Hand Picked Hotels
Conceived by Julia Hands in 2001, Hand Picked Hotels has grown into one of the UK’s most successful hotel companies, offering the highest standards of cuisine and service to its ever-growing number of loyal guests. EatSleepDrink Magazine caught up with Margaret Erstad, Deputy Operations Director, to find out more about this unique country house hotel brand.
Built on the concept of providing an atmosphere in which guests are encouraged to feel at home, Hand Picked Hotels is understandably proud of its architecturally stunning properties. Yet far from creating stuffy country house hotels, the company has instilled a sense of fun and relaxation into its properties located in some of Britain’s most beautiful countryside. Having brought its collection of fine country houses well-and-truly into the 21st century by creating its own unique ‘modern regency’ style, Hand Picked Hotels offers guests a completely new kind of hospitality.
A collection of choice
“In 1999, 18 hotels were purchased from the Virgin and Arcadian hotel portfolios and the management of the hotels was placed with a third party hotel management company,” as Margaret begins by explaining. “When the management contract ended in June 2001, Julia Hands decided to take on the management of the hotels herself and became CEO and Chairman.
“She created a vision for the company that remains unchanged today: ‘to create a unique collection of architecturally stunning and exquisitely refurbished country house hotels set in beautifully maintained grounds, offering the highest standards of cuisine and service, which will make each guest’s stay a memorable one and Hand Picked the country house hotel collection of choice,’” she tells us.
Indeed, when asked about the major selling points of Hand Picked Hotels, Margaret was quick to identify three key factors behind the company’s success in the UK. “Firstly, I would say the individuality of the experience both in terms of the hotels and service. Secondly, all of the properties are famous for their great food and wine with all hotels having a minimum of two AA rosettes. Thirdly, I would say that Hand Picked Hotels offer something for everyone – the hotels are great for meetings and events, short breaks, parties and celebration or weddings”.
Today, Hand Picked Hotels operates 17 hotels across the UK, with exquisite locations ranging from the New Forest and Jersey to Yorkshire and Edinburgh, as Margaret continues by describing. “All of our hotels have excellent transportation links. Any potential acquisitions would have to combine a historic building with 50-100 bedrooms and be in a location where we are not currently represented in the UK, such as the M4 corridor”.
Owing to their superb transport connections, Hand Picked Hotels have unsurprisingly become a firm favourite with businesses. The company specialises in the management of flexible meeting and conference options at conveniently located country houses. Furthermore, for those businesses that make a booking worth £8000 or more, a free iPad is currently up for grabs. (http://www.handpickedhotels.co.uk/special-offers/Conference-special-offers1/)
For consumers, the story is similarly rosy. All 17 of the Hand Picked collection are highly rated on TripAdvisor for their architecture, gastronomy and high standards of accommodation. At Chilston Park in Kent – where EatSleepDrink was graciously hosted in the delightful four-poster Victoria room – guests will find a variety of food and beverage options alongside an excellent choice of rooms and rates. Just a short drive from the hotel, visitors will find the charming village of Lenham, full of plenty of shops and pubs, although there is more than enough to keep entertained in the hotel. And as one would expect from all of the company’s properties, Chilston Park upholds the fine tradition of quintessentially British hospitality.
Playing to its strengths
Indeed, having experienced this hospitality first-hand at Chilston Park, Margaret continues by explaining the company’s strengths. “I would say that we have a very strong people culture, which is reflected in our approach to customer service. Julia has created a very clear strategy for the company and this is evident at all levels of the business from the management right through to our satisfied customers,” she affirms.
As gastronomy and drinks – particularly the burgeoning cocktail culture – continue to be a core part of any premium hotel experience, Margaret is keen to fill us in on what guests can expect from the Hand Picked collection. “All of our properties have an impressive wine list and we work with our wine supplier, Bibendum Wines, to showcase quality producers, such as Bruno Paillard, our recommended Champagne. We also run training courses in both wine and cocktails for all of our teams.
“On a slightly different note, environmental awareness also plays a key role in our operating procedure,” she asserts. “We are committed to acting in a socially responsible manner in respect of our guests, team members and the local and wider communities and environment in which we operate.
“In this respect, we have five areas of focus that form the framework of our Corporate Social Responsibility Policy: respecting our environment through the responsible use of the Earth’s resources; food sourcing to reduce food miles and promote an ethical supply chains; supporting the well-being of our guests and team members; providing an engaging team member experience; and making a positive contribution to our local communities,” Margaret testifies.
Growing for the better
In the build up to the London 2012 Olympic Games, the UK hospitality sector is gearing up for one of the most lucrative periods in its history – a fact not lost on Hand Picked Hotels. “Our owner, Julia Hands, has expressed an interested in growing the group from 17 to 20 hotels,” Margaret notes. “We review properties as they come on the market and assess them in terms of their fit with the brand, their location and our business strategy. Our last acquisition was in 2008 when we acquired three hotels at the same time and which are now fully fledged Hand Picked Hotels in terms of the product offering and standards,” she explains.
It is this kind of meticulous approach to its product that keeps guests returning time and time again, as Margaret is eager to highlight. “We have people with an affinity to a particular property because it is within a couple of hours from their home and easy to travel to. In some cases, it is because they were married or celebrated a special occasion at one of the hotels. We also have a fan base that after visiting one Hand Picked Hotel want to experience the others and are gradually working their way around the collection.
“It is our intention for guests to feel indulged; at home; captivated; and inspired,” she affirms. “To deliver this experience, our employees attend our in-house culture programme called ‘Being Hand Picked’ to understand the behaviour they should display to our guests. Ultimately, people come back because they have positive and memorable experiences, which are down to the superb teams at our hotels”.
The Hand Picked Experience
To conclude, we asked Margaret what her ideal experience at the Hand Picked collection would be – a question that she understandably struggled to fit into one night! “The experience would differ depending on whether I am staying on business or for pleasure. I really enjoy attending workshops with specialists from all the hotels where we discuss and debate our strategy and activities.
“When I am on a personal stay, my ideal experience would be to travel with close friends and find time to enjoy the atmosphere of the hotel with pre-dinner drinks in the bar, a lovely dinner, a good night’s sleep followed by our cooked-to-order breakfast,” she concludes. “We would then explore somewhere in the destination either through a ramble or by visiting a historic site in the area. If we were at one of the spa hotels, I would ensure we found time to relax, swim and, of course, have a facial or massage”.
And with 17 of the finest country house hotels anywhere in the UK (and potentially another three in to come in the near future), we are confident that Hand Picked Hotels will continue to create atmospheres fit for any occasion for many years to come.