Robin Hutson – The Hotel Guru
I first met Robin Hutson in 1994, when he and Gerard Basset, who had worked together at Chewton Glen, opened the first Hotel du Vin in Winchester, in what was the old Southgate Hotel. Nobody could have predicted what followed.
Robin Hutson ‘Hotel Guru’
Hotel du Vin was an immediate hit with its well-trained, well-dressed staff, and excellent bistro food, and good value wine list, all of which were a refreshing change from the dull, unimaginative establishments which passed as hotels in those days.
They also brought with them, a young chef called James Martin, who created the imaginative bistro menus, and he has gone on to create a successful career for himself as a Celebrity Chef, but that is another story…..
Robin, and his wife Judy, designed and decorated all the rooms at Hotel du Vin to their personal, quirky taste, and they made sure that the shower heads were large and the water came through like a monsoon instead of a pathetic trickle, and the towels were large and soft and fluffy, and the beds were big and comfortable, and most importantly, no two rooms looked the same.
The first Hotel du Vin – Winchester
Hotel du Vin was the antidote to the bland, corporate hotels which dominated until that time, and its fame spread quickly, so that others sprung up in Tunbridge Wells, Brighton, Bristol, Birmingham, and Harrogate, and many of them occupied ‘Landmark’ buildings such as a warehouse in the Bristol Docks, the Old Eye Hospital in Birmingham, and the Brakespears Brewery in Henley on Thames.
But the important thing was that, whilst they were all different, the quality of the rooms, and the well-trained staff, and the imaginative cuisine, and great wine list remained constant. This was the successful formula, which established Hotel du Vin as a new force within the UK hotel industry.
Young staff were properly trained and then promoted within the group, ensuring continuity and consistency, and they were great.
They had been taught how to value their guests, and they were valued in return; the whole atmosphere was stimulating, and there was a real ‘buzz’ about the place in those early years, and Robin Huston kept a close check on every aspect of the hotels.
Robin inspired his staff, and charmed his guests, as did Gerard Basset who hosted Wine Dinners, and generally encouraged guests to be more aware of the wines they were drinking and was pleased to discuss wines with customers and make recommendations to complement their choice of food.
Gerard Basset and Robin Hutson
This hotel revolution attracted a fascinating cross-section of society from barristers appearing at the nearby Winchester Crown Court, to local businessmen, and a scattering of celebrities, including Gordon and Anita Roddick of Body Shop fame, whom Robin and Gerard had taken on as shareholders to help fund the expansion of the group.
They joined the largest founding shareholder, Ashley Levett, of Winchester Commodities fame, who had been a small backer in the early stages but soon bought-out all his fellow shareholders, and held a large stake when the Roddicks came on board.
By 2004, there were six completed hotels with plans for many more, but the owners of Hotel du Vin were approached with an offer they could not refuse, from property group Marylebone Warwick Balfour, the owners of Malmaison Hotels, who unveiled a £66.4 million deal to buy the group.
Robin Hutson and Gerard Basset, signed the deal on the eve of the group’s 10th anniversary party in Winchester, which I attended, and announced it to a stunned audience, but it has proved to be a very good deal in light of what has happened since.
During his time at Hotel du Vin, Robin had become good friends with Nick Jones, the founder and majority shareholder of the Soho House group, (husband of Kirsty Young, the broadcaster) and had advised him in the conversion of Babington House in Somerset into a country club for Soho House members.
So, following the sale of Hotel du Vin, Robin Hutson became an investor, Chairman, and partner to Nick Jones in the hip Soho House Group, which Robin helped expand into the USA, with clubs in New York, LA, and Miami, Florida, where they became very popular with the media and entertainment industries, with the New York one featuring in an episode of ‘Sex in the City’, with the four stars perched around the rooftop pool of the NY Soho House Club.
Robin Hutson moved easily within these circles, winning many fans with his discreet charm, and Hollywood good looks, and a very British sense of humour.
His investment in Soho House proved to be yet another shrewd move by Hutson, because, four years later, they successfully sold to Richard Caring’s Caprice Holdings in 2008, for £105m.
Richard Caring also made a shrewd investment because he has since sold it on to US billionaire Ron Burkle in January of this year in a deal worth £250 million, netting Nick Jones a further £20 million for his remaining stake.
Soho House currently owns and operates the Soho House brand in London, New York, Hollywood, Miami and Berlin, as well as three hotels in the capital – Dean Street Townhouse, Shoreditch House and High Road House in Chiswick – and three stand-alone restaurants – Cecconis, Hoxton Grill and Pizza East. It also runs Babington House Country house Hotel in Somerset.
Anyway, following the earlier sale to Richard Caring in 2008, Robin Hutson found himself all cashed up with nowhere to go, but it was not long before he was approached by the billionaire, Jim Ratcliffe, the chairman of Ineos group, who wanted his help and advice regarding a new hotel he had agreed to finance.
Jim Ratcliffe, used to eat at the popular ‘Le Poussin’, the New Forest restaurant of the chef, Alex Aitken, who persuaded Ratcliffe to finance the purchase of the property, and its conversion to a luxury country house hotel.
Robin Hutson on the lawn in front of Limewood
However, neither Aitken nor Ratcliffe had more than a passing acquaintance with the hotel industry, although Aitken was a good Chef, and Ratcliffe had a good eye.
Jim Ratcliffe was determined to have the best architects and designers working on the project, and, when he saw the Orchard House at Highgrove, he tracked down its elusive architect, Charles Morris, who was duly commissioned to design lodges and pavilions housing indulgent rooms and suites (some with open fires or wood-burning stoves), in a charming “English country house style”. However, they were hugely expensive additions to the main building, which still needed an interior designer. After a false start, Ratcliffe and Aitken lighted on star designer David Collins for the hotel’s interior.
Collins’ impressive designs for a number of trendy watering holes and eateries in London including The Blue Bar at the Berkeley, as well as Claridge’s, The Connaught, The Wolseley and Nobu, may seem at odds with Limewood’s natural surroundings,however, they contrast well with the neo-classical architecture and add a certain ‘panache’.
Five years into the project, and a reputedly £30 million later, Ratcliffe and Aitken had the design in place but no management team and little idea of direction.
Enter Robin Hutson, who knows a thing or two about today’s requirements for success. The new-style country retreat must have exactly the right mix of informal yet utterly professional service, something that was proved conclusively at Babington House which quickly established a 90 per cent occupancy rate well above the norm of country house hotels.
Robin Hutson’s first message for Ratcliffe was not to expect a return on his investment of £30 million plus, however Robin set about doing what he does best, building a highly trained, competent team who understand his concepts of quality and service, and an efficient marketing department to promote the charms of Limewood to an affluent, and star-studded clientele, and it has been a big success, so much so that he is now developing a group of hotels, and a ski-lodge in Courchevel for Jim Ratcliffe.
The first of these new Hotels is ‘The Pig’, on the outskirts of Brockenhurst, Hampshire, which opened its doors last year and is the first property within a new company called, Home Grown Hotels.
Other hotels are expected to follow in rural locations close to major towns and cities in the South of England, such as Bristol and Chichester.
Converted at a cost of £3m from the Whitley Ridge Hotel, the 26-bedroom Pig aims to be the antithesis of the traditional country house hotel, with shabby chic décor and a restaurant highlighting foods grown in the extensive kitchen garden or sourced within a 15-mile radius.
“We hope the Pig will fill the gap that exists below the high-quality and expensive country house hotel at the top of the market and the current three-to four-star sector, which is pretty traditional and often lacklustre,” said Hutson.
Hutson is sharing the development cost of the new business with the marketing director David Elton, finance director Mike Rice and the banks.
The general manager is Lora Strizic, former general manager of the Hotel du Vin Brighton. The kitchen is headed by James Golding, who has previously worked at Le Caprice, J Sheekey and Soho House in New York.
Golding works closely with kitchen gardener Ollie Hutson and support from Ian Nelson at Sunnyfields organic farm, and forager Garry Eveleigh. The menus are inspired by the fresh, seasonal dishes created by Skye Gyngell at Petersham Nurseries and Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in California.
Hutson, with his wife, Judy, were responsible for the look of the hotel, which he says is ‘un-designed, with oddments of furniture and lots of garden influences’.
“We need to perfect the model of the first one, but we are already looking at other locations for the Pig. However, I expect it will take us 18 months before we are ready to open a second one.”
Hutson’s career has been about redefining relaxed luxury. His time at Chewton Glen inspired him to want luxury “without having to put a tie on” and spurred him on to challenge the orthodox views of top-level food and service.
This philosophy has driven everything Hutson has been involved in, from the original Hotel du Vin concept, which “reinvented the wheel” at the time, to Lime Wood, where despite it being a luxury country house hotel it is still possible to order baked beans on toast.
He is a passionate team builder and believes strongly in the use of creative training for his young teams and that, fundamentally, “Nice people give nice service – so we try hard to recruit and develop nice people.”
It certainly worked at Hotel du Vin, and I see no reason why it will not work elsewhere; it is all about valuing people.
His success at Limewood, and now the Pig, are further testaments to his skill, and confirm his position as this country’s most inspired hotelier.
This hotel feels exactly right the moment you step inside, from the tennis court and bicycles, to the relaxed but polite service, fabulously fresh food and that glorious, abundant garden, The Pig represents superb value.
Many hotels boast kitchen gardens, but few are as truly central to the feel, as well as the food, as that of The Pig. Though none can provide more than about a quarter of the produce required, that 25 per cent genuinely dictates the menu here.
Hutson’s luck was to find gardener Mike Kleyn, who has created, along with Hutson’s son Ollie, created an imaginative edible paradise, open to all; and to find chef James Golding, who has enthusiastically embraced the concept.
The second Pig is about to be announced any minute, and I am sure it will be a successful chain, once the concept catches on.
In the meantime, one of the nicest ‘spin-offs’ from his days at Hotel du Vin, is a beautiful hotel in Provence called Hotel Crillon Le Brave, which was the brainchild of Peter Chittick, who was the Finance Director at Hotel du Vin’ and his wife Caolyn, who, in the summer of 1988, set about finding a Provençal property to convert into a hotel.
They stumbled upon the large country house of a Parisian family in the tiny hamlet of Crillon le Brave, and about a year later, with the help of business partner Craig Miller and his wife Susan Meech, Peter opened the Hostellerie de Crillon le Brave with 11 bedrooms in what is now the “Maison Roche”.
Over the subsequent 18 years, the Hotel has expanded to encompass six more village buildings and a total of 32 bedrooms. In 1995, the Hotel joined the prestigious association of fine hotels “Relais & Châteaux”.
Through the years, Peter and Craig have been supported by a strong group of co-investors, and in 2006, Robin Hutson, joined as a director and his wife Judy has been responsible for all recent design refurbishments.
It occupies and number of ancient buildings in the hilltop town of Crillon Le Brave, and has spectacular views over vineyards leading up to Mont Ventoux in the distance. This is a wonderful retreat for Robin and his wife Judy, and they try and get there as often as possible.
There is no doubt that Robin Hutson has had the most profound effect on the hotel industry in this country, and has been a major influence in the way we think about hotels.
It is fitting that he is now so actively involved in the industry once again, as the force behind the success of the Limewood Hotel, and now, the Pig, and all the little piglets which will now follow. Watch this space!
Robin Hutson and one of his biggest fans!