Danny Pecorelli, Exclusive Hotels Managing Director

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 20th November 2012
Danny Pecorelli is the Managing Director of Exclusive Hotels, a luxury hotel group operating four luxury country house hotels across the South of England, including Pennyhill Park in Bagshot, South Lodge near Horsham and Lainston House in Winchester. Quality food is an important part of the business, with two of the group’s restaurants having earned Michelin stars for their efforts. The group’s restaurants are also known for employing high-profile chefs such as Michael Wignall and Richard Davies. Although Exclusive Hotels is his father’s company, Danny didn’t start with the group. His career began in the kitchen and front of house of London’s Savoy hotel. After graduating from Cornell University Summer School, he spent a year working for the Sheraton Hotel Group in Washington DC, followed by for the Four Seasons group in London. He started at Mannings Heath Golf Club in 1991 as general manager before moving up through the business to become general manager of the South Lodge Hotel for five years and finally Managing Director in 1997.   Danny, what I wanted to talk about today is you run a very successful group of hotels, collection of hotels, where it would appear from the outside that food and beverage is given a very, very high priority, would you say that is true to my perception? Yes absolutely. To me a lot of hotels miss the point and if you go to a country house hotel the food should be the centrepiece of your experience, especially because we’re quite often celebrations or celebration-based experiences, so it’s an anniversary or a birthday or a couple getting away for the first time from the kids, most people want the meal to be an important part of it. So do you build your hotels around food first and then place other outlets around it or do you look at rooms first? How do you prioritise? Or is it no one gets priority, they’re all as important? The whole offering has to be rounded, so actually you've got to look at them all together because the experience develops, although they’re individual properties there's a soft brand that sits around them so in the case of food a great quality dining experience is a key part of the brand, however you define that, it is part of our brand but then with the bedrooms,  a great quality sleep experience and an element of fun, be it a Jacuzzi or two baths or something, so you have to look at the whole experience because it’s all one experience and it all fits into an overall brand Great accolade success  you've got Richard Davies at the Manor House Matt Gillan at South Lodge with a star and of course Michael Wignall here at Pennyhill Park with two stars and I'm sure your team down at Lainston House are working very hard as well, is the goal to obtain and keep a star in every hotel, is that an objective that you’re setting the chefs. It wasn't originally. It has put pressure on Lainston from outside the group perhaps, as I think we are the only hotel group in the UK with three separate starred restaurants. Which is a fantastic achievement That's right. So, by default, we haven't chased them and I think you've got to be very careful not to chase them, over the last year or so, people are recognising that we're really good at food so you then have to reassess where you’re at but we wouldn’t chase at Lainston House and their is no internal pressure on them to do so, for the sake of it ,if it comes it comes. Chefs will always like accolades, be it stars, be it rosettes because whether we like it or not they are a recognition of what they do, they’re a badge of honour, whatever you want to call it but from your perspective is there a commercial advantage to having stars and accolades such as four rosettes, five rosettes? Does it drill down to the bottom line or is it about how you manage it? It depends how you look at it because it’s not just about the bottom line it is easier to recruit, for example,  with more rosettes, a two star restaurant will attract more stagers, more people wanting to come and work. So they are a commercial benefit but as a standalone venture there's a lot of Michelin starred chefs out there with standalone restaurants not earning a fantastic living which says it’s own thing. It’s easier in hotels if it’s part of the offering because it brings other new guests in and in today’s competitive environment you need great reasons for people to choose your hotel ahead of other great hotels. Danny you’re called Exclusive Hotels, you are very much high profile destination, luxury, country house hotels have you had to change what you do, you can’t turn on the TV, the radio without us being told how it’s doom and gloom, the economy’s through the floor, or have you just kept doing what you do? Part of the way we work is we're constantly trying to improve our product, enhance our product and that can be in big ways or in subtle ways. So I'm a great believer even if the pie shrinks if you're better than the rest you get a bigger share of a smaller pie and that's why we've grown every year that I've been running the business and that’s down to the quality of offering. It’s a bit out of fashion with a lot of people but if you’re a good old fashioned operator and really focus on delivering a great product people do come and they’ll pay to come. And in terms of fine dining itself we're seeing very much I guess a de-formalisation of certain restaurants, still great chefs, still using great technique but a much more informal experience, do you think that's the way fine dining ultimately is going to go or is there always going to be the Latymer, Le Manoir, we're still going to want that experience as well? I think the key thing for any restaurant is it differentiates itself in some way and every offering we've got is different and there's a place for fine dining and there's a lot of fine dining restaurants that are very fine dining and how do you define fine dining? There's a huge spectrum even within that, at the Pass which is the last restaurant we’ve built from scratch it isn’t fine dining it’s a Michelin starred restaurant and it’s a fantastic environment but it’s not fine dining and it’s not deconstructed dining, or whatever you want to call it, it’s a slightly more fun offering with a level of flow and formality running through it in a very different environment. So I think there's a place for any good product and fine dining in its broadest sense will always have a market. Chefs at a certain level can often be thoroughbreds, very highly strung, working long hours how do you in your role and your managers manage those chefs because they can be demanding and they’re always wanting more, better plates, better crockery, better this, how do you go about managing that? Well at the end of the day they’re demanding because they’re good at what they do and they’re talented individuals so the way we tend to work is we have a broad framework they’ve got to work within and we allow them to manage their business and take artistic ownership of their business. They’ve got to justify it so if they do want new crockery or change the glassware they’ve got to put a sensible case forward but they know they’ve got the backing and investment of the business and they’ve got a business that understands them so when we do say no they quite often get why we're saying no but we retain those guys for a long time and we lose very few head chefs or exec chefs across the business because they understand we work in a proper two-way give and take relationship-based way of managing rather than a dictatorial on either side because if they’re dictatorial to us it doesn’t work and if we're dictatorial to them it doesn’t work. Does it go back to then making sure that in the recruitment process you find not only someone that can deliver the results you’re expecting from a chef but also that someone understands he's running a business as well, he's not just there to do wonderful food on a plate, there is a business behind what they do? I think that they don’t have to run, we run the business, but they have to understand that we're running a business so there's a slight nuance there because we don’t expect them to do the spreadsheets but we would expect them to be good at recruiting and all the things that we value. Absolutely and they can't make decisions because there has to be a  conversation about good working practices or the P & L so every restaurant in the business has its own P & L. Do they run that thing? Then no but they are part of the team that's accountable for that. Danny where do you see food trends going in the next five years? I know that's a very broad question. It is and food is so cyclical. At the moment Peruvian’s all the rage and individual products are all the rage and Bubbledogs for example. I think there'll always be a lot of space for that. I think the only trend you can say is there'll always continue to be trends because that's the nature and when Peruvian goes out of fashion someone will come up with Azerbaijani or whatever the trend is. Do you think the secret is then to a degree is obviously being aware of what’s in trend but just sticking to what you do and doing it very well? Yes I do, and it goes back to that thing about really focusing on a quality offering and it also ties in with how do you manage chefs well actually they’re the creative forces and we don’t dictate that creativeness. So in many ways I feel that Michael’s food is very different to Matt’s food, it’s very different to Richard’s food and Phil Yeoman’s at Lainston, they’re all different. There's no right or wrong and so long as that style of your English country house hotels they couldn’t open a Thai or they couldn’t take on the Peruvian craze because that doesn’t fit with what we're about. Danny,how do you manage, or how do you measure, I should say, food success? Obviously you’ll have a strategy, is it accolades, is it covers in the restaurant? It’s about bums on seats. It’s a business I have no problem with that personally. If you’ve got people coming to your restaurant you’re doing a good job because they have so much choice. So long as they’re making a choice to come to you because your offering’s right., we're a family, private business and yes the P & L is important because if it wasn't you don’t survive. And you wouldn’t be able to reinvest and so on and so forth. But genuinely we're in the business because we want to create a fantastic, wow, customer experience, then the only measure of that is if you open your doors and no one comes then you've got something wrong in your offer. So P & L isn’t a dirty word but actually it isn’t the key driver of what we do it’s a by-product of what we do and that's the philosophy that all the team have. We monitor all customer feedback through a software package, and measure what people are saying. The thing is with food occasionally people mightn't like a style… It’s subjective yeah. …and it is subjective and that's fine you can’t pick up those because the fact that each chef, you know, you could go out and eat at Tom Aikens and think it’s the best meal ever and I might not like his style. Absolutely. It is subjective. So it’s a long winded answer but all these things are. Well I must say it’s wonderful to see a hotel group that’s putting its guests first and is focused on guests’ experience and uses that as a driver of the business and from the outside looking in I think, or I would hope more people will look at you and follow your model because I think what you do is fantastic, personally and I wish you, the business, all the hotels, every success in the future and thank you very much for seeing us. Thank you. My pleasure.
The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 20th November 2012

Danny Pecorelli, Exclusive Hotels Managing Director