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Five-Star Service

Hotel owner Julia Hands at Nutfield Priory in Surrey

Rosalind Renshaw | The Times

October 04, 2008

Working relationship: Julia Hands, head of Hand Picked Hotels, which owns and renovates country house hotels, and her assistant, Louise Fiksen

Some women buy shoes; Julia Hands buys country house hotels — 17 at the last count, including three in a bulkbuying spree in February. We are meeting at one of these and it is clear that Audleys Wood is something of a faded beauty set in lush gardens on the fringes of Basingstoke in Hampshire, England.

Julia, a former City lawyer, is undaunted: “The bedrooms need renovating first,” she says. “They’re serviceable but not elegant. Each will cost £20,000 to do, and £30,000 if the bathroom needs replacing. Obviously, it would be cheaper if all the rooms were the same, but in my hotels each one is different, as you’d expect in period buildings.

“Nor can you skimp. Guests have high expectations. It’s no longer sufficient to provide a trouser press — they want flat-screen TVs, internet access, health clubs and spas.”

Julia heads up Hand Picked Hotels, which she started in 1999 with her husband, Guy Hands, the financier who is chairman of EMI. The Hands and their four children live in a Kent mansion, where Julia acquired her taste for heavy-duty restoration: “The builders went bust halfway through, so I set up my own building company to finish the work, re-employing men who still work for me.” At first, the management was outsourced, but in 2001 Julia took over. She has clearly excelled, picking up awards, while spending well over $150 million on building work.

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Louise Fiksen, Peronal Assistant to Julia Hands

“We had a manic first three months because we had no head office and only a skeleton team,” Julia recalls. One of the first arrivals was Louise Fiksen, who had spent 14 years working for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London and overseas, and was pleased to work near home. “I set up the office in Sevenoaks where we had three members of staff, one computer and two telephones,” Louise recalls. “I did everything, from HR to manning the switchboard. Nowadays, there are 25 of us and I work for the directors.”

The hotels, which employ 1,000 people, are chosen for their individuality, locations and potential. “All are listed buildings, which often means clashing demands between English Heritage and health and safety,” Julia says. “Some have been in an atrocious state but we’ve kept them open while doing the work.”

The hotels have an occupancy rate of around 70 per cent, in line with the UK hotel industry as a whole, but is Julia worried by the economy? “Conferences are a good barometer,” she says. “Companies dispense with them because they’re not essential, and the market is not what it was. But there’s still corporate travel and all our hotels are licensed for marriages, so we’re kept busy.”

Louise is a regular visitor to the hotels, where she hosts the company’s training days and conferences.

Julia, who also spends considerable time in her hotels, says: “Lou manages whether I’m in the office or not and is very much the face and voice of the company. She was the only person I interviewed for the job. We clicked immediately and still do.”

Courtesy of © 2008 YellowBrix, Inc.


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