If you watch TV programmes like ‘The Hotel Inspector’ with Alex Polizzi, you’ll know that many hotels struggle to remain solvent, with only around 20% of their rooms booked. That’s something that Shaftesbury’s iconic Grosvenor Arms Hotel doesn’t have to worry about.
Keri Jones from ThisIsAlfred shared a coffee with Kirsty Schmidt, the new general manager of the Grosvenor Arms Hotel. Kirsty has announced occupancy rates that many hoteliers would die for. But she’s not resting on her laurels. “Overall, on a year basis, we run at 85%. Monday to Thursday we are running at around10 0% occupancy, with corporate guests,” Kirsty said.
Poole-born Kirsty, who is proud of her Swiss German roots, is approachable, friendly and she wants to get involved. Perhaps her team approach stems from her previous work in adventure sports. “Even when I left school, I never knew what I was going to do. I did outdoor education, windsurfing, surfing, power boating. I did all of that at college. Then I went on to skiing. I’ve always been quite sporty. Maybe I thought I was going to be a PE teacher – but never running a hotel.”
In the short time that she’s been in charge at the historic hotel, she’s become involved with many of town’s community groups and initiatives. But people shouldn’t assume, because she is 28, that she’s inexperienced. She’s clearly very driven. “People misjudge my capabilities because of my age. I know full well what I need to do and how I need to do it.”
The Grosvenor is owned by a small chain of boutique hotels – Stay Original Company. “They have five pubs and this is the third pub out of the five that I have run for them,” said Kirsty. “I started working with them four-and-a-half years ago as a waitress and I’ve worked my way up to management. I am now general manager.”
When she first applied for a job within the company, Kirsty was working the winter in the French ski resort of Peisey Vallandry. “When I took the job on I was doing ski seasons. I did eight of them in the French Alps and I had a cleaning business there. At that time in my life I was going to be living full-time in France and this was just a part-time job. Little did I know what opportunities were going to come from it and I loved it. It is a great company.’
Even though Kirsty set up and operated her own business in the Les Arc area, she says she, “managed to get by with average French skills.” And she doesn’t describe herself as an entrepreneur. “When I can see there’s a market, I am much more logical thinking, rather than entrepreneurial.”
Kirsty’s Alpine experiences helped her develop the management skills she needed to become quickly noticed within the Stay Original Company. “I had 25 staff and they were there to do the six-month ski season. They didn’t care. They just wanted a little bit of beer money. It was quite hard to get the work ethic where we needed it to be. You really have to build relationships with your team.”
In the four years that Kirsty has been with Stay Original she’s found the company’s emphasis on teamwork, and commitment to developing and retaining staff, refreshing. The hospitality sector is considered one of the most pressurised industries. Often managers live in or close to the properties that they manage, which means that they can be called out in the evening or during leave days. Kirsty has been encouraged to live away from work. She commutes from a small town across the Somerset border.
“We are very lucky that our company doesn’t encourage us to live on site. They want us all to have a happy work-life balance. You can’t have that when you live on site. When the phone goes at 2am in the morning, you sometimes do have to get up and go to site. That’s part of the job.”
Kirsty says she didn’t have to think about taking the job when she was offered the opportunity at the Grosvenor Arms. “After running the White Hart with its eight bedrooms and The Swan in Wedmore with seven rooms, it was a ‘no-brainer’ that this was the next challenge. I was really gunning for it because I knew I could make some improvements,” she said.
Only the group’s seventeen room Bradford-on-Avon hotel has more rooms than the Grosvenor, which has sixteen. And, as we’ve established, those rooms are frequently full. Kirsty is clearly pleased with her hotel’s high rate of occupancy. “We are really proud of the figures. We’ve seen a massive increase in the last year. There are lots of reasons for this. Brexit is a topic of conversation,” she smiled.
We didn’t stray into politics but Kirsty thinks that there has been an increase in interest in staycations since the referendum. You might expect people to want to go abroad to avoid the continual TV, radio and newspaper coverage! So how does Kirsty explain the impressive room sales?
“There are so many companies locally which use us, which is absolutely fantastic. We also get the older generation who come for dinner, bed and breakfast. And we are dog-friendly, which appeals to animal lovers. You don’t often find a hotel that allows dogs, especially in the bar and rooms, although we don’t allow dogs in the restaurant.” The pet-friendly approach is paying off but the personal touch is also important. “We have got a really good receptionist in Danielle. She is fantastic,” said Kirsty.
The business, which uses social media and marketing extensively, also encourages visitors. “We work closely with our company director, looking at our offers. We are bringing a lot of business to Shaftesbury, which makes us proud.”
There’s not much room to improve room sales, so Kirsty’s current challenge is to sell more food and drink. “Although people are staying with us, they might not necessarily eat with us. What we’re trying to make sure is that the room sales reflect in the food and drink sales. Also, lots of people have an opinion about our food. I am trying to make things consistent. I always want people to get the same service.”
So how is Kirsty going to ensure consistency in a business that operates through morning, noon and night? “It’s all about training,” Kirsty replied. “It is making sure that you have the right people in the right places and that you have the right management and the right head chef.”
I was interested to find out where The Grosvenor Arms’ guests were coming from. Kirsty says many guests seem to stay over ‘en route’ as they head further west. “A lot of people are doing stop-offs. It’s safe to say that many of our guests come from London. That’s the same in all of our pubs. Many want a country escape for the weekend. Nine times out of ten they will be travelling south.”
Kirsty says that wedding parties are also important. People stay at the hotel when they are in town for a wedding and that might be why food sales don’t always reflect the high room occupancy rates. “They’ll block out all the rooms for three nights but we want them to enjoy the whole experience and they don’t necessarily see that when they come for a wedding.”
The hotel also receives a considerable number of international visitors. Kirsty is undertaking market research to work out why they have chosen our town. Her gut feeling is that seeing the ‘Hovis Hill’ is not a major driver. “We had an American group that stayed for five days last week and they went to Stonehenge, Weymouth and Gold Hill. They came to see the local attractions.” Kirsty has noticed an increasing number of Japanese and Chinese visitors.
“We are very lucky to have a lot of prestigious private schools around us so we see a lot of parents, particularly around September, when they drop their children back off at school and they stay for two nights. That’s a big market with the overseas guests.”
I plucked up courage to mention Tripadvisor. People in the hospitality trade have very mixed and often strong opinions on the online travel review site. Mentioning the website to an hotelier can be as risky as saying ‘Macbeth’ to an actor onstage. Kirsty says she does read it. In fact, she’s been monitoring comments, which are now consistently good. The majority of reviewers rate the business with either four of five stars out of five.
“When I got here, we were looking at our feedback and it wasn’t where we needed it to be. Team morale was a bit low. I do think we are on the right track now, where everybody is really positive. Long may that continue.”
Like most people in the sector, Kirsty has had some bad experiences with online reviews. “Unfortunately there are a lot of horrible people out there. Both myself and my managers have all had personal ‘name mentions’. I think there is a very fine line. In the first pub that I worked in with this company, somebody name-shamed me as ‘an unsophisticated manager’ and I cried for days. It’s heart-breaking because you put your all into it. People think it’s okay to go on the internet and be trolls. If you have had a bad experience, we need to know about it. But I always appreciate somebody coming to me so I can sort it out, rather than writing it over the internet.”
But at the moment, people are saying rather nice things about the Grosvenor Arms. “Everybody is on the right page with feedback. It’s really positive. We need to embrace that and make sure that the team know about it. I encourage them all to read it weekly because it boosts their morale, makes them think about why they are coming to work. They need to be proud of where they work and what they represent.”
Kirsty has become immersed in local life, joining some community think tanks and supporting Fringe. She says she wants to play her part in helping the town remain vibrant. “I think that Shaftesbury has so much to offer. When you have a pub that is at the centre of the community, it is a hub. As a manager you have to be part of that community. I saw lots of opportunities to progress in different ways, whether it’s town council meetings, getting involved with the Fringe Festival or working with other businesses.”
Kirsty says she believes Shaftesbury has a lot of untapped potential. “I think, following on from such a successful Fringe Festival, it just goes to show what the community can achieve. There is definitely more to be done.”
Kirsty says she understands the important role that the Grosvenor Arms plays as a meeting place, where many of the town’s movers and shakers get together and make decisions. “I do get a sense of that. One thing that almost frustrates me about that is that people still see us as a very formal hotel. We want it to be a hangout place, like your front lounge. Come along, just have a tea or coffee, play our board games. Come and just have a sandwich. I want people to understand that they can come here for their business meetings but they can also come here for their social time.”
Kirsty has a vision for the hotel. Any visitor returning in two years time should notice consistent and good service and a more relaxed atmosphere. And maybe more rooms. “I think the vibe will be a lot more chilled. And we have lots of structural plans for expansion.”
Kirsty says the company hopes to increase the hotel footprint. “For those that remember how the hotel once was, it went the whole diameter around the courtyard. The previous owners partitioned all the houses off and sold them on. We now own some of those houses and we’re looking at expanding the hotel to how it originally was. It can’t happen tomorrow but that is a long-term plan.”
So with a long-term goal to increase the number of rooms, I asked Kirsty whether she felt that Shaftesbury can support another accommodation business. There have been suggestions that one of the national chains wants to build a low cost hotel. “I definitely think there is space for another hotel or B&B. I know there are a lot of independent B&Bs but when you look on Booking.com, as a lot of corporate guests or weekend Londoners do, there is only us and one other hotel in the Shaftesbury area that comes up. The customers are there. You just need to market in the right way.”
Finally, I had to ask Kirsty about the hotel’s alleged ghost. Whether you believe in supernatural activity or not you’ve probably heard stories concerning unusual events in the hotel. “All of my staff think that this place is haunted,” laughed Kirsty, slightly nervously. “They all try and tell me ghost stories and I don’t want to hear any of it. When I am here at midnight, locking up and I am down in the cellar, I try not to think about it too much. Something has happened and I am putting that down to the building. I was in the cellar and a piece of wall fell down,” Kirsty continued. “But the wall was completely stable. There was no rhyme or reason for it to fall. I was completely freaked out!”
There’s no real evidence that ghosts exists. And the only spirits you’re guaranteed to find in The Grosvenor Arms are served from behind the bar. But there’s plenty of proof that the new management approach at the Grosvenor is working. And the success of Kirsty’s team is being felt by other businesses who benefit from visitors in and around Shaftesbury.