A picturesque setting, a fired-up passionate team and a business strategy that is constantly evolving are the ingredients that The Grove of Narberth is proving to be key to a successful hospitality business. We caught up and Neil Kedward to uncover how the hotel continues to thrive in remote corner of south west Wales and has made such an impact on the industry.
Neil and Zoe Kedward were looking for an opportunity to leave the hustle and bustle of the big city of London, when the Grove popped onto their laps.
Situated an hour’s drive from the tail end of the M4 and around four hours from the capital, while the property was certainly remote, it was a case of love of first sight for the budding hoteliers. “Having viewed so many businesses in Devon and Cornwall, Zoe and I knew instantly that we had found the right venue for us,” Neil says.
That was the summer of 2007, and 10 years on, The Grove of Narberth is one of the best hotels in Wales and the UK, not to mention one of the prettiest. The four AA red star country house hotel is home to 26 bedrooms and a restaurant that boasts 3 AA Rosettes since 2014. Not bad for a couple who had no prior hotel keeping experience to go on.
For former city goers Neil and Zoe, hospitality wasn’t a natural step on the career ladder. Neil was an engineer, while Zoe worked for American Express, but it took them just nine months after purchase to restore and open The Grove, which had previously been derelict for eight years, as a guest house.
Neil adds: “We completed the purchase in September 2007 and within weeks the largest financial crisis for 70 years hit and we did ask ourselves if our luck was finally running out!”
The plan was originally to convert the many outbuildings that came with the property into six self-catering units, however this focus quickly shifted when the pair realised this wouldn’t be financially viable. Despite never starting out with the ambition to create a hotel, the guest house opened in June 2008 with one member of staff, while work continued to complete the restoration. Neil then stepped in as chef and The Grove bed and breakfast was born. “Someone once told me that my homemade crumpets, blueberries, Greek yoghurt and honey were exceptional – I can see how chefs can get carried away with how good they are!”
The banks struggled to get behind the project however and with the worsening financial crisis, Neil explains that the lenders initially saw the half-completed development as a quick and easy way to release much-needed cash through a quick sale.
“Fortunately, after many months of negotiations and some early success in terms of driving income, we were able to persuade our bank to support the idea of creating a ‘restaurant with rooms’,” he says.
And with that, in December 2008, the couple launched The Grove as a five-bedroom restaurant with four self-catering cottages, supported by a fully-fledged kitchen team. The fast-pace of the pair meant that the business quickly evolved further, with another seven bedrooms added to its stock.
Bouncing back from the recession, in 2012 more change was on the agenda. Neil and Zoe set themselves what they call as a ‘seemingly impossible target’ to double the footprint of the main house within just 32 weeks; all whilst continuing to operate the growing business.
Thanks to Neil’s background as an engineer, the couple ran the project without a contractor, simply employing a workforce of local tradesmen to save on costs. “I was a chartered structural engineer and project manager in a previous life and so there was a clear plan to get there, and Zoe’s energy and tenacity kept me on track,” explains Neil.
The result saw the creation of eight new bedrooms including two new suites, a new front and back restaurant, bar, and new commercial kitchens, laundry and other back of house facilities, plus a new energy centre. By August of the same year, the new wing welcomed its first guests; a wedding party of 80 guests and the business haven’t looked back since.
The last two years, the business evolved once again, not just structurally but internally as well. In 2016, six more suites were added with the help of acclaimed designer Martin Hulbert – of Barnsley House and Chewton Glen fame – to mark the first phase of the brand’s long term development to build a ‘world class spa facility’. “Now with 26 rooms including 13 suites we are much better placed to have these challenging conversations with our lenders. Finding the funding for this development and getting it off the ground would be an exciting stretch goal but nonetheless an achievable one for 2017,” Neil adds.
The couple then appointed Louise Barber as the hotel’s first general manager in 2017, to allow them time to take a more strategic view of the whole business, away from the day to day. Another home-grown hospitality star, Barber came to The Grove without a traditional hospitality background, but as Neil explains, it’s her natural charm and intelligence that sets her apart. “We really believe in the idea that you are born with hospitality in your bones, in that genuine care and sincere warmth to people cannot be faked and Louise is the perfect role model for us in that respect and many others. Developing Louise from a receptionist into a first class general manager over the last four years also makes us very proud.”
Despite building a hugely successful hotel business over the last decade, Neil stresses that it has been a huge learning curve. The property’s location in the far corner of south west Wales still poses challenges, while the growing demands and expectations of the savvy consumer stretches the business to new heights constantly.
Neil describes: “The harsh economics of building a quality ‘restaurant with rooms’ business in our location have always been the biggest challenge operationally. Being new to the hospitality sector, it is fair to say that we were also naïve in terms of how the team could exceed growing customer expectations whilst maintaining sensible financial margins. Right from the start this was always our core challenge and still is today.”
And although the banks are now behind the Kedwards’ every project idea, it was a tough journey to get where they are today. “The banking criteria for lending in our sector has got tougher albeit we are now seeing signs of this softening a touch. Within this tough lending regime, consistently delivering against forecasts, margins and growth over the last nine years has been the cornerstone to enabling us to go back with cap in hand for the next project.
“Developing a hospitality business in west Wales is not for the faint hearted and so it’s been important to us that our lenders have felt like an implicit part of our team. I think we have genuinely achieved that and they clearly buy into everything we do!”
The Grove has built its foundations on providing first-class hospitality that comes from a place of genuine care and attention. Earning the respect of their peers was important to Neil and Zoe, and so when the hotel scooped Pride of Britain Hotels’ Hotel of the Year in 2015, it was deemed one of the pair’s greatest accomplishments.
A year prior and the Grove achieved three AA Rosettes for its restaurant, as its food offering made its way up the status ladder.
“Not being from the hospitality sector and approaching things as we do, Zoe and I have always felt a little like outsiders in this industry,” explains Neil, “I suppose many people do. Achieving such accolades is a real pat on the back for us and our wonderful team as well as being important enablers to attract the very best staff.”
The Grove is part of a wider collection of properties, called the Seren Collection, which encompasses restaurants Coast Saundersfoot, Kiosk and Beach House Oxwich, alongside The Grove. The four hospitality businesses all share the same ethos when it comes to staffing; investing time, money and training into the workforce is of huge importance for Zoe and Neil.
The Grove’s senior management team across the portfolio boasts experience at some of the country’s top four and five star hotels, including Gidleigh Park, Cliveden and Lucknam Park, and Neil says that it’s this experience combined with the spark of young local talent that creates such a winning formula.
“The quality standards, consistency and improvements they are achieving day in, day out are a real inspiration for Zoe and I to keep facilitating a bright future for them in south west Wales,” Neil adds.
In 2016, The Grove appointed Allister Barsby as the hotel’s executive chef, joining from two Michelin-starred Gidleigh Park in Dartmoor, where he had been working as head chef for three years under Michael Caines. His appointment backed by his experience took the kitchen operation at the Grove to a new level, with his technical skill and passion driving forward a transformation in the restaurant.
So with the business climbing from strength to strength and the accolades and recognition streaming in, what’s on the agenda for the rest of 2017?
Neil says: “With the weakness of the pound, we genuinely feel that this is the year to build the levels of international business we receive in west Wales. It really is a unique opportunity right now and we are working on several projects with the aim of building this volume over the coming years.”
Unsurprisingly, Neil certainly didn’t say he wouldn’t be open to launching another hotel when we asked him about adding to The Grove in the portfolio, and said that they are both always on the lookout for interesting opportunities. Especially since expanding the restaurant side of the business.
“We are always looking far and wide,” adds Neil, “but the spa is probably the best next move for our business. That said, the addition to the portfolio of Coast Restaurant in Saundersfoot in 2014 led by Will Holland, and more recently, Beach House Restaurant on the Gower Peninsular with the hugely talented Hywel Griffith, has certainly wet our appetite to do more. A great venue in a stunning location is hard to ignore if you strongly feel it’s a winner.”