Interview: Sue Williams, General Manager, Cliveden House

Posted on: February 24th, 2014 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

Sue Williams spent more than a decade honing her skills at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons before moving onto properties associated with Brownsword Hotels and most recently Cliveden House Hotel. In this full interview Sue speaks candidly about her career path, knowledge gained and insights into this extraordinary industry.  Interview was conducted by Simon Carter in the library of Cliveden House in early February 2014.

Sue Williams

Sue Williams

Tell us some background about yourself…

From the beginning (after early summer work) I had a fascination and passion for this industry, a passion which led me to college and a four years HND course in Hotel Management.  This was followed by a two years hotel management training programme which was much more ‘hands on’ – I spent periods of time in properties learning different disciplines.

In the early days, as you might expect, my perspective of the industry was not as broad as it was to become, I remained quite cossetted in that I was mainly unaware of the beautiful five star country house style of properties.  After various placements through the training programme, I realised that I wanted to be closer to the customer and more detailed in my approach than perhaps the larger and more homogenous, corporate style of property could offer.

One day I wrote to Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons.  In 1989 Le Manoir was a ten bedroom hotel with a sixty cover restaurant.  It had the reputation of being the number one in the country of its type and a queue of people wanted to work at that property.  So really, I wrote a cheeky letter suggesting they meet me for interview, which turned out to be successful, and soon after I started as a restaurant hostess: I had ten months of being immersed in Raymond’s (Blanc) food – the culture behind it and how it was prepared.

Working around the sheer quality of people had a great and positive impact. I was appointed to Guest Services Manager and the property went from ten to nineteen to thirty-two bedrooms over a ten years period.  I ended my time there as Operations Manager, having worked along side a couple of different general managers – the highlight probably the time spent working for Phillip Newman-Hall during his first tenure at the property.

In 2002 was approached to take a position at The Bath Priory Hotel, a property with 32 bedrooms, a beautiful garden and a Michelin star restaurant.  It was also in a perfect location; the gateway to the south-west, where my parents were based and close enough to my early roots in Surrey. I worked for the Brownsword family (who owned Bath Priory) for nine and a half years and my role grew like Topsy over that period – the family took over the Sydney House Hotel in Chelsea and I was asked to take responsibility for the refurbishment and re-launch of that property.  Sometime later, around 2005, the company completed on Gidleigh Park and I was asked to take that property through its refurbishment and re-launch.

Andrew Brownsword had given me a fantastic opportunity:  Gidleigh Park was one of a (geographical) triangle of three, along with Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons and Chewton Glen.  These were luxury properties where people regularly toured between them, each so highly regarded by customers and industry members alike.

In 2011 Cliveden House was being acquired and I was aware that Andrew Stembridge (Chewton Glen, who I knew well through Relais & Chateaux) would be looking to re-furbish and re-launch the property.  I made my interest known and shortly afterwards the position here became a reality.  Being so immersed in a property of this character, age and importance has been a real privilege: To see it through the eyes of The National Trust, of architects, of historians and so on.  The current building has been a house since 1851 although a house was here since 1666.  So in terms of sympathetic restoration that are many reference points in delivering the best end product.  I believe the team dedicated to the task have done a great job!

How would you describe your hotel management philosophy?

Culture trumps strategy in our industry and the culture is about people.  Finding people who have those wonderful qualities who are just natural hosts is the toughest part of the recruiting process.  There is no mould of type for Cliveden House, people can be taught the skills but also to have the wisdom to fit with the quirky, beautiful and British nature of the property.  There is nowhere quite like Cliveden House; yes we have in common with other properties that we sell accommodation, food and beverage but in an individual way – so the right, adaptable, style of person is so important.  Once the right people are in place and given empowerment to get on with their jobs, there remains the necessary degree of constant light pressure that ensures everything runs efficiently for all our guests.

Tell us about Cliveden House hotel?

The most important aspect is the sheer history of the building and the extraordinary anecdotes that go with that heritage.  We have the staff immersed in stories about the property to share with the guests and add value to their experiences.

Cliveden House is a thirty-nine bedroom hotel.  Despite the building having been around for centuries it has only been a hotel since 1986 – four different sets of hands have operated the hotel before the current owners became custodians. Without doubt the property enjoyed a very fine reputation through the 1980s and early 1990s.  We are in the process of restoring the pride and reputation of the property as a hotel going forward.

What are your goals and ambitions for the property?

To be known and highly regarded for its sense of place, setting, people and cuisine!  The property is being sympathetically restored so the individuality and personality of rooms are shown in their best light.  Guests should be offered a great experience whether they want to sit down quietly with a book and glass of wine or equally if a family are getting dressed up for a very special occasion.  There is also no particular target market or demographic with an equal weighting given to all types of potential guests.

How have you stamped your personality on the hotel?

I like to think it is through the people that I’m gathering around me to get the job done.  Perhaps an intrinsic part of that is through nurturing the natural qualities within young people employed at the hotel and giving them the opportunity to express themselves.

The hotel is developing a work culture which is so much more than one person’s vision or enthusiasm, we don’t tolerate second best because we have the passion to get things right and understand how to get them right when we make mistakes.  Confidence comes with expertise and so long as staff remain respectful they are encouraged to show their individuality (personalities) which naturally leads to giving the highest levels of hospitality.

Tell us about the structure of the team…

There is a strategic team who meet weekly.  As well as myself this consists of Andrew (Stembridge), the HR manager, the finance manager and the deputy general manager.  There are of course strong heads of department across the board. It is hierarchical but people are developed to come through the ranks just as they would in any organisation.

Tell us about Relais & Chateaux membership…

The spirit of Relais & Chateaux is a perfect fit for Cliveden House.  Andrew (Stembridge) is on the board (of Relais & Chateaux) and I have been associated with Relais & Chateaux properties for over twenty years.  The 5C culture (Courtesy, Charm, Character, Calm and Cuisine) embodies the philosophy and feeling of the property perfectly.  It also helps keep us focused on doing the right things to move forward positively.

What factors affect return visits and length of stay?

Location is important.  Cliveden is conveniently close to Heathrow and London so it is accessible for return visits and short breaks. When I was working at Gidleigh Park on the other hand, it was so far from London that it was perhaps seen by people as a longer stay property.  Trusting the offering, getting it right and word of mouth all help in the process.  We find that corporate guests are around 30-40% of business while leisure is 60-70%.  Weddings are important business but we don’t want to skew the mix too much so we do about 30-35 weddings a year.  Exclusive use is also an opportunity for the property, events of 130-140 people are what we do very well.

What impact do you expect from a destination restaurant?

We are in the gourmet heartland, for example so close to Michelin star laden Bray and Marlow.  The beauty of now having a top quality restaurant at Cliveden House is guests have the option to have a high end dining experience without leaving the property. We are finding more and more guests are taking that option.  We see that trend continuing on an upward path.

Do you read trip advisor? What do you think of it?

Yes I read it all the time! (Smiling) And I do respond with a great deal of time, care and thought put into the responses.  It is high profile and people are referencing it all the time.  Like twitter it is a powerful tool but a double-edged sword. It might be nice if Trip Advisor introduced the need for a booking reference number; in that way should a customer wish to comment about the hotel, it would demonstrate they are valid and not a rogue reviewer.  Overall these new media are part of our times and better to embrace them sooner rather than later.

What other Industry initiatives are you involved in?

A fair few but the one that I am most proud of is the creation of a tremendous Hotel Management Training program called “Ten out of Ten” – Learning through application.

Together with nine other hoteliers we recognised a skills shortage in the industry and in 2011 got this program up and running.

Recruitment starts March through to May and the ten selected candidates join the ten properties from September. The program offer them a twenty five month program where they spend five months is five different hotels. Each move takes them into a different department and they have a very hands on and real industry experience. They have very clear objectives and are monitored closely along the way. We encourage initiative and steer them to take responsibility for their journey. At the end we want ten individuals who become a real asset to the industry.

Our first cohorts have completed the program and our now out in top hotels making us very proud of their achievements.

What are your plans for the future?

Here, here and here – I am a long stayer and I firmly believe that you barely see the fruits of your labours for the first three years. It takes time to bring all the elements together and to reach new heights.  I stand by my work and am proud of my achievements thus far, although there is so much more to look forward to in the future!