He is one of the most famous football bosses of all time, but does Terry Venables possess the management skills to bring success to his new boutique hotel? He’s certainly having fun trying, even if life in the hospitality industry isn’t as easy as he thought. Andrew Seymour caught up with the legend himself.
The lounge of a local pub in the Hammersmith neighbourhood of Brook Green might be an unlikely location to discuss Terry Venables’ entrance into the Spanish boutique hotel market, but it is here that Boutique Hotelier finds itself on a chilly Monday morning to do just that.
The former England manager and his wife Yvette are currently splitting their time evenly between their home in West London and their new venture in south east Spain as they get to grips with life in the boutique hotel sector.
News of Venables’ foray into the boutique hotel world generated plenty of headlines when the couple officially opened the property at the end of last year, but the truth is that such developments have been a long time in the making for the man who famously came within a penalty shoot-out of leading England to the final of Euro 96.
Hotel La Escondida — which literally translates as ‘the hideaway’ — is based on a 500 acre estate that the Venables have owned for almost 20 years after they fell in love with the southern European country when Terry was manager of FC Barcelona.
As he tells Boutique Hotelier: “We were looking for a house and we wanted to get away from the coast, but there wasn’t anything that we found convincing. Then someone told us about this place north of Alicante where there was a hotel that would make a fantastic house. We had a look and loved it. The surroundings were beautiful, the views were stunning and it was so quiet. In fact, when you sit on the terrace and look out into the valley people say it reminds them of Tuscany. The person who did the concept drawings said it was the second best view he’d ever seen, the other one was in Stellenbosch in South Africa.”
At the time they purchased the land, the building that now houses their boutique hotel operated as an 18-room hostel, although passing trade had dwindled over the years and most travellers who did call in only stayed a night before venturing on. The Venables planned to turn the entire site into a football academy capable of hosting pre-season training camps for teams looking to gain the altitude benefits of exercising 2,000 feet above sea level.
With planning permission gained for a second hotel, as well as multiple sports pitches, tennis courts and even residences, the project soon became far grander in scale than the owners had ever envisaged. But as time passed and the global downturn hit, it quickly became apparent that their vision might be too ambitious. “Things kept changing and it was just growing bigger and bigger. It felt like a monster being created,” recalls Yvette.
Eventually the pair realised that the most attractive asset of the property — namely its tranquillity and peacefulness — was far better suited to something more intimate and exclusive, and the seeds for a boutique hotel were planted. The first thing they did was modify the interior of the building, converting the existing 18 rooms into 10 larger suites and introducing a luxury spa to complement the indoor swimming pool that was already in place.
A clear vision
Despite having no experience of the boutique hotel market, the Venables had a clear picture of what they wanted their hotel to look like. Says Yvette: “We wanted it to be a place where you could get away from the madding crowd. We are fortunate in that we have travelled to most countries in the world, so you sort of get to think what you would want if you had your own hotel; what would you put in it and what would you want it to be? It is not big, but it is very cosy — we wanted it to be sophisticated but rustic at the same time, even though that sounds like a contradiction.
“We were also very keen to ensure that we didn’t portray it as an English hotel, we wanted it to be a Spanish hotel. We want the locals to be involved and know that they are welcome. It is a place that makes you feel like you are isolated, although you are not really as it is 35 minutes from Alicante town.”
That said, the hotel is remote enough for the Venables to recognise that he quality of their restaurant option could make or break the venture. “It was really important to us to get a good kitchen because if you are coming up to stay for four days or a long weekend, you want to know that you are going to be served really good food rather than thinking ‘oh God, what have we got for dinner tonight?’ You have got to have really good food to keep people there, which we feel we have,” comments Terry. “And as Yvette said, we want locals to come in because it is so rural. Sometimes if they think it is a solely English hotel they’ll keep away from it, but they haven’t done that because we have purposely aimed to be a Spanish hotel.”
Indeed, all members of staff at La Escondida are Spanish except one: head chef and Englishman Darren Bunn. The Venables got to know him from visiting the restaurant he owned in a neighbouring town and when they offered him the chance to join them on their journey he grabbed it with both hands. He has devised a menu inspired by international cuisine, but the hotel sources as much produce locally as it can. Fruit, vegetables and herbs are grown on the premises, while meat and dairy products are supplied by nearby villages. At full capacity the restaurant can hold 34 diners, and up to 45 if the terrace is in use.
The Venables have stayed in several boutique hotels over the years and each has left a mark in its own way. “We never really liked going to big hotels, we always preferred staying in the relatively smaller ones,” admits Yvette. “You get ideas from things you see, but you never just want to copy, you want to create something different and add to it. The attraction of our hotel is the ‘country cosiness’ of it and I think when it is small you can be more personal with your guests. People like that — they come in and they feel the staff know them. That is why boutique hotels are so popular — they are all different and have their own individuality. The real USP for us is the peace and quiet. The silence is deafening, it really is.”
Out of the two of them, Yvette is the more hands-on and has effectively taken on the role of general manager — even when she is not there. “I am on email all day, every day!” she says. “The girls in reception are excellent but none have ever worked in the hotel industry before — not that I have either although we did have a club in Kensington called Scribes once which I ran for seven years — so if they have questions they just ask. Even when I am at the hotel I stay in the room until at least 1.30pm. They are still sending me emails from downstairs but sometimes it is easier to answer all the queries by email and then go downstairs because if I go down any earlier I will never get anything done!”
While the Venables have no plans to open any more boutique hotels, they do have aspirations to enhance what they have created so far. The prospect of opening a cookery school has been mooted, particularly as they have so much free space and are growing food on site. And recently, they brought in renowned energy therapist Paul Lennard for 10 days to offer unique therapy treatment to guests. They hope to do similar experiments in future.
“You are constantly thinking about how you can improve things,” says Terry. “In any business you don’t stand still, you have got to be looking to move forward all the time otherwise you won’t get to where you want to be. It’s like with any sort of service to the public — there is an expectation, but that’s fine because people should have expectations.”
So how does managing a boutique hotel compare to managing the England football team? Surely it can’t be any more difficult? “It’s harder…and more stressful,” he laughs. He might be more comfortable in the dug-out than behind the reception desk, but somehow you get the feeling that Terry Venables is enjoying himself too much to swap one for the other right now.