Meet the Bences
2015 is the 21st anniversary of Edward and Sarah Bence’s arrival as new owners of Brixham’s Berry Head Hotel. Since then, with their family, they have transformed it into a much-loved jewel at the heart of the community. Anita Newcombe finds out more.
As a Brixham resident, I already love the Berry Head Hotel and the 21st anniversary affords me a chance to find out more and celebrate the life and times of this wonderful property. I arrive on a blustery winter’s day to meet Edward Bence, Managing Director and his daughter Lucy Chamings who is the hotel’s General Manager.
I am ushered into the Library, which has a lovely welcoming fire and we settle in for a chat over a nice cup of tea. This historic and striking building has truly spectacular sea views, which must be among the most beautiful in the world so we locals are rightly proud of it. It was originally built as a military hospital in support of the Napoleonic War Forts on Berry Head. Later it became the home of Henry Francis Lyte who was best known for his hymns, ‘praise my Soul the King of Heaven’ and his most famous ‘Abide with Me’ which he actually wrote in the grounds of the house prior to his death in September 1847.
In 1949 it became a hotel for the first time and experienced its heyday in the 1960s before falling upon hard times and going into receivership at the end of the 1980s. Although it subsequently rallied, by the time Edward and Sarah Bence came to buy the hotel in 1994, the hotel had just 6 letting bedrooms and a further 6 derelict bedrooms. Five tin baths were positioned under the roofs collecting rainwater so it must have been in a pretty sad state. It did have a bar and restaurant but half of the first floor was derelict so it was a big challenge for its new owners.
However Edward and Sarah had built up some impressive experience. Edward had taken a HND in hotel keeping at South Devon College and then trained at Torquay’s famous Imperial Hotel and the Cavendish Hotel in London. He became Manager at the Palace Hotel in Torquay and later returned to the Imperial Hotel as its Resident Manager. He subsequently decided to set up a consultancy business with a partner, primarily operating distressed properties such as hotels, golf clubs and caravan parks across the south of England. This proved successful with the consultancy getting most of the properties trading again so they could be sold on.
Edward had always been interested in buying the Berry Head Hotel, so when it came up for sale in 1994, both he and his wife Sarah who was working as a chef, felt it was a project they were ready to take on. Edward had always like the Berry Head Hotel, having visited as a child with his parents. His earliest memory of the hotel was at 8 years old, sitting with his Mum and Dad on the beautiful terrace, enjoying a ploughman’s lunch.
Edward tells me “I had a very clear vision of what the hotel should be, which is pretty well what you see here today. I certainly realised the potential – we wouldn’t have bought it otherwise.” Over the years, he and his family gradually restored the hotel’s ability to produce income. He was well aware that the Berry Head was not operating to its full potential and was determined that it should do so. There were just 8 staff members at purchase, which subsequently grew to 65, a staff number which has been largely stable for the last 6-7 years. The family built a swimming pool, a function room and added the top floor. Profits were all reinvested into the hotel, which has gradually become the hugely popular venue it is now, not only for visitors but also very much for locals.
Edward explains that his philosophy is “evolution not revolution” and he and his wife have always wanted the hotel to serve the community rather than becoming an exclusive, upmarket boutique hotel. He says “Look after your customers well so they return and provide stable employment for your staff. It’s great if you happen to pick up industry accolades along the way but it’s not worth going out of your way to get one.” He feels the number of repeat visitors a place has, is a better measure of success than having 3 Michelin stars and a huge debt. The Berry Head has 75% repeat visitors, some of whom return 4-5 times per year and the place is very much a ‘destination hotel’.
There is also a professional pride in creating such a successful hotel in Brixham. Edward explains that hoteliers on the other side of the Bay never for a moment considered Brixham as competition to them, for visitors, functions or anything else and this “had to change”.
It is clear that his daughter Lucy, now General Manager believes strongly in this ethos too. She tells me, “It’s difficult to sum up our clientele because we are lots of different things to different people. Families will celebrate their weddings, christenings and anniversaries or just come here for a family gathering or a simple lunch or evening out. That’s what defines us – our ability to give people what they want.”
Lucy explains that her Mum and Dad have always been very hands-on at the hotel and she worked here waitressing herself before gaining a first class Management degree at Bournemouth University. She then received a Young Guns Award from Caterer Magazine whilst on management placement at the Southgate Hotel, Exeter. Following four years as Assistant Manager at the Grand Hotel in Torquay she came home to the Berry Head Hotel as its manager retired in 2006.
Her brother, also called Edward, completed a Hotel Management degree at Plymouth and following a period at P & O, joined the Berry Head as Operations Manager around 3 years ago. Edward Bence senior tells me, “I tried to put the children off the business; I certainly didn’t encourage them. You really do need to have your heart totally in it as it’s not a business in which you can work office hours; you are looking after people 24/7, it is a way of life.” It seems that family chat didn’t work then, as the younger generation Lucy and Eddie seem firmly ensconced and more than happy to look after the clientel 24/7.
Together the family feel very strongly about their staff; remarkably, they have never made anyone redundant (quite an achievement in the hotel business, I would have thought) and are probably one of Brixham’s largest employers. They train youngsters to join the staff and they are then fully employed all year round. Indeed, sometimes the winter is the busiest given the sheer number of functions they manage and the business is now far too complex to run the place on seasonal staff. Lots of local families are involved through staff members working here. One family has produced an impressive 7 members of staff and another even sent an alternative family member in to work when he was ill. Sounds like one big, happy family to me.
Life is pretty interesting in such a large operation as staff could be serving a burger one minute and then waiting on Prince Charles the next. Food and beverage accounts for 80% of the business and on a busy summer’s Saturday with functions on, they can do over 700 covers. Long standing chef Rob Bateman retired recently and the new Executive Head Chef, Dean Griffin, has filled his place. The local fish market is of course a superb source of fresh fish and scallops come from the local mussel farm just a mile offshore. The aptly named ‘View’ brasserie, the more formal Bonaparte’s restaurant and the function menus all use lots of locally sourced Westcountry food and drink.
There have been some famous visitors over the years including John Cleese, David Essex, Richard Wilson (One Foot in the Grave), Princess Anne, various politicians and Prince Charles who recently hosted a 4-day conference here.
“We’re very proud of our 21 years here,” says Edward. “We intend on staying, always continuing to improve. We do like to be seen as integral to the local community and the port of call for local people.”
They have certainly achieved that judging by the fact that the bar and brasserie are both buzzing with locals today, a midweek, winter lunchtime when many hotels are gloomy and empty. The success of the Berry Head Hotel after 21 years under the stewardship of the Bence family speaks for itself.
The family also owns the Hannafore Point Hotel in Looe.
Original story by Anita Newcombe in the February 2015 edition of English Riviera magazine. Reproduced by kind permission of author/publisher. http://issuu.com/julianrees/docs/erm_february_march_2015/14