When the sixth Hotel du Vin opens in Harrogate next Monday, Robin Hutson will be experiencing a touch of stage fright. "I know I should have got over it by now," he admits, "but there's always a point at which I think, 'I've spent the money and no one has come through the door yet' - and that's still scary."
Given Hutson's track record, he's probably worrying unnecessarily. From one hotel in Winchester that he opened with partner Gerard Basset nine years ago, he has gone on to build up a company that has become a byword for stylish hotels and that will have a group turnover of £18m by the end of this year. Not bad for a man who left school with no more than O levels in English and art.
So, is the Harrogate property Hotel du Vin come of age? "The style evolves with each one that we do," replies Hutson. "I suppose Harrogate is most like Brighton [the fifth property in the group], but they are all a bit different."
That's all very well, but is the rather conservative North Yorkshire ready for Hutson? With his flowing locks and reputation for doing things in style, he has already created quite a stir. "Right flamboyant," was the comment from one local meeting Hutson for the first time. "He looks like Richard Gere," said another. And "look at those showers, you could get an entire rugby team in there."
In reality, Harrogate has been an easier opening than some of its siblings. Originally scheduled for July, the opening was put back as Hutson became nervous about all the possible guests being away, giving himself four to six weeks longer than anticipated. "It was a bit less frenetic than in the past," he says, recalling that, on the day he opened in Winchester, he had let the carpet fitters out at one o'clock in the morning.
The same builders and sub-contractors that were used in Brighton were drafted in for Harrogate, so there was an element of everyone knowing what they were doing.
Ironically, Harrogate was never meant to happen. Hutson started by looking at Leeds, having decided that the North of England was "shouting out to be done". He found an old warehouse, which he describes as a fantastic site, and then proceeded to do market research, in his preferred fashion of "wearing out my own shoe leather".
Here, however, the plan ran into difficulties. Hutson found empty restaurants, and three boutique hotels already in a similar kind of market (Malmaison, Quebecs and 42 The Calls), and decided that the suits who propped up Leeds's economy during the day were not spending their money there in the evening. Instead, they were going home to the golden triangle of Harrogate, Wetherby and York.
It was a hard decision to walk away from such a fabulous site, he says - "I was very close to letting my heart rule my head" - but walk away Hutson did, gravitating instead towards that golden triangle.
Harrogate came top of the pile because Hutson found he could relate to it. Being a spa town, it had similarities to Tonbridge Wells (home of Hotel du Vin number two), with the added benefit of an international conference centre. It was, decided Hutson, the perfect choice for Hotel du Vin number six. "There are lots of hotels in Harrogate, and a lot of them are just atrocious old piles that no one has spent any money on for years," he says. "I felt there was a little gap for us."
The site that Hutson hit on was an existing 70-bedroom hotel housed within a self-contained pair of Georgian houses owned by Peel Hotels and trading as the Harrogate Spa Hotel. Hutson bought the place for £2.4m and has since spent £5.6m on a thorough refurbishment.
The finished product has only 43 bedrooms, with many of the former rooms turned into spacious bathrooms. New furnishings sit happily alongside antiques. Fabrics have relief to them, and there is ample use of leather and brick. There are some strong colours in play, too - an intense purple private dining room and a chocolate-brown billiard room. The top floor has been turned into funky loft suites with, Hutson says, "the largest showers I've ever seen in my life".
To summarise, he adds: "Overall, it's much more of an organic feel than some of the others, although that sounds like bullshit."
The outside world clearly doesn't think that what Hutson and his partners do is bullshit. Sponsorship has always been a key component of the Hotel du Vin offering and, over the years, has brought the company £400,000.
When Hutson and Basset started out in Winchester, nine years ago, sponsorship was a major component of the Hotel du Vin offering. Wine sponsors paid £3,000-£4,000 to put their name over the door for three to four years, and in Winchester this raised £60,000 that was allocated to the development of the building.
As the portfolio has grown, it has become harder to get the same people to commit to that level of spend so sponsors now tend to contribute opening stock to the hotels. "It's still cash, as far as I'm concerned, but it's not hitting them quite as hard," Hutson says.
Harrogate is targeted to hit an average achieved room rate of £95 net of VAT and a first-year occupancy of 75%. Group occupancy should reach 80% this year.
As at all its siblings, food is an important part of the Hotel du Vin Harrogate, which Hutson anticipates will achieve 130 covers a day in its 100-seat restaurant. This features a leather banquette running through the centre, and frameless glass doors.
Stylish it may be, but can hotel restaurants really make money? "Definitely," responds Hutson, citing as evidence the fact that food and beverage represents 55% of the group's total turnover. "We're almost like a restaurant with rooms."
Key to getting hotel restaurants to make money is to make your hotel restaurant the best offering around, and to keep things simple and easy for customers to understand. "Looking back, one of the master strokes - although we didn't know it at the time - was to include 'bistro' in the name, as it leaves no one under any illusion about the food offering," Hutson explains.
He adds: "We've always tried to make it very easy for people to come in for a salad and a glass of water, if they want to. That lack of formality and stuffiness is key." In fact, lack of formality reflects Hutson. As we meet, he's wearing jeans and a white shirt. This is not a suit-and-tie man.
So, does he have a favourite property, or is that like being asked which of your children you like the best? It's a difficult question and Hutson hesitates before answering. Winchester will always have a special place in his heart, he concedes, because it was the first. As for the others, each has been significant in a different way.
"Bristol was important, to show that we could do something with a little more emphasis on design," he says. "And that was the one that really caught a lot of people's imaginations. Birmingham was very important, to prove that we could do it in a big city and become a key player. Now we equal Marriott in terms of room rate, netting £100. Brighton has just been massively important for the 'wow' factor. Everyone says now that Brighton was obvious, but Brighton was not obvious a few years ago. It's gone absolutely bananas."
As for that favourite, when pushed, he eventually says that it's always the current one and the one to come. The one to come is in Henley-on-Thames, an old Brakspear brewery that Hutson bought just a couple of months ago for £3.4m. It will open next September as a 42-bedroom hotel.
And there's even an inkling of the one after that. "I've got a sniff of a site in Cambridge," Hutson lets slip. "If it comes off, it could well be number eight."
It doesn't finish there. There's a wish list for future siblings that includes Chester and York in the North, and Poole in Dorset. London has been on the cards but no longer is. Hutson "came close" to buying Charterhouse Square in Clerkenwell, a site that was eventually secured by competitor Malmaison. In hindsight, he's glad the deal didn't come off. "We flirted with London but I'm glad we didn't get that site," he says. "I think we would have got it open a lot sooner than Malmaison, and the timing would have been bad."
There's no desire to expand outside the UK, either. "We've got enough to do here and it would be arrogant to think that we could replicate what we do here in other countries," he says. "If towns and cities around the country can support rather miserable hotels, then perhaps they can support something a little less miserable."
Management contracts are a possible means for expansion but, on the whole, Hutson prefers to own the asset. "I'm kind of old-fashioned in thinking that bricks and mortar are good things to have," he says. "We've got a strong balance sheet, and that's because we've got some strong assets on it. Property rarely lets you down."
So, how long can it all go on? Hutson has never made a secret of the fact that, eventually, the group will be sold, but there's no sign of this on the horizon at the moment. At 46, he's still going strong. But he will review things when he is aged 50, although he adds: "What would I do? Retire? I don't think so. I'd probably have a long holiday, come back and then buy another hotel."
Whatever he does, there can be no doubt that, when the time comes to sell, Hutson will be a millionaire. On paper, he probably already is.
It's amusing that, after nine years of rolling out a highly successful concept, Hutson still struggles to define exactly what Hotel du Vin is. Boutique hotel, maybe, or lifestyle hotel? He dismisses both suggestions.
"I don't really understand boutique hotels," he says. "In the USA, a boutique hotel is something with a small lobby, a bit of designer furniture, and a few barmen running around in black shirts. 'Lifestyle hotel' sounds a bit lightweight and about something that's just design-led. I would like to think there are more important elements to our business than just being nicely designed. The guy in there with the passion behind the bar is far more important than having some minimalist sofa."
Presumably, we're talking Schrager hotels, here? Indeed we are, and Hutson's not impressed. "It's all bullshit," he says. "There's no substance, and the evidence for that shows in the lack of performance. People know very quickly when they are being ripped off. And I think these over-designed hotels, in many cases, are just not comfortable. To walk into the Sanderson, unless you are Armani-clad with a bit of arm-candy, you feel completely out of order."
However you define it, Hotel du Vin has undoubtedly set a style that others have copied. "Nine years ago, we did things like put an espresso machine in the bar in Winchester," Hutson says. "In many hotels at that time, you couldn't get an espresso, and now you can get a great espresso every other door up the high street. But that's how much the industry has moved in that decade. I like to think that our hotels are not over-designed. They're contemporary, with a bit of classic."
As for his competitor set, Hutson admires Firmdale ("their style is not a million miles from ours"), is "intrigued" by Alias Hotels ("I like the way they've gone for a much younger audience"), and thinks that Malmaison has "changed" since the departure of founder Ken McCulloch.
The hotel du vin story
In the early 1990s, Robin Hutson and Gerard Basset left prestigious country house hotel Chewton Glen to do their own thing. They opened in Winchester in 1994, in Tonbridge Wells in 1997, in Bristol in 2000, in Birmingham in 2001, in Brighton in 2002, and will open in Harrogate next Monday (15 September).
Winchester really took off after The Times food critic Jonathan Meades wrote a storming review about six weeks after it opened. In 1996, Hutson and co were awarded the Newcomer of the Year Catey, followed in 2001 by the Group Hotel of the Year Catey for their Bristol property.
The people behind du vin
There are four directors of Hotel du Vin Ltd: Robin Hutson, Gerard Basset, Charlie Morgan and Peter Chittick.
Hutson is responsible for new developments, sales and marketing, public relations and food. Basset upholds the "vin" in Hotel du Vin, is in charge of everything wine-related, and is one of an elite group of people who hold a Master of Wine title. Chittick is the financial director, and Morgan the operations director, the first point of contact for the general managers.
Between them, they own just under 30% of the shares. The remainder are held by four external shareholders. Hutson's wife, Judy, is heavily involved in the design of all the hotels, and many ideas are hatched around the kitchen table.
Associate director, corporate hotels division, Christie & Co
"Hotel du Vin continues to be the benchmark against which other hotels that focus on style and individuality are measured. Expansion has been measured to ensure that levels of service and quality are maintained. Like Malmaison, Hotel du Vin has lost none of its unique appeal or style, and has constantly proved an inspiration for other concepts. As they say, imitation is the highest form of flattery."
Director of hospitality analysis, CB Richard Ellis Hotels
"I've stayed at the Brighton property, which I really liked. I think they are contemporary and trendy without resorting to gimmickry. The bistro is excellent, and a really good example of a restaurant working independently from the hotel. You really don't think that you're in a hotel restaurant."
Managing director of Calcot Manor
"It has been a phenomenal success story. Bristol is completely inspired, a fantastic conversion of an old sugar mill that has a mix of the contemporary and the traditional. It's a first-rate product that's really affordable."
Managing director, the Grove, Chandler's Cross, Hertfordshire
"I think they're great. They're innovative, fresh and almost as quirky as we are. I love the idea of the bath in the bay window in the Brighton property. It just signals a fresh thinking, a departure from sameness."
If you're thinking about going it alone, Robin Hutson has a few tips: