Kate Firth is general manager of Ye Olde Bell Hotel & Spa in Retford, Nottinghamshire. Kate joined the 59-bedroom hotel 35 years ago to work behind the bar for three months before starting university, but after falling in love with hospitality, changed her plans and joined the Trusthouse Forte trainee manager programme. After completing placements at Frimley Hall in Camberley and the Chequers hotel in Newbury she returned to Ye Olde Bell where she has worked ever since. The former Swallow Hotels property, which was bought out of administration by independent owners Paul and Hilary Levack in 2007, has just added a multi-million pound luxury spa. Kate is also married to the hotel’s executive head chef Keith Firth.
Thirty-five years is a long time to stay working in one hotel, what has kept you there?
I was captivated by the history. I found it fascinating that these walls have been welcoming guests since the 1600s and it blew my mind a bit thinking about all the people who had walked the corridors and stayed in the rooms. That hooked me because I loved history. I was off to university to study for a history degree when I came here for a summer job. It totally inspired me. The hotel changes so much as well. It doesn’t seem like the same place from day-to-day sometimes. It’s different during the week when we have a lot of corporate guests and it’s fairly quiet compared to the weekend when it’s party central and we have celebrations of all kind going on. It changes in the winter to the summer too. It’s ever-changing, so you can’t get bored.
What do you love about working in hospitality?
So many things. One of the biggest is the variety. No two days are ever the same. You quite literally don’t know what’s going to happen next. If you work in a shop, office or other industries you lock the doors at the end of the night and everything’s the same. In a hotel, anything could have happened while you’ve been away.
I love that you get to meet and form relationships with people that perhaps you wouldn’t meet in your regular life. I’ve met quite a few famous people since working here. One of the first people I took breakfast to back in the 1980s was Cilla Black and we’ve more recently had One Direction stay – that was very exciting.
I also love to see young people come into the industry and see them flourish: We have a large banqueting team with some who are 16 and just starting sixth form. When they first come to us are often very shy and know very little about food or wine, then two years later they’ve grown into wonderful, confident people who go off to university. It’s great to see that some do come back into the industry. Finally, the flexibility of this job is fantastic. I love not having to go shopping on a Saturday when everyone else is.
Ye Olde Bell went from being part of a group to an independent hotel in 2007, what impact did that have on your role?
It was quite an unsettling time. It was a shock to everybody when the group (Swallow Hotels) went into liquidation and then went under private ownership. It’s very different working for an independent hotel rather than one that’s part of a group and it took me quite a long time to adjust. I came from quite a corporate background where everything was driven by profit, but with an independent owner, although that’s still very important, service became more so.
Service is closer to my heart and the reason I stayed in the industry. I love people to come in and have a good time and nothing gives me greater satisfaction than people leaving the hotel at the end of the meal or a stay and saying that was really fantastic. You can deliver that level of service when you have an independent hotel.
There’s also more freedom to do things the way you want to do them and decision making is so much quicker. With a group you have to go through so many processes to have a decision, here it’s an informal chat with the senior management team and the owners.
What is it like working with your husband?
We met here 35 years ago and then went on to work separately for a while. We have worked together for most of that time though, certainly for the last 10 years. It has its challenges, but really I love working with him and it’s great to know that somebody has got your back all the time. He’s very supportive, works very hard and never moans, but it can be a bit strange at the end of the day when you get home and say ‘how was your day?’ and he’ll say ‘the same as yours’. We do try hard not to take work home with us. Work is work and home is home.
How important is food and beverage to Ye Olde Bell?
It’s absolutely crucial. I love food. Our bread and butter is the big events, which are overseen by the executive chef, but we’ve got a really amazing team at the restaurant at the moment who has recently launched a bespoke dining menu with innovative dishes like grilled lemon sole with lobster reduction, wild spinach and crab beignets or rabbit loin, white pudding bonbon and carrot jelly, pickled carrots and sherry jus. They are fantastic dishes, the ingredients are all locally-sourced.
Tim Stamp is our head chef and he is the most passionate chef I’ve ever come across. He’s bursting with ideas and I hope he’ll stay with us. He’s very committed and has built a good solid team around him over the last 18 months so I’m confident we’ll make our mark with our food very soon.
What industry issue would you like to tackle most?
I am a bit old school, I suppose and am concerned about the way technology is creeping into the industry. We seem to be introducing more and more ways to reduce human contact, which seems a bit alien to me working in a people industry. People book online, which takes away that telephone conversation and some hotels even now have self check-in and check-out. The reality is you could probably go through the process of an overnight stay without having to come into contact with another person. I don’t know whether it’s society driving that because everyone wants everything quicker, but to me I would always pick up the phone to do anything rather than do it online. It worries me a bit that we’re losing what’s important to us and that’s the people part of the industry.
Where do you find your inspiration?
People around me inspire me all the time. The team inspires each other and I love it when we get a new member of staff join the team because they can bring all sorts of new ideas to the business. Even though I’ve been here 35 years I like to think I’m very receptive to change and will soak up their ideas like a sponge.
Who do you admire in the industry?
The unsung heroes I suppose. Hospitality is hard work, but for those of us who have the advantage of working front of house, at least we get to see the satisfaction we bring our guests, so I have a great deal of admiration for those working in the engine house – the kitchen porters the house keepers and anyone behind the scenes who keeps everything running. They all work so hard and perhaps don’t get the recognition they deserve. In terms of the industry, I do follow what so-called celebrity chefs do as I love food. I think it’s great what they have done – they’ve made food sexy again and we’re all more interested in it and cooking more and that can only be a good thing.
Hospitality & Catering News, Interviews Editor