Torquay hotelier Keith Richardson will soon be seen in Channel 4’s new series of The Hotel. He tells business editor Liz Parks why he stepped in
to buy the struggling Grosvenor and why the South West needs to ditch its bucket and spade appeal to go upmarket.
"I'm a tight-arsed chartered accountant," says Keith Richardson as he leads me through a labyrinth of passages behind the scenes of Torquay's Grand Hotel.
It's a self-effacing description that is more than a little misleading from a man who owns four of the South West's best-known hotels, a sizeable property portfolio in Manchester, an accountancy practice and his own helicopter.
We meet for an interview at the Grand, one of the most prominent hotels in the Bay, built in 1882 as a railway hotel and known as the destination for author Agatha Christie's honeymoon.
As well as the library, function rooms and restaurant, Keith's tour includes its boiler room and kitchens and it's clear from the speed at which he moves through the network of corridors that he's equally at home back-of-house as up front.
In fact, he says he'd rather be up on the roof keeping an eye on everything than in the limelight.
But keeping a low profile may get a little harder as Keith and his wife, Fiona, will soon feature in Channel 4 series The Hotel, which focuses on the efforts of Torquay's Mark Jenkins to run the Grosvenor.
News is already out that Keith's Richardson Hotel Group bought the Grosvenor for £1 million last autumn. He and Fiona will feature in later programmes in the series, shown as business benefactors flying to the rescue in Keith's helicopter.
The series shows the inside story of life at the Grosvenor which is "managed" by Mark Jenkins. Although his management style and lack of organisation caused some major problems – such as the Welsh tour party whose booking got lost – some guests at the Grosvenor have been disappointed to learn that Mr Jenkins is no longer involved in the running of the hotel. Such is his popularity that Keith and Fiona have arranged to bring him back for some events at the hotel.
"If his customers want him we'll drag him in and pay him a fee," said Keith.
The couple are currently embarking on a programme to bring the Grosvenor up to the same standards of the group's other hotels – The Grand, the Metropole, in Padstow, The Falmouth Hotel and the Fowey Hotel.
Although they have spent a small amount of money on the Grosvenor, Keith and Fiona are adamant that the turnaround is more about management than money.
"We use the principle that you buy in the right place and spend some money in terms of maintaining standards – and it's not necessarily big money," Keith said.
"I bought the Grosvenor but it's a shambles from top to bottom. To put it right is down to organisation and training, putting staff at the top who will tell the staff at the bottom what they should be doing.
"We have painted most of the bedrooms and bought new carpets, but most of it has been about thorough cleaning, which is basic standards."
This focus on management systems is the reason, they say, that Richardson Hotels regularly sees turnover increases, despite the economic downturn which has put many other hotels under pressure.
Between them, the hotels employ 400 people and have a turnover of £11 million.
The key to running the group successfully, says Keith, is robust systems and good staff.
Financial information is collated daily from each hotel so that problems such as a dip in bookings can be picked up early and addressed through marketing or price adjustments.
These reports, which Keith calls "the Bible", allow him to effectively run the business via his inbox, though he does drop in on each of the hotels on a regular basis, flying in on the helicopter he parks in the grounds of his Coffinswell home, just outside the resort.
His Manchester-based property and accountancy businesses are run remotely by a small team.
"If you're of a mathematical bent, numbers mean so much, especially if they're presented in the right way. Whether I'm in this country or on holiday I go on my emails most days," he said.
In 2011, the group invested £150,000 in setting up a dedicated call centre staffed by eight people from 8am until 8pm, seven days a week. This has resulted in a more effective sales force which has, in turn, seen an upturn in occupancy rates and levels of repeat business.
Other functions have also been taken in-house, including upholstery and maintenance, meaning that repairs can be undertaken swiftly and in a cost-effective manner.
The other driver for the group is quality, with a focus on continual investment and staff development. Evidence of this is seen when our coffee comes along with a frank assessment of whether the accompanying biscuit is dark in colour because it's chocolate-flavoured or because it's a little burnt. The eventual verdict is that it is overdone – something that will be fed back to the chef.
Keith's career in hotels started in the late-1980s when he bought the Idle Rocks Hotel, at St Mawes, with the idea of turning it into flats, but with the property market soon hit by a recession, he decided to continue to run the business as a hotel.
This meant a baptism of fire in the hospitality sector that initially saw him invest a substantial sum in the hotel only to see income levels remain unchanged – until his local tourism office suggested that he should undertake some marketing activity.
"I'd never heard of marketing – I'm a chartered accountant. I didn't even know if it was legal for an accountant to advertise," he said.
Having commissioned – and implemented – a marketing report, turnover levels went up by 40% and the business went on to grow as Keith began to buy up other hotels.
There is a theme running across the properties in the Richardson group portfolio – they tend to be Victorian hotels in maritime locations with a strong food offering.
Marketing remains a key business activity for the group, but Keith has walked away from involvement with regional tourism bodies such as VisitDevon. He's been described by Carolyn Custerson, chief executive of the English Riviera Tourism Company, as "paddling his own canoe" – an assessment Keith feels is accurate.
"That's true – I spend £600,000 a year on marketing which is as much as Torbay spends," he said. "The problem of VisitDevon was that it's such a disparate area. How can you chuck Torbay in with Dartmoor farmers. You're trying to put a disparate collection of businesses together in one pot and call it destination marketing."
Instead, Keith would like to see national bodies like Visit England play a more active role in regional tourism, specifically by introducing a mandatory grading system so that tourists can assess all hotels against shared benchmarks.
He believes that this could also help to make the industry more attractive for young people to enter – something he clearly feels is a problem.
"We need better training through colleges – there are fantastic opportunities for youngsters to come into this business," he said.
At the age of 73, with a three-pronged business, a penchant for helicopters and two young children, many in Keith's position would be looking to step back from the business to enjoy the fruits of his labour.
Last year, a helicopter crash while landing at Gidleigh Park injured both Keith and Fiona, but what sounds like a frightening incident has not dented their enthusiasm for life or for business.
The former Torquay United chairman is clear that he has no plans to retire and, if anything, would look to expand the group – though that view may not be unanimous.
"We're happy as we are," said Fiona. "We weren't really planning to buy the Grosvenor but it kind of fell into our lap. I think we want to raise our standards for the hotels we have rather than buying any more."
"If the banks gave us some money tomorrow we'd go and buy another one," said Keith.