Big interview: Whittlebury Hall’s Michael Stott

What were your first career dreams and how did you come to the hospitality and events business?

After appearing at a careers evening as a spotty 15-year-old I decided I wanted to work in the travel and hospitality industry. I would like to say it was a well thought through decision but in fact it happened to be the last stand on the way out and I was under serious pressure from my parents to make a decision on what I wanted to do.

I wanted to gain real experience so went to Loughborough to complete a Business Studies Diploma, which was great fun and I learnt a lot about the world of business and life in general, moving away from home at the tender age of 16.

After leaving education with my head held high and ready to change the world, reality bit and I started work at 18 as a travel agent in a basement in London’s West End.

After five years I went from basement to the all-new London City Airport, opened by Her Majesty the Queen whom I met.

I could see the writing on the wall for an airport without any infrastructure, and Docklands was nothing like the Canary Wharf and home of the Olympics we know today. So I joined the hotel industry with Thistle as a Sales Manager based at Gatwick. I was living in North London at the time, so me and the M25 were soon best of friends. I wrote my new company car off on my second day at work; not an easy start, so I needed to prove myself, and quick. One of my hotels was the Chequers and within three months it secured new residential training contracts. All good again.
 
What was the best advice you received in your early career?

An FD once said to me that things go right and things go wrong, but surprises are not good. I guess what you know about you can deal with. I use this a lot; it fosters openness and a culture of trust.

What would you have done differently with the benefit of hindsight?

Each move enabled me to develop. I think my biggest mistake was taking a promotion to Thistle’s five-star flagship; I wanted the car, the office by the sea, but not the job. I left after four months.

What brought you to Whittlebury Hall?

After working my way up through a larger organsiation I realised what I really enjoyed was making things happen and being accountable. Larger businesses can be very impersonal and you can simply lose yourself in the noise of the business. I wanted to be the noise of the business (in the nicest possible way!). Whittlebury was a good business, independent and family-owned.
 
How has the business changed and why were the administrators called in?

I joined in 2009 and the recession was really starting to bite.

The business had a complicated debt structure and, although profitable and successful, the bank appointed an administrator.

The next 12 weeks was a storm and we focused on steadying the ship quickly to ensure our staff, suppliers and customers all knew that it was business as usual at
the venue.

With the support of the banks, we formed a new company, born on the 1 December 2011, where Bernhard Zechner and I were appointed as fellow directors.

Was it a difficult decision to continue after the receivership?

The biggest shock was understanding why the banks would have wanted to place the business in administration; the business is rock solid and, if I personally had the funds at the time, I would have bought 100 per cent there and then.

How does the new vision differ from what went before?

We have the same product and service; we have taken what was good and are making it great. We are nine months into a three-year capital investment programme.

It’s about working together and creating a long-term sustainable business, there’s lots of listening and less talking. We are ambitious but realistic; we know what we can fund but ensure the lessons of the past have been learnt.

Where are you on the curve in terms of the strategic goals you have set?

We are ahead on all of our plans and targets. This year is going to be an important year for us as we operate in a very competitive market. We will continue to push with investments and developments.

Is the meetings and events business growing in relation to the leisure side?

Yes, we have seen the biggest change here in the last 15 months. We reward our customers for their loyalty via our ‘Exclusively Yours’ programme.

Our award-winning spa is key to our business mix and cross promotion.

What goals have you set for the future?

In addition to our financial targets, we want to invest further in our sustainability. We were flattered to be runners up to Marks and Spencer in the recent National Business Awards. We also have the rest of our capital   investment to work through. 

Which events that you have hosted have given you the greatest pleasure?

We are fortunate to be involved in major sporting events due to our proximity to Silverstone. I have been lucky enough to see some of the most beautiful cars in the world.

The events that stand out to me are those with a personal touch, such as fundraising for charities. To name one: The Muscle Help Foundation which raises funds for beneficiaries who have the most severe form of the muscle wasting disease Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. To be involved with that was truly humbling.

What are your personal strengths and what do you look for in staff you recruit?

I am focused on results and am very competitive and optimistic. I look for the technical abilities required to do a job, but, in order to say, ‘You are hired’ it’s all about the attitude.

Is the UK meetings industry’s voice heard in the corridors of power?

We are a very fragmented sector and vastly under estimated. Maybe the solution is to focus on one or two issues that span other business segments rather than standing on our own soap box. Wi-Fi/broadband speeds/4G or transport infrastructure, for example.

For the conference market to help reduce fragmentation and communicate and deliver clear standards to customers, a compulsory industry standard and accreditation would be a great start.
As a customer, I want to know what I am getting for my money as clearly as possible. We have a responsibility to make this so.

What do you do in your spare time?

I have an interest in most sports and still play 5-a-side football and support Manchester United FC.
My first round of 18-hole golf was an eye opener. Our regional sales office invited me for a game and I didn’t ask which course. So when I arrived at Turnberry with all the wrong gear there was an audible gulp!

My first nine was nothing short of a disaster which encouraged me with the cold sea breeze to drink two large brandies at the 9th hole with beautiful views of the sea and lighthouse. Inspired, I parred the last two holes and ‘dined out’ on that achievement for weeks, months, years…

This was first published in the February 2013 edition of CN. Any comments? Email conferencenews@mashmedia.net

Paul Colston

Author

Paul Colston

Managing Editor, Conference News & Conference & Meetings World.

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