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The businessman turning round 'shambles' Torquay Grosvenor hotel featured on reality show

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: January 08, 2013

  • Mark Jenkins, star of Channel 4's reality show The Hotel, set at the the Grosvenor, in Torquay, which Keith Richardson has now bought

Comments (1) 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.

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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.

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  • Eleanor1  |  March 29 2013, 10:52AM

    Sorry, but I'm more interested in Mark Jenkins and how he is doing. Many hours of riveting fun he gave me, and my goodness me, he did try. But I will be watching the next series of The Hotel.

    |   7
  • Eleanor1  |  March 07 2013, 1:59PM

    I just wanted to say that I was riveted by Hotel 2011, and by the efforts Mark Jenkins made not only to keep The Hotel open, but also to save the jobs of his often awful staff. I even got fed up with Chistian in the end, with his hissy fits and his stirring, behind he scenes as it were. As far as I could see Mark's only real fault was that he was too kind. And I was really sad when Mark had to give in. Best Reality TV I have ever watched. So please let's have some more of Mark Jenkins.

    |   11
  • realityzone  |  January 08 2013, 7:50AM

    This is a good piece of journalism. A revealing look at what is going on and what Richardson is doing. The H & E could do with an editor or journalists that can report at this standard.

    |   12
  • Dave_David  |  January 08 2013, 1:37AM

    I watched the show the other night, it was embarrassing watch these idiots that have no idea on how to run a hotel, so I switched it off. The show is so made up that it is laughable and is not good for any image this brings to Torquay. Keith Richardson who is he, was there not some health and safety issues at the Grand, did the food not come up to standard also. Richardson was Torquay United chairman for 10 days, after Chris Roberts resigned, then Mike Bateson saw the error of his ways, and bought back the club. Wasn't he going to move Torquay United to a new stadium on the Seafront...did I dream this all up....no I did not. Torquay are struggling at the moment, just as Richardson will do. Never hear of Chris Roberts or Mike Bateson theses days.

    |   -15
  • robocop1982  |  January 07 2013, 8:50PM

    its not even worth packing your suitcase to stay in a hotel or the hassle of traveling. Having done my fair share of traveling for tourism i would only travel again for employment as there is nothing different to being in another area of land than the area you already live in. who wants to haul luggage around. I've learned its easier to stay in home area where you live. I still enjoy flying but the hassles of checking into hotels no thanks. Just having to fill in the forms at check in is hassle you don't need. save yourself the hassle

    |   -30
  • Corsham999  |  January 07 2013, 5:44PM

    Even though Mark from the Grosvenor is not it seems very good at being a manager of a hotel he is I think as funny as flip.For entertainment value alone he should be kept on at the hotel in some sort of capacity and Christain (but don't let them organise anything to do with making a profit).The people I have spoken to in the Bath area love the guy and this aspect should be promoted to get the punters in (wgo have got some spare cash to spend etc),This channel 4 tv programme has put Torquay on the map(any publisity is better than none) again in a quirky sort of way, it just shows how eccentric the English are at times and Torquay seems to be the capital for this at times.

    |   33
  • DarylDante  |  January 07 2013, 1:52PM

    3 out of 5 isn't Grand at all.

    |   14
  • lhasa27  |  January 07 2013, 1:18PM

    I checked the Food Standards Agency for the Grand Hotel and YUCK it had No Stars For Food Hygiene a few months ago, now it has 3 out of 5. Cleanliness should be a top priority for all places where food is served to the public, so am not impressed by this company's takeover at all.

    |   19
  • HughGarsse  |  January 07 2013, 12:55PM

    Greek Prime Ministers last about 5 minutes these days. I wouldn't hold one up as a model for education, especially not in the maths department anyway.

    |   3
  • TorbayOAP  |  January 07 2013, 12:08PM

    The Greek Prime Minister was banging on about Nazi war crimes recently, coincidentally while haggling with Angela Merkal to get a better deal on Greek debt repayments, maybe all this says a lot about the educational standard of the Greek Prime Minister or maybe it says a lot about your educational standard Hugh.

    |   -7