It would appear that the four part “A Very British Country House” Channel 4 TV series aired last September hasn’t done the hotel any harm, perhaps in particular through giving air time to the visit of Meghan Markle before the Royal wedding. Indeed, subsequent business has seen a rise in the numbers of guests and turnover alike. The first three months of the year has been a record, plus in terms of reviews and feedback about the hotel, business is continuing to move in the right direction.
The show introduced various staff members including Michael Chaloner, who was variously referred to as ‘Butler,’ ‘Doorman’ and ‘Concierge.’ Michael is more commonly recognised to regulars as a ‘Host,’ who over twenty-seven years of service has formed part of the very soul of the building. To those familiar with the success of the nearby Michelin three starred Waterside Inn in Bray, he may be considered Cliveden’s answer to Diego Masciaga, the engaging maestro or master of ceremonies that everyone trusts, appreciates and moreover want to talk to.
It is hoped that after his impending retirement, Michael will enjoy some free time before returning to Cliveden House in some form of Ambassadorial role. This arrangement would surely prove a win to all parties, namely the hotel, Michael and the customers.
Michael’s journey into hospitality started after leaving school when he took a job working in the fabric department of the now closed Habitat on the Bath Road nr Maidenhead, a position where he learned that he enjoyed customer interaction. Having also worked in pubs and restaurants doing bar and waiter jobs, by the mid 1980s and barely in his twenties, Michael decided to spend 18 months traveling around the world. For a young man traveling back then there were no smart phones to call home to parents or electronic transfers of funds, “you had your backpack and your wits” fondly reflects Michael and his wits were to mix kiwi fruit picking with bar and restaurant work to fund his way around the world.
Upon returning Michael enrolled in a Hotel and Catering degree at Ealing College, which later became part of Thames Valley University and his first role upon graduation was on the front desk of Cliveden House Hotel. The first internal move saw Michael take on the Weddings department, a role that he found naturally rewarding, through dealing with an event so precious and special to the customers. While Michael found that 90% of the planning was repetition for each client, the other 10% had that individual piece of love put into it that made it different and enjoyable for the planner as well as wonderful for the customers. Rather like a chef repeating a dish in the kitchen, perhaps a touch more salt in the sauce or a hint of difference in the seasoning, however “To each customer of the wedding department it was like the first and only time you had ever organised a wedding, just like a restaurant where each time a new customer tries a dish it is like it has been cooked for the first time and especially for them.”
Michael spent some time working with the Exclusive Use department of the property but over time, the eight o’clock in the evening writing of emails, documents and spreadsheets became less appealing than working exclusively with guests. This triggered a move back to the front of house where if ever asked what he does, Michael modestly and simply describes his role as ‘talking to people’. Yes he may have to send some emails, write some documents and create certain spreadsheets but feels that if he’s asked to stand up and talk about the contents and utilise his conversational skills, he’s more likely to get high marks than for the administration work itself.
Michael’s guided tours of the Cliveden property are legendary, delivered with élan, while revealing aspects of the personalities involved in the history of the building, the natural flow of wit and repartee is combined with an engaging charm. Michael begins his research of the building ‘Wikipedia’ style and then delves down into the particular characters that have shaped Cliveden over the centuries. The likes of Sir George Warrander, the Buckinghams and the Earl of Orkney all receive the lively ‘Chaloner treatment’ during guests’ guided tours of the history of the property.
Indeed, Michael feels that guests have provided as many if not more interesting or heart-warming human stories than those that have shaped the course of time of the four walls. Amusing tales such as that of Michael Jackson taking the top floor for six weeks in the 90s at the same time as a well known celebrity wedding and the little incidents and accidents that happened around them or indeed a Sex Pistol providing a gracious moment after a mistaken complaint.
In context, Michael sees that the everyday guests, who each receive their square yard of red carpet, provide as many anecdotal moments as the rich and famous, from the misbehaving men (usually men) who ask not to be remembered to the heart warming story of the maisonette dwelling ‘Auntie Barbara’ who visited every Christmas for years: collected from her home in the then ‘House Rolls-Royce,’ she would find her portrait replacing the Queen Mother mounted on the Piano of the Great Hall for the duration of her stay. “A sweet lady who roared with laughter and generated happiness for those around her,” reflected Michael.
Michael views good hospitality as being constantly vigilant and aware of your surroundings to allow anticipation of what a guest is about to need. Simply being available is important and when available being adaptable enough to bend to the needs of the guest – “do they want formal or informal, talkative or quiet, humorous or serious.” Usually, Michael believes, humour is a common bond built with a guest, be it a smile and some gentle laughter that can create the most important relationships. “Ultimately good hospitality is about being yourself as much as possible and allowing that personality to fit round the needs of the job, being a constant performer would be impossible, if that were the case such long service in the job would have proved impossible,” suggests Michael.
Michael is confident that he’s proved a safe pair of hands in service delivery at Cliveden House, in looking after guests and setting expectations to help the smooth running of their stay. After twenty-seven years he is happy, satisfied and proud to have “glued his life” to one property in the hospitality industry. “So many faces have come and gone, either on whim or believing the grass is greener on the other side but have later regretted that thought” and in addition, he reflects, “should you have a wife, children, mortgages or elderly parents, it’s a pleasant feeling of security to be in one place and one place that you love.”
While the future holds retirement for Michael, he is widely considered such an asset as ‘the face of the house’ that, as mentioned previously, we will hopefully see him once again, fittingly hosting the indomitable, the very British and somewhat idiosyncratic Cliveden House. Bravo Michael, here’s wishing you all the very best…