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The Big Interview with Kate Firth, GM at Ye Olde Bell Hotel

JodyP 22 February 2019
The Big Interview with Kate Firth, GM at Ye Olde Bell Hotel

General Manager, Kate Firth, has worked at Ye Olde Bell Hotel and Spa for 36 years. During her time at the hotel she has not only seen changes at the property but also within in the hospitality industry. Kate joined Ye Olde Bell in 1982, working behind the bar for the summer before she started university. However she was bitten by the hospitality bug and what was originally a three
month contract has turned into 36 years of loyal service. After finding her true passion Kate decided not to go to university but instead chose to join the Trusthouse Forte trainee manager programme. The training was broad she carried out placements at Frimley Hall in Camberley and the Chequers hotel in Newbury.

On completion she returned to Ye Olde Bell and embarked on what has been a challenging, rewarding, varied and thoroughly enjoyable career. She has recently been appointed Managing Director.

Kate works at Ye Olde Bell with her husband Keith Firth, who is Executive Chef.

You have been at Ye Olde Bell for 36 years, can you tell us a bit about the hotel? 

Ye Olde Bell has been in existence since the 17 th century, originally as a farm and we think our first guest was welcomed around 1650. Apart from a period of about 30 years at the end of the 18th century it has always been a hostelry and I often ponder how many guests have walked our corridors during that time.

We currently have 59 individually styled bedrooms including 4 suites and 2 luxury lodges. Our event rooms will accommodate up to 450 guests with the capacity to extend this to 650 with the addition of a marquee on the garden.

We have two restaurants; the elegant Restaurant Bar 1650 and the vibrant, cosy St Leger Bistro by the Bar. We love food and serve our classic steak and ale pie alongside intricate innovative dishes created by our passionate kitchen team.

We have beautiful gardens which prove a perfect backdrop for wedding photos and a unique garden bar which is an instant hit with any prospective groom!

June 2017 saw the eagerly anticipated and very exciting opening of our multi million pound spa which just goes from strength to strength and is sweeping award after award.

Then of course we have the icing on the cake…the team, an incredible group of people working together in a fabulous environment delivering exceptional service day in day out… I could not be prouder of them.

What changes have you seen at the property over the years?

I don’t really realise how much things have changed until I stumble on a menu from the 80s or a photo from the 90s and then I appreciate just how much the hotel has evolved over the years.

Most change has been apparent during the 12 years that we’ve been privately owned…..we’re braver, more adventurous and quite frankly willing to try anything because we know we have the full support of our owners. We’re not afraid of getting things wrong in our quest to keep things fresh and be the best.

The workforce has grown from 32 to 106 since 2007 which is an incredible success story for our region.

Structurally and externally the hotel remains much the same as it ever was, it’s an iconic building and there are some bits of history that you just shouldn’t meddle with. Inside however, we’ve restored and preserved many of the original features and sympathetically
added in the modern twists that are essential to today’s discerning guest.

What are the main changes you have seen within the industry during your career?

Technology has to be up there…it’s impacted on every facet of our working and personal lives over the last 40 years. Most of it is very positive; communication is more effective, marketing more far reaching and knowledge is always at our fingertips.

Technology has certainly streamlined everything, long gone are the days of typing menus individually, completing a manual tab and writing numerous confirmation letters. It does make me wonder why we don’t have so much more spare time!

Guest behaviour has shifted too, generally they seem more relaxed, they have more respect for the industry and the people who work tirelessly to meet their every need and they are more open and honest with their feedback.

I do sometimes worry that it will go too far though….there are already some hotels that are devoid of all human interaction, that can’t be right and as long as I live and breathe it will not happen at Ye Olde Bell.

The hotel recently opened a new multi million pound spa, how has this impacted the
business and the guests you attract?

The spa has definitely changed our business mix exactly the way we hoped it would. As an independent hotel one of the most challenging sectors to drive is leisure, the spa was developed to reinforce the hotel as a destination, I’m happy to say it has worked. Guests are
coming from far and wide, the work we’ve done with various train operators has really paid off and we’ve taken full advantage of our close proximity to Retford station which sits on the main East Coast line a short distance to many major cities and only 90 minutes from
London.

What are the plans for the year ahead and beyond?

We’re taking some time to enjoy the spa and grow the business, but the next project is a kitchen garden. We’ve an ideal piece of land and I can visualise an orchard, greenhouses and raised beds galore. It’s important to keep things as local as possible and you can’t get much
more local than your own back garden. We’ll be theming the menu around seasonal produce and hopefully growing enough to make our own jams and chutneys too.

How do you keen your passion and energy for the hotel and industry?

That’s easy, I love what I do.

What is your favourite part of the job?

Oh, that’s a tough one! I get a great deal of enjoyment from helping guests plan any kind of celebration be it a wedding, an anniversary, a birthday or just a big family Sunday lunch. I’m a firm advocate for making memories and it gives me genuine satisfaction to know so very
many people far and wide have memories made at Ye Olde Bell. Funerals are important too, they are becoming less sombre and more of an occasion to laugh and share happy stories…I feel I am helping and that makes my job very worthwhile.

There are many areas of the business from F&B, corporate, meetings, leisure travellers,
spa and events and weddings. How do you manage each of the areas?

It’s actually one of our biggest challenges to balance all the different market segments and keep the appeal appropriate for the diverse mix of clients. We are very fortunate in that the hotel is extremely well designed and each main event room is totally self-sufficient we also have a very carefully managed diary. Individual segments require specific styles of service and it’s important that we pitch at the
right level, it all comes with experience and training.

The hotel receives many positive reviews for its outstanding customer service and welcoming atmosphere, how do you motivate your team to deliver this professional yet personal service?

I think it’s all about just letting them be themselves, we have no script, no stock phrases just genuine warm hospitality. I encourage the team to treat our guests as they would welcome people to their own homes. Open the door wide, flash a smile, show an interest, offer a
drink and really make them feel at home.

Would you recommend hospitality as a career and what advice would you give to those
starting out in the industry?

I most certainly would, it’s been good to me. It’s just so interesting and diverse. I come into work each day and although I have a plan of what needs to be achieved it can deviate on an hourly basis. You just never know what’s going to happen next!

I love the flexibility too, there’s no routine and that keeps everything fresh. It’s the perfect career for a working parent, I never missed a sports day or school concert when our children were growing up and the flexible hours made child care relatively breezy.

For anyone starting out in the industry I would advise them to get as broad an experience as possible, I’m confident that I can turn my hand to almost anything and having an insight into every department has given me a greater understanding of the challenges facing my team. I would also recommend they retain a sense of humour, sometimes laughter is the only way forward! The pressure can be immense, an event for 650 guests can not be put on hold, we can’t lock up, go home and come back to finish it the next day…. it’s all very now. I thrive on pressure, I love the adrenalin, I’m proud that it’s always team work that gets the job done
but it is hard work so be prepared. The rewards however are phenomenal …..there is no greater feeling at the end of the day that you’ve delivered and exceeded a guest expectation.

Questions for Keith

How did you start out in the industry?

As my parents had their own business and worked long hours, I spent many of my formative years with my grandmother who was an exceptional cook, I enjoyed helping and developed a lifelong love of food.

As soon as I was old enough to work, I got a job in a local restaurant and enrolled at catering college. I gained plenty of experience working in Spain, France and in many parts of the UK experiencing diverse cooking methods.

Ye Olde Bell offers many different F&B outlets for diners, can you tell us a little about the offering?

We offer food from 7am until 9.30pm every day so there’s certainly a lot going on. We have a restaurant and a bistro each about 40 covers, we offer the same extensive seasonal menu in both, yet the ambience is quite different….it’s amazing what an impact a tablecloth can have!

We have a thriving Sunday lunch trade, the highlight of which is the heavily laden very tempting dessert trolley which is always a hit! The whole service is quite traditional with prime local sirloin of beef and massive Yorkshire puddings as a mainstay, we entertain a lot
of extended family groups and there’s always a great atmosphere.

Let’s not forget breakfast, definitely a growing market as everyone tries to find time in their busy schedule, local produce, well cooked, quickly served and a fabulous start to the day.

Afternoon tea is still at the very height of fashion, served every day from 2.30pm until 5.30pm, dainty vintage china, delicious finger sandwiches, freshly baked scones and an array of homemade cakes makes it a memorable occasion.

We are very flexible and happy for guests to dine wherever they feel comfortable whether that’s in the restaurant, in the lounge by the fire, outside on one of our many terraces, in their room or in our beautifully kept garden.

Is it difficult to manage large scale events compared to restaurant, breakfast offering etc?

It’s just different… planning is key to a successful service whether it’s for 6 or 600. The large events do need more organisation but actual service is probably more straightforward as the menu is usually predetermined and there are no surprises, it is incredibly fast paced
though.

Restaurant is more gradual but you just don’t know what the guests are going to order, a table of 12 could potentially order 12 different dishes which can be challenging to say the least.

All in a day’s work though, that’s what we’re here for.

Do you enjoy creating menus for couples’ special day?

Naturally yes, it’s great to get out of the kitchen sometimes and spend some time with the guests. Weddings and celebrations are such an important part of our business and time spent in the run up can reap rewards on the day. When you’ve met a couple and created
their dream menu you definitely go all out to deliver.

You work with your wife, is it difficult to manage the work/ life balance?

Ha, ha….no comment!