Ross Grieve

Ross Grieve of Seaham Hall

Putting Seaham on the map

As managing director of Seaham Hall, Ross Grieve has turned the iconic Georgian Mansion from a hotel in receivership into one of the UK’s most luxurious hotels. Bryce Wilcock finds out how he did it…

Ross Grieve has a pretty solid CV when it comes to hotels. Starting out at The Ritz as a trainee he sharp worked his way up the ladder before going on to hold managerial roles at The Westbury, Cotton House, Mustique and even the roles at The Clarence, the lucrative Dublin hotel owned by U2.

It wasn’t until he took up the hotel manager position at The Chester Grosvenor however that he really began cutting his teeth as a manager and honed his skills. “As the hotel manager at The Chester Grosvenor I was still involved in operations but I moved more into the business element of it, looking at what made the business physically tick, that’s where I think I really cut my teeth.”

Ross spent 10 years at The Chester Grosvenor before deciding it was time to look for a new challenge. Then the opportunity arose to restore what was once one of the North East’s top venues to its former glory – and he leaped at the opportunity.

“When you’re in my position, there are three choices available to you when looking for a new challenge. You either go into an iconic property where you become almost like a custodian, you go off and do an opening or you can try and write your own rags to riches story.

“I went for the rags to riches story. I saw an opportunity open up to take on Seaham Hall and I relished the challenge. At the time the owner had just bought it from the receivers, it had been sat in receivership for 15 months and completely lacked investment. The brand and the integrity had gone.”

Ross’ first job was to turn what was a loss-making business into a profit-making business and to reaffirm its position as one of the most iconic hotels in the North East. With this in mind, he transformed almost everything about the hotel.

“We’ve completely changed the hotel around. We’ve spun it around 180 degrees. The restaurant is now at the front of the property and the previous restaurant is now a lounge and a sports bar. The lounge we’re sitting in today used to be the function bar and was hardly used. Now it’s used every day, it’s south facing and no matter how bad the weather is it’s a lovely bright room to be in.”

But as a manager, Ross believes strongly in consulting his team when making executive decisions – it is a philosophy which has shaped Seaham Hall over the past four years and carries on to do so. “I make sure the team have an input into everything we do and really buy into what we’re doing.

“I think you have to include your staff in things like this. One of the first team away days we had led to the creation of the sports lounge. We had this huge space and didn’t know what to do with it. Everyone has a snooker table, they’re pretty boring.

“We knew the North East was huge for its sports, especially football, so we added a foosball table, a 6 foot TV and also an American sized pool table, which is fast and allows groups of people to get together and spark up conversation. They stay up a little longer and hopefully drink a little more!

“It’s about utilising your space well. We’re blessed, we have 37 acres of ground and there are always opportunities to look at what we can do with the space and we always encourage our staff to get involved and help shape the future of the business.”

And with 37 acres of land to play with, Ross and his team have certainly had a chance to show their creative flair, from the introduction of temporary beach huts to an après-ski bar. But in terms of more permanent fixtures, they have also completely refurbished their award-winning spa, which now includes a swimming pool, outdoor hot tubs, a fitness suite and an aerobics studio and have continued to add more to the hotels offering.

It is also home to two excellent restaurants - Byron's Restaurant and Ozone, a Pan Asian restaurant located within the Serenity Spa - their Vortex room, a dedicated meeting room for company away days styled on the offices of Google and Apple and caters for weddings, events and afternoon tea. The hotel is now almost unrecognisable from what it was four years ago.

“I’ve been here almost four years now and over the course we’ve kept reinvesting in the product. We are continuously reinvesting our profits - the owner has been very generous in terms of what he has allowed to be put back into the building.

“But the most important thing is the team. You can build amazing hotels, but if the staff aren’t any good then it’s a waste of time. We’ve really went out of our way to ensure we’ve employed the right people. We have experienced heads of department and it has been a real team effort to turn the hotel around.”

This continued investment has led to the business scooping a series of awards over the years but it was only last week when Ross and his team won one of their proudest accolades to date, being named the ninth most lucrative hotel in the UK by TripAdvisor. 

And it is the hard work of Ross’ dedicated team which he believes underpins the hotel’s grand success and has helped it scoop such prestigious accolades. Having spent millions transforming the entire property, he believes it is his team which makes it a luxury destination, not the furniture and the bells and whistles.

“We’ve won ‘Small hotel of the Year for the North East’ twice and more recently we’ve been named the ninth most luxurious hotel in the UK by TripAdvisor.

“The TripAdvisor award was a huge achievement but for me, the funny thing about luxury these days is that luxury isn’t just about the bells and whistles, an awful lot of people have those in their homes. Whether it’s superfast wi-fi, a flat screen TV or trendy bathrooms.

“I don’t think it’s defined by bricks, mortar and finishes, that has elements of it but I think a lot of it revolves around the physical delivery from the team and therefore the other elements that they can add from that side of things. Luxury is defined by the customer experience.

 “Whenever you read our reviews they’re almost always praising our team whether it’s Kevin the porter, Chara in guest relations, Eva in the restaurant or Davina over in the spa, but they’re just a few.

“There are an awful lot of people behind the scenes making it happen, it’s not just the staff on the frontline. It’s a real team effort.”

Seaham Hall now employs 130 people and the five-star resort is a real staple of success for County Durham’s already burgeoning hospitality sector. But looking forward, Ross is quite enjoying life on the coast having spent the majority of his career in the city and is committed to the cause of making Seaham Hall one of the nation’s finest hotels.

“At the end of the day the North East has had its challenges over the decades but if you take County Durham, it has launched a major marketing drive and they’ve really concentrated and been able to drive growth into the region.

“We also have great housing here right on the coast. People can commute within half an hour to Newcastle, Sunderland or Durham and it offers a quiet coastal life with real opportunities. There are some fantastic coastlines here which aren’t crowded.

“Whether you’re out walking the dog or out with the kids, there’s so much to do here and it’s a beautiful part of the world. It’s a great place to do business and still has a lot more to give!”