Interview: Philip Newman-Hall (December 2009)

Posted on: December 1st, 2009 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons has celebrated 25 years of operations during 2009. The luxury hotel, with a stunning Michelin Two Star restaurant sits in acres of beautiful Oxfordshire countryside.

World-renowned as the vision of iconic chef Raymond Blanc, the day to day running and management of the luxury property is in the safe hands of Director/General Manager, Philip Newman-Hall (left)

Philip found time to speak to Simon Carter of fine-dining-guide about his philosophies for hospitality and provided fascinating insights in the art of great Hotel General Management.

Interview took place Tuesday 1st December 2009, at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons.

Tell us some background about yourself?

After leaving school, having done some summer work in a hotel as a waiter, I joined a hotel company called Falcon Inns, owned by Joe Lyons, on a chef’s apprenticeship within the kitchen. Within a short period I contracted dermatitis from handling flour and meat but fortunately the hotel had seen enough of me to offer a place on the management-training scheme. I stayed there for a number of years (including the period after their take over by Trust House Forte.)

At the age of 29, I achieved my first general manager position at The Spa Hotel in Tunbridge Wells, which was George Goring’s hotel. The previous four years had been spent there as deputy general manager.

Some years later, I had a step up to Operations Director of Virgin Hotels who had nine hotels at the time. This involved managing a group of hotels from afar but after four years found that I missed the hands on general management of a distinct, individual, high quality hotel.

In 1999 I joined Le Manoir as general manager and had five very good years before leaving to do some consultancy. Just five months ago I was delighted to return as director/general manager.

What are your early impressions after returning to Le Manoir?

Due to the passion, vision and commitment of Raymond Blanc, Le Manoir is effectively re-inventing itself every five years. So everything is, in a way, new and exciting. On the other hand the senior management team retains 22 of the 26 staff that were here when I left in 2004 – so there is the balance of continuity.

Previously, my brief had been to move Le Manoir from a world-class restaurant with 19 rooms to a 32-bedroom hotel with a stunning restaurant.

A transition was required into understanding and delivering the top class housekeeping, room service and ancillary services associated with a five star hotel (as opposed to a five star restaurant that also provided rooms.).

Now the hotel is looking at some refurbishment projects (spending £1.4m on four suites in 2010) as well as the potential to deliver an orchard, an organic farm and eventually a spa.

Over these early first five months, I’ve been observing, putting in place some subtle changes and am in the process of writing a five year plan with Raymond Blanc.

What is your philosophy of hospitality?

As a point of departure, put yourself in the place of the guest and think of how you would like to be treated. Think about the standard and level of service that you would expect and deliver against those expectations. It is also something that I think is inbred and perhaps difficult to train – the best in hospitality will instinctively anticipate the guest and deliver what they were ‘about to want.’

There’s also the need to be a good host – in so many hotels today you never see the general manager of the building, my philosophy is to be around the house, ‘managing by walking about’, being the host like an old fashioned inn-keeper.

It might be easy for customers to gain the perception that they are coming to an intimidating temple of gastronomy, however at the Le Manoir we like to foster the concept with both our staff and customers that the house is friendly, welcoming and comfortable; somewhere to shake off the sometimes stressful outside influences in life.

What proportion of your guests are Corporate?

One of Le Manoir’s successes in recent years has been thanks to 95% of our guests being private individuals, which lends itself to a relaxed and peaceful atmosphere in the house.

What makes a leader of staff and a leader of customers?

Leaders and managers are perhaps two different characters with different skill sets. A leader has the vision and managers put the vision into practice. A leader will be charismatic, sell and follow up on their vision, communicate well with all levels of people. A leader too, will be seen from the front and give and receive respect.

The biggest investment we make in this property is in the team of staff. It is very easy in this day and age to become an office bound, spreadsheet lead, accountant style manager which, to me, misses the point of bringing the best out of the core asset – the human beings that make up the soul of the building.

From a management perspective, Danny Meyer from Union Square Cafe has a great phrase “constant gentle pressure” which may involve being strict but fair but also to gently stretch themselves to bring the best out of themselves every day.

I’m a firm believer in retaining attention to detail from the staff and while having a proactive role in this maybe a theoretically minor part of my roles and responsibilities, it helps to provide a ‘guardian of the standards.’

Describe the organisation structure of Le Manoir

Raymond Blanc is the heart of the house and everything stems from him. I am the Director and General manager and responsible for the day-to-day running of the whole house. The kitchen is slightly separate in that Gary Jones (who has been executive head chef since 1999) has a dotted line to me and direct line to Raymond and the pastry brigade headed by Benoit Blin reports directly to Raymond. There are housekeeping, garden and maintenance, front of house and marketing and PR teams.

Tell us about past successes from Le Manoir (in terms of staff)

The house has spawned many successful people and we tend to keep in touch. Raymond is a giving person and people tend to give back to him. Last year for instance, Le Manoir hosted a dinner for 25 chefs and there must be approaching twenty who have gone through the kitchens here and gone on to Michelin stardom in their own right.

It’s not just about the chefs either, Le Manoir has seen, for example, an international community of future successful Hotel General Managers who have enjoyed their time at the property and also tend to stay in touch.

The list on all fronts is something we’re proud of and should I start naming names I’d be bound to miss someone out…

Tell us about the kitchen at Le Manoir?

The kitchen is the heart of the house – the raison d’être of the house is the food on a plate. Gary Jones has been here since1999 and this is his second period of tenure. It is still Raymond’s (Blanc) kitchen and he actively works on the preparation of every new dish that makes its way on to Le Manoir’s menu.

The brigade size has grown significantly over the years. Should you have all the staff in at one time – that is all the chefs, pastry and people washing up then it comes to 65 heads in total. This is in part due to having a very busy property but also Le Manoir has reduced working hours to prevent some in the kitchen working excessive shifts.

Raymond (Blanc) is always pushing forward, at the forefront, at the boundaries: For example, today as we speak, Raymond (Blanc) is in a meeting with the ‘Fish to Fork’ and ‘End of the Line’ people, understanding where Le Manoir has to be in sourcing terms to be a pioneer in sustainability.

Raymond (Blanc) has always naturally been a leader in this regard and was championing local and organic produce long before these things were more widely discussed.

What proportion of guests are returning guests?

With 25 years of history Le Manoir is at 35-40% returning guests, perhaps in the restaurant it is a higher proportion nearer 50%. The house would love to improve that ratio but at the same time are aware that there is a lot of competition and that we are also in the ‘aspirational market’; in that many guests come to celebrate once in lifetime occasions such as special birthdays, weddings or anniversaries.

What is the strategy for the house going forward?

Le Manoir is proud to continue to be a member of Relais & Chateaux – it is a uniquely French house in the English countryside. The kitchen aspires to three Michelin Stars and always will! The hotel remains in partnership with Orient Express hotels which helps with the broad base of European clients.

For the future, a spa would be important as the average length of stay at the moment is 1.3 nights. A spa would definitely help extend stay duration, which is important – shorter stays tend to place heavier use on the room, longer stays bring in more consistent revenues.

Raymond is still passionate about the house for the present and future and the soul of the house is to share that passion going forward.

From a brand perspective, the lynchpin of the brand is Raymond Blanc and everything flows from him, this is reflected in the progressive development of websites – one for Raymond Blanc and one for Le Manoir. Raymond (Blanc) will continue to do serious work on television and radio and the resulting spikes in website traffic give us a flavour of the awareness value of his work.

How has business been during the recession?

Turnover difference between 2008 and 2009 is marginal. The accommodation spend has been slightly down but compensated for by restaurant spend that has significantly increased. The 2010 pre-bookings look like another similar year.

The long-term strategy of aiming at the private market, where the last customer walking out the door is Le Manoir’s best ambassador, has stood the property in good stead. Should we maintain the philosophy of meeting and exceeding every single customer’s expectations then the house will continue to be strong into the future!