By Adam Raphael
Two Devon seaside hotels less than five miles apart as the crow flies. Both overlook great beaches and have idyllic views. The first has been owned and personally run by the same family for more than four decades. The second is a hotel which has been given a stylish revamp by its new corporate owner with no expense spared. I could happily spend a few days at either, but there is one crucial difference which can make or break a holiday.
The first hotel is Soar Mill Cove, high up above a lonely beach, three miles from Salcombe. Owned and personally run by the Makepeace family for more than four decades, it has had a Guide entry for many years and is loved by our readers for its good food, friendly staff and comfortable bedrooms. The winner of one of our top awards, a César for Seaside Hotel of the Year in 2018, it has superb walking along the National Trust coastal path right by the hotel.
The second hotel, Gara Rock, just across the estuary from Soar Mill Cove, has been expensively restored as a ‘well-being retreat’ by its new owners, Arla Resorts. As well as loft suites and seaview apartments, it has a cinema, swimming pool, Jacuzzi, treatment rooms. Its restaurant has a stunning view of one of the finest beaches in Devon. It gains an entry for the first time in the new 2020 edition of the Guide to be published on October 7.
The Guide’s review says that Gara Rock has considerable potential but adds that it has ‘a few teething problems’ which, to be fair, is not unusual for a new hotel. Despite the taste and care and money that has been devoted to making the hotel a success, it has not yet solved the crucial issue of how to recruit and retain good staff, judging by two recent visits. On the first occasion, the waiters and waitresses looked totally bewildered and clearly had minimal training. So much so that the lunch menu had to be truncated to make life simpler for them. On the second occasion, five temporary members of the staff failed to show up—result mild chaos.
Staffing admittedly is not an easy task for a new hotel in an area as remote as this—the nearest town, Kingsbridge, is more than half an hour away by car. On a sunny day, the temptation to over trade is considerable. Soar Mill has acquired a core of regulars over the years who are supplemented by young Europeans who return year after year. Keith Makepeace, the owner of the hotel, says there is no simple answer to recruiting and retaining staff. But it is easier for a family-run business. A good local reputation, training, and fair wages all play their part. ‘We’re here all the time and we treat our staff with respect,’ he says.
The threat of a no-deal Brexit and the steep fall in the pound is already having an impact on recruitment. More than 700,000 EU workers are employed in UK hotels, restaurants, pubs and catering. Three-quarters of all waiters and waitresses, 37% of housekeeping staff and 25% of chefs come from EU countries. If the government adopts its Migration Advisory Committee’s advice to bar low-paid EU immigrants, this will damage hotels and B&Bs across the country. As Sophocles noted, those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.