By Hâfi Martinsdóttir
Estimated reading time: 16 minutes | 3216 words
In a podcast hosted by Holly Tucker, we were fortunate enough to get a glimpse into the working life of renowned British hotelier, Robin Hutson. Hutson co-founded the iconic PIGs hotels having started out his career in hospitality at the age of 15 as a waiter in Claridge’s. He previously co-founded Hotel du Vin, was chairman of the Soho House group and is CEO of the Lime Wood Group and Home Grown Hotels. Hutson is undoubtedly one of Britain’s most powerful and inspiring hoteliers, thanks to his flair for creativity, willingness to take new routes and the implementation of sustainable business practices across his entire hotel chain.
During this interview Hutson shares his insights into brand management within the hospitality industry, advice for people dreaming of opening their own hotel one day and even a letter of encouragement to his younger self who had just failed miserably at school. Now, the enormously successful entrepreneur, dubbed ‘Britain’s most influential hotelier’, enjoys a wonderful life of good food, wine, family and fishing.
In this article we will give some context, if needed, before sharing a quote from the interview in the hopes of inspiring you no matter where you are within your own hospitality journey.
In 2009 Hutson had the opportunity to consider a “really tired hotel”, the Whitley Ridge Hotel in Hampshire. He had had it valued to sell but as the price was so low and he felt it was a shame to him to let it go he came up with the concept of a hotel focused around the most promising feature of the property, the kitchen garden. Thus was born the delightful brand story behind THE PIG and their slogan: Restaurants with Rooms.
Having wandered about the kitchen garden and done some research he realised..
“There are barely any kitchen gardens that are fully functional these days. I looked at this space and I thought wouldn’t it be interesting if we could do a hotel where you brought the kitchen garden absolutely to the fore. Where it started to inform the way you operated, from everything.. from what went on the menu to actually start to give clues to the interiors and so on. And so we put a little plan together.”
Opening in the summer of 2011 and renamed THE PIG, the rustic, laid-back hotel became known for its homely feel. As the interviewer shared; “They even provide you with colourful wellies to stomp about the kitchen garden in.”
From log fires, velvet sofas, newspapers, cookies, and games, a greenhouse-styled dining room with plants climbing up the walls, pots of herbs on every table and homemade cordials and spirits, THE PIG is designed to feel like an unpretentious luxury escape. As six other PIGs have cropped up across England since the opening of the very first (2 more were set to open this year), Hutson and his wife, Judy, in charge of the interior styling, have taken great pains to ensure that none of their hotels feel like cookie-cutter experiences. So how is it that they keep their brand consistent and yet different?
“I suppose, on the style side we use an awful lot of found pieces so we try to limit the amount of new furnishings that we buy. Apart from giving a more interesting look, it’s the ultimate sustainability factor but actually using it in a way that feels reasonably contemporary I suppose.
“The real objective with the interiors is that in your own home you don’t buy everything all at once. Your homes evolve don’t they? So you buy a lamp one year and a table the next year and so on. And then you put those things together and they haven’t come off an interior design graduate’s desk and so we really want it look as if it’s an evolved environment where pieces have been found and where each one has a story. We know the stories to all of these things. Everything you can see here with a bit of a scratch I can tell you where it was bought and so on and so forth. So I think you can feel it. So it’s sort of anti-design really.”
THE PIGs and their success showcases the importance of crafting a considered story around your brand to form a unique identity. Storytelling is crucial to this and the Hutsons have wholeheartedly succeeded with their elegant and unpretentious ‘Restaurants with Rooms’ country narrative. With statements such as “Come on in. We don’t do formal. Dress down, have a wander and make yourself at home.” who can blame guests for falling in love with everything THE PIGs purvey?
You can learn more about how to discover your own brand story in our previous article, Why Storytelling Is an Integral Part of Your Brand and How to Find Your Own.
The angle that has really given THE PIGs their unique story is the kitchen garden and how every aspect of the hotels and the experiences they provide has come from that.
“(The property’s garden) is a really, really important part of the equation, there’s no doubt about that and so my eldest son, Ollie, he is the kitchen garden guru, he went to agriculture college and started working with us by chance on the first PIG, but he’s been with us for the whole journey. He now has a team of about 22 kitchen gardeners.
“I don’t think there’s another hotel company that gives that commitment to that side of the business. We have our own nursery where we grow the seedlings but Ollie is always badgering me that when we find a new property that he wants his team on-site six months before to start preparing the ground (..) so we open and we have things growing.”
The interviewer shares that she herself has fallen in love with what THE PIG brand embodies and has recently purchased their book, The Pig: Tales and Recipes from the Kitchen Garden and Beyond. She says; “Now I’ve fallen in love with this brand. I stay here, I feel relaxed, I’ve given it the (..) emotion of having a lovely time with my husband and now I want to buy into the brand. Do you (think) that we are going to see (more) brands that you wouldn’t necessarily equate to having a product range will start to (create products to sell), or will start to create experiences? Because it’s all about what we ‘do’ nowadays isn’t it? And luckily you’re in the hotel industry so you’re ahead of the curve (..) and now we are able to buy (your products).”
“Once guests trust a brand there’s no doubt that they will buy other things from you. I never want it to feel contrived in any way where everything is overly branded. The public are really savvy these days and they see through that stuff.
“So where we do have brand extension, I want it to be really genuine and part of what we do and have the same kind of passion that we put into the hotels. So the Smoked & Uncut festivals really were born out of the fact that in previous times a country house hotel might do gourmet evenings or wine dinners or something like that to appeal to the local followers. I really thought that that had run its course and didn’t really want to go that route so we came up with the idea of introducing music. So the first year, about six years ago that we did it we had a bloke with his guitar and two men and his dog which was all very nice but anyway of course it quickly grew and now we have three festivals for four thousand attendees each, some pretty fancy headliners these days.
“We do all the food operation ourselves and different to any other festival is that any member of staff that is working that festival comes from within the business so we are not reliant on just a bunch of random hired-for-the-day people. We can still deliver an element of service for those attendees so I think that’s what kind of makes it a little bit different.”
So, much like a family garden party, the Hutsons now host food and music festivals which further inspire brand loyalty and grow an emotional connection with their audience. You can read more about the benefits of growing emotional relationships with your audience in a previous article: Why You Should Be Focusing on Building Emotional Relationships With Future Guests Now to Improve Your Chances of Recovery Post COVID-19
When asked about rumours that he and his wife test out the rooms themselves before opening by sleeping in them to make sure they are alright, he responds; “We absolutely immerse ourselves in the trenches. We’d be going down (to Cornwall – a new PIG set to open in 2020) with all sorts of things in the back of the car, light fittings or whatever, super hands-on. We might have a thousand staff but (…) I am doing the lightbulbs. So for the run-up, hopefully the rooms are usable for about a month before we (open) or at least some of them are. It’s only by using them that we can really find out what they’re like.”
“The thing I always say about this business is ‘it’s not complicated, it’s just about a million details’. Every one of those details, choosing that cup rather than the brown one is not a very complicated thing to do but it is important in the overall scheme of things.”
With over a thousand staff members spanning his entire PIGs brand, the Hutsons have certainly learned a thing or two about working with people.
“It’s a particularly acute problem for hospitality businesses because you have a relatively high turnover of staff, in the junior levels certainly. Some people are just passing through en route to do something else. So there is a high turnover and for any visit by a guest there’s thousands of interactions between the guest and the staff member so you can’t legislate for all of those. You can give them the basics of training, you can create a culture by example of how we want people to be treated but you cannot legislate for every one of those interactions and some of them are really tiny.
“I always give the example of if a waiter or waitress puts a cup on the table with a few grams too much pressure that says quite a lot. Whereas if it’s put down like that (gently) it’s a perfect piece of service. And so, that sort of stuff, and it’s so finite, and everyone’s an expert these days of course, and you can’t train that. You have to rely on your gut and a lot of our senior team have been with me for quite a long time, you have to rely on them to instinctively employ the right people. We don’t care if they’ve got ten years of experience or if they haven’t got any experience but if they are people-people and if they can connect with people the chances are that they’ll deliver some quite nice service. Nice people give nice service.”
Interviewer: “Going through your story so far, those contacts you have made along the way on your journey have been imperative to your success, correct?”
Hutson: “Without a shadow of a doubt. Every interaction in and out of one of your businesses, that’s your marketing platform. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the delivery boy, we should be treating him in the same hospitable and generous way that we would treat a guest checking into a bedroom. Because these interactions, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s with suppliers or.. you value and you nurture those. And we’re incredibly loyal to a lot of our suppliers and our advisors and people around us. Those kind of contacts, I think you have to value them, there’s no doubt about it.”
“We rarely make our buying decisions on price. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a wine supplier, building contractor or whoever but we’re super loyal and we value those relationships without a doubt.”
When asked whether he had any advice to offer people wishing to pursue a similar path within hospitality:
“First and foremost, I think anyone should, before they sink their own cash and commitment into something they should do some hard yards somewhere else. They just need to feel it. All too many individuals can visualise themselves standing the customer side of the bar with their mates and all of that jazz. Frankly, that’s a very small percentage of the time that you can do that stuff.
“So I would say, do some hard yards, learn, absolutely sponge up any information that is out there. I always tell our trainees, it’s not difficult, pick up any of the discarded newspapers at the weekend and you’ve got articles about travel, you’ve got articles about food, you’ve got articles about drink. Just start reading those weekend magazines and you start to get an understanding of what’s current, what’s liked, what’s not, how the press are viewing things, you pick up all sorts of information.
“All too many people have this vision (..) ‘oh I like cooking dinner parties so I thought I’d open a restaurant’ (..) it’s just not like that. If you don’t like working sixty hours a week then forget it because that’s what it will be like to start with.
“The flipside of those notes of caution perhaps, are that it is the most wonderful, creative sector if you’ve got an entreprenurial nature. So, I think it’s the ultimate entrepreneurial area.”
Greatest low: “Like everyone I’ve made my fair share of cock-ups along the way, (..) when I was reception manager at The Berkeley, within a few months of being in the job I got properly scammed by a Nigerian businessman who left with a very large bill and he kind of took me to the cleaners really and it was on my watch. Fortunately, I had an understanding general manager at the time that took one for the team really but it was a big old lesson for me.
“And every day of the week there’s highs and lows, I’ve had several today! (..) There’s so many interactions going on, at this moment there are thousands of interactions going on and there’s a good chance that the odd one is going to go wrong.”
Greatest High: “I have a wonderful life and I love this business and I have highs every day. Just before coming in here this morning we were discussing promoting a young trainee to take on his first management role and that’s a great buzz, I love that stuff. And of course, along the way we’ve got an armful of awards and bits and pieces and it’s always very pleasing to have some recognition.”
Having been asked to write a letter to his younger 15 3/4 year old self, who had just gained 3 O-levels in school and hadn’t been invited to join the sixth form, this was the response:
So you’ve just got your O-level results and let’s face it, you made a right horlicks of them didn’t you? I know, you’ve had loads of fun over the last couple of years chasing girls around, loafing about listening to rock music and generally trying to be cool. But you were supposed to be doing some school work at the same time.
To be fair, it’s not that you’re stupid or lazy, you’re just easily distracted by the fun stuff. Now, you haven’t been invited into the sixth form so what the hell are you going to do? Mum and dad have suggested catering or hospitality on account of you liking cooking, sounds a good idea. You never know, at some point in the future the best chefs might become the rockstars of the day.
Look, it’s not a disaster just a temporary set back. Eventually, this situation could even be the making of you. You know there are lots of really successful people who started life a bit like this, and to be honest, when you look at many of them today they seem to be the people really enjoying life. All too many more conventional careers appear to end in work boredom and a countdown to retirement. If you can find a path or a subject that you can be passionate about you’ll never feel you’ve worked a day in your life.
Of course, you’ve made it hard for yourself, you’re going to have to push yourself to work harder than everyone else, make the right decisions along the way and be alert to opportunities. So let’s look at what you’ve got, in the junior school football team you were described as a tenacious tackler, now that’s a really good trait. You’re quite creative, you do have a can-do attitude and have been gifted with a certain easy-going charm that people warm to. So that combination sounds like a pretty good start.
What you really don’t realise is that by falling into the world of hospitality slightly by chance you’re entering the most amazing, exciting and dynamic industry that will suit you down to the ground. Now you definitely won’t be bored, every day will be different. Your working environment will be like a theatre, filled with fascinating people doing interesting things. You will meet musicians, filmstars and heads of state, you will witness important events and see the best and worst of people. You will work alongside a cast of characters from all over the world and in a single minute converse with paupers and princes.
But be warned, this will be a complete lifestyle, not just a 9 to 5 job that you can forget about when you leave the office. It will be all consuming and not for the work-shy or fainthearted.
During your working life there will be huge changes in the way people eat, drink and entertain themselves. Everyone will travel more and the sector will overtake many others to become a powerful force in the UK and the world economy. If you focus, use those skills of yours and be brave in your career decisions you could find yourself at the vanguard of these changes. Furthermore, if you keep your eyes open and notice what’s going on around you, you might be able to grasp some of the entrepreneurial opportunities that present themselves.
You’re going to have to balance all this hard work with your personal life. Your family are and will be important to you. You’re going to need a very special and understanding wife. You will need not only her love but also her unwavering support through this exciting life journey. I hope you’ll be blessed with children, you’ll be a natural dad but you’ll need to be careful not to be a workaholic, absent father. You need to somehow juggle your work and family. You will want to be around to help your children develop their potential, but it won’t always be easy.
I hope these words are helpful Rob. You know, I have a sneaking feeling you’ll work out okay in the end.
Lots of love, Rob (aged 63 3/4)”
Unsure of your next step? Get clear on your hotel’s recovery strategy
As COVID-19 is unlikely to disappear completely without an effective vaccine, it’s expected that we will have a W shaped recovery with lock downs repeatedly being enforced, relaxed and enforced again over time. Being prepared for this tumultuous recovery will stand you and your hotel in good stead to ride the waves to come.
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