Robin Hutson left school with few qualifications but went onto become one of Britain’s most innovative hoteliers, redefining luxury with Hotel Du Vin and Lime wood before livening up the midmarket with his latest venture The Pig. Ahead of the birth of two new piglets in bath and dorset, he tells Louise Macbeth his story so far
Failing his O-levels was the unlikely catalyst for Robin Hutson’s hospitality career which has resulted in the creation of some of Britain’s best hotels.
“The whole thing started because I expected to do better at school than I did. I spent too much time messing about so I ended up going to Brooklands Technical College to do an OND in hotel and catering operations,” recalls Hutson, chief executive of Home Grown Hotels and chairman of Lime Wood Group.
Hutson enjoyed the course and was later accepted onto a management-training programme with the renowned Savoy Group.
“My first job was as a commis waiter at Claridge’s. I worked six days a week on split shifts and it was tough,” recalls Hutson.
His training took him to Hotel de Crillon in Paris and ultimately The Berkeley, where he became the group’s youngest reception manager at the tender age of 23.
“I loved it. I was still very young and meeting real A-list celebrities every day, it was pretty exciting. I was pleased to be out of full-time education and out there doing something,” says Hutson.
It was at this time, in 1983, that Hutson met his now wife of 31 years, occupational therapist Judy, while on holiday in Greece. Today Judy looks after interior design at the group’s boutique hotels.
The following year, Hutson accepted a role as operations manager — though it was more of a rooms division manager function — at the 300-key five-star Elbow Beach Hotel in Bermuda, where he worked for the next two years.
“In 1986 I was lucky enough to be offered the GM role at Chewton Glen as well as another role at St. James’s Club in Antigua. Judy and I sat on the beach in Bermuda trying to decide what to do, which is probably not the best place to sit and think about returning to cold England,” says Hutson.
But his decision to move back to Britain led him on a successful eight-year journey with the reputed 60-bedroom Chewton Glen Hotel located in The New Forest, Hampshire.
“I thought this was a real plum job at the time, and Martin [Skan, the hotel’s owner] took a bit of a punch with me as I was inexperienced as a GM at 28 years old so it was a leap of faith on his part.”
Skan’s faith paid off as during those eight years — in which Hutson was promoted to MD — Chewton Glen was awarded five Red Turrets, lost and regained a Michelin Star and gained five Red Stars from the AA. Hutson was also responsible for building a £5m spa.
Going it alone
“After eight years I knew I needed to do my own thing and there was a wind of change, the whole concept of casual dining was coming in,” reveals Hutson.
“Up until that point the perception was that the food was only good if it was very fancy and had the Michelin Star. However, chefs in London — Alastair Little, Bistrot Bruno Loubet and Conran Restaurants — were forging ahead with a more relaxed style. There was a gulf of difference between what was happening there and what we were doing at Chewton Glen,” he continues.
“I was hearing it from our customers at Chewton Glen too. They didn’t want to wear a jacket and tie for dinner; they wanted their kids with them in the restaurant which was frowned upon in fine-dining restaurants at that time. There was less formality about everything and it was the restaurants leading the way.”
In 1994, Hutson left Chewton Glen, and along with his colleague Gerard Basset, founded Hotel du Vin through the conversion of a Georgian building in Winchester into a 24-room hotel, which is today recognised as one of the UK’s first boutique hotels.
“I had put a business plan together and I asked Gerard if he’d join me. We decided it would be a townhouse hotel with a wine theme. The idea was to have a wine school to supplement those quieter months of the year. We found the property in Winchester, but the biggest challenge was raising the money of course,” recalls Hutson.
“Extracting the shareholder money from people was very difficult. Anyone I’d ever met with a couple of quid was asked to participate so we ended up with 14 shareholders and borrowed our first three quarters of a million from the Royal Bank of Scotland. It was quite scary stuff really,” he says, adding that many of the challenges faced in setting up a hotel then are still the same today.
“We found ourselves jumping through all kinds of hoops but the amazing thing was that Judy agreed to me putting the house up as a guarantee for the business. We had two young boys, Ollie and Will — now aged 28 and 25 — and I was giving up a decent salary.
“Fortunately our research and understanding of the market was good, and we weren’t too greedy on the prices. In a way my career has been defined by always being realistic on prices. The Hotel du Vin concept was never meant to be at the top end of the market, it was meant to be affordable for everyone. The same goes for The Pig now,” he says.
Along with Judy, Hutson went onto design and project manage six further developments which — with the Winchester hotel — ultimately became the Hotel du Vin group. The collection of unique hotels was created from mainly listed and often derelict buildings.
“When we first started Hotel du Vin in Winchester, we were completely focused on running one business, making it a success and making sure we didn’t lose any money. After a year or so we realised we were onto something, so we raised more money and did the second hotel in Tunbridge Wells,” he recalls.
“After that there was a realisation that if we did build up a group of these we might have something to sell one day. As we gathered momentum we took on more ambitious projects — big hotels in Bristol and Birmingham. They were difficult buildings, old buldings that hadn’t been hotels, but I was intrigued by the heritage. By this stage we were starting to focus hard on building up something we would eventually sell.”
In 2004, a decade to the day of its inception, the seven-strong Hotel du Vin portfolio was sold to MWB Group Holdings for an impressive £66.5m.
“That changed a lot for me personally as we made some money out of it and it was the culmination of 30 years of work in the business,” Hutson says.
going onto new things
After the sale of Hotel du Vin, Hutson became executive chairman of Soho House Group alongside founder and friend Nick Jones. During his three-year spell as chairman, the group doubled in size to a turnover of £50m and in January 2008 was successfully sold to Richard Caring for £105m.
Hutson’s next opportunity came along shortly after: “I had a call from a guy called Jim Ratcliffe who was developing a building called Parkhill in The New Forest and they’d spent a huge amount of money on the hotel. Our kids went to school together so I knew him vaguely. He said ‘I think we need some help to get this hotel open and I’m not sure we have the expertise on board’, so Lime Wood Hotel was born in 2009 and within that portfolio there were a number of other businesses, including a little hotel that was losing money called Hotel Whitley Ridge,” says Hutson.
Hutson opened the Parkhill property as Lime Wood Hotel and is now executive chairman of the Lime Wood Group of hotels. With the subsequent transformation of Hotel Whitley Ridge, Home Grown Hotels and The Pig country house concept — based around kitchen-garden produce — was launched.
“I’ve always been a food and beverage-led hotelier. There are too many hotel managers who worry about average rate all day and don’t push the boundaries on the F&B side,” says Hutson.
“The Hotel Whitley Ridge had a kitchen garden, though it was full of weeds. I looked at that and thought we wouldn’t be the first to have a kitchen garden, but we could be the first to bring it right to the front of everything we do.
“It influenced our decor, marketing, our whole ethos had been formed from the kitchen garden and it really has struck an amazing cord with everyone. We’ve got pigs, chickens and sheep onsite. We’re trying to differentiate ourselves and have an earthy, foodie feel.
“If it sounds a bit like a pub that’s a good thing because we want people to be there on a Tuesday in February, not just wait for a big anniversary,” he says.
The Pig in The New Forest, Hampshire opened in July 2011, followed by The Pig in the Wall in Southampton in October 2012.
“The rooms to F&B revenue split at The Pig is about 40% to 60%, but we run at more than 90% average occupancy and we’re in the middle of nowhere. It’s turned into an amazing business and you can’t get a table in the restaurant. We did 150-something covers per day on average last year which is huge for a little sleepy back quarter,” says Hutson.
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Hutson is currently preparing to open the third The Pig branded hotel near Bath, and a fourth called The Pig on the Beach on the Dorset coast.
“I’m down in Bath at the moment and the building isn’t finished but this weekend we’ll have our second locals’ party, we’ll invite people over and give then nice food and drinks. It’s important to involve the local community,” says Hutson, speaking in early January.
“We want them to engage and be excited about the fact that we’re here and our feeling is if we get them in early like this for a sneak peek they’ll be committed to us for a long time to come. The local residents make up a large part of clientele. Most hotel guests come from London and within the M25. We want to capture all the hotel guests for dinner, but we want to also make sure we have a very firm following from the locals,” he explains.
Located in the Mendip Hills of Somerset, The Pig near Bath, otherwise known as Hunstrete House, is a property Hutson had been eyeing for some time before he bought it for £5m.
He set aside £4.5m for renovating the property inside and out, including the overhaul of a walled garden which will become the hotel’s kitchen garden headed up by Hutson’s son, Ollie.
There will be 45 staff at the hotel, most of whom have been promoted from within the group or hired through associations with local institutions.
“I’m really proud of our management-training scheme called Budding Entrepreneurs,” Hutson says.
“We take youngsters on, we don’t care what they’ve done before — some have degrees, some have just left school and have been working in the hotel business. Apart from putting them through all of the departments, we try to give them really close access to us and what we do on a daily basis.
“So for instance if I’m going to see the bank manager to negotiate several million pounds worth of loan, I’ll take a trainee with me so he or she is getting an insight into things that they wouldn’t normally see. We can’t compete with the real big boys, but we can give them a lot of really close access to us so that’s our USP for staff as far as training is concerned.”
A similar investment has been made in the Dorset hotel, a building Hutson first attempted to acquire after he sold Hotel du Vin Group in 2004.
“We’ve got an 80-year lease from the National Trust and we paid around £3.5 million for that and will spend around £5.5 on getting the doors open,” Hutson tells Boutique Hotelier.
It’s clear that The Pig is Hutson’s baby, but asked about further expansion plans he says jokingly: “If I mention opening another hotel I’m sure my wife will divorce me, it completely consumes our life, we do it in a very hands-on way and we don’t have a big team behind us”.
However, he’s confident that there is room for further development in the UK’s midmarket hotel sector. Hutson says “nobody’s doing anything with any real purpose”.
Based on this and Hutson’s entrepreneurial track record, Boutique Hotelier suspects that the Bath and Dorset piglets won’t be the last in the litter.