Lime Wood Group and Home Grown Hotels

Why one hotel group is taking an experiential approach to employee development

At the end of a long, tree-lined drive, past fields filled with New Forest ponies, you’ll find The Pig Hotel. Opened in 2011, it is the first of Lime Wood Group and Home Grown Hotels’ bijou chain of seven luxury hotels. And in HR terms, it expects nothing but the best.

Describing its Brockenhurst hotel as ‘a restaurant with rooms’, the organisation places an emphasis on local sourcing – The Pig Hotel features a smokehouse and kitchen garden, where ingredients are picked and used the same day.

This passion for provenance is also reflected in the company’s approach to its employees. The hotel group invests a lot of time in craft training, with staff able to learn about animal husbandry, charcuterie, beekeeping and how to maintain the kitchen garden through a number of tailored schemes.

“Those who are interested in how all areas of the business work, and demonstrate the necessary potential, are offered the chance to take part in the three-year budding entrepreneur scheme,” says people director Steve Rockey, whose team of seven HR professionals – one of whom also works part time as the chain’s pastry development chef – looks after around 750 employees.

“They do a long stint in food and beverage, because that’s such a big focus, but they will also work on reception and with the housekeeping team,” he says. They move between all of the chain’s hotels: its five ‘pig’ hotels in Hampshire and the West Country; Lime Wood in the New Forest; and Portetta, which is set on the slopes of Courchevel Moriond in France and opens for the ski season. “It is a quite a commitment – but those employees have great exposure to all parts of the business and are essentially ready-made future heads of department.”

Switching hotels every six months is obviously not suited to all – particularly the more transient staff who pass through the hallways of the hotel each summer or university holiday – but that doesn’t mean there are no options for development, as the company also offers apprenticeships for those looking to hone their skills in a particular area.

Currently these are focused on back-of-house operations, but the group is in the process of developing a front-of-house scheme it is looking to roll out in the next calendar year. It is also working to double the number of apprentices it has in the kitchen, to around 25 per year.

“We do a lot of craft training with everybody, but especially when it comes to the apprenticeships,” says Rockey. “Because our producers are so local, staff can go and meet the guy who produces our cheese, or the person who bakes our bread. It’s great for them to learn and understand those aspects of the business. Rather than just give them standard apprenticeship stuff to do, we wanted it to be a ‘piggy’ apprenticeship scheme.”

Although hesitant to mention Brexit (“it’s a bit dull to talk about it all the time”), Rockey says the UK’s exit from the EU is causing “genuine concern – although not as much as if we were a central London business… Around 30 per cent of our staff come from outside the UK, so it’s really important to think about how we can protect our workforce, and what other channels we should be looking at, especially as we grow,” he says.

With an average age of 22, it’s impossible to get around the fact that many of its staff will only be able to work in the holidays or may use their job as a stopgap to something else, but there is no point letting that be a negative, says Rockey: “Rather than trying to latch up to everybody, I think it’s more important that, for the time people are with you, they get what they want out of it, and that we provide them with the skills, training and development we can in that time – whether that’s six months or six years.”

While recruitment isn’t always easy – “we do have some pinch-points where it’s difficult to fill certain roles”, Rockey admits – he believes the organisation’s “different” approach to doing things helps to attract and retain employees. “Our chairman and chief executive, Robin Hutson, is really clear: it’s about treating people as individuals and trying to create as many experiences as we can to keep people interested.

“We spend a lot of time talking to individuals about what they want to do and where they want to go, and what we can do to help them along the way, even if it’s not here. Robin also has an incredible network, so we have the ability to provide people with opportunities and experiences you wouldn’t ordinarily have – we even send people out to work on superyachts in the Mediterranean.”

The hotel group is also planning a big push on placements next year, through link-ups with local universities and colleges, and is working to extend its network with other organisations. “Someone could go and work for six weeks in a Michelin-starred restaurant, or somewhere that does more casual dining, learn some great new things and then come back to us,” says Rockey.

A lot of what the organisation does may be about “building for the future”, as Rockey says – but it’s hard to deny the employees also get a pretty sweet deal.