Building the foundations to a new hotel brand during a pandemic has been a costly, but thorough exercise for Ed Burrows and Charles Randall the founders of Wildhive, a new hospitality venture rooted in nature launching to market this August. Now they are ready for lift off. We went to meet them to get the inside scoop.
Seldom do many hoteliers and their accountants boast the sort of fruitful relationship that Charles Randall and Ed Burrows have. After the challenges of the pandemic and some costly planning issues, the duo are embarking on their biggest challenge yet as they launch a new hotel brand to market.
August will see the debut of Wildhive, at Callow Hall in Derbyshire, a former Von Essen that has been transformed head to toe into a new hotel, complete with striking floor-to-ceiling glass restaurant, woodland ‘hives’ and treehouses, with a connection to nature and wellbeing rooted at the brand’s core.
Burrows and Randall’s joined-up journey in hospitality started long before this autumn however, having spent the last decade or so running Barnsdale Lodge in Rutland.
With Ed overseeing the operations – his hospitality experience spans more than 30 years – and Charles in charge of the finances – he ran his own tax practice from a young age – the duo have made a huge success of the hotel business, buoyed further by the opening of Rutland Retreats, a collection of luxury, sustainably-built self-catering cottages on site.
By their own admission, it didn’t take long working together at Barnsdale Lodge to realise they had a chemistry that suited the strategic and financial positioning of a hotel business. With the embers of an idea for their own venture starting to flicker, they started to put wheels in motion to find investment and crucially the site which would become their first property.
Charles, living in Spain at the time, returned to the UK to set up meetings for financial backing, and Ed, after a chance conversation with a family looking to spend on retreat-style accommodation, uncovered an opportunity for investment.
“The Ogden family got in touch and I told them Charles and I were actually just starting something, so if you’ve got the money, we’ve got the expertise, we should be joining forces,” Ed tells BH.
After ‘thrashing out a good deal’, two years later the newly-formed Wildhive acquired Callow Hall. The historic building dates back to 1849, having been built originally for John Goodwin Johnson. It wasn’t until 1982 that it first opened as a hotel by the Spencer family, who ran the business for 26 years before selling to Von Essen Hotels.
In 2011, the then 16-bedroom property was acquired by David and Joan Hardman, who saved the hotel from administration. Set in 35 acres, the country house hotel has character, architectural importance and land, the key foundations for the Wildhive brand.
The hotel has undergone an extensive renovation since Ed and Charles took over the building, adding new ‘hives’ – “lodges is like a swear word to us,” jokes Charles – in the grounds, two treehouses designed to ‘sit amongst the trees’ and a stunning Garden Room restaurant which gives vast views over the Peak District fells and beyond.
Bedrooms have been transformed by Isabella Worsley in her first solo project, who previously worked alongside Firmdale Hotels’ designer and founder Kit Kemp. There are 15 bedrooms in the main house, split into four categories, and dotted amongst the woodland are 11 one-bedroom hives, complete with bathroom, kitchenette and outdoor bathing, all designed by Worsley.
Executive chef David Bukowicki, previously at Barnsdale Lodge, is overseeing the food and drink and has created a menu which celebrates the seasons and the best of British produce.
Links to the land will be a crucial part of the brand’s DNA and encouraging guests to immerse themselves in nature. As a result, Callow Hall boosts 15 beehives, which will provide honey for the house, while the hotel’s kitchen garden will also serve seasonal vegetables and herbs. A sedum roof is in place atop the restaurant to provide a habitat for birds and insects.
A former derelict stables on site is being transformed into the Coach House Wellness Centre, complete with yoga studio and exercise bikes, plus a sauna and steam room.
The aim behind Wildhive is to create a ‘characterful collection of houses’, from cabins, pigsties, to treehouses or earth dens, situated in ‘lesser-known’ parts of the UK.
Ed and Charles already have ambitions to take the brand nationwide, with a pipeline of five properties, but stress that a site has to be ‘just right’ before they take the plunge.
Now with a strong team of professionals around them, a new general manager on board – Jeremy Whitworth was appointed earlier this year from his role at The Montagu Arms in Hampshire – and a fresh product and hospitality concept, Wildhive is champing at the bit to get going.
We hear from Ed and Charles on their journey so far and how the rollout of Wildhive will evolve.
You acquired Callow Hall in 2018. How long did it take you to settle on the building and how will this first property shape the rest of the brand?
Charles: “It had taken some time to really find what we wanted. There wasn’t lots jumping out at us. Our criteria was country house hotel, a building with some architectural importance, character, and land as well as being in a part of the country that is well connected. Surprisingly, Derbyshire is an hour and a half from two thirds of the population.
Ed: “Agents send you loads and loads, but now we have people looking for us. Our next properties have to be just right.
Charles: “We are not a holiday park. The Wildhive brand is about having other types of accommodation. Most hotels with just rooms, say 30 or 40 rooms, it’s incredibly hard to make money because they are old buildings and cost a lot of money to maintain, but this building has stood here since 1848 and it will stand here after us so it’s important we invest in that building. Having outside accommodation is very important, plus the benefits of educating people on the land and its potential.
“We are a little out of the box because our second, third, fourth property could be something completely different but with these core pillars.
Ed: “We like sites with outbuildings so we can adapt those, and create a business that has corporate through the week and strong leisure during the weekend. We are building in the trees here, the next one, we want to build earth houses which slot into the hillside. We are working on concepts and ideas and we always are; we are constantly scanning the horizon for something.”
You have a long history together working at Barnsdale, but why do you think you work so well together and what is your aim with Callow Hall?
Charles: “Sometimes it feels quite corporate to say, oh we have a hotelier and a person who deals in finance, but the reality is we are two people who just love hospitality. Where we really bounce off each other well is that there are lots of really good hoteliers but they fail because they don’t have someone dealing with reviewing reports on time, so they don’t know they are losing money, where they are making the most money and so on. Equally you find a lot of accountants who retire and buy a hotel and think they know everything about running a hotel. It ain’t that easy! I could come in from a financial perspective and say, oh it’s all about efficiency, but actually you could then lose that whole character; it’s about having the best of both worlds.
How delayed has the opening been and what challenges have you faced?
Charles: “Initially we were planning for January 2020, but actually the timing now has worked out well. Contractors Zenith came on site in March and then had to stop and couldn’t resume work again until October.
Ed: “In terms of challenges, planning and conservation has cost us a lot of money. Our professional fees have likely quadrupled, as we had to go back and re-write reports, or propose building something in a slightly different way. Some local officials haven’t been the easiest to work with.
“Before we bought the hotel, we got pre-application approval to build the hives in the woods, which we reconfirmed once we had acquired the building. Then we put in planning and it got refused. This battle went on for a year and a half and eventually we were made to reapply for everything again, before it went to planning committee via Zoom.
Charles: “13 out of 15 committee members loved the concept. They were forward-thinking people who saw that the county needed investment. We were very pleased with that.
“It’s also been very inefficient procuring off Zoom. Normally we’d go to a few hotel shows and pick out things, job done. So that process has cost us money.
Charles: “The cost of materials for the treehouses has also gone up significantly during our build. The treehouses are made of wood and a lot of that comes from North America so that’s had a real knock-on effect.
“We’ve had to deal with the absence of things we banked on in our cash flow, for example the job retention bonus. There has been lots of frustration with the roadmap.
Has the idea for Wildhive changed since it was first proposed and has lockdown meant the concept has evolved?
Charles: “Our coach house was originally going to be four suites but now it will be a wellness active area. We want to have wellness at every hotel but at different levels.
“We will have spent around £6m on the refurbishment in the end. Initially we had two phases to the treehouses, but we secured planning permission for the whole lot, so we decided to do it all at once.
“Building that professional team has cost us money so part of that £6m is cost that we won’t be spending next time.
Ed: “We have our group foundations now so we know exactly who is doing what when we go on to open our next property.”
You’ve spent time procuring the right team to take the Wildhive brand forward. How are you preparing for future growth and the long-term sustainability of the business?
Charles: “It’s not just about building Callow Hall, it’s about creating the whole group so we are testing architects; we are building the professional team. It’s been a long process to build the initial stages of the whole group, so next time, it will be easier. But we will have the team who know what we want.
Ed: “For example Isabella, in charge of the interiors, it’s been her first project on her own and it’s amazing how she has risen to the challenge and delivered.
Charles: “What we’ve spent here, we could’ve saved a lot of money I expect, using contract designers for example, and returned a lot of money to investors quicker, but we are not looking at a quick business in and out. I would if I had my pure accountancy hat on, but what we are looking for is a long-term business strategy. The best way for the business to be long term is to have guests that come back time and time again and go away and recommend us.
Ed: “Each one will have its own uniqueness – from huts to treehouses, and that’s how you create a long-term business, by evoking that curiosity in guests.
Charles: “Our investors are on board for the long term, they leave us to it and they love staying in beautiful hotels so will have a good critical eye and it’s a great partnership with them.
You’ve just welcomed new general manager Jeremy Whitworth in his first GM role. How has your recruitment process been so far?
Charles: “We really want to support people’s journey in hospitality and we want people to build careers in the industry; we will pay for courses or training for those who want it.
“The best GMs will be the people who work for us for ten years. Recruitment hasn’t been easy, but we are building a strong team of some real key people. We want to support our teams through investment, apprenticeship schemes and training programmes. For example a four-day working week will be the norm for all kitchen staff. That’s actually costing us more money but it’s the sort of environment we want to create and champion amongst our employees.
“We will also try and create a profit sharing model. I want to do a fair scheme that rewards the business and not just one department; I want everyone to work as a team.”
What are the plans for the rollout of the Wildhive brand and which areas are you targeting for expansion?
Charles: “Well the ‘accountant’ says we need to have five, and the ‘operator’ says I can’t manage five! We’ll see; we are aiming for five. This one has to open before we really start motoring our acquisition for site two.
Ed: “There has been a clamour for properties now, but there will be more coming to market spring next year I think when the free rates run out and cheap bank deals come to an end. Charles: “I don’t see us going to the south of the country. Norfolk we love, maybe into Wales, we love Eden Valley area, the Ribble Valley, Yorkshire Dales, North Yorkshire Moors, Northumberland, those sorts of areas are on our radar.