Editor's Blog

Down time

Several years ago on a press trip, our host turned to me and said: “Of course, you must have seen the inside of more hotel rooms than most.” When the group began to laugh, he had the good grace to blush and stumble. (That hadn’t been what he’d meant.) But he was right. You don’t get to work in this industry viewing meeting venues without seeing a lot of bedrooms.

So, when I’m given a rather small – albeit very tasteful - room overlooking the car park and delivery area of a country house hotel which is, for the most part, surrounded by colourful borders and manicured lawns, I think: 1) I’m going to be woken by someone emptying the bins or a delivery lorry (it was both) and 2) that’s an interesting choice. When I asked the receptionist if the hotel was busy, she shook her head and said: “But we’re not dead, if you know what I mean.”

Down Hall has an interesting history. There has been a house on the site since 1322 but it has followed the familiar 20th century pattern of the estate being broken up from its heyday, when it boasted 3,000 acres across six parishes, to become a school, an Antiques Business and Conference Centre before being bought by the Veladail Group in 1986 to run as a country house hotel. Near Bishop’s Stortford, the hotel’s 110 acres sit on the pretty border of Hertfordshire and Essex. The grounds help to make the hotel popular for team building and leisure activities. Archery, Segways and laser clay shooting were on offer for our group and was very good fun. This was ably managed by a team from Chilli Sauce.

Huge investment has been made, around £8 million so far,  in refurbishing the hotel’s elegant meeting rooms, 45 bedrooms  in the mansion house and there are future ambitious plans for the reception, bar and restaurant. It already boasts the Eden Spa offering ESPA treatments – although sadly no slots were available for my visit.

There is a new team in place including GM Mark O’Reilly and director of sales and marketing Joseph Warren. They are aware that improvements need to be made. The staff could use a little more training and there were a few hiccups with service over a dinner whose menu lacked imagination. Problems with the sound for the entertainment left The Wild Tonics – a trio of talented singers – left us in the audience feeling for them as they bravely sang on with no mikes and a slow response from the sound guys.

Am I being picky? Yes, of course. But it was the hotel that chose to invite a group of 40 mostly local event organisers and press to see what they have to offer. And some of the event organisers I spoke to were clear that currently that just isn’t good enough. (They also pointed out, however, that it would be their job to ensure the crew turned up early enough to do a proper sound check, there was water on the dining tables, cabs arrived as agreed and the chef encouraged to provide a more exciting menu.)

But, the team at the hotel are so candid about the difficulties they are facing, the staff so willing and the property clearly loved by many of its guests including local corporates invited on that evening, that you can’t help feeling they will get it right. It is a beautiful building and the new interior design is very tasteful in soothing colours. (Although it struck me as a touch safe. Beige stripes above the dado and heather colours in gentle tartans? They may have missed the opportunity to add a few contemporary twists – or perhaps they’re on their way.)

So I find myself liking this property almost despite myself. And that wasn’t just because of the impromptu dancing in the bar into the small hours to music streamed from the GM’s phone and the team’s generous hospitality. William Lyons, the young, new F&B manager, not only threw some shapes on the dance floor and provided some inspired cocktail suggestions but his enthusiastic introductions to each wine were perhaps the highlight of the dinner. He and others are clearly driven to ensure they offer something special here. Not only is money being invested in the fabric of the building but the hotel has also announced it’s committed to paying its staff above the minimum wage.

And at the end of the day, isn’t the quality of the after party the real test?

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