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 Barnett on Business Travel

chris A MAKEOVER
ON THE MOORS


BY CHRIS BARNETT

July 22, 2004 -- If you think that the moors deep in the English countryside are dreary and depressing, swing by the 400-year-old Sandy Park pub in Chagford for a pint. If you can sing well and play the old sailing-ship piano with pizzazz, manager Simon Saunders will pick up your food-and-drink tab. Night after night if you want to be the resident entertainer.

Or drop into the Whitehart, a centuries-old coaching inn in Moreton Hampstead and say hello to 22-year-old Hassan Serag-el-Din, half British, half Egyptian and 100 percent entrepreneur. With no previous innkeeping experience, he helped resurrect the dingy Whitehart and turn it into a hip hideaway. Reopened in January after a long run as a boarded-up eyesore, it has rooms starting at $100 and up, flat-screen TVs, stereos, a smart restaurant with a London-trained chef and an impressive wine list. The personable Hassan hosts, serves, pours and schmoozes, not exactly what you expect to find in this village.

Unexpected, too, is coming eyeball-to-eyeball with a red-tailed, razor-taloned falcon perched on the leather-gloved hand of falconer Martin Whitely, who stands, statue-like, every morning in the foyer of Bovey Castle and acts as the official greeter. The helpfulness of the 180 castle staffers is surprising, too, because you don't normally find such skilled and pleasant service here in Devon, in the countryside about 150 miles southwest of London. But except for a small contingent of seasoned managers, most are innocent neophytes in the hospitality arts. Their genuine friendliness can be jolting to the widely traveled who have grown to expect either well-rehearsed charm at top-end hotels or by-the-book efficiency and indifference at mid- and lower-priced lodging chains.

But here's the real surprise. Most of the 20-somethings employed at Sandy Park, Whitehart and Bovey Castle were handpicked by the owner himself and are paid a paltry wage. Despite their low pay, the staff is gracious and amazingly accommodating. During a recent visit to the castle, I couldn't sleep and was roaming around at 2 a.m. The night manager, a lad of 23, took me into the pantry and made me a ham-and cheese-sandwich and a cup of warm cocoa.

"I've deliberately avoided hiring highly trained outsiders," says Peter de Savary, who made his fortune owning and selling shipyards, supertankers and refineries and who now buys and re-energizes clubs and resort properties like Bovey Castle, the Whitehart and the Sandy Park.

"I believe in bringing in wonderful, natural, local people who can learn the art of fine service and are proud to serve. I don't look at their resumes. I look for personality and enthusiasm."

As for his miserly wage scale, de Savary defends it and says every employee works on an incentive employment plan. "They all get a piece of the action. That way, we're all partners. If my places do well, they make very good money. If they don't do well, they're on bread and water."

For the last six months, de Savary has been micro-managing the makeover of a shabby, century-old manor house into Bovey Castle. Most recently, it had been a 95-room hotel on a 368-acre estate inside Dartmoor National Park, but the prior owner went bankrupt. De Savary has already spent $50 million of his own money to turn the five-story, 100,000-square-foot stone fortress into a lush refuge for the weary traveler, the wealthy who don't have a castle of their own and corporate planners and deep thinkers who want an unusual retreat venue.

He's certainly hasn't been tightfisted with the transformation. A new wing is being added to the castle. It includes suites and a plush spa, but it's designed to look, to outsiders, like it's a hundred years old. De Savary won't get any accolades from local historical preservationists, however, because he exorcised 30 bedrooms and made the remaining 65 rooms, particularly the baths, bigger and splashier. Still, purists will appreciate that he restored the Minstrels' Gallery sitting room to its 1906 splendor by raising the cathedral ceiling that had been dropped by a prior owner to save money on heating. And de Savary hired a team of French polishers and restorers to make the oak paneling and grand staircases gleam.

Actually, calling Bovey a "castle" is stretching it a bit. It's not dark or dank or seven centuries old. More accurately, it is a country estate home that is honeycombed with rooms for relaxation: a snooker room; the Cigar Cave; a wine cellar; and a bar with 150 cocktails and 50 single-malt Scotches on the menu.

There's also sporting opportunities, starting with golf. I didn't tackle it, but the picturesque, 6,303-yard Old Course, designed in 1926, rambles through the property and is said to be on a par with the revered Gleneagles and Turnburry links. All three were created by the same man, J.C. Abercrombie. Guests can also wile away the hours shooting clay pigeons; practicing their accuracy with the bow and arrow; fishing for trout and salmon; riding; or playing tennis.

(All activities are priced la carte and are no real bargain for Americans since the U.S. dollar is extremely weak against the British pound. I chose a free indoor sport--couch potato--and curled up on an authentic leather Chesterfield near a window in an antiques-filled room and soaked up the solitude.)

At the current exchange rate, the smallest room at Bovey Castle, the Mews, is about $360 a night. Meals are not included, but broadband Internet and wireless access is gratis. (There are three personal computers on the estate, including a Macintosh in an old phone booth outside the Oak Bar.) Off-season rates were supposed to begin at about $200, but the price has climbed as the dollar has fallen against the pound. Still, the prices are more affordable than the Carnegie Club at Skibo Castle in Scotland that de Savory also revitalized and ran for years. Non-members there pay $1,200 a night.

Sipping an espresso and puffing on a Havana at midnight in the Oak Bar, de Savary was relaxed and philosophical.

"Look, unlike a luxury hotel, I don't have to worry about owners, venture capitalists, real-estate portfolio managers or bean counters at conglomerates measuring my return on investment or internal rates of return," he said. "I worry about the details and I worry about the guests. Are they having fun? Will they come back?"

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com.

Copyright 2001-2004 by Chris Barnett. All rights reserved.