‘Newbury is just the kind of place we like’
Hotel company boss explains why he sees a big future for The Chequers
There's been a lot of change at one Newbury hotel recently – and it all started with a new man at the helm.
Just 18 months ago, Simon Hughes’ independent family business, Hughes Hotels, bought the 18th-century Chequers coaching inn and has been working hard to restore it to its former glory ever since.
So far, 48 of the rooms have had new en-suite bathrooms fitted, with eight left to go, and the entrance lobby, lounge, bar and restaurant areas have all undergone a complete renovation.
“We knew it needed a decent amount of money spent on it,” Simon explains.
“We gutted the ground floor bit by bit so we could remain open throughout.
“It is quite amazing how your customers will be forgiving because they know you are making things better for them in the long term.
“We really tried to manage it so there was always something open for people.
“There was always a bar area, always a lounge area, always a restaurant, even if it wasn’t where it would eventually be.
“We used designers for the refurbishment, but I did tell them certain things I wanted, such as moving the bar and getting more sunlight in through the front revolving door.
“We have made it all more disabled-friendly now, with complete access to the ground floor, a disabled toilet and access to one of the bedrooms.”
They have also created the new Oxford Street Restaurant and Bar brand, where Christmas bookings are already up considerably on what they were by the end of the party season the previous year.
Simon, who now lives in Romsey with his wife and children, was born in Nottingham, but travelled around a lot when he was younger.
“My dad was a sales manager and they used to send him everywhere, which meant we all had to up sticks all the time,” he remembers.
“Then one day he got fed up of it and borrowed money to buy a hotel in Torquay instead.”
After going to school in a number of places, including Norwich, Reading and Torquay, Simon ended up attending catering college on the Isle of Wight.
“I didn’t enjoy school that much and didn’t know what I wanted to do at 16-years-old,” he says. “My dad had been in hotels so I went to catering college.”
His first job, however, was for American company GTE, which had the contract to sell advertising for Yellow Pages in the South of England.
“I was their youngest-ever rep and it was a good job, where you earnt very good money,” he explains. “I still lived at home and only paid my mum a tenner rent.”
Simon stayed there for three years until BT was privatised and took the work in-house.
“So at 21, I started to look into owning my own bar,” he adds.
“I bought a wine bar in Portsmouth, which was a very trendy thing in 1986.
“But because I was 21 I could only get the money if my dad was guarantor.
“He did it, but immediately asked for shares in the company.”
A year later another bar in Southampton became available and Simon convinced his brother, who had also worked at GTE, to join him in buying it. The family business was born.
Quite quickly the brothers realised that hotels were “a better option” than bars and restaurants so Simon wrote to a number of hotels chains, including Forte, to ask if there were any hotels for sale.
“Rocco Forte wrote back to me personally saying they had a 26-bedroom hotel in Andover that they would sell to me,” Simon explains.
“We bought it and completely changed it around, adding six more rooms.
“We traded well for several years until someone came along and asked to buy it.
“We have never really set out to sell any of our hotels, but companies just come along and ask to buy sometimes.
“They offered a good price, so we sold it.”
During that time the family company had also bought a number of other bars and restaurants around Portsmouth and Southampton, as well as Milford Hall Hotel and Spa in Salisbury.
It now operates three full-service hotels and eight restaurants and bars, one of which has a number of bedrooms too.
Simon, a 54-year-old father-of-three, runs the hotel side of things, while his brother, Steven, runs the bars and restaurants.
“It is very hard to buy a hotel,” he adds.
“We looked for about three years before our agent found The Chequers.
“But then from him phoning me, to me buying it was about two months, so it all happened very quickly in the end.
“I thought Newbury was a good place to be and the hotel rooms were already quite busy.
“I thought that if I spent some money making the hotel nicer we should be able to really increase business here.
“There will never be enough money to spend doing what I would like, but we have gone from a shabby three-star standard hotel to a good four-star standard. But I still always want to improve.
“Newbury is just the kind of place we like to be in; a market town that fits in really well with everything we do.”