Eco trailblazers Whatley Manor are flying the flag for sustainability in more ways than one. Lead by general manager and passionate ‘green’ hotelier Sue Williams, the team at the luxury hotel are championing change and focused on constantly evolving the business to promote best practice environmental and social sustainability. We discover their secrets.
Whatley Manor is taking sustainability seriously, investing time, money and efforts into implementing new green practices that protect both the operation of the hotel and the planet. Their eco credentials have been the focus of the business for a while, but came further under the microscope when general manager Sue Williams joined in 2016.
The five-star Pride of Britain Hotel comprises 23 bedrooms, a two Michelin-starred restaurant headed up by talented executive chef Niall Keating who has seen mammoth success since joining Whatley Manor in late 2016, plus casual eatery, Grey’s Brasserie and popular The Aquarias Spa.
The hotel first opened its doors in July 2003, but the Grade-II listed manor house dates back much further to the 18th century when it was first built as a farmhouse. Fast forward to 2000 and when Whatley Manor came up for sale, the beautiful building, and its potential, caught the eye of Swiss nationals, Marco and Alix Landolt, who stayed at the hotel whilst visiting their son Christian who was competing at The Badminton Horse Trials.
They spent three years painstakingly restoring the historic building and its 12 acres of land into a luxury hotel with 26 distinctive gardens, many of which are based on the original 1920’s plans.
Williams joined the team in September 2016 from Cliveden House, having ‘had her eye’ on Whatley Manor for some time. The last five years she has lead from the front to instill a passion and awareness for eco-friendly practices in her team, which have become not just a fad or trend, but a completely new approach to sustainable, luxury hospitality.
The industry soon recognised this stance and the awards came knocking. Condé Nast Johansens award for Excellence in the category of Best for Green Practices and Sustainability, the Independent Hotel Show’s award for Innovation and a Green Star by Michelin to name just a few.
With so many challenges for the hospitality sector during 2020, it would have been forgiven if Whatley Manor had let strides towards its sustainable goals slip just a little. In fact, Williams explains, it’s mean the hotel’s elected Green Team have returned re-energised and ready to embrace further change.
The downtime gave the hotel the opportunity to assess its plastic usage and energy outlay in more detail, whilst also addressing the challenges of adapting the business to be Covid secure. Williams admits when Whatley Manor first reopened, it was impossible not to bring in single-use plastics to limit the risk of contamination, until she discovered the material actually did the opposite.
“We actually then found out plastic holds the virus longer than any other surface so we quickly reverted back to our Molton Brown pots,” Williams tells BH. “We achieved a lot in 2020; we got to 100% of no single-use plastic in our bedrooms.”
Whatley Manor has a dedicated Green Team, made up of employees across the hotel who come together to share ideas and examples of where certain operations can be ‘greener’. Energy, waste and water indicators are closely monitored by sustainability officer, Kate Church and the Green Team is then updated at their quarterly meetings. The owners align with these values too.
“We look over around four or five good initiatives a week,” Williams explains. “They are out there, you can almost stumble over them.”
During last year’s first lockdown, like many other hospitality businesses, the Whatley senior team assessed every single supplier, what it was costing and how much of a priority it was to keep them on board when no revenue was coming in. Then each supplier’s eco credentials were analysed.
“We have around 370 suppliers and we went through every single one, drilling down on prices where we could, suspending prices where we could, and then from a sustainability perspective too to check their credentials.
“Bread was a case and point,” she continues, “for our sliced toast, we make all our bread otherwise but that is supplied. And I remember looking at it stored and it was all plastic, plastic, plastic and saying that needs to go. We went to the supplier, who said they couldn’t help us, so I said let’s ring them and say we are trying to help you here, because all your customers in the future are going to be looking for these credentials and you need to get ahead. We want to keep your product, we like it, but we cannot receive it in plastic. And they changed it.
Williams adds: “A lot of the big suppliers said no to us as well on similar things and we’ve walked away because of it sometimes.”
Changing and updating suppliers is a key way to evolve your business, both from a price point of view but also to ensure you are providing the best and most efficient services for your guests. The last 12 months have brought some considerable supplier changes at Whatley Manor, as the hotel strives continuously to run a slicker operation.
A change of milk supplier has had a knock-on effect at Whatley, helping with the hotel’s waste; large cartons which are harder to compress into bins have been replaced with a milk pergola.
“We are saving a fortune on bins. We previously had 14 general waste bins a week, which cost £13.80 per bin and after shopping around on price, it’s now £13 per bin, which over a year adds up,” Williams explains. “We’ve managed to cut this down to just 4 bins a week too.
“Our dry mixed recyclable bins are £8 per bin to remove, so the more we can get into those bins the more money we save and we bought a bin press to help with this too.
“We’ve changed our waste suppliers three times on this journey so far,” Williams adds.
Another strength of Whatley Manor’s is separating food waste, and Williams stresses how much of an impact this has on what eventually makes it to landfill. “If every hotel just did that it would make a huge difference; if a dirty pizza box for example goes to landfill or touches dry mixed recyclables that’s then contaminated and it has to go to general waste.”
Williams adds that waste is a hugely important part of the journey to becoming more sustainable and explains that she has now visited two waste depots – donning the high viz, hard hat and wellies – to discover where the hotel’s waste ends up.
The business recently switched to Grundon, a family-owned carbon neutral waste carrier which has invested in building OCO plants to help companies combat their waste loads. At Grundon, waste is combusted, then lime dropped down the chimney and at the end of the process you’re left with a pile of ash and lime which is then sent to form carbon neutral building blocks. As a result, Whatley Manor has zero to landfill from its waste.
Whatley Manor is committed to achieving best practice environmental and social sustainability and every change made reflects this vision. As a hotel, the business is moving into an area where it is starting to measure the benefits of its initiatives via artificial intelligence and technology.
As a result, Whatley Manor has partnered with NOW, a strategic partner of EarthCheck, the world’s leading benchmarking and certification provider, whose assessments are measured against the UN sustainable development goals. During lockdown the hotel worked to achieve its own EarthCheck accreditation which was a huge financial and time commitment, and demonstrates once again just how serious both Williams and Whatley Manor’s owners are to delivering on its sustainable promise.
Once received, Whatley Manor will one of very few hotels to gain the certification. The hotel is also the only one, other than The Langham to have created an environmental risk assessment. The aim is to share knowledge with other businesses in order to save them time and financial resources and demonstrate how things can be implemented effectively.
In a short space of time Whatley Manor has transformed the way it operates. The business focuses on its long-term goals to advance sustainability and support regenerative tourism, demonstrating that hotels can still provide a luxury experience without excessive consumption.
And Whatley Manor is not stopping now. Big projects in the pipeline for 2021 include replacing the hotel’s boilers, which, despite the huge financial outlay, will deliver a return on investment within five years.
“Our boilers are 17 years old and they are getting less reliable,” explains Williams. “We have nine currently but are looking to reduce this to six. Just the fact they would be new would bring a lot of energy savings in a heartbeat to start with.
“Then the money that would have been spent on the remaining three boilers, we are aiming to install a CHP boiler, a combined heat and power boiler. It’s a huge outlay but we have installed digital meters for gas and electrics, which gives us a true real time reading of our consumption we can understand it more.
“It will be a couple of hundred thousand pounds but it is showing we can get a return on investment in five years, and by which point we could be generating our own electricity,” Williams adds.
The whole hotel is run on renewable energy and 10% of its gas is methane renewables, with most of the staff’s houses now also run on renewables after Williams shopped around for the best energy supplier and found a company called Octopus.
Reopening in July
Williams is very forthcoming on the fact that Whatley and its team was very fortunate when the country went into lockdown last March. She admits there was a sense of longevity when the hotel was forced to close – “we knew it wasn’t just going to be a month” – and the practice of opening and closing became somewhat of a ‘well oiled machine’ over the following year.
Whatley Manor’s owner Christian vowed to support the team and keep everyone on, even before the furlough scheme was announced, which Williams has never taken for granted.
“We were super fortunate that our owner wouldn’t hear of disbanding the team at any time. He was overseas at the time (March 2020) and managed to get in from New Zealand. He came straight here and very soon after, together we addressed the whole team. He wanted us all gathered and said nobody was to worry about their jobs and he would be supporting everyone through this.”
With 95% of the team on furlough, seven of the senior team remained on wages. It quickly came apparent that executive chef Niall was bursting with ideas to help bring in some sort of revenue to the hotel, and after buying a food truck for an event in Stoke on Trent that couldn’t go ahead, he returned to the hotel with the idea for the Paradise Carriage.
The graffiti-covered truck gave Whatley Manor an edge and was positioned in the parking area of the grounds, and opened most days of the week for drive-by dishes from a creative menu from Niall, supported through the summer season by guest chefs, also not working in their own establishments, including Sat Bains and Tom Brown.
“It pitched up at Whatley and very quickly we set it up,” Williams says. “We then did eight weeks of drive through straight away.
“The best thing was being able to reconnect with the locals whilst we were closed,” she adds. “We saw spa members, new locals, some people came every week.”
During the hotel’s lockdown, Keating also appeared on Great British Menu, and whilst great for promotion and exposure, it was a lost opportunity to capitalise on an uplift on business.
“It was positive on one hand but tragic on the other as we couldn’t have the phone ring,” Williams says, “but it did provide pent-up demand.”
Whatley Manor reopened the Dining Room on July 4 last year and then by July 23, the bedrooms and spa were trading again. Naturally some staff members had returned home during the lockdown, and when Williams could see the diary start to get full again, the hotel recruited around 30 new employees to take them through the summer.
“From July onwards the phone really went pop, we were the lucky ones to be busy from the get go.”
The hotel strived to maintain its luxury offering, despite Covid restrictions, whilst also trying to delight and surprise guests with special touches; hot towels on arrival were just one example.
“We were on 97% occupancy last July and August and it was probably the sweetest spot this hotel has ever seen, so we saw huge revenues. A combination of leisure business, pent-up demand, ‘blow it I’ll have another bottle’ mentality, average spend has definitely risen and room rates have risen,” Williams says.
“We have never taken for granted our fortunate financial position during the pandemic.”