Playing for a full house
Tuesday 13 November 2012 5:00
The man who transformed a derelict school into one of the region’s most revered hotels draws a line under tough conditions and looks forward with optimism.
In a parallel version of Tyneside, Jesmond Dene House is frequented not by blushing brides and city breakers but by creative firms and payday lenders.
Or perhaps in another reality the Georgian house where once Rudyard Kipling laid his head, is now a dusty relic of a collapsed quango.
For, if town planners had had their way nine years ago, Newcastle’s most secluded hotel might never have happened. In fact, the site – which had most recently been a school before falling into a derelict state – was earmarked by planners as office or apartment space.
But Peter Candler and his business partners knew otherwise.
“The development brief at the time talked about converting it into managed offices or building apartments. But coming from backgrounds in restaurant and property, we could see this was a hotel and restaurant,” says the venue’s MD.
“So we ignored the development brief that the city of Newcastle had supplied, which would normally not be a sensible thing to do, and put our proposal together.”
His wingmen back then were his business partner Tony Ganley and renowned North East chef Terry Laybourne who, alongside Terry’s brother Laurence, made up the founding board of the hotel.
The Laybournes have since sold most of their 50% share of the business but Ganley and Candler remain in control.
“We had a turbulent first two or three years creating a stable and effective business. It doesn’t surprise me that many people who try to succeed in hospitality fail. We wanted to create something to be proud of that was also commercially successful,” he says.
In a lounge festooned with images from the hotel’s glorious past, sits Candler, now charged with shaping the property’s future.
“Of course I’m here for the long term. I’ve got no choice.
“If you were going to create a beautiful hotel in the North East of England from a standing start, where better to do it from than here? If I sell this where do I go to do something better? It’s unfinished business here.”
By unfinished business, he means the ongoing drive to firmly establish the venue among the UK’s best; a daunting task considering many of its 4 and 5 star counterparts have had at least a 100-year head start.
“When you’re up against hotels that have been around for 100 years or more, they’ve clearly got a level of awareness that comes with that which it’s difficult for us to get to very quickly.
“But I’ve think we’ve done pretty well on that considering we’re not a mature business.”
And Candler, who is also managing director of Durham-based developer Rivergreen, says the venue has this year returned to pre-recessionary revenue levels “with an expectation for further growth”. This after the inevitable dip that hit all hospitality players in the wake of the global financial meltdown.
“The recession had a big impact on us and knocked us back - not that we were losing money - but we’ve completely recovered now and are better operationally than we’ve ever been.”
Now the hotel is also gearing up for work to begin on its new spa facility which Candler believes will radically transform what the hotel can offer its patrons.
“It will fundamentally change our offering,” he says.
It may be some time before the former stables near the hotel are ready to host steamy pampering sessions, and, in the meantime, the hotel’s management team has more pressing things to attend to.
“Consistency is everything in hospitality. Most people can be pretty good for a lot of the time but to be excellent all of the time is extraordinarily difficult. Getting the failure rate down to the absolute minimum is what’s driving us at the moment.”
Much of the hotel’s commercial success is derived from its diverse revenue stream. Perhaps surprisingly, given its current boom, the wedding market accounts for only 15% of the venue’s sales. Restaurant takings make up around 35%, with bedroom occupancy (30%) and corporate entertainment and private dining (20%) the other major revenue sources.
“All hoteliers know that bedrooms have to be the most profitable part of the business because there’s more cost there but I’m hopeful that all areas of the business are growing.”
Candler also sees the location of the hotel, overlooking a sprawling public park, as an untapped opportunity
“Over the next year or two we want to exploit our position on Jesmond Dene. We think we’ve under exploited that and the city of Newcastle has a big investment in the Dene.
“It’s a beautiful resource for the city and we want more people, particularly from outside the area, to be aware of it and to come here to have the opportunity to enjoy that special place.
“We’ve got a few ideas, including special offers and marketing collateral, to make more of the fact that we’re part of Jesmond Dene.”
Promoting one of Tyneside’s lesser known beauty spots could potentially benefit the wider visitor economy as well as Candler’s own business. But there may be selfish intentions too, with a colleague informing BQ that green-fingered Candler can often be found tending to the gardens around his hotel. Perhaps, by currying favour with the Dene’s stakeholders, he’s hoping for bigger patch of earth on which to wield his trowel.