By Adam Raphael
New Year, new beginnings but also a very sad ending. To make your fame and fortune in hospitality, you need more than talent, taste and grinding hard work. Take the saga of the Salutation in Sandwich, Kent, a Lutyens-designed seaside hotel with a glorious garden. Eighteen months ago, it won one of the Guide’s César awards. Last week it ceased trading and is now in administration.
The Salutation was much liked by Guide readers. It appeared to be a winner. A beautiful Georgian building, a magnificent garden, a talented chef, and comfortable bedrooms. Fiona Duncan, the doyenne of hotel critics, described it as ‘pretty special’ when she stayed there early in 2018. A trusted reader of the Guide who stayed at the hotel more recently said she had been ‘truly cosseted and had had an absolutely lovely stay.’ When I had dinner there last summer, the experience was exemplary. Good food in a lovely house just by the sea.
So what went wrong? The Salutation’s sudden fall is sobering. We usually get some advance notice of problems from readers reviews. When disaster strikes and the chef runs off with the housekeeper, we often hear within a few days. But this time there was no warning. The only note of caution is that neither the owners of the inn, Steph and Dom Parker of Gogglebox fame, or the managers, Dorothy and John Fothergill were professional hoteliers. When times are tough, as they are now, you need experience and solid financial backing.
Not long ago, I received a cri de coeur from the chef-patron of a Scottish restaurant with rooms which shows that running a hospitality business is not for the faint-hearted. I am not going to identify the business because I don’t wish to add to his problems, but this is what he wrote:
‘I would love to be able to sell some copies of the Guide but the truth is we have no customers, no matter what we do, how good we are, however many awards we win, however many special offers and amazing deals we do, we have no customers. Last November we took over £18,000 in the month, a good month by November standards, but so far this month, one year on (on the 22nd of the month), we have taken the vast sum of £950 (note I have not missed a nought off there!) in 22 days! We have just been awarded our four gold stars from Visit Scotland, what good will they and the two recent awards from yourselves do while our country is in the state it is.’
‘I fear for our future, for the future of the industry I have been a part of for over 50 years ever since I was 16. Everything is cut-price, give-away deals, with no value in anything or care for anyone. If it can be 50% cheaper today then tomorrow it can be 55% cheaper while all the time we have to fork out more and more just to stand still, let’s make sure our staff are on a minimum £10 per hour, that zero-hour contracts no longer exist, while also ensuring they do no more than four days’ work a week, pay into their pension pots when we cannot afford to save into our own? I value my staff but I have to have fewer of them as each month goes by because I cannot pay them without any customers.’
This cry of despair is not often heard in public but is not uncommon. The Guide does everything it can to help its selected hotels. But the border line between success and failure is narrow. We believe that we can often make a difference. The Guide is a cooperative effort. We do everything we can to promote our selected hotels, inns and B&Bs. They in turn support us by buying copies of the Guide, recommending us to their guests, and and paying for a web entry. Crucially, however, a hotel’s entry in the print edition of the Guide is free and is based on merit alone. It is this that underpins our independence, and it is why our readers trust us to get it right.