Danny Pecorelli is Managing Director (and Owner) of the Exclusive Hotels Group, which currently comprises four luxury hotels: Pennyhill Park, Bagshot, Surrey (pictured): South Lodge Hotel, near Horsham, Sussex: Manor House Hotel, Castle Combe, Wiltshire: Lainston House Hotel, Winchester. Employing over 700 staff in a £45m turnover business, Danny found time in his exhausting schedule to speak to Simon Carter of fine-dining-guide. Interview took place on 6th April 2012 at The Pass Restaurant, South Lodge Hotel, near Horsham.
Tell us some background about yourself?
I am more hotel trained than restaurant trained, although my first role was working in the kitchen at The Savoy Grill under Alan Hill who, at the time, was a Michelin star striving chef. He (Alan) is now F&B Director at Gleneagles.
With the privately owned family business of Exclusive Hotel Group, my ultimate destiny was pretty much fixed so I had in mind a kind of four year training programme; to take in as much industry knowledge as possible. At Four Seasons Group I worked Front of House, Estates, Marketing and HR (which included guest profiling). I then worked for The Sheraton Hotel Group in Washington DC, who twenty plus years ago, were probably the most innovative marketeers in the business.
For the last twenty years, I worked my way up through the Exclusive Hotels Group business; starting at Mannings Heath Golf Club (here) at the South Lodge Hotel, before spending five years running this hotel (South Lodge). The last ten years I have been responsible for the Group.
Tell us more about the Exclusive Hotels Group.
We have four hotels in the privately owned Exclusive Hotels Group “brand”. They are Manor House Hotel in Castle Combe, Pennyhill Park in Bagshot, South Lodge Nr Horsham and Lainston House Hotel in Winchester. These are beautiful listed buildings in large grounds.
“Brand” is in inverted commas as we like to demonstrate the uniqueness of each property right down to each room. There will remain a thread to the group offering with common objectives (like an expectation of a certain level of food and beverage offering), common qualities (like delivering a certain specified standard throughout) and common strategy (to deliver “wow customer experiences”). The difficulty with ‘brand’ and the hotel industry is that for many people it conjures up an image of homogenized corporate offerings and that is exactly what we don’t want to achieve.
I’m delighted that we’ve grown this business every year, even in tough economic times and think that has been, at this luxury end of the market, due to providing the ‘unique’, the ‘non-formulaic’, the ‘non-homogenized’ offerings that customers at this level are seeking out. Rather than being policeman of a brand, which in effect is a product with a life cycle, we look to bring out the evolving personality and heart of each property.
We have a framework rather than a weighty brand and/or policy manual: An example of framework would be to establish a British restaurant that aims for a certain level of attainment in an English country house hotel; we’re never going to run a Thai restaurant in the English countryside. If you want to be Nahm, that’s great but that works in London. The chef in one of our restaurants won’t be handcuffed by any policy or brand manual and will have the freedom to express his/her personality to the best of their ability. For the last six or seven years we’ve set a strategy to deliver food and beverage that acts as a destination in its own right. The food is like a heartbeat of the properties and as such we aspire to make the best possible offerings we can within the framework.
How would you describe your roles and responsibilities?
I run the group. I am officially the Managing Director. The group has very limited umbrella functions like business development, marketing, HR and accounts. The focus of resourcing is on each property, which comes back to the ‘anti-brand’ idea of bringing out the best in each property – it’s individuality, it’s personality and the heartbeat and not getting stifled with ‘corporate’ style functions.
For example, coming back to the framework: There would be a standard type of employment contract across the group that requires one head in an umbrella function but day to day HR would be run in-house in each property. This may not appear the most cost effective way to run the business but in reality we (Exclusive Hotels) gain far more through the overall objectives of how you want the properties to work.
How would you define the Exclusive Hotels Group mission statement and strategy?
The mission statement is really simple: To create wow experiences! It’s an old saying but it’s true; your completely satisfied customers are your best marketeers. We do some marketing and PR but the spend is so much less than competitors simply because we have that every day mantra.
If you relentlessly focus on the basics of doing the simple things right and consistently right (not getting lost on over-complicated tangents) then with the right people, everything falls into place.
We don’t chase accolades such as red stars or Michelin stars but gratefully receive them when deriving from a strategy that involves a consistent level of quality delivery in our offerings. Exclusive Hotels certainly doesn’t aim to be the biggest but we do aim to be the best.
There perhaps comes a tipping point in terms of size where the strategy would not work as you lose the personal touch; the uniqueness, personality and heartbeat of each property – the homogenous corporate feel becoming a necessity of very large scale operations. Instead we aim to hit the balance of economies of scale and uniqueness of operation; being the best each property can be within the context of the frameworks described.
What is your philosophy of people management?
That is a very good question in this industry. The hospitality trade is about people – people delivering to people – and happy, high quality staff that are retained will make the difference to your business. In that regard managers have a significant part of their bonus based on internal staff surveys and staff retention. As a business we talk as much about the internal customer as the external one – there is often a correlation between the strongest performing property and the best internal staff survey.
There’s an old saying from an American Express advert where a businessman says “great service isn’t a mystery, employ nice people”. The art to me is get that fundamentally right then being consistent will follow: Skills can be taught and moulded but attitude is pretty much in-built.
Tell us about Exclusive Hotel Management (EHM)
This is a separate business. We consult on a number of properties and run two for private interests. The activity really helps The Hotel Group as it encourages an input of ideas from outside the box of what we are doing on a day to day basis and as such helps feed into the positive growth of the Group.
Tells us your views of the Social Networking phenomena?
There are two levels, a personal level and a professional level. On a personal level you get a 360 degree view of something – a fully holistic, rounded perspective. You can see what a company is thinking, what the employees are thinking and what the customers are thinking – this is very healthy.
You can engage as much as you want – to be interactive or just to take it as information.
A byproduct is that consumers have become much more wise, with access to peer to peer information that they feel they can trust over and above a corporate message (website). All the independent bloggers, websites, twitter(ers) that are reviewing hotels and restaurants have rightly made a name for themselves as they offer an independent, extra piece in the jigsaw of making informed consumer choices.
We have one group marketing person who is purely dedicated to social media. People are aware that is the official hotel feed as it has all the offers and so on. If you look at Matt (Gillan) for example (the Michelin starred chef at The South Lodge, Pass restaurant) he has more followers by some distance than the hotel! This all feeds into the awareness of the group, becoming a beneficiary of the social networking media channel.
How do you see the general market for dining developing outside London?
It is fiercely competitive. Customers are more aware of what is great experience, however there are more than enough who are prepared to pay for the right kind of experience: Those that do it will well, will continue to thrive and prosper.
In terms of trends, people are eating out more and people look for more value for what they are paying. People want the full rounded experience; twenty-five years ago you might have been thrown out of a Michelin restaurant for ordering a gin and tonic whereas today you would look to service the customer in every respect. Accessibility and informality are trends, too.
What is your proudest professional achievement?
Every time someone recognizes and gives a pat on the back to the team is a proud moment. Particularly the awards that come out of the blue and genuinely surprise and please.
Describe a day in the life…
No two days are the same. The complete variety of work is of paramount importance to me. There’s so much going on in a business like this – 700 people and a £45m turnover. You’re always juggling so many balls in the air, take one out check it’s working and slot it back in: Shaping the future, managing the brand, managing the cross-sell and expectation setting and management. I’m certainly comfortable in employing talented people with the right expertise and delegating. Without that every day would be very long indeed…
What are your plans for the future?
Careful expansion while maintaining quality: If I hand over this family business to the next generation and we have six Exclusive Hotels and five Michelin stars: If the Group is making money and everyone is still doing what they should be doing then I will have done a good job!