Lucky 13

Lucky 13

Deborah Haines is not superstitious when she launches a new hotel, quite the opposite in fact, discovers Brian Nicholls.

It is to be hoped the number 13 is lucky for Deborah Haines, veteran of 13 different hotels as she built her career prior to arriving in Durham as inaugural general manager of the new Radission SAS Hotel on the city’s riverside.

This, and for the 13 months prior to the hotel’s opening she worked in a Portakabin, where she planned its launch with the support of a 13-strong pre-management team.

There is, as tradition dictates, no room 13 at the hotel, but there is a 113, 213, 313 and 413, where guests will be treated to just as warm a welcome as elsewhere in the four-star, 207-room hotel.

As business is still gathering momentum following its November opening, the management prefers not to detail occupancy figures, but the hotel has already hosted two residential conferences and four dinners for between 80 and 298 guests.

It can host events and meetings for up to 600.

It celebrated its first New Year with North East girl band and X Factor finalists Bad Lashes headlining a successful fundraiser for the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation for cancer, with both Sir Bobby and his wife Lady Elsie among some 250 guests. Word of the hotel seems to be spreading.

“I think customers are finding the flexibility we offer particularly appealing,” Deborah says.

“Our clientele to date has largely comprised of business people, and we also have footballers staying and leisure visitors on two or three-night visits.” The new four-storey building, two wings linked by a dramatic glass foyer, is angled to follow the curve of the river.

Externally, locally sourced stone and slate combine with red brick and cedar in a contemporary design which hints at the occupier’s Scandinavian associations.

This sudden insertion of colour and individuality provides relief from the grey government buildings nearby and is without prejudice to the city’s World Heritage site, manifest in the hilltop cathedral and castle.

Deborah, 42, leads confidently and by example, drawing on practical experience of hotel work over almost 25 years. A sense of duty is evident, and one guest checking out recently found her in the foyer at 6am on her Saturday morning off to wish bon voyage in person.

She was born in Thirsk, but didn’t stay long, her father’s career with the RAF taking the family to Lincolnshire, where Deborah studied at college before heading to London towork at Trusthouse Forte’s Westbury Grosvenor House.

At 18, she was a floor housekeeper. She progressed to hotels on Guernsey and Gibraltar, before moving up the ladder at Manchester’s Britannia. At 22, she went to the city’s iconic Midland Hotel to become perhaps the youngest executive housekeeper in Europe.

Headhunted by Radisson, she continued to progress with posts at the company’s Manchester Airport hotel, the Radisson Edwardian SAS at Heathrow and the 500-bedroom Radisson flagship at Stansted. She had her first experience as a general manager in 2006, when she worked on the conversion into a private hotel of The Park at Hyde Park.

“That was particularly interesting,” she recalls, “because I was very much into strategy. I had to position the hotel correctly from a business point of view. I was delighted when we won a hotel of the year award.” Since August 2007 Durham has been her challenge and she spent those 13 months ensconced in her Portakabin, where the hotel now stands, presiding daily over progress. One of her interventions was to pre-empt a hanging of paintings depicting Durham Cathedral in every bedroom.

“Why, when guests can look out of their bedroom window and see the cathedral in reality?” she asked. A skill required in any project launch is, of course, an ability to pick the right staff. The initial complement is 78, and all but the key executives have been recruited locally.

“We recruited for attitude, not for skills base,” she says. “We looked for individuals who appeared to be hospitable, keen to please and enthusiastic.

We can teach the skills of hotel business in the style we prefer. If we have the right attitude in a person we can nurture and develop it.” Already Deborah ranks the Durham Radisson with her Hyde Park days as the most satisfying experience of her career to date.

“It was rewarding in a different way,” she explains. “Here, I came armed only with a mobile phone and an email address.

The whole thing for me started from there.” Her move to Durham heralds a welcome change of lifestyle.

From the commuting frustrations of Reading, she and husband Andrew – now executive chef at The Sage Gateshead - have relocated to a country home amid fields at Burnhope in Derwentside where, among other things, they can keep a horse.

“The wonderful plus for me is the travel transformation,” Deborah says.

“It takes me 15 minutes to get to work now.

It used to take three hours when I worked at Stansted.” While daughter Leigh, 18, studies at college in Chichester, daughter Candice, 13, attends Durham Johnston School, and is the equestrian of the family.