“On day one, it felt like being home again,” says Grant Lowe, the new general manager of Harrogate’s Hotel du Vin, about his recent return to the venue he left five years ago.
“I know the brand very well, I live in Harrogate and this hotel always felt like home.”
Grant returned to the hotel in May following the departure of Nick Lawson, with a remit to take it “back to brand”. And he would seem to be the perfect man for the job, with years of experience working for the company and a passion about the brand that has even survived redundancy.
“My role is to take it back to brand from a food offering point of view, re-look at the relationships in the town and at the training investment in the service side. Possibly over the last few years, we’ve gone off brand a little bit,” he says. He is being helped in his task by a major refurbishment of the venue, which he estimates will cost between £500,000 and £1m.
Grant, 46, first came to Hotel du Vin in Harrogate in 2005, having been a general manager at Leeds Malmaison. Property firm Marylebone Warwick Balfour (MWB), which already owned the Malmaison hotel chain, had bought the Hotel du Vin chain of hotels in October 2004, and Grant was the first general manager to move across from Malmaison to Hotel du Vin to develop the brand. At that time, Hotel du Vin was fairly new in Harrogate, having opened in November 2003.
Grant left a year later in mid-2006 after being promoted to a national role in the company as director of business development across both hotel chains. He opened four Hotel du Vins, two Malmaisons and two existing hotels which had been bought and refurbished as Malmaison and Hotel du Vin.
He then returned to operations as the regional general manager for Yorkshire. But times were changing as the country entered the one of the worst recessions in its history - and Grant was to be one of its casualties. He was made redundant in 2008, along with many other people at his level in the company.
Surprisingly, he is more than a little magnanimous towards the company that made him redundant, saying he was “very well looked after”.
“It was exactly the right decision for the company but personally it was a bit of a challenge,” he says.
He adds: “I think if you understand the reasons and the rationale behind the redundancy, then you can’t blame the company - so it made it easier. And it was two brands that I had always loved and I couldn’t think about working for anyone else. You have to understand it’s for the best for the future.”
Indeed, he now praises the way the company has dealt with the recession compared to others in the sector.
“In the recession, there were many hotel companies out there that cut costs by removing toiletries or changing the quality of the toilet paper, but that’s not something that Hotel du Vin ever did,” he says.
“And because the company was very smart, three years later we are now talking about doing a refurb in this hotel.”
The hotel refurbishment will result in new under-floor heating in the bathrooms, which will also be re-tiled and re-painted. The 48 bedrooms will all get new soft furnishings and furniture, as well as a 42 inch flat screen television.
About £18,000 will be spent on new furniture and planting for the courtyard, while the front of the building will also be spruced up. There are also as yet unspecified plans to convert the snug, which currently has a pool table in it and, according to Grant, “isn’t utilised”.
Grant was unable to reveal the final cost of the work but said the figure would be anywhere between £500,000 and £1m. Work is due to start in the next two months and should be completed about 18 months from now.
“Changes will be gradual, but always with the brand in mind,” he says.
“But we are not going to change the heart of what the hotel stands for and what the public in Harrogate have come to appreciate.”
The refurbishment in Harrogate is part of a larger investment in a number of hotels across the chain by the parent group MWB.
“Harrogate has been open for nearly eight years and we haven’t spent any money in that time,” says Grant.
“The hotel now is very established, it’s well-known in the market place and the company sees the benefit of investing into Harrogate.”
He adds: “All the hotels are worrying about the conference centre but Hotel du Vin doesn’t rely as heavily on it as some of the other hotels in the town do. We have a strong leisure business and brand.
“The hospitality industry is suffering a bit more than other sectors in some regards. It’s all about getting diners in. But from an accommodation point of view, for us it’s very strong. Because of the strength of our brand, we’ve been able to hold our rate.”
Following his redundancy, Grant was unemployed for three months before becoming the general manager at the five star Cedar Court Grand hotel in York. But that was hit by the recession, and Grant found himself being made redundant for the second time in six months.
Undeterred, he took on a temporary role in Morpeth, Northumberland, driving two hours to work and back. He then worked for 18 months at the Mint Hotel in Leeds, which he describes as a “beast” with 333 bedrooms.
Many people would not return to work for an employer who had made them redundant, but Grant remained understanding of the reasons for his departure and even admits: “I was biding my time until a position (at Hotel du Vin/ Malmaison) became available.”
He adds: “It’s a cliche to say it, but it’s a big family, part of the culture is that they look after their employees.
“I remember having a conversation with some of my peers and we were talking about: after Malmaison and Hotel du Vin, where do you go? And we all agreed that to find a company like that is not easy.”
So, as he comes full circle and feels like he’s home again, is Grant returning to Hotel du Vin in Harrogate a different person to the one he was five years ago?
“Being made redundant makes you more focused and more driven,” he says.
“When you’ve been made redundant twice, you get even more focused and more driven, and probably you have a lot more clarity in what you are doing.”
Among his plans are a focus on corporate business at the hotel - the leisure/corporate split is about 50/50 - as well as re-introducing bistro-style food in the 90-seater restaurant. He is also keen on maintaining a presence in the community, saying: “If you are not in the community then you won’t be a success”, and this is true of the hotel where 60 per cent of guests are non-residents.
The hotel also continues to support the Harrogate International Festival and the Great Yorkshire Show, as well as the charity Yorkshire Young Achievers.
Grant adds: “It feels comfortable to be back from the point of view of knowing the property, the company and some of the staff, but very much with a focus to push it forward because the market is going to get tougher and tougher over the next 12 months.”