Peter Egli has been General Manager, Whatley Manor Hotel for some seven years. The hotel, under Swiss ownership, is a beautiful five star property set in a country idyll – the Dining Room overseen by Michelin two star chef, Martin Burge, is not the only attraction.
Peter found time to speak to Simon Carter of fine-dining-guide about his experiences and philosophies. Interview took place in one of the beautiful reception rooms at Whatley Manor during July 2011.
Tell us some background about yourself?
As a young man I wanted to become a chef and that is how I originally came into the hospitality industry. In fact I studied an apprenticeship as a chef at a Boutique hotel on the river Rhine. The restaurant had one Michelin Star. I worked there for three years before going on to do a further year in restaurants in Switzerland. My Swiss military service intervened and I found myself in the air force doing many of the things that a hotel manager might do (as a quarter master) which led to my enrolling on a course in a Hotel management school in Lucerne.
I took my first role in the hotel management side of the trade at Grand Hotel’s Bad Ragaz in Switzerland. I stayed there for eleven years, working my way up through food and beverage to vice director and deputy manager to the general manager. It was a completely restructured resort with two properties – one five star property with 106 rooms and a four star property with 136 rooms. In the peak, the occupancy rates were around 90%. There were seven restaurants, a golf course and a large spa. The food and beverage operation was a challenge but one that I enjoyed very much.
One day I had a call from a friend of mine, that Whatley Manor was new and looking for a general manager. He told me about the property and I got goose bumps. I had a week or so holiday to take and contacted the owners with the idea of applying. Myself, my wife and my son came over to find out more about the local area and find out more about the property. We enjoyed our stay in Bath and the moment the gates opened here at Whatley Manor we felt so impressed and completely comfortable. I decided to present myself for the position and had two interviews; one here and one in Switzerland.
I started as General Manager in early 2004 and so have been here for over seven years now.
How have you stamped your personality on Whatley Manor?
The property was effectively brand new from the moment I arrived. I was interested in forming one team instead of little kingdoms in the hotel. Any hotel needs direction based on a central point and ideally starting with a mission statement.
With this in mind we looked into the history of the property and realised that we had the opportunity to provide the personal touch of a ‘family home’; at the same time we wanted to bring out the unique points of the property that make it special to guests and will make them want to come back. To this end we decided we would be around the guests in a natural and professional way but not be intrusive – in many five star properties you will find six, seven or eight waiters around guests at any one time but here we respect the need for relaxed conversation and the personal space of guests.
The property has a combination of facilities – spa, award winning restaurant, cinema, a multitude of gardens and so on – that are relatively unique in the world but also the comfort factor of coming to a home away from home.
My management philosophy is to give the direction in which to (develop and) run in your career but the responsibility is on the staff member to run well in that direction. Of course you want them to showcase their talents to the best of their ability but naturally you have to make corrections where necessary.
From a marketing perspective, we have an events guide for our guests. This is something that we hope generates positive emotions that let our regular customers know that we care as well as inform them what is happening over a six month period relating directly to the hotel or relevant to the area. They have proved so popular that guests inform us when they move house so that they continue to receive our events guide.
Tell us about membership of Relais & Chateaux
When Whatley Manor was created (and we have extended it in certain areas), we were looking for a partner association or organisation that would showcase the hotel abroad. The hotel has twenty-three rooms so whilst we were considering small leading hotels or the world, small luxury hotels of the world and so on, (the former requires the hotel to have more rooms so that was excluded early in the process), I had had the pleasure of staying in a Relais & Chateaux hotel and found all the ideals of their collection of properties to fit perfectly with Whatley Manor.
We applied and in the congress in Athens in November 2004 the hotel became part of the association and have been featured since the 2005 Guide. Creating guest experiences and that feeling of family are so important.
What do you think encourages return visits and moreover with longer duration of stay?
Perhaps it is a three pronged attraction; Whatley Manor has a Michelin Two Star restaurant which is important to guests: There is a unique array of facilities provided in a comfortable environment that means the guests needn’t use their car while they’re here – walks, spa, choice of dining, cinema, gardens (26 gardens for 23 rooms!): The hotel can be a base for the many activities available in this exciting part of the countryside.
More and more people need time away to re-charge and find a sense of peace and tranquillity. They lead hectic, busy lives and having some beautiful surroundings and facilities that aid relaxation is more important than ever. Whatley Manor scores very heavily in this regard. To be a home from home or a ‘spiritual home from home.’
The property adapts to the seasons beautifully; the rooms are soft and welcoming in winter through to bright and colourful in summer. So while the property is relatively small there are lots of hidden secrets to be found by the returning guests.
What are your plans for the future?
First of all to demonstrate that where you have 65 members of staff for 23 rooms that you can adapt and survive in times of recession. We have managed to increase occupancy rates and number of customers so we have adapted thus far very well indeed. We have the ability to listen and win over customers by being able to change to constructive feedback and appreciate and continue where we have done well.
We have an average occupancy of 65% so I’m delighted but we want that to grow. We wanted to start a new tradition not just start a trend: Keeping up attention to detail; a traditional shell but contemporary inside, therefore ensuring rooms are regularly refurbished to reflect the luxury quality that Whatley Manor stands for every day.
Accolades for the restaurant have also proven important and this takes time to follow through into significant gains in occupancy but no doubt the international recognition that comes with Michelin is excellent for the property. ‘The Dining Room’ is something we are very proud of and we believe showcases Martin Burge’s talents perfectly.