The Old Tollgate in Bramber, West Sussex, started out as a restaurant in 1973 and has since grown to include a 30-bedroom hotel and eight executive suites. Ed Robertson talks to general manager Maggie Parsons about its expansion
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In 1973 Peter and Sue Sergeant opened the Old Tollgate restaurant in the quiet village of Bramber at the foot of the South Downs in West Sussex. It started out as a fine-dining restaurant, but two years later they converted it into a carvery in a bid to grow the customer base. They added a new-build 30-bedroom hotel to the site in 1990, and once it was completed they joined the Best Western group.
The most recent significant changes occurred in 2006 when they bought a neighbouring property and converted it into eight executive suites at a total cost of £1m.
General manager Maggie Parsons joined the business in 2003, with 25 years' experience working in hospitality. She says once they opened the executive suites it led to a complete and ongoing refurbishment of the hotel's other rooms at a cost of more than £50,000 per year.
She adds: "When we built the new bedrooms we did so to the executive standard and furnished them to a very high quality, to target the corporate market. We put in power showers and air conditioning; they're also really quiet bedrooms.
"They left the existing bedrooms looking very dated so we've worked on bringing them up to standard as per the other rooms."
Parsons says the work has paid off, with the property last year winning the Best Western International Quality Award for guest rooms and public areas. They have planning permission to build a further 10 bedrooms on the existing site but Parsons adds: "With the current economic climate, we haven't started on that yet."
The hotel's average occupancy is 90%, with the corporate market dominating during the week and the leisure market driving the weekends.
Despite Brighton being close by, with its numerous hotels, the Old Tollgate has remained competitive by offering free extras including Wi-Fi. The hotel also has conference facilities although these are typically booked for day-long events as opposed to overnight affairs.
Leisure guests are predominantly from the 50-plus market and while the restaurant's carvery is popular with the hotel residents, its 140 covers are largely taken by older diners from the local area.
Parsons says: "We do appeal more to the older market and we've got an olde worlde charm about the whole place."
She adds that she is trying to attract more of the family market and hopes an advertising campaign will help drive sales in this area.
Weekly adverts in the local press drive the restaurant's marketing, assisted by vouchers on the hotel's website, which change each month and can offer a main course for £6 or a starter for £5.50.
Accommodation sales are driven by the internet, which accounts for about 80% of all bookings for the hotel. Offers focus on price and although they are not as regular as the restaurant vouchers, they are popular.
The hotel has a freelance worker contracted to take care of the website's search engine optimisation, ensuring a strong presence on Google searches, while sites such as laterooms.com and booking.com also drive sales.
Being part of the Best Western group has also helped to drive the property's international sales, meaning overseas travellers account for about 20% of all hotel customers.
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"The quality of the staff is imperative," says Parsons. "I can't be available all the time and it's a 24-hour operation so you need people who can run functions and take control."
Aptitude is the core quality she looks for when recruiting, as the business has its own heavy emphasis on training, although Parsons is becoming increasingly concerned by the way working in the hospitality industry is viewed by the public.
"Recruiting can be quite hard; you can place adverts and not get any replies," Parsons says. "It's a shame that British people don't see this industry as potentially giving them a career unless it is at the management level."
However, she says ongoing global economic problems mean many former students who worked in the hotel during their holidays have been unable to find full-time jobs since graduating and are now working full time at the Old Tollgate.
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Parsons says whenever you review your business and costs, while certain cuts may prove tempting they can prove fatal.
She says: "We've gone through one of the toughest economic climates but we've not stopped refurbishing the property.
"We also keep marketing it and promoting it and that can be easily let go of if you're looking to cut expenses."
Spotlight on the carvery
The Old Tollgate restaurant operates as a carvery and seats 140 customers. Parsons is confident she can fill the room at both lunch and dinner, while on special occasions like Mother's Day they can expect up to 500 customers in a day.
Food is sourced locally and at each meal the restaurant offers a choice of salad starters; four roasts - typically beef, gammon, pork and turkey; five casseroles; a fish dish and three vegetarian options as well as home-made desserts.
A three-course lunch costs £21.50, while dinner is £26.50 - both meals include a free cheese course. A glass of house wine costs £4.45 and a bottle £16.50.
Parsons says there are no plans to change the restaurant, which generates more than £1m of the Old Tollgate's £2m annual turnover, while wet sales account for 15%.
maggie parsons' revelations
Favourite hotel Any in the Ritz Carlton brand
Favourite restaurant The Waterside Inn, Bray
Favourite pub The local one, the Countryman
Favourite chef Michel Roux Snr
Most inspirational book Who Moved My Cheese? by Dr Spencer Johnson
Motto Exceed the customer's expectations
If you weren't a hotel manager, what would you have been? A nurse
Facts and stats
Owners Peter & Sue Sergeant
Executive chef Jeff Hammerschlag
Three-course lunch £21.50 (with free cheese course)
Average room rate £54
Covers per month 5,000 to 6,000