Lime Wood and ‘The Pig’ have been two of the most well regarded new products to launch in the country house scene in recent times, honing in on a market demand and rapidly changing customer expectations. How have Robin Hutson and David Elton sought to break the mould? Heather Gibson finds out.
It is a remarkable achievement to adapt two previously under-utilised properties and transform them into one of the major talking points in hospitality, but that is precisely what Robin Hutson and David Elton have done. With their combination of experience and instinct, the pair have created distinctive products which they are now developing into a larger portfolio. Lime Wood, which opened in Lyndhurst in 2010, has become one of the top five-star country house hotels outside of London and was this year’s AA Hotel of the Year in England. THE PIG – in the forest, outside Brockenhurst – has enjoyed exceptional performance since it opened in August 2011, providing the concept which will be the major focus for continuing growth.
The Lime Wood Group is effectively a management company which provides services to two different business entities – Lime Wood Group and Home Grown Hotels. The common shareholder to both is Jim Ratcliffe, who owns 100 per cent of Lime Wood Group property, comprising the UK hotel and Portetta in Courchevel, a hotel with luxury lofts and mountain lodges, and is a shareholder in Home Grown Hotels. Home Grown Hotels operates THE PIG brand and is 50 percent owned by the management team.Robin was approached by Jim around four years ago when the five-year £30 million development of Lime Wood was nearing completion. “It had been a tough period and he was not sure how to get the best of out it. I wasn’t really looking for a job, but once I saw the property I was knocked out by the craftsmanship,” recalls Robin. “I thought it could be really good, but realised that we needed more hotel expertise on the board. David had sold his company, Leonardo, and lived locally, so I asked him to come and take a look.” David adds: “I had not been that involved in the UK domestic market, but when I saw the building it was this extraordinary property. You know it when you see it, and there was a sense that it was different and the quality of workmanship was extraordinary.”
This matching of expertise is the foundation of what was to follow. Robin began his career at Claridge’s and spent eight years at Chewton Glen, leaving to co-found Hotel du Vin. HDV grew from a single site in Winchester to a seven strong group before it was sold to MWB in 2004. Robin then took on an executive chairmanship role with Soho House Group, having been on the board of directors since 1995, helping Nick Jones to launch Babington House in 1998. He oversaw the Group’s expansion from London to the US and left in 2008. David came to the fore as the youngest sales and marketing director of Grosvenor House when it was the flagship within the Forte Empire. His career continued to blossom in the nineties, setting up and launching The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company in Europe, Middle East and Africa and launching their first property, Hotel Arts in Barcelona. In late 1997, David joined Starwood Hotels and Resorts as a vice president as the company acquired the Sheraton Corporation and worked on the integration of the major brands in Europe including the launch of the W concept. He was most recently CEO of Leonardo, the market leader in travel content management, e-marketing and distribution.
RH: I’d been involved with Chewton Glen and Babington House, which are great products in their respective markets. However, they are not to everyone’s taste. I felt that there was an opportunity somewhere in the middle of these that was cool enough to attract attention and appeal to the wealthy London set, but which would not be too scary and alienate the local community. So we have our target audience, but we are a broad church.
DE: Unlike products where the draw is from its own membership ours is not specific and we have to be multi-faceted in our engagement with customers.
For THE PIG we wanted to address the problem within the country market which is that a hotel would not be a natural choice for dinner. Country house hotels have an image which is that they are either right at the top end of the market and either too expensive or formal or they are not luxury and not good, so we knew we needed to do something radically different in terms of positioning. THE PIG was originally a hotel, Whitley Ridge, but we have positioned it as a restaurant with rooms – hence the strap line – ‘kitchen garden food and rooms’. We wanted to create a product which people would go to regularly. It’s not a difficult formula but it seems to be quite difficult to apply in the UK. It’s all about the detail and thinking it through, which is easier said than done.
RH: Whitley Ridge had been losing money and was not in a good state. We started knocking ideas around and the idea for THE PIG appealed to the entrepreneur in both David and myself. The kitchen garden was core to the concept and we could see its potential; I’d always been a fan of Petersham Nurseries.
We were slightly concerned about the location in the forest in Brockenhurst, but since we opened it’s been an upward trajectory. THE PIG averaged 93 per cent occupancy and 150 covers a day during October 2012. Remember this is not High Street Kensington, it’s extraordinary. But you need that level of volume and occupancy in this market, as businesses can sit on a knife edge and be almost there but lose money every day. Our product is offered at a decent level and a competitive price point, and I was convinced there was an opportunity in the aspirational mid-market area.
DE: Hotels have quite a prescriptive formula for interiors in general, so we felt there was an opportunity to do something a bit home grown. Robin’s wife Judy does a great job on this front; by achieving a more homely environment it does not feel preconceived and designed to death.
RH: No one is scared of going into THE PIG. It’s a relaxed environment with a certain style of décor that speaks volumes to the customer. It’s like turning up to a mate’s house.
Is this a response to changes in the market which are moving away from brands?
DE: You have to remember that our industry has gone through a huge evolution over the past 25 years. When Ritz Carlton started it was a real mover and shaker in the luxury space and an early addition to the luxury hotel market. You develop a personality which to an extent creates a unique style, but once the brand goes over 15 hotels it reaches a critical mass that makes it difficult to uphold those core elements that made it different in the first place, and consequently it changes – the brand evolves to the next stage – becomes more corporate and so opens up opportunities for new and different players to enter the space. I think people are now very used to the recognised global hotel brands and what they offer so now opportunities exist for new and different offerings.
RH: One of our mantras in the business is that anything we deem remotely corporate we deliberately don’t follow. When customers come to Lime Woodthey are genuinely surprised and delighted by what they find. It’s the same with THE PIG, they just love it and want it all. Judy fields daily queries from people wanting to know where we have gotten things, but that’s part of our DNA.
I know from my HDV days that when we started it, it was a very personal thing and now it’s a more corporate thing. If you can somehow do things on a small scale, but still get the market recognition, then you are on to a winner.
So how is the perception of quality changing?
RH: Quality is measured in a totally different way than 30 years ago. The measure now is when customers can see chefs picking produce and knowing it will be on their plate in half an hour’s time. That is an amazing shift. Our next PIG project, assuming planning is successful, will feature a new kitchen garden and restaurant in the garden. We are not the first to do this but I think we will be the first to have brought the kitchen garden right to the front of everything and make it the central plank of what we do.
How are they looking to grow the business?
THE PIG brand has become the cornerstone of Robin and David’s development plans. In October, a 12-bedroom B&B opened in Southampton city centre as THE PIG − in the wall, and a site has been secured in Studland Bay in Dorset which will become THE PIG –on the beach. Robin and David are aiming for this to open in summer 2013, pending the progress of an extremely complicated planning situation to restore and develop the site.
RH: The beach property is one of the best sites in striking distance of London. We have our sights set on two or three more before we pause for breath and in the South and Home Counties there are plenty of opportunities. Even now I’m still struggling to see where people can go for less than £200 a night for a nice country experience, if not THE PIG.
DE: People will travel up to one-and-a-half hours to go to THE PIG − in the forest, because there is limited choice elsewhere. There is a shortage of that style of product and people clearly want it. If you were to go in on a Monday, it’s like a Friday.
RH: I call it The Wet Tuesday In February Test! We are also developing our restaurant at Lime Wood, and Angela Hartnett is coming on board as part of this.
Given the state of the economy in the past four years, has this ever affected your intentions?
RH: Well-run product-led businesses have done pretty well through this time. There is a lot of mid-market stuff which is not good and has suffered. But if you can get above the parapet and make some noise, then it’s about product.
DE: I think it made us more focused on finding and developing the points of differentiation – in our case the kitchen garden has proved to be a driving force for THE PIG – with all produce being either grown on site, foraged or sourced within a 25-mile radius. The growth of lifestyle and gardening programmes has made people more aware and interested in the provenance of the food they eat, and of course the food retailers are now playing that tune also, so it all combines.
What are your aspirations for Lime Wood and THE PIG businesses?
RH: Lime Wood is a long-term keeper. We wouldn’t rule out a sister property in London or somewhere where we felt was on the right track, but it would have to be right. THE PIG is a different animal and one day I’m sure we will sell the business, perhaps with half a dozen properties.
DE: We want to have some fun with THE PIG, so it’s not set in stone. We are at the stages of proving that the concept can expand and is scalable – that’s exciting.
RH: When we took on Lime Wood it was a beautiful property but had no idea of what it was. It is the million details we lay over the top, the tiny points of difference that position the property. We are very chuffed with the Awards that we have won, and it’s highly profitable. The spa is a substantial development in its own right. Now it’s about maintaining our standards, and it would be nice to get to 38 keys or so.
DE: Awards are great but it is the feedback we get from guests that is a real affirmation. It’s quite extraordinary. When you are so immersed in it, you don’t tend to notice it yourself. You just want to get to a place where you are confident it’s running as it should, so it’s nice to stand back periodically and see you are on the right track.
With a strong and determined partnership, Robin and David have sparked intrigue and admiration for their approach. There are many common threads in terms of values and understanding between Lime Wood and THE PIG brands which have sought to break the mould not only in the country house market, but among the wider hospitality industry. Exciting times lie ahead.