From an unconventional start as a chemist-turned-hotelier, Andrew Wildsmith has grown his group of three hotels to become admired among the elite of the Lake District. Here Zoe Monk sits down with the ambitious head honcho to discover the driving force of Wildsmith Hotels and what’s next on the agenda.
Wildsmith Hotels is a brand on the brink of its 13th year in operation. The first year saw trendy boutique Hipping Hall born, then The Ryebeck, formerly known as Fayrer Garden was brought into the fold, before the duo became a trio in 2015 and boutique showstopper Forest Side blew everyone out the water.
The man at the head of it all is Andrew Wildsmith, who despite treading a more unconventional path into the industry, has become a real one to watch.
Eight years at university studying chemistry lined up Andrew for life in the pharmaceutical industry. But, surrounded by lab coats in stuffy environments, he found himself falling out of love with his destined career and was drawn back to the north to explore his options.
While browsing on RightMove.com for places to live, he stumbled across Hipping Hall; way out of his budget and trading as a chintzy five-bed hotel, he was more than a bit curious.
“I asked my parents to go look at it because I was still in Cambridge studying and they loved it, so we bought it,” says Andrew.
With no experience of the hospitality industry, having only stepped into a pub or restaurant purely from a consumer side, Andrew is the first to admit that he headed into the sector completely blind, hoping the numbers would add up and business would come naturally. “It was the whole, ignorance is bliss thing! If someone had told me what I’d be in for, then I might not have been so keen!” laughs Andrew.
The Wildsmiths bought Hipping Hall just over 12 years go in October 2004 and renovation began in January 2005, before doors opened in June of the same year. Six months to completely gut, transform and beautify the hotel into a 10-bedroom masterpiece didn’t come without its challenges, but Andrew embraced it wholeheartedly.
He says: “Buying it and doing the renovation and project management, which I’d never done before, was hard, but we wanted to go big.
“We were really lucky because the two people employed at Hipping when we started, the chef Jason Birkbeck and restaurant manager, who really was a general manager, David Bregere, while I was doing the building side of things, they were working out what we needed on the hotel side and I just absorbed that.”
Once Hipping Hall was up and running, Andrew was soon hooked on hospitality. From greeting people at reception to serving guests at dinner, he got fully immersed in the service and operational side of the business and soaked up every drop of information.
Andrew adds: “When we were open, David showed me out the front how we do it, and I just fell in love with it and it’s a bit addictive, you get the bug for it. We are at the lucky end, working with top chefs and it’s a delight to serve their food. People checking out the next morning and saying ‘this was wonderful’ – you just have to make sure it doesn’t go to your head!”
The formula clearly worked and Hipping Hall is now a 15-bedroom hotel, having converted stables on site into extra room stock, and boasts five AA stars within the restaurant with rooms category, plus a 3 AA Rosette restaurant. Despite its credentials on paper, Andrew says there is still a little way to go to get the product completely right.
“After three years, David and Jason left, so we started all over again really, and we have achieved what we’ve wanted quite yet. We certainly wanted a super local restaurant and we’ve got that, but one of the ultimate aims is to be in all the ‘top 100’ lists.”
The Ryebeck beckons
The Ryebeck became the second property in the Wildsmith portfolio, which actually happened in tandem with Hipping Hall in 2004 and the Wildsmiths ran it in its original state for six years before the business started to struggle and a change was needed.
“My parents were approached by an agent and offered a look around Fayrer Garden and they liked it,” explains Andrew. “They took over in September 2004 and kept the general manager on to run it, before it became apparent in 2010 that business was starting to slip. At this time I had a bit more free time and more of a team over at Hipping Hall so I started to think about how we can the building and location overlooking the lake and make it work to attract a younger crowd and make it a bit sexier.”
Fayrer Garden was renamed The Ryebeck in 2014 and with the new identity came a whole host of upgrades, with the lounges, a third of the bedrooms and the dining room, given a new look. The Ryebeck today is home to 26 bedrooms and boasts 3 AA stars and 2 AA Rosettes, however, just like Hipping Hall, Andrew feels his work isn’t done just yet.
“I still feel like we have a little way to go and it’s not exactly where I want it to be, so that will be my next project. With the restaurant we tried to get away from the country house classic style and have more casual relaxed feel.”
A feel for the forest
With Hipping Hall and The Ryebeck under his belt, Andrew was well and truly getting into the swing of things and thoughts turned to further expansion. It was always part of the plan to have three properties, to make up the triangle he had created, and he was ready to take the Wildsmith name to a nationwide level.
“I was looking for a building around here, (Grasemere), when I saw it in August 2013 and it took us a year for us to get it; they weren’t prepared to sell it for the price we were offering.”
In its previous state, the property he found was being run as a two-star hotel operating at the lower end of the market, so first on the agenda for Andrew was to strip everything back and see what was underneath. As soon as the deal was signed in July 2014, the doors to the hotel closed and the renovation project began.
Andrew says: “We spent the best part of six months putting together a plan of what we were going to do. We had to work out sockets and the wodge of papers with our plans on was about an inch thick! But it was great fun and I loved it.”
The aim for Forest Side from the get-go was to elevate it to a position where it was on par with some of the greats – Andrew notes Le Manoir – so one of the best discoveries came when the restoration team uncovered an old Victorian garden, which emerged from underneath a pile of brambles.
It was also around this time that Tom Lewis joined the group as operations director, and with experience at Swinton Park and Le Manoir, Andrew’s new right hand man was perfectly placed to execute this dream.
The team behind the food at Forest Side is headed up by Kevin Tickle, who came from an extensive cooking background including an eight-year stint at L’Enclume. “I think Kevin knew the property was something special when he looked round it, as did we,” adds Andrew.
“His career has almost paralleled mine, so he started around the same time I did, starting as a commis at Sharrow Bay, so he was ready to blossom and go for it. Kevin has been employed by us since October 2014 so he has had a lot of time to think about it all and how he’d tackle it.”
Within one month of opening the accolades starting racking up; seven months later Forest Side was catapulted into the Good Food Guide – 10 bookings came off the back of that alone – and then came the much-deserved Michelin star. Kevin’s menus utilise the best flavours from the Cumbrian landscape, and while the food is fancy, the service and environment is in no way stuffy or pretentious. Perhaps then why it was such a hit.
“I never expected to get the results and feedback we have been and so quickly,” says Andrew, “to get in the Good Food Guide in seven months was amazing.
“I’ve had some great feedback from other hoteliers in the Lake District too, who said it wasn’t just the food that was amazing, and it was the whole package.”
The complete transformation of Forest Side took 18 months and a total cost of £4m. Set in a 19th century Victorian building in 46 acres of grounds, the hotel is now home to 20 sumptuous bedrooms, each one named after the many types of trees found in the gardens.
All the bedrooms have been designed by interior designer James Mackie, with luxury products coming from the likes of Zoffany – wallpaper and fabrics – Farrow and Ball, and beds by Harrison Spinks, which had been exclusively designed for the hotel and contain over 1,000 springs.
“I met James at Hipping, he has a really fun streak in him and he likes playing with wallpapers and things,” explains Andrew. “We thought a lot about what the rooms are about and how we wanted it to feel, so we worked together well. That’s the only reason I’d do it again would be to do that, because it’s really fun!”
Learning the market
The weather in Cumbria often has a disastrous impact on the economy and the tourism industry takes a big hit as a result. The last 12 years has seen the market change dramatically, as Andrew has realised, with many factors influencing trends and shaping consumer demand.
“Everyone has doubled their hotel size,” Andrew comments, “there are endless places to stay in the Lakes, so you have to keep really competitive. Then of course the OTA boom which happened 2008. They are very convincing too, but you have to be really careful. At Forest Side we are only on Mr and Mrs Smith, which suits us and their model is very similar to ours so the last thing they want to do is discount. It’s more about the market.”
Future looks green
So with success in full swing, will there be another hotel on the cards for the Wildsmith portfolio? “No I think three is the magic number,” says Andrew. “I think we’ve covered all bases here in the Lakes. I wouldn’t want properties to aim for the same market; I’d rather spend my time going between three and making sure the team are keeping them on point, rather than just expanding endlessly. The aim is to all three hotels profitable, rather than having four that you can’t quite hit the mark with.”
With three hotels under his belt, I was keen to ask Andrew if he sees the Wildsmith name becoming a brand synonymous with luxury hospitality in the Lakes.
“I’d like people to know of the name and that it exists, but for me the brands are separate all owned by the same people,” he explains. “We are not going to put branding on anything – we put some on some bath salts or something once and I just remember looking at it and thinking it wasn’t right, it’s not us.
“Plus if it is all ‘Wildsmith Hotels’ then it becomes all about me and that’s not what it’s about. I don’t want to take anything away from the team.”