Independent hotel dynasties require vision, calm, ethos
Independent hotel dynasties require vision, calm, ethos
09 DECEMBER 2019 9:12 AM

It is a challenge to run an independent hotel in this era of brand coverage and technology-based distribution, but running a family independent hotel across several generations requires even more vision.

LONDON—Culture, loyalty from employees and a strong company ethos are the three principal resources that derive from several generations of a family running the same hotel, either all together or over the course of decades, according to sources.

Speaking at a session titled “Hotel dynasties” at the recent Independent Hotel Show, panelists said success might also come from challenging the status quo, even if that means some colorful conversations with those you love the most.

“Family businesses are the backbone of U.K. business, and there is a long-time view, not the short-term gains you see and are focused upon in many sectors. They are about stability, although slower to develop,” said Paul Milsom, managing director of The Milsom Hotels.

Milsom’s company has five hotels in the East Anglia region of the United Kingdom and is also known for its restaurants. He said he prefers family ownership and the ability to retain control of the direction of the business.

“As soon as you take in outside money, you are losing control, and eventually someone you do not know will tell you that the business is to be sold,” he said. “My father said it is the executors of my will who will decide if the business will be sold.”

Milsom said that profit is important because without it, reinvestment does not happen, but for many families it is not at the top of the list.

“We should also not put too much pressure on the next generation. My father did not, although maybe he was clever and manipulative about it?” Milsom said, who added his firm’s success came from building a brand locally.

Melanie Boissevain, owner of 11-room Penally Abbey in Pembrokeshire, Wales, said the advantages of having family close are a shared vision and absolute trust.

“We all bring in a skill set,” she said. “Decisions can be made easily and quickly, but it can be difficult to get back home and not talk about (business), and it is possible to lose a little sense of professionalism when you do not have a specialist management team.”

Will Ashworth, managing director of the Watergate Bay Hotel, near Newquay, Cornwall, and Another Place, in the Lake District, said it’s easier to find a brand identity with a family business mindset.

“The one great advantage is culture, the same attitude will prevail from one generation to another when you are trying to build a brand over time,” Ashworth said. “There is a point of continuity that comes from the very top.”

Disadvantages include that closeness to family, Ashworth said.

“You do not have clear separation. There is even a bit of business at the Christmas lunch table,” he added.

Boissevain agreed.

“I have never had to work so hard, and you learn to argue quietly with your family,” she said.

Leveraging loyalty
It’s difficult to ignore that major hotel brands are attempting to emulate independents, Ashworth said.

“We now see many major brands looking to recreate our attitude and magic,” he said.

Milsom said both guests and employees have more of a feeling of ownership in an independent hotel.

“There is a proprietorial feel, and we employ a lot of generations of families, and that cements the special feel. There are less and less hotels like us,” he said.

Milsom is the third generation to own and manage his firm.

“I wanted to be a surfer, but my father persuaded me to go to Surrey University to study hotel management,” Milsom said.

Ashworth said his dynasty now has gone over the half-century mark.

“My parents bought Watergate in 1968, and I have been managing director for 17 years,” he said.

Pressure does build up to keep these family independents special and within the next generation, panelists said.

“It is about working as hard as possible and putting no expectation on my children at all,” Boissevain said.

Milsom said family relationships can become complex when business is involved, but they can also grow stronger.

“How to deal with your children fairly will be an issue,” he said. “My father gave me more than he did my siblings as he believed I was the most likely to continue the business. I worked in the same office as my father.

“Family businesses get more complicated the more generations they go through. The articles for consideration get more complicated.”

Boissevain said that her background as a designer and her husband’s as an accountant means far more is done in house.

“The plan is to have a clean business that will not be a millstone,” Boissevain added.

Milsom said one focus is to accept there will be bad times.

“Stay on the treadmill and do not get knocked off it. Nothing is better than working with your family when things are going well,” Milsom said. “We generally are risk-averse, and at this time with so much adversity, debt is a major concern. Minimize debt where possible, but if you want to expand the business, some debt is inevitable.”

Independents in the U.K. are facing issues over staffing and business rates, panelists said, two issues are being debated in the run up to the general election on 12 December.

“The National Living Wage will push up costs, and I do not believe the government fully understands the pressures,” Ashworth said.

Milsom said his staff is mostly local, and that helps retention.

“We want employment to be a challenge that we can overcome, but will the customer pay any new charges?” Milsom asked.

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