INTERVIEW: Sam Cutmore-Scott, owner of new Norfolk boutique hotel, The Harper

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The Harper is the first venture for the Cutmore-Scott family, whose hospitality background has been built up in the wedding industry. Taking a leap into the boutique hotel market, the family have created a new offering for Norfolk, which they hope will carve the way for a new collection.

The Harper has got all the ingredients to be a sure-fire success. A distinctive design peppered with nods to history, an unfussy service culture and ‘eat anywhere’ ethos and a wine dispenser that offers tipples on tap, what’s not to love so far?

In May, the Cutmore-Scott family opened the doors to their first boutique hotel in Norfolk, in a change of pace from running their successful portfolio of wedding venues across the country.

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Bijou runs wedding venues including Notley Abbey, Cain Manor and Botleys Mansion, as well as one site in France, and has built a robust reputation since its inception in 2008.

Sam Cutmore-Scott’s mum and dad set up the company 22 years ago and grew into a collection encompassing four venues in that time. Sam, alongside his three siblings, gained his first experience of hospitality as a teenager in the family business, before heading off to university and later training as an accountant. He then joined Bijou on a full-time basis around ten years ago, to help free his parents up from their roles as founder operators, allowing them more time to suss out new opportunities for the group.

It was then that they came across a former glass-blowing factory 5 minutes from the coast of Norfolk that was being developed into a new hotel.

“We first saw the building in 2016 and it was empty but in the process of being developed and converted as part of a larger project which included some neighboring cottages,” Sam Cutmore-Scott tells BH.

“The building was being refurbished with a view to being a hotel but the developer wasn’t planning on running it himself. He was going to get it to a certain stage and then pass it on.”

The brick and flint-built barn in Langham was previously home to Langham Glass, a cottage industry that outgrew its premises as glassblowing blossomed. Now having been transformed into The Harper, its new incarnation retains the fabric of the historic building and retells its story with a bold, industrial aesthetic in its public areas.

Sam adds: “When we inherited the building it was a blank canvas, so the decoration side and injection of character has been all us and we all have a say on the interiors. We like to call our tastes ‘artfully mismatched’ or something like that.”

Home to 32 bedrooms, restaurant Stanley’s named after owner Sam Cutmore-Scott’s grandfather, living room Ivy’s paying tribute to Sam’s late grandmother, and games room, The Den. The hotel’s name also pays homage to family relatives who inspired the new venture. Grandfather Stanley Harper Cutmore ran a mechanics in Norwich with his brother and kept the business in the family for four generations. He and his wife Ivy loved the coast and would travel to Norfolk often.

The iron, copper, oak and slate of The Harper gives off a faint mechanical air that evokes the building’s industrial past as well as Stanley’s life and work.

“There are certainly things we improved upon and kept thinking about,” Sam says, “which gave us time to titivate projects that may not have been done by now. We’ve been living here on and off for the past year, with the family. So living in it, testing it, gives you a very extended soft opening

Stanley’s Restaurant will have a huge focus on fresh ingredients and boast two concepts; an ‘all-day dine anywhere’ menu and a slightly more refined, but not fussy, a la carte offering.

“This is such a wonderful part of the country when it comes to game, seafood, seasonal produce and we want to showcase that,” Sam says. “Our all-day menu will be a little bit eclectic, so crab tacos, a fantastic brisket burger, while the a la carte will focus on slightly more traditional cooking methods, but not fine dining.

“I’m not going to compete for the best fish and chips in Norfolk – there are so many incredible places around here offering that and the staff will have the local knowledge to advise guests should that be what they want. We want to bring something new to the area and have a bit of fun,” Sam adds.

Working on the kitchen operation with Sam is Stuart Paterson, a long-time colleague who has overseen the F&B for Bijou Wedding Venues for the last ten years.

The Harper also boasts outside space, The Yard with food served from The Shack, plus a spa with pool, hot tub, sauna, steam room and two treatment rooms.

Opening delays

Like so many other hospitality openings, the official launch of The Harper was derailed by over a year by Covid-19.

The Harper was originally scheduled to open last April and in March the family was to host around 60 friends and family for a soft opening prior to the launch.

“They were all going to come and have showers at the same time, test things, but we had to pull it the morning of, you could see what was coming,” Sam explains. “We were scheduled to open on April 1; worst April fool’s joke ever!”

“It was difficult; we’d only just taken on the team and then after about 10 days we had to slam the anchors on,” he adds.

Despite the team initially missing out on furlough due to payroll rules, Sam managed to resolve the issue and in return retained each staff member employed in March.

“Our payroll runs on the 21st of the month, and so we nearly missed out on furlough, as the rule covered anyone who has received their first paycheck on or, was on the payroll by March 18 / 19,” Sam explains. “But we spoke to HMRC and we were paying them ourselves at this point which we could sustain for a few months but not long, and thankfully they helped us out. We used the CBILs loan scheme too.”

The last year has at least given the family a lot of downtime to really focus on their strategy and what they want to deliver. They have spent the last 12 months fine-tuning the hotel’s offering, further developing ideas and preparing for launch.

“There are certainly things we improved upon and kept thinking about,” Sam says, “which gave us time to titivate projects that may not have been done by now. We’ve been living here on and off for the past year, with the family. So living in it, testing it, gives you a very extended soft opening.

The good news is that bookings are already looking healthy and will give the business a chance to claw back from revenue. May, June and July are already full, which Sam describes as ‘wonderful but scary’ with local celebrity Delia Smith one of the first to experience The Harper on reopening weekend.

Sam says: “We have an interesting mix so far between Cambridge, London weekender trips and the more traditional week-long Norfolk holidays. We are also starting to see ‘post-Covid’ remote working. We are not doing OTAs at this point and there has been a wonderful level of interest so far.”

Wedding experience

Given the family’s experience in the wedding market, the business is well-versed in managing high pressure environments and learning how to satisfy guests, often with a multitude of different demands. This strand of attention to detail will lend itself well to running a luxury boutique hotel that will come with a certain level of expectation.

“We have been working with people to host their weddings for 20 years and they are very high pressure events, you have to get them right,” Sam says, “and actually you can extend that into a weekend away. The attention to detail, the forward planning – by getting it right in advance, the most relaxed feeling wedding is the one that has had the most work put in in advance and there is no panic on the day.

“The team has some overlap, in terms of senior management but it is a standalone beast and it’s a different offering. It’s a seven days a week affair, the difference between prepping for a banquet for 120 people with one or two options only one or two days a week, it’s a very different animal.

“Whenever the things we’ve learnt over the last 20 years are useful, they will be applied but we are starting with a blank piece of paper,” he adds.

A key part of the ethos will be value for money, and Sam is passionate about ensuring guests don’t have any nasty bill surprises when they check out, instead he wants people to leave feeling well rested, relaxed and not ripped off.

Sam says: “We are hoping to bring a bit of London here. Taking our setting and saying there isn’t any reason why they couldn’t exist in the same place; why couldn’t have you have a beautiful setting and a trendy bar?

“There are a lot of small family-run properties in the area but they are very rural. We are hoping to inject a bit of countryside cosmopolitan here.”

Future ambitions

The Harper may have only been open a few weeks, but Sam has big ambitions to open other sites in the future. Juggling the new hotel and the family’s wedding venues during the summer will be a mammoth task, with pent-up demand fueling what is shaping up to be one of the hospitality industry’s busiest seasons ever; in August one of the group’s wedding venues is to host a total of 28 weddings in 31 days.

Sam says: “When we reopen we are going to have the busiest six months we’ve ever had for weddings – provided things open up again.

“We’re going to learn more about this model (The Harper) and refine and then once we know what people like and don’t like it will inform our future decisions for expanding.

“We hope this will be the first of many. I get emails through from Knight Frank on a weekly basis but at the moment they are going in the file. For now the focus has to be here and our wedding venues.”

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Zoe Monk

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