New finds and treats in guest rooms soon become favourites adding to the hotel stay…
Jason Adams, managing director at Rockcliffe Hall, shares some magic moments and thoughts on tougher times
Q You started out as a chef after achieving a distinction level BTEC diploma in hotel and catering management, and then in 1992 moved away from the kitchens at the remarkable Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons as a trainee guest services manager. Do tell us how this happened.
I was a commis chef at the Royal Crescent, but not really enjoying it, perhaps not ready for the fast pace of a Michelin starred kitchen. Wanting to be guest facing, I applied for trainee roles at over 50 hotels, and got replies from around half a dozen. Then Le Manoir called, asking if I’d like to come for an interview the next day. I arrived to what I can only say was a dream. Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost and the Maclaren Formula 1 team had exclusive use of Le Manoir for the British Grand Prix. I was offered the role and started a few weeks after. I met many famous guests, but obviously the best day was cooking lunch for the Queen Mother at her riding stables in Oxfordshire. A truly memorable day.
Q Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons was an excellent experience, but you moved on to be general manager at Studley Prior Hotel and led this country house hotel to it becoming a four-star property with 3 AA Rosettes. What was most enjoyable about this part of your career?
The time at Le Manoir, working in all departments, made me what I am today, standards-driven in all areas of the business. It taught me that perfection is improving and evolving each day. Every day is a school day! Never sit on your laurels. Studley Priory is now a private house. At 24 and in my first GM role, there was lots to learn, but I brought in the right team, with a new head Chef in Simon Crannage, who got us 3 rosettes in the first year. We joined Small Luxury Hotel of the World. I met my wife, Kerry and we had our son, Josh, whilst at Studley Priory, so this was a very special time.
Q Before Rockcliffe Hall you worked at Seaham Hall, then The Atlantic Hotel and Ocean Restaurant on Jersey, Arden Hotel at Stratford Upon Avon and as resort general manager at Foxhills before nearly two years at the Lygon Arms in the Cotswolds. We’re going to put you on the spot: pick a favourite!
The Atlantic Hotel in Jersey. So much had to change, and with the backing of owners Patrick and Treena Burke we worked to take the Atlantic forward. I bought in a new chef, Mark Jordan. Within 18 months he had a Michelin Star and 3 Rosettes, which very soon become 4 Rosettes. The owners taught me a lot, what to do, what not to do, and this helped me greatly over the years. Foxhills Club & Resort was my first big resort as a GM – golf courses, a huge spa, swimming pools, 70 bedrooms, tennis courts, creche, restaurants and much more, along with 3,500 members. It was a beast and taught many things about membership, golf, and running such a vast resort. I recruited a very good team and they’ve gone on to be at the top of their game in all they do. An accolade that stands out is winning AA Hotel of the Year in 2003 as general manager of Seaham Hall. I was only 29, and to this day still the youngest GM ever to win the highest accolade in hotelkeeping.
Q What attracted you to Rockcliffe Hall? It must be great to lead the team of a five-star hotel, leisure, and golf resort, but we suspect you like new challenges.
Rockliffe Hall’s 5 Red Stars put it at the pinnacle in hotelkeeping, but it was not hugely profitable. I knew I could make a difference. My brief was to restructure, bringing in higher returns over the coming years.
Sadly, Covid struck two months in, and I had a very different job, making 79 team members redundant due to us being closed for many months. I then rebuilt the team and business in a constructive, sympathetic, and harmonious way. We restructured teams and retrained everyone. As we opened up, business levels were off the scale. Some may say this was the staycation boom, but you make your own luck, and need to make sure you’re delivering in all areas.
For me, housekeeping is all about the planning but also standards, check, check, and check again. Make sure you see your team, interact with them, see them whilst they are working.
Q Tell us about Rockcliffe Hall during the pandemic.
This was very much the unknown. I worked throughout, overseeing the skeleton team, managing furlough with HR, and balancing the books with accounts. Although a real learning curve for everyone in hospitality, it was a time I hope never to experience again. I missed the team and missed seeing guests every day. It was like the heart had been taken from the building. We stayed connected with those furloughed and had video wellbeing calls and a newsletter which was very popular in lockdown. We now have a Wellbeing manager to help the team, guests and members with their mental health and wellbeing, and we’ve learnt so much. Our guests were very glad to be out again after lockdown and we had awards bestowed on us due to the practices and protocols put in place, most importantly the GBAC (Global Biorisk Advisory Council) award for our Covid Protocols. The first hotel in the world to earn such an award in Covid, it was then followed by others from the AA, Visit Britain and the AIM. This gave guests huge confidence about our Covid and housekeeping practices. Things did get back to normal until a second wave struck, we were put in tier three and closed late November until 17 May.. We’d just spent £20,000 on Christmas decorations for no one to see them and then be taken down. Utterly soul destroying for everyone involved.
Q We see you and the team have been busy with a refurbishment programme.
Now we’ve made some significant profits, the owner is quite rightly and thankfully reinvesting in the resort so we stay a 5 Red Star Hotel. It will be a slow refurbishment programme. We don’t wish to put too many rooms off and turn away business. There’s a new five-year plan with bedroom and restaurant refurbishments, golf course, bunkers and machinery being invested in.
Q You’ve been alongside many housekeeping teams. And you’ve seen at first hand how hard they work. How do you ensure both housekeeping management and the staff they oversee know how much they are valued?
I’ve worked with many wonderful housekeeping teams. Diane Payne, our executive housekeeper, is a pleasure to work with. She’s always very organised, up to date with her training, including health and safety. She creates a wonderful environment for her team to thrive and that shows in the standards of cleanliness across the resort. I worry about her less than any other person on the resort, as I can always rely on her. For me, housekeeping is all about the planning but also standards, check, check, and check again. Make sure you see your team, interact with them, see them whilst they are working. Show you care, and they’ll return the favour. I do impulsive things for them now and again, and Diane bought the girls daffodils on Mother’s Day to thank them for working whilst being away from their mums.
Q What you do during precious time off? Downtime is very important and getting a good work life balance can be difficult.
Kerry and I like to go away for a night or two and see how other hotels and restaurants are running their properties, but also visiting our son who is now working and living in Stratford Upon Avon, where we spent 10 years before moving to County Durham. The beaches and scenery in the north are truly fantastic, from Durham Cathedral to Saltburn on Sea and, a little further away are the Yorkshire moors, or Bambrough, Alnwick and Northumberland. We love visiting these areas for long walks.