From serving cream teas from a sea shanty in Devon to one of the most respected hoteliers in the UK with a wealth of experience under her belt, Sue Williams has come on quite the journey in hospitality. Fresh into her new role as general manager at Relais & Chateaux icon Whatley Manor, we sat down with the trailblazer to uncover her plan of action.
Sue Williams is one happy lady. Just one month into her new role at the helm of Whatley Manor in the Cotswolds and she is ready and raring to go to put her strategies, business plans and new initiatives into place.
In September, Williams made the leap from Cliveden House in Berkshire, where she was for four years, to fill her new boots at the five AA red star Relais & Chateaux property in a role that brought her closer to home and closer to a more sustainable work / life balance.
In no sense is she slowing down however and she is brimming with ideas for Whatley Manor.
Her time at Cliveden saw her working flat out; Williams joined the property in 2012 just after it was acquired out of the Von Essen administration for almost £30m and spent the next four years transforming the establishment into one of most successful country house hotels in the land, piece by piece.
She was part of the dynamic Stembridge / Williams duo that helped turn around the fortunes of the hotel, refurbishing bedrooms, opening a new restaurant and signing off on a new spa; the project was three quarters complete when the opportunity at Whatley Manor arose, so it comes as no surprise that Sue wasn’t looking to up sticks and move on.
“I really wasn’t looking to leave to Cliveden,” Williams tells BH. “I thought I’d do at least five years to see all the projects through because I’d really enjoyed doing that. We had another eight months to go on the spa project which would be the last one and in truth this role probably came up a little too soon! But the location of Whatley, being so close to home certainly appealed. I had my eye on this property for years too – it’s such a beautiful property – you can’t help make the comparisons to Le Manoir – they have a bit more commercial success at the moment but that’s been a long time building!”
Whatley Manor is owned by Swiss equestrian rider Christian Landolt and his mother Alix. It boasts a two-Michelin-starred restaurant overseen by newly-appointed head chef Niall Keating, as well as the informal brasserie Le Mazot, the Aquarias Spa and a 40-seat cinema.
The property is one of the few privately-owned hotels still flying the flag for independence in the UK and these credentials were enough to get Williams fired up for her takeover. As she explains, Alix is always available at the end of the phone, and Christian a local Cotswolds’ resident, pops in regularly, so Williams is clearly being supported from pillar to post.
She says: “They put a great deal into this during the project time in 2002 and 2003 and they’ve lived and breathed it. It’s very much a family business and they really care about it.
“Right now it’s not quite where it needs to be at the moment; it does need that extra push and we need to get our occupancy up.”
With a CV boasting some of the best names on the block – from Le Manoir to Andrew Brownsword Hotels via a decade stint at Bath Priory – Williams joins Whatley Manor well equipped to elevate the hotel and take it to the next stage. First on her agenda is achieving wider acclaim for the property.
“You do forget what it’s like to be a newbie!” Williams says. “You feel a bit exposed and vulnerable until you know the fuse boards and which keys fit which door! Everything you do from day one you have to think about strategies, but you wouldn’t be wise to act upon them until you really settle in. You have to try and understand why things have been established that way, what works, what doesn’t. There are definitely lots of opportunities to get going.”
Williams’ vast experience means she knows not to just power into her first meeting at Whatley Manor, guns blazing, armed with a list of changes and potentially running the risk of rubbing her team up the wrong way. Day one she got the team together, was clear about the objectives she’d been set by the owners and focused on how she would deliver it.
“I told them that we are going to go through a journey and changes but we will go through it together and I can bring them with me on the journey. A lot of them have been here for a while, so a really loyal crew; some have been here for 10, 15 years.
“I think there is something very strong to build on here, but there are definitely little things I want to change. I think every manager has their approach. It’s about not just delivering cookie cutter hospitality and guests must never feel like they are processed, it must be from the heart. And we need to get staff to engage their brains to deliver this style – I like to think we have a coaching style and it’s management on your feet too.”
One thing Williams is passionate about is seeing how her hotel measures up against the competition. She stresses the importance of being in the industry and ‘outwardly facing’, in a bid to stay relevant and bring whatever innovations, methods and inspirations back to the hotel and the team.
“We need to build our profile; that’s really important and will be for this property as we are a hotel tucked away in the countryside so we need to shout a bit more about what we are doing,” Williams adds.
Whatley Manor holiday
While Whatley may not be the most conspicuous property in the Cotswolds, it isn’t short of custom, with guests not only coming for a one night break, but often booking in for a week or ten days. From this angle, Williams draws comparisons with Gidleigh Park and the rise of the hotel’s status as a destination.
She says: “It’s pleased me no end the volume of repeat business we get – eight out of ten are repeat guests, so there is obviously something very right about the property and while we might not be the most fashionable it’s a real constant deliverer on the service and food front.
“We have quite a few guests who will use this as a holiday place, so a week or ten days. It takes me back to my Gidleigh Park days, as I always had it in my mind there that it was a destination and it wasn’t really close by to anything – four hours out of London, so I’d expect people to stay longer.”
The next step
Now she’s settled in, Williams is keen to get cracking with her initial ideas, but stresses ‘that getting the balance right’ is crucial and making sure the hotel’s loyal customer base knows that the fundamentals won’t change.
“You too respect the property and the setting and the story that has gone before and harness that and then just creep it forward. That’s just tricky to get that journey right,” she explains.
“You might wish you can just turn on the revenue stream like that, but it’s going to be a gradual build.
“It’s interesting that when we did Gidleigh – we spent many millions on the refurbishment – and I thought we’d just open the doors and be full, but that was not the case. People took the view that they wanted to wait for you to go through your teething problems and then they’d come. It was an anxious time as we had a slow gradual build.”
The Brasserie is one area going under the knife next year on Williams’ watch. The traditional interiors inspired by Whatley’s Swiss owners often perplex customers, as Williams explains, so she is keen to create something more authentic and to sit within the house itself and its Cotswolds setting.
Outside dining is also an area that needs a push. “I don’t think the locals know we are open to non residents – there is nothing at the front,” Williams says. “So simply we are getting a board made that says, Whatley open to non-residents, just to see if it does ignite some interest from the local market.”