Rockliffe Hall chairman Warwick Brindle shows Mike Hughes around the five-star hotel.
Darlington is a town with five-star ambitions – so it is only fitting it has one of the country’s most luxurious hotels in Rockliffe Hall at Hurworth Place. The stunning 18th Century redbrick mansion and former sanatorium has been transformed since it was bought in 1996 by Middlesbrough FC owner Steve Gibson. He had entrusted his dream of a luxury hotel to investor and former media group MD Warwick Brindle.
The five red stars next to the door into reception and year-on-year growth since it was fully opened in January 2010 are proof of how successful he has been and what an asset this has become for Darlington, with the power to draw in the most influential business leaders from all over the country. For Darlington to live up to its own very high expectations, it knew that the biggest players in every sector had to look here to invest. And they would expect fine dining and luxury facilities to be just as much a part of any aspirational town’s economy as retail, transport and office space.
Thanks to Warwick and his team, led by chief executive Eamonn Elliott, Rockliffe is now a Darlington brand known around the world. “The key for Rockliffe is that we have the very best of everything - from a championship golf course and a spa nominated as the best in the UK to rooms that are second to none. When you add three restaurants and great wedding facilities, we mark all the bases.
“We are one of only eight or ten hotels outside London that have five AA red stars (its highest ‘inspectors’ choice’ award), which need ticks in 48 boxes to be approved. For a Darlington hotel, that ain’t bad!”
It could have been a different story. When Steve and Warwick did their first feasibility study in 2000, the signs, including disposable income and catchment area, pointed towards a four-star option. But by the time of a second study in 2005 the economy was brighter, Darlington was growing and maturing and the money people were willing to spend on luxuries had increased, so the decision was made to aim for the very top of the sector.
“Because the hotel was going to be top end, the golf and spa needed to be as well,” says Warwick. “We knew what the deliverables were and were able to put our stamp on it. We knew the property was going to be OK, but the risk we took on, was what we could demand in rates and pricing. We were unproven, so needed to convince people we were worthy of a big chunk of their disposable income.
“It’s important to us that the growth of the business has come from a 50-mile or 60-mile radius, and it hasn’t been a helter-skelter period, the growth has always been there. We do a lot of business locally as well as earning that important international reputation.
“We relate closely to Darlington and it means a lot to us. We employ 330 people here and 95% of them are from the town. The hall is nothing without great staff and we have found almost all of them locally, with an average age in the mid-twenties, so we are an important employer in the regional economy, which is massive for the resort.
“So much of the feedback we get is how good the staff are – and that is what we are about. We can feed 250,000 people a year and we pride ourselves on their opinion of us and our place in the market. It all revolves around the experience and our Darlington staff deliver that and understand what the customer journey is all about.
“The hotel has also had a lot of media interest from all over the country, which brings a very welcome focus to the area. People still don’t realise Darlington is only a couple of hours from London, so bringing them out here is important.”
There is no doubt the Rockliffe magnet has attracted major interest to the town. When the likes of the GB Olympic football team and paralympic sportsmen and women and the US women who won the Olympic title come here, they provide an almost incalculable boost for the hotel’s catchment area. Rallies from such luxury brands as Jaguar and Bentley have been held here as well as car launches from Audi, Tesla and Renault.
The list couldn’t be more impressive and each would have been courted by towns and cities around the country – but they chose Rockliffe and Darlington. Inside, the hotel has 61 bedrooms, alongside Tiplady Lodge, Woodland Mews holiday homes and apartments at Armstrong House. Outside there are 375 acres of countryside, with walks and jogging routes that pass some of the rare and exotic trees collected by the Hall’s former owners, and keen botanists, the Backhouse family.
Like any Darlington business, Rockliffe will not stop driving forwards. One of its most recent additions, after five years of planning is the spa garden, complete with outdoor heated pools, hot tubs and views across the landscaped grounds.
Warwick works on a rolling five-year plan, which is renewed constantly to maintain its ambition to stay far ahead of its rivals. “If we describe Rockcliffe as a 61-bedroom country house hotel, people have a certain vision of what that means,” said Warwick. “But when they come here they realise it is much more and it is always interesting to watch people’s reactions, particularly to the spa, which is a few years beyond what any of the other hotels are doing.
“Everything we do is about the guest experience. We can have 500 covers at the hotel, but there can still be privacy and personal attention. There can be 120 people on the golf course or a wedding taking place and other parts of the hotel wouldn’t know.
“Whatever we offer, people expect it to be the best they have ever had.”
Warwick’s role from day one was to create the hotel from the original ideas, sketches and plans. Now it is to keep developing it, look after the spending and strategy as Eamonn and his team run it. “I am proud of what we have achieved here, but I always see it as a work in progress,” he says. “I am most proud when I see someone on the first tee, and I know what the field looked like five years ago. Or when I see a bride coming out of the front door, or someone relaxing in the spa. I see people actually using it all and I say to myself ‘do you know what? It worked’.”