington boots. Most hotels now have a collection of brightly-coloured Wellington boots for guests to use,” Hands explains.
Step two — get picky
In the first two years of management, Hand Picked Hotels sold off two properties and bought three.
“If you’re trying to create a brand, people have expectations and these two particular hotels never seemed to meet expectations in terms of physical appearance more than anything else, and they had been extended and had lost their historic roots.
They didn’t fit the portfolio,” explains Hands. In the newcomers, Hands had been looking for country-house conversions with a “historic heart” and 60 or more rooms.
“Geographic distribution is important to us. We like to visit the hotels on a regular basis so choosing one in the wild Lake District or deepest Cornwall might stretch our ability to get around the hotels. We also wanted to have good coverage throughout the UK, we don’t want too many hotels in one area and large areas where there are none,” she adds.
Hand Picked Hotels’ latest portfolio addition was Fawsley Hall Hotel & Spa. The group bought the Grade-I listed hotel, located near Silverstone in Northamptonshire, at the end of August for just under £15 million.
The acquisition brought the Hand Picked Hotels portfolio to 20 properties in the UK, a number Hands has always said would be optimum for the group, however, she doesn’t plan to stop there.
“If the ideal property came along, we’d perhaps say one or two more. I never wanted a very large collection because we’d lose the family feel and the personal touch. I know the GMs and their partners and it’s a good feeling to go to a hotel and know the staff. But that said, if the ideal property came along I’d be silly to lose it,” she tells Boutique Hotelier.
AT A GLANCE / HIGHS AND LOWS
The career transition: Being a lawyer taught me not to be afraid of contracts, paperwork or regulations which otherwise could have been quite daunting.
Best piece of advice: My husband said ‘just go ahead and do your best because although you’ll make mistakes you’ll make no more than anyone else would’.
Proudest moment: We won Hotel of the Year from the AAA in 2005 and that was a nice endorsement of what we’d achieved at that point, we were very proud of that as a group as it was still quite early days.
Biggest challenge: Average daily rate went down in 2008 and hasn’t fully recovered but in the meantime, utility costs have gone through the roof, and business rates have gone up with new charges like the carbon tax. There are small signs that things are getting better.
Your advice to others: Taking a GM who has worked with you for many years and putting him into a new hotel will facilitate its entry into the group far better than staying with the existing management.