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Childhood job sparked a career at the top of the hospitality world

Vineyard managing director talks of 'constant evolution'

Childhood job sparked a career at the top of the hospitality world

A SATURDAY job at the age of just 13 sparked something in Andrew McKenzie that was to map out the course of his life.

He grew up in Scotland, attended the local school and when he left, at the age of 16, he had plans to go to Glasgow University to study physics.

He never made it, after getting his first taste for a working life and taking the first steps on the ladder that would
eventually lead him to the top of the prestigious Vineyard Group – which has in its
portfolio West Berkshire’s The Vineyard, The Donnington Valley Hotel and Spa,
Donnington Valley Golf Club and Deanwood Park Golf Club.

“When I was growing up I had a milk round, then a paper round and then I started
working in a hotel when I was 13,” he says.

“When I left school I spent the summer working in the hotel; I used to make twice as much in tips as I did in wages.”

Having fallen out of love with education, Andrew decided to go off travelling, hitching his way around Europe and doing odd jobs where he could.

When he returned to Scotland he was drawn back to the hospitality industry and started working at a Scottish hotel group.

“I spent the next few years training and going all over the country, from Aviemore to Bournemouth,” adds Andrew, who now lives in Woolhampton with his wife.

At the age of just 26, he was made general manager of a Thistle hotel in Edinburgh.

“I worked my way up, starting as a hall porter, then waiter,” he explains. “I did a
traineeship, which lasted two years and took me through a lot of different departments.

“The industry was like the ‘Wild West’ back then, although it was huge fun.

“It was notorious for working people very hard. I worked six- and-a-half day weeks for a whole summer.

“I learnt a lot, but I wouldn’t advocate it now. I just had to get the most out of it at the time.”

Looking back at his career, which took him to the Lake District after Edinburgh and then on to Bristol with Shire Hotels, Andrew says the companies he worked for got smaller and smaller for a while.

“I got disillusioned by all the layers of decision making in the larger companies,” he adds.

Just over a decade after he took up his first role as a general manager, Andrew joined The Vineyard Group as managing director, in 1998. And the changes he has overseen since then have been monumental.

When he arrived there were 58 bedrooms and a small golf course at Donnington Valley and 33 bedrooms at The
Vineyard.

In 2000 the company extended the golf course at Donnington Valley and took over Snelsmore House as the golf club.

Just two years later an
extension at The Vineyard increased the number of rooms to 49, before an extensive £13m overhaul of Donnington Valley in 2006 saw it double in size and welcome the addition of a new health spa.

“That was a very brave move,” adds Andrew, who has two
children and a grandson. “But we knew the infrastructure we had in place could cope.

“In 2008, when the wheels fell off the economy, the health spa was a life saver.

“We had seen it as a great opportunity and numbers exceeded all expectations. We doubled turnover and
quadrupled profit virtually overnight.”

Since the recession Andrew says the company has had to find ways of being more
efficient.

“We had built up a really good team of people and we had the option to unpick that team or find other ways to make it work,” he explains.

“Customers we have dealt with for years are paying less now than they were before for the same rooms, but the costs of doing business in general and the amount of bureaucracy is staggering.”

So the company started
managing other hotels too, making the most of the
expertise of its central hub of staff and controlling all of the behind-the-scenes strategy for its customers.

It still has a number of management contracts in
operation today and is actively looking to increase this number.

At the same time it was increasing its management contracts business, it also began increasing its portfolio.

In 2015 it purchased the
neighbouring Deanwood Golf Club and now also owns the Barns Hotel in Bedford.

While the Donnington Valley Hotel is known for its golf and spa, its sister hotel, The
Vineyard, in Stockcross, is famed for its food and wine.

Its restaurant was awarded two Michelin stars in 2007 and is hoping to achieve the same accolade under its young, new chef Robby Jenks, in the coming years.

The centrepiece at the heart of the five-star hotel is the wine vault, which showcases more than 5,000 bottles of award-winning fine wines.

The hotel has 30,000 bottles of wine available, selling 100 of them by the glass. It is no wonder it won European Hotel Wine List of the Year in 2015.

It is not just its wines that receive the awards though.

It has also been named Catey Independent Hotel of the Year and English Tourism Council Hotel of the Year, as well as receiving the Relais
Gourmands accolade.

And Andrew himself has not missed out; he picked up the Hotelier of the Year award in 2008/2009 and is the chairman of the Master Innholders and a Fellow of the Institute of
Hospitality.

The Vineyard Group also owns The Vineyard Cellars, an award-winning independent online specialist wine merchant.

“We have a tricky time coming up and you can sense a bit of nervousness in some corporate clients,” 54-year-old Andrew concludes. “But if you stand still you move backwards in our game; we have to constantly evolve.”

And that certainly seems to be his plan for the future.

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