Warwick Brindle, a frontliner in North East tourism and leisure, is convinced the region’s sector can pull in much more than the £3.92bn yearly at present. But he believes lots must be done, and more intrinsically than before, to achieve this. Don’t let his rich, engaging Lancashire accent mislead. He knows the North East inside out. And his decades of driving companies of his own and major organisations of others is enriched by unique experience of American business.
Today, as chairman and co-founder of Rockliffe Hall Ltd, he heads the organisation behind one of the North East’s supreme tourist assets, the five-star hotel, golf club and spa resort of that ilk. The 61-bedroom venue in rural Darlington opened late in 2009, just as the recession was throwing up business failures.
Even in good times, such a hotel might need four years to establish. In fact, Brindle says, perhaps even with a trace of understatement: “We’ve bucked the trend a bit and on track to where we want to be. We’re looking for a 70-75% occupancy rate and are already getting that.” There’s bedrock patronage of 700 spa members and 250 golf members, largely from within 25 miles, and a reassuring number of guests from a core Leeds-Newcastle area. Accolades mount for the spa, the golf, the food and the hospitality.
Gold award winner in regional tourism awards, Rockcliffe Hall’s qualities are recognised nationally, too. It’s feted as one of the nation’s 10 best country hotels by The Sunday Times, appears in the Top 100 of another list - and on a website is acclaimed as second only in the UK to London’s Dorchester.
Fast rail links between London and Darlington speed its growth. But Brindle perceives North East tourism as a whole as being on the slow line. “That’s not meant to be critical,” he stresses. It’s partly because it got wrapped up in the region’s inward investment programme and sectoral priorities, not only during the time of One North East but also in the time of the preceding North East Development Company.
“Over the years, our region has been so sector driven by the big guys, naturally,” he says.
“So if it’s Teesside it’s chemicals, engineering. They still bang on about docks and ships, but how big are some of the players there compared to IT and leisure and tourism? It doesn’t happen necessarily in other regions – Cornwall’s not still driven by the tin mines, but here some people even say still Teesside is driven by ICI. It’s 20 years since they were here. What exists now is a fragmentation of what they did.
“Most conferences we get concern IT and other service industries. I can’t remember when we had an engineering conference. So the region is also being driven by many people running small businesses very well. Most members here run their own business with good turnover, bringing income to the area but are totally ignored.
"They make furniture, do landscaping, IT – that sort of thing – and considering them too would better indicate what the area is really like. There’s a target of bringing manufacturing business here, and of persuading companies to grow here and not move out.
"But when you wrap it into a ‘Passionate about the North East’ type of programme, that says nothing to the big tourist industry outside. It says it’s a great place to locate to. I don’t think we’ve ever had a North East campaign in all the years I’ve been involved here that says or delivers what we can provide as a tourist area. I think most people in our industry believe that. It’s difficult to get across, admittedly.
“What are you promoting – beaches in Northumberland or a facility like this? There’s 120 miles difference. And do you include the Dales?” He suspects that with the passing of One North East regional development agency, North East tourism will fall back into “pockets”.
Teesside towns, for example, may have to do their own thing again – “something really difficult nationally for them”. So his organisation is already proactive.
“We’ve begun working hard with other hoteliers and leisure people to put people who run the industry in the driving seat, rather than people who have other roles.
“Hoteliers and leisure people are getting together across the North East to agree how to go forward. You can promote the location, but if you’re not promoting the business too how do people know what we’ve got, apart from the location? It’s a bit ‘so what?’” For starters, Rockliffe aims to see the North East rival Scotland and Ireland for golf breaks and holidays.
It’s joining with other golf venues in the region to prepare a “proper” package for golf this year. He’s convinced the specific approach will pay.
“People sometimes get too proprietorial. Our view’s that if people come to us on behalf of a party of 30 perhaps, no matter where from, we can deliver a full golf experience. We’re going to be the catalyst.
“If people come from other parts of the country or abroad to play golf and stay here, we’re not going to say they should just golf at Rockliffe, but we might suggest they try the links experience at Seaton Delaval, for example, or Close House and the courses further north.
Everyone involved is up for it. It’s just one example of what can be done.” Brindle is not the type to pull up at the first obstacle.
Planning Rockliffe’s course had presented an initial challenge as he sat to develop the entire enterprise from 400 acres and 11 buildings, including the centrepiece 19th Century Grade II, architecturally listed family residence – empty for about 15 years.
He explains: “The course is built on a 100-year-old flood plain, something we’ve never really told people. So the engineering had to be spot on. We’re pretty sure we’ll have a major flood once a year.
"Most golf clubs would have nightmares about something like that.” It’s unavoidable because the Tees horseshoes there. The solution? Ensure the course is back open within 24 hours. We’ve now had three major course floods since we opened. Each time we’ve had the course back open within 24 hours. I’ve a set of engineering drawings taking me through a 10, 33, 50 and 100-year flood pattern. When flooding happens, we pull the drawings out and know exactly where the flooding will reach to.
“We had a golf party here when more rain had fallen in two hours than at any time during 20 years before,” Brindle enthuses.
“One of our members told them to have another drink and play again in a couple of hours.” The visitors didn’t believe it, but sure enough, the water receded.
Brindle says: “The course is designed so that the fall of the flood plain is on the level of the water on the river. When a surge comes downriver, like a miniature tsunami, everywhere here takes it – then it recedes straight away.”
Rockliffe’s contribution to the local economy to date includes creating 260 jobs – mainly to local people, some of whom had earlier left the North East. And along with Middlesbrough Football Club which trains there, it gives business to 2,000 other firms.
What Brindle wouldn’t like to see in future building of the regional economy are U-turns like those evident when Gordon Brown’s government reneged on proposals to allow more casinos in Britain. The economy of Middlesbrough stood to gain £10m – a figure undisclosed at the time – and Brindle speaks with authority.
Las Vegas Sands, noted for its casinos but in fact an integrated resorts company, had joined the Nasdaq and liked the British proposal. It had been reckoned after the Taylor Report on safety at sports stadiums that 29 football clubs would build new homes on brownfield sites, where accompanying space could also accommodate new casinos.
A site beside Middlesbrough’s Riverside Stadium at Middlehaven was advocated.
Brindle knew nothing about casinos initially but, having worked in the US, he was asked to investigate.
From that came the first big presentation on the regional casino plan. He says: “It was all going ahead until the government decided it was folly. They were never going to do it. They killed it – one of the worst examples I’ve ever seen of not understanding an area’s economy. The Sands guys have one of the world’s biggest businesses. They weren’t just into casinos but many other businesses like six massive hotels in Macau alone. People treated them here like they were little betting shop guys. It was unbelievable to hear what was going on. They planned to put millions into the area and were bemused by their reception. They spent £100m on feasibility studies alone, yet their expertise went unheeded.”
Many believe the anti-gambling lobby settled it. Brindle’s not so sure. There were genuine concerns about a growth in addiction, and about the effect particularly on people who couldn’t afford to gamble. But he points out: “The guys from Las Vegas spend £150m a year – just in Vegas – treating people with addiction. The addiction rate among people who gamble is 0.1%. Here they envisaged something like £3m in Middlesbrough alone for counselling.”
Why, he asks, was addiction the issue? “There were bigger political issues also we were never told about. It was a terrible mistake, without doubt. If they’d been allowed to come and build it would have changed how we gamble anyway. Many jobs would have been created.” And 4,000 companies would have benefited indirectly, Brindle reckons.
“There was something fundamental that nobody got told about, I think. We were chopped off at the knees, got a letter saying they weren’t going to do it. We spent 18 months. They’ve built elsewhere in Europe instead.” Meanwhile, Warwick Brindle continues to lead Rockliffe upwards.
“Sometimes the perception of a hotel is that once it is built, that’s it,” he explains. So instead, tennis courts are being planned, the golf course adjusted and improved. The “guest experience” will be enhanced by, for example, a wine tasting cellar. Also, one of the restaurants has already been remodelled. The original spa bistro is now Brasserie by Atkinson. A former national chef of the year, Kenny Atkinson is the hotel’s Newcastle-born, twice Michelin-starred wizard of the kitchen – familiar even to many who have not tasted his food, but who will remember him from his television appearances. Brindle says: “We’re extending Kenny’s influence because he’s a fantastic chef, a recognised brand name. This change has already had a fantastic public reaction.” And Rockliffe Hall Hotel, Golf and Spa Resort puts great emphasis on responding to public reaction.