Putting a duvet in a hotel bedroom instead of a stack of hairy blankets might sound like common sense. But in 1994, when Robin Hutson helped set up the Hotel du Vin & Bistro, the idea was pretty radical.
"At the time, there were a lot of provincial hotels with delusions of grandeur, but very little substance," he says. "We wanted to give Hotel du Vin substance so we put in great beds - with duvets - which was unknown at the time."
Such simple, sensible touches have helped take Hotel du Vin from a one-off operation in Winchester to a chain with an annual turnover of £14m. Its stylish interiors, good food and drink, and a distinct lack of what Hutson terms "bullshit pomp and ceremony" have defined the concept of the boutique hotel.
The chain now consists of four hotels: Winchester, Tunbridge Wells, Bristol and Birmingham. A fifth in Brighton is due to open in October.
Hutson, 45-year-old chairman and managing director of Hotel du Vin, ponders the progress of the company over coffee at Soho House, the West End Groucho-like private members club of which he is non-executive director.
His cool manner emphasises the fact that he never doubted the venture he embarked upon eight years ago would be anything but a success.
The original incarnation of Hotel du Vin came about after Hutson and sommelier Gerard Basset left the Chewton Glen hotel, deep in Hampshire's New Forest. The pair decided that they'd had their fill of the rural idyll and "wanted to do the townhouse thing", says Hutson.
They zoned in on wealthy Winchester which had a shortage of decent hotels and restaurants. An "obviously suffering" town-centre hotel with a low turnover and the potential for growth was chosen as a target to transform into the first Hotel du Vin.
This pro-active approach to development - what Hutson calls "ferreting around" - is one of the cornerstones of his strategy for acquiring the property needed to expand the chain. And he confesses to a slightly old-fashioned approach to the task. "Out of the five properties, four have been found by wearing out shoe leather," he says.
The company's policy is to own as much of its own property as possible.
"I like the fact that we own the freeholds on our buildings. If money costs less than 5%, why shift it elsewhere and lose the asset? I think reality in business is very important, particularly when you think about the folly of this dot.com stuff."
After Winchester came Tunbridge Wells, where, in 1997, Hutson once more approached a struggling hotel in the centre of town. By now, the company's turnover was £3.5m and Hutson began to perfect his ability of converting buildings "for not a lot of money".
The secret, he says, is staying close to the project and keeping external consultancy to a minimum.
"When you have too many consultants hanging around, things tend to escalate out of control. So we design in-house and then we get an architect who does all the techy stuff."
When Hutson says in-house, he isn't exaggerating. His wife Judy is as much involved in the process as he is and much of the work is done at the kitchen table.
Next came a change in approach for the group. In 1999 Hutson purchased an 18th-century sugar mill in Bristol to transform into the latest hotel in the chain.
Unlike previous properties, the mill was decimated and Hutson admits that making a move for it, which he did without planning permission, was a bit of a gamble.
The poor condition of the site enabled the company to purchase 40,000 sq ft of central Bristol for £650,000. The 40-bedroom hotel opened in 2000 and Huston estimates it is now worth £9m.
"We opened on time and within budget and things are still going nuts," he says.
The ambitious £8.5m conversion of a former eye hospital in central Birmingham for the fourth Hotel du Vin, which opened last year, has been followed by a return to basics with the Brighton venture.
"The site is between the Lanes and the sea front and is one that I had spotted a few years ago while walking around," says Hutson.
The next targets for Hotel du Vin could include Windsor, Cambridge and Guildford, according to Hutson. Branching further afield is also a possibility, with Dublin, Nottingham and Edinburgh possible future locations.
However, as with all things in property, this depends on the right buildings becoming available.
"I'm offered new builds all the time but our style goes hand in hand with older buildings," he says.
Chain gathers more links
The eventual size of the chain could be a dozen locations and Hutson doesn't consider this multiplicity to run against the individualistic boutique hotel concept.
"All our hotels have a unique character - if we took the cookie cutter approach, I think that would be a disaster," he says.
Hutson is passionate about his company's eclectic approach to design and rails against hotel groups where "the accountants have taken over".
Whether this a veiled reference to Hotel du Vin's closest competitor Malmaison, originally run as an independent operation but taken over in 2000 by Marylebone Warwick Balfour and run on an operating and management agreement by SAS Radisson, he won't say.
"We know the Mal boys well, but they've lost their momentum. They're fiddling with the Smithfield site and the Birmingham operation is three years overdue.
"There may be differences of opinion between the property side and the management side."
Malmaison's Ken McKinnon hotly disputes Hutson's mischievous claims and says the the two "sides" Hutson envisages simply don't exist.
"The truth of the matter is that the Birmingham job is a year late as a result of an issue between the building contractor and the Mailbox," says McKinnon.
"As regards Smithfield, demolition is taking place and is a couple of months late but as Robin well knows, when working with historically sensitive sites, things can take longer than expected. In any case, we set ourselves an ambitious delivery date to begin with," he adds.
Hutson says last year was a good one for Hotel du Vin, despite the foot-and-mouth crisis and the drop in visitors to the UK after 11 September. Its 26% net profit does little to dispel this claim and Hutson predicts 2002 will be even better.
"This year is a clean accounting year for us. We have four operational hotels and we're very buoyant," he concludes. It's safe to say that Hutson will be wearing out yet more shoe leather in the search for the perfect property in the coming months.
"If we could find another property to bring online then we would," he says.
But does the value of the company ever tempt Hutson to sell? "All the time!" he laughs. "Certainly I would think about selling - it's very much part of the game plan."
"The deserved success of the Hotel du Vin group can be attributed to foresight, innovation and the ability of Robin Hutson and Gerard Basset to accurately capture the mood and needs of the modern hotel user. Their hotels feature good value accommodation, where the emphasis is on quality, comfort and eye-catching design, plus enjoyable food and great wines in an easy-going, fun environment."
David Young, chief hotel and restaurant inspector, AA
"Hotels outside London have never been world famous for either innovative food or creative design. Hotel du Vin demonstrates that concentration on these vital areas can make for an extremely successful hotel business away from the capital. Interesting buildings and dedication to service creates a winning combination."
Chris Rouse, director, Insignia Hotels
Licensed and Leisure Property Supplement, Spring 2002
A joint supplement by Estates Gazette and Caterer & Hotelkeeper magazine