Julia Hands, founder of Hand Picked Hotels, on surviving the recession

Julia Hands, the founder of Hand Picked Hotels, reveals her best and worst decision in business.

by Emma De Vita
Last Updated: 08 Sep 2015

Julia Hands founded luxury hotel group Hand Picked Hotels in 2001. The former City lawyer started the business after her husband, Guy Hands, purchased a group of hotels. Hands 'hand picked' a collection of these and turned them into individual and historic country house hotels.


She explains her best and worst decisions in business.



Sticking it out

My best decision was staying true to the high brand values of Hand Picked Hotels even during this period of recession. It took us years to build up the brand with a lot of hard work and effort. We'd just finished three expensive refurbishing projects and bought another three properties when the markets imploded in 2008.

I felt that we were at the point of reaping the benefits of our expansion, the work we had done on the brand, and what we had done on getting the portfolio of hotels to a good physical condition. We really didn't want to cut the standard because we knew that when the better times returned, we'd be able to reap the benefits - even though the recession has gone on a lot longer than I first thought it would.

Keeping it local

A second best decision was not wanting to impose standardised menus across the group because of the individuality of the hotels. Instead, while our chefs are given the target to hold a minimum of two AA rosettes and achieve set food costs, they have the freedom to design their own menus. They are required to purchase generic foodstuffs from our group suppliers but are encouraged to source meat and cheese, for example, from local producers.

This approach obviously benefits our guests but it also has helped enormously in the recruitment and retention of chefs who relish the creative opportunities it affords them.


Letting other people manage

One of my worst decisions was not having the confidence or the time to take over the management of the hotels when my husband (Terra Firma boss Guy Hands) and I purchased them in 1999. We put the group into a management contract instead for 18 months, until I took over in 2001.

The management contract didn't suit the collection of properties and, if I'd taken over earlier, it would have been more beneficial for them. I should have just bitten the bullet. Our properties are very different from each other, and with the management contract, they just got lost with a lot of other properties.

It also created another layer of uncertainty for the hotels. When we bought them, they had been underinvested in for a considerable period of time and the lack of confidence was extended. When I did take over, I didn't know anything about hotels and it was a steep learning curve, but you learn from your mistakes - there's no point crucifying yourself.

Bad hiring

Another worst decision was appointing a general manager when I'd had a significant reservation about him. He didn't last long - he left after two months. A wrong general manager can wreak havoc on a hotel.

Sometimes it feels as if you can never know for certain if you have the right person. You should wait to make the right appointment, but if a job needs to be filled then it's hard not to think that it would be better to have it filled than to have no one.

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