Restaurateur first, hotelier second

How has the approach adopted by Milsoms Hotels and Restauarants been influenced by the family’s entrepreneurial spirit?
EP speaks to Paul Milsom, Managing Director.

Paul is a third generation restaurateur and hotelier, having taken over the reins from his father Gerald Milsom. Running a family business can bring more pressure than other operations but Paul is focused on getting things right for each five year plan. Gerald Milsom was a true entrepreneur, always looking for the next opportunity and Paul learnt lots from this approach. The core of Milsom Hotels & Restaurants (MH&R) today is an independent collection of hotels and restaurants which financially support each other. This approach, with the 65 years of family experience behind it, enables Paul to be ready for what the future may bring.

Gerald Milsom purchased Le Talbooth situated beside the river Stour as a tea room in the 1950s which was the beginning of the group. In the late 1960s he added to this with Maison Talbooth and established it as a luxury hotel and ten years later The Pier at Harwich primarily a seafood restaurant, was purchased. In 2001 Paul and wife Geraldine opened Milsoms in Dedham, a place to eat, drink and stay.

The entrepreneurial essence of the Milsom family is highlighted by the work Paul and his wife Geraldine complete together. Paul argues that one of the major changes in the last 20 years has been the increasing importance of design. Paul says, “I am fortunate to have married an interior designer whose great ability includes knowing what works and doesn’t work within our range. 

We understand how something that looks great on day one must be practical and continue to look great beyond that. If you were to enter any Milsom property you would instantly see and feel a familiar house style. Each is different and unique but with an intertwined thread from the brand.” Design plays a strong role in the Milsom collection and must be considered an important distinction for any independent group.

Is there a secret behind the success of the company? Paul explains “We are different to others because we are restaurateurs first, hoteliers second which means that we worry  about filling our restaurants and our rooms fill on the back of those, as opposed to hotels who try to fill their rooms and then their restaurants”, with 65 years of combined family experience, he has the knowledge and knowhow to run a business the other way around to others. Paul also believes location has never played a greater role. “I have watched as independent restaurants have been squeezed out by branded multiple sites but the choice for the customer on the high street is now fantastic. It can be difficult to compete in metropolitan areas and so it is sometimes easier to compete away from London.”

The geographical positioning of the Milsom group must not be overlooked. “You could draw a 30 to 40 mile radius around our properties and main target market. We believe it is difficult not to come across one of our restaurant offers if you live in that area. Once you do touch upon one of the hotels, restaurants or venues, you may hopefully explore another.” The Milsom brand includes four hotels, five restaurants and event spaces. Paul explains that having numerous business arms allows each one to look after the other. “Some parts of the business where other locations are busy all year round. For our restaurants, Le Talbooth in Dedham is our fine dining offer, it’s where people ‘celebrate’ in its setting beside the River Stour and guests may only visit a few times a year. Whereas Milsoms has a more relaxed feel and is a busy and bustling restaurant which provides a contrast to Le Talbooth and together they support the overall business.”

Further strength was added to this strategy when in 2008 Paul embarked on a joint venture with the local building company, Hills Building Group and opened Milsoms Kesgrave Hall hotel and restaurant, a Grade II listed Suffolk mansion which had previously been operated as a school. In 2014 the former school sports hall was developed into a dedicated events space for up to 300 people. “Each market we operate in has scope for opportunity and challenges but having conference and party facilities alongside the restaurants and hotels have certainly helped.” Some hotels and restaurants have been quite open about their concern for staff levels and what Brexit will mean this year.

Paul argues the challenges ahead may not impact on MH&R as much as it will for others, due to the properties locations. “Throughout the 50s and 60s we employed lots of people from Switzerland to the extent that the staff uniform was actually the Swiss national dress, When Britain joined the EU in the 70s we were unable to continue with this because Switzerland was outside the EU, we then went through a French and then Spanish period. Immigration isn’t, as far as I’m concerned, a new thing in our industry which has always relied on good people from other parts of the world, it’s what makes us so vibrant.

I have no doubt the Government will find a way through, but Brexit is potentially damaging and my worry is that if it becomes too difficult for Europeans to work in Britain then many hospitality businesses will have to close because they will not get the staff. Paul made the decision to remove staff accommodation in the last few years and changed the recruitment strategy to target local talent. “Our team works hard at bringing in locals and this is essential for the summer months when we may have 400 employees in total due to the outside catering part of the business. They are virtually all British and many are students who work during their holidays.”

Does the next generation possess ‘true’ hoteliers?
“Those coming through have lots of admirable attributes but they will face challenges. I don’t believe the work is any harder but this really is a young person’s game. My father would say that ‘the average age in our business remains the same, I just get older, this is now happening to me!’. The vast majority of those aged 18 to 30 will not be working in the industry in their 30s and 40s. However I do believe everyone should work in hospitality at least once. The skills and experience from working in front of house or in a restaurant will help in any career.”

For the future Paul believes customer expectations will continue to rise. “It is still the case of constantly reinventing. We are fortunate because there are no outside investors telling us when we need to open a new location but this also means we don’t always have the funds needed to open somewhere new. We are more traditional and therefore slower, but our roots are deeper.”