Emma Brealey: Bringing history to life

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The hospitality industry hit harder times than most during the latest recession, with many large chains unable to survive the storm. When Emma Brealey, 32, started her position at the family-owned Petwood Hotel in 2010 she was met with an opposition to change and a lack of fresh ideas.

There was no online presence and a list of outgoing costs as long as her arm, but Emma became determined to bring the history of the hotel back to life, including restoring the Edwardian Gardens in a £650,000 project.

Realising that she needed a change in her career, in April 2010, Emma gave herself six months to find a job that she wanted. She moved back home with her parents and agreed to help out on a temporary basis with the sales and marketing for the historic Edwardian hotel in Woodall Spa, which was taken on by Emma’s family almost 20 years ago.

“I hadn’t quite realised how much the hospitality sector was struggling,” Emma said. “The hotel itself was not doing well at all. It was not in the bank’s good books, as many hospitality and leisure businesses weren’t.

“Cash was an issue, and very quickly I realised that I didn’t really want to look for another job. I just wanted to get stuck in and help out with the family business.”

By January 2011, Emma became Managing Director and a member of the board, which was comprised of her mother and her uncle. She took a hands-on approach and started to make the appropriate changes with the full support of her family.

“I think that there are many family businesses that could squabble till the cows come home but we’re very lucky in that we all sing from the same page and we all want the same things.”

The hotel was struggling to make ends meet and Emma was finding challenges to the success of the business everywhere she looked – from the cosmetics of the building itself to a resistance to change from the staff. She had to strip the business right back in order to build it up again.

“Financial challenges – we got through by the skin of our teeth. Over the five years, the first year was about survival, the next two years were about stabilising the business and the last two years have actually been about growing it. I’m really pleased to say that we have.”

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Back to the drawing board

In 2010, the hotel was hemorrhaging money, with maintenance costs of £5,000 to £8,000 a month, high staff costs and discounted rates in a bid to get people through the door. People just didn’t have the money to spend on luxury trips and the hotel was feeling the pressure.

With 53 rooms and five function rooms to fill with the overheads to match, Emma had to make some hard decisions. “We were running at 48% payroll to sales,” said Emma. “We knew we needed to be in the 30s but didn’t know how to get there.

“All the staff unanimously agreed to take a pay cut. We had to make redundancies and despite the pain that put in our staff’s pockets, it really only affected the percentage by maybe 4% or 5%. We had significant progress to make.

“Fresh ideas were deemed to be a bit frightening. They would say ‘that’s not what we do’ or ‘we’ve got a formula that works and we should stick to it’. That’s fine when the economy is working in your favour, but when it’s not and you need to become more innovative, you can’t have that resistance to change attitude.”
Slowly, attitudes changed to become more adaptable and now every member of staff’s ideas are listened to and considered. It opened up the way to introducing an online presence, which the hotel didn’t have when Emma started – other than the odd review on travel sites.

“No one on the team knew what Trip Advisor was. They had no idea that people would stay in a hotel and then go and write a review about it. There was no online reputation management, no understanding of social media and how that could be enhanced and used to develop business.”

It became a fine balancing act between getting customers through the door and covering the costs of the business. Discounted rates may have been attractive to potential customers but it was becoming more and more difficult to rectify income issues that the hotel was having.

“It was almost cheaper for us to pay people to go away. It was not well placed business necessarily. You expect to have some business that you can make good money on and some business that you have to discount. But far more business was discounted than was at a good rate. It was just going to end up spiralling out of control.”

Emma took the bull by the horns and started working with partners like Visit Lincoln to build the business up and shout about it to the world. She joined the board for events like the 1940s festival, which started in 2011 and the hotel became a much sought after location to stay.

During WWII the Petwood was the home to the RAF 617 “Dambusters” Squadron. The hotel corridor walls are dedicated to the aircrafts and the officers who played a key part in the war. With between 10,000 and 12,000 people visiting the festival each year, Emma loves looking at a fully booked hotel.

Other events were introduced including themed nights and dinners such as a Faulty Towers dining experience. “We hire a Basil, a Sybel and a Manuel and they serve dinner in a function room as if it is Faulty Towers. It is hilarious. Absolutely hilarious. The first time I saw it I laughed so much, even three hours after the end of the show, my cheeks were still aching, it was really, really good. It’s become a regular fixture on our events calendar.”

With business looking up Emma turned her attention to what else the family hotel had the potential for in the future and started planning a £650,000 restoration project of the Edwardian gardens. Work is due to start in Spring 2016.

“When the garden restoration project is finally done, I will see that as a massive achievement. The gardens were laid out by Harold Peto in 1910, he was an Edwardian landscape architect. Lady Weigall, whose house this was originally, had an insatiable appetite for spending. She loved gardens and she spent a fortune on her garden.

“Sadly, after she left and it became a hotel, over the years it became very expensive to maintain and it was vandalised. Various bits were sold off and so we now have what many people consider to be beautiful gardens but if you look at the old pictures of what the gardens used to look like 100 years ago, they were spectacular.”

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

The customer is always right

Emma plans to keep driving the company forward now that the recession is behind them and people are willing to indulge in a bit of luxury every now and again. But no matter what the event or situation is, she makes sure that everything is perfect for the customer. “I see my role as being a customer champion because I know what it’s like to be a customer.

“I mark a place based on three simple things: the warmth of welcome on arrival, the quality of the cheapest item on the menu and the cleanliness of the toilets. In my shopping criteria, if you can’t clean a toilet, what confidence does that give me that you can look after my £20,000 wedding or my conference or a very important emotional purchase?

“Everything that we do in our business is a treat, it’s a non-essential, but often it is a very emotional purchase. Weddings in particular are a very emotional purchase and we will do everything that we can to make it the best day of their lives. We love make people’s dreams come true.”

This feature interview was first published in issue 60 of the Lincolnshire Business weekly magazine.