The refurbishment of the Von Essen properties is finally showing some results, with the completion of Lower Slaughter Manor, one of four hotels in the Cotswolds acquired by the group in 2003 for £16million (the others being Buckland Manor, Washbourne Court and The Elms).
Situated in the Cotswolds village of Lower Slaughter on the banks of the River Eye in Gloucestershire, and directly opposite its sister hotel, the Washbourne Hotel, Lower Slaughter Manor certainly fits the bill of archetypal country house hotel, dating back over 1000 years (though it was largely rebuilt in 1658).
The Grade II-listed building has just emerged from an 18-month, £2 million refurbishment, the aim of which, general manager Andrew Thomason, told Business Traveller, was to reposition the hotel as a "Chateau in the Cotswolds". The revamp has seen all 16 guest rooms refurbished and decorated individually and a further three in the Coach House, two with their own private outdoor hot tub. All the new rooms have iPod docking stations, broadband access, and new bespoke hand carved furniture.
The refurbishment is an important statement from the group, which has been criticised in the past for insufficient investment in the properties it has acquired. In fact, Von Essen says many of the properties require significant investment, and the money is being spent. Director of sales and marketing for Von Essen Greg Ward told Business Traveller:
"There is an ongoing £40 million capital expenditure programme underway across all the properties. Buckland Manor, for instance, has just emerged from a top to bottom renovation that cost in the region of £700,000 and we have appointed Mike Eldridge from HSBC to oversee these advancements across the company. At our hotels we have a significant number of US travellers, and these numbers are growing as a result of our expenditure in these properties."
The group currently consists of 23 hotels in the UK and one in France – Chateau des Bagnols, formerly a Rocco Forte hotel (see review, Business Traveller September 2005).
Lower Slaughter is certainly an advertisement for the new breed of country house hotels. The chateau theme is an appropriate one, given the combination of English and French baroque architecture of the property, and French topiary on the side terrace enclosed with pleated French hornbeam which greets visitors on arrival.
The design inside is impressive and certainly not understated. The 53-cover restaurant (contemporary English cuisine with a French influence under Chef David Kelman) has Murano glass chandeliers, chocolate silk clad walls from Livere, seating in Kingfisher blue and mocha fabric from Mulberry.
The public areas have been draped in English fabrics from Colefax and Mulberry, damask wallpaper from Lewis and Wood and the carpeting throughout the house is from an adapted traditional design, a cut Wilton made in Spain. Georgian antiques, specially commissioned oil paintings, contemporary artwork and black and white pictures from the building's history as a private house serve as an effective rebuttal of criticism, as is the increasing occupancy rates which show a 25 percent growth in 2006 over 2005.
"The aim across all the properties is to increase mid-week occupancy, and meetings business is essential for this," said Ward. "We have done this by increasing the technological offering within meetings rooms to give meetings' organisers what they expect, and in some hotels we have even built new meeting rooms."
Von Essen hotels are now grouped in Classic Set, Family Set, Country Set and the Continental Set. The current aim is to expand to 30 properties, with a further 10 in France and five in Italy, though Greg Ward says that the new 70-room hotel being built at Von Essen's Battersea Helipad is an indication of the group's desire to expand the number of city centre hotels, which will ass a fifth set – Metropolitan – to the group.
Prices start from £230 per room, per night, inclusive of breakfast.
Lower Slaughter Manor Hotel,
+44(0)1451 820456, vonessenhotels.com
Report by Tom Otley