There were great expectations for chef-turned-hotelier Michael Caines’ first opening. One of the country’s most celebrated chefs restored a former Georgian mansion in 28 acres on the River Exe, previously used as an event venue. After an intense three year development plan and a sixteen month build, the results are evident: A Michelin-star after only six months, acclaimed in the Sunday Times ‘Best Places to Stay 2017’, The Times ‘Top 50 Hotels 2017’, Tatler Travel Guide 2018, Tatler Restaurant Guide 2018, Travel + Leisure’s ‘It List 2018’, shortlisted for SBID International Design Awards in 2017 and a Trencherman’s 2018 Award for ‘Creativity and Innovation’. To reflect on the journey we pose twenty questions to Michael, a year from opening.
Had you been searching long before you found Lympstone?
I decided to leave Gidleigh Park in 2013 after 19 years with them, and I started looking in early 2014 at a number of places within a 6-8 month period. I happened to find Lympstone Manor (or as it was called then, Courtlands Mansions) in July 2014 and that is where this journey started.
We know you come from the region, did you grow up far from Lympstone itself?
I was born in Exeter and spent most of my childhood in Exeter, but I didn’t know Lympstone at all, and had certainly never seen Courtlands Mansion.
What were your biggest challenges pre and post opening?
Pre: the biggest challenge was getting the building finished on time. The project was enormous and we have completely restored the building as well as adding an extension, which almost doubles the size of the original property, so it was very intense. Post: would be getting a team together, and is still a day to day challenge in itself.
Was there ever a moment when you thought you had bitten off more than you could chew?
Yes and no! You always think you have bitten off more than you can chew on a day where you are challenged. But you never lose sight of your goal and I think that is important because it gives you the opportunity to reflect, realise how far you have come to get where you are, and that is key when it comes to development and achieving your dreams. You can’t let your challenges make you overlook the bigger picture.
When was the moment you knew it would be a success?
I never doubted it, but I think when it all became real was when we started to dress out bedrooms and furnish the rooms. The last three weeks of the project was when it really came alive and the moment when the first guests walked through the door and you see their reaction to it, that is when you know you have created something exceptional.
Your favourite moment at the hotel so far?
There have been many moments to remember. Many sunsets, many events, many achievements. I think memorable moments are when you take satisfaction from when your guests tell you how much they love what you’ve done, and that is a moment that happens quite often.
How much say did you have in the aesthetics, or was that all down to the design team?
I had a huge amount of say. The brief was very clear in terms of the concept. The design team and the architects were lead by me, their client, in what I wanted to create. This meant that the finished product is a true reflection of what I wanted to design as a hotel and not just an interpretation of that. Of course, as with everything, it was a team effort, but I was able to take a lead in everything we wanted to achieve and create, hence the selection of the design team too, they were best suited to creating what I had in mind.
You have great staff – did being local help?
I don’t think being local helped. We have great staff, as we have worked with many of them before and also having a great reputation already helped too. The demographic of where we are, being close to Exmouth and Exeter helps but the kind of skills we need means that we are recruiting from further afield anyway.
You have managed to gain top accolades so quickly, how so?
Being able to bring together a team quickly and building a strong core team of people that I have worked with before has been the key here. Of course having a clear vision of what we are trying to create and achieve and not diluting that and being true to our goal is all part of the process. It is important that you don’t get distracted or water down what it is you’re trying to create so really, not compromising is the underlying answer.
Can we ask your work life balance?
I admit that my work life balance isn’t great but I am not complaining and it has always been the case. It is getting slightly better, I love the time that I get to spend with my children and family, and on a very rare occasion I might get to squeeze in a run to keep a healthy lifestyle, but hard work has always been a part of who I am and that is what it takes to achieve your goals.
What’s your favourite place in the hotel ?
It has to be the gazebo in the garden at the hotel, overlooking the house and the view of the estuary. It is a really amazing view and it is constantly changing with the seasons, weather, tide and wildlife so you never see the same thing day to day; you see the story of our wonderful landscape and it is a peaceful place to sit and reflect, and take a minute to just enjoy the moment.
Was there anything you dug your heels down to have …little indulgence your side?
I dug my heels in for the whole of Lympstone Manor, I have not compromised at all. When we did our first cost plan, it was more expensive than first thought but I said it was important that we do not dilute and I was uncompromising on all of it really.
You opened in challenging times for the hotel industry in terms of food and wages costs – have you had to change your model at all?
No, the model has not changed, you can’t invest this kind of money and not charge accordingly for it. It was understanding our challenges in the first instance in terms of wages and food costs and making sure your charges reflect this, and charges do and will change with inflation, but the business model remains the same.
Is sustainability important to you?
Yes sustainability is important and we see this in various ways. We aim to be sustainable financially, environmentally and use local produce to support the sustainability of the local economy. You can’t do one without the other so it is something we have at the forefront of our minds with everything we do at Lympstone Manor.
Are any of your family involved in the hotel?
No, the family are not involved and I like to keep my business life and family life very separate. I would however love for my children to take an interest in the future and perhaps be a part of the industry if that is what suits them and their future dreams.
What’s the vision for the future?
My team and I hope to continue to build Lympstone Manor into one of the country’s or even the world’s magnificent country house hotels. We wish to continue to establish our vineyard and create beautiful wines and grow creatively as individuals.
What would you like to see happen for the region?
The region is very strong, with Devon being one of the largest counties, so I would like to see it taking the lead in terms of offering wonderful hospitality and using the term ‘The Region of Produce’ to give it a sense of place and a point of difference.
What would you say is the single biggest USP you would want to carve out for Lympstone Manor?
Our location and sense of place, it is an incredible landscape that is ever changing and it gives our guests a different experience each time they return to us.
If you can change anything, what would that be?
I wouldn’t really change anything, there are a few minor details but overall, I am very pleased with what we have created.
If you had to rate your satisfaction on the hotel so far what would it be?
100% satisfaction… But there is always the opportunity to improve.
Dine & Stay at Lympstone Manor offers:
Dining at Lympstone Manor: Join the Luxury Restaurant Club and enjoy a glass of Michael Caines Blanc de Blanc Champagne per guest when dining for lunch and dinner Monday to Friday – saving £25 on average for two diners, see details. Download the free app here and follow steps on Club benefits and how to join.
Stay at Lympstone Manor: 4 nights for the price of 3 Summer Get-a-way. Indulge in an extra-long break and enjoy your fourth night free. Available for bookings between 1st June to 30th September. See details.