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Torquay Imperial Hotel's first woman boss lays out her plans to restore it to former glories

By Herald Express  |  Posted: September 04, 2014

  • PLEASANT TASK: Gwyn greets Colin Rice last Wednesday for a VIP visit to the hotel. He won a Herald Express competition to watch the Red Arrows from the Imperial. Colin, of Brixham, enjoyed his VIP day even though the weather forced the cancellation of the air display Torquil MacLeod TQTM20140827G-005_C

  • FANTASTIC SUMMER: Gwyn Gibbons outside the Imperial Hotel Andy Styles TQAS20140901C-002_C

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GWYN Gibbons admits she hasn't really put her head above the Imperial Hotel's sizeable parapets since she started there as general manager just over a year ago.

The first ever female general manager has spent her first year at Torquay's landmark four star hotel improving customer service, employing more local people and making changes with the aim of increasing occupancy rates and room rates.

As I waited in the lobby to meet her, a guest was admiring the photograph of the hotel in its glory days — before the more modern extensions cloaked most of its Victorian origins which Torquay's most famous resident Agatha Christie knew well from regularly attending tea dances, parties and dinners.

In its heyday Hollywood and British stars of stage and screen saw a stay in Torquay as glamorous as the French Riviera while local residents also enjoyed its five star luxury.

It is both that heritage and also community support which Gwyn Gibbons is working to revive.

She said: "My vision when I came here was to bring back the quality of service. I have got a whole new team here now, many of them local, and people who used to come here are coming back and we have seen a massive increase in repeat visits.

"We have had a fantastic summer, in fact we have been really busy the whole year. We have done lots of marketing offers as a group and have been running at about 73 per cent occupancy.

"My policy is to recruit locally where possible and around half of our 150 staff during the summer are local now. Our plan is to train and develop the youngsters and we have been talking to South Devon College and talking about their plans for a training hotel.

"We have our own company development programme and new training modules we can deliver here for every level, and potential managers will then be fast tracked so they can develop and there will be opportunities here, or within the company, or elsewhere. I have some great youngsters who really want to do things and it's quite hard to find a career in the Bay, but a lot of them want to stay."

Gloucestershire-based Gwyn started her own career as a computer programmer, then went into sales of semi conducters, but wanting to spend more time with her family she applied for a part-time job in a NHS training hotel, only to be offered the manager's post.

"I was young and had stayed in lots of hotels and thought I could do it. It was initiation by fire, but I loved it," she said.

She later joined a company which franchised Holiday Inns as a sales manager but principally for their training, and she was part of the team which brought Marriott into the UK and then worked for them in Florida.

When she left she was sales and marketing manager for Wentworth Golf Club, rated as one of the world's finest golf clubs, and then became general manager there.

She then did independent consultancy in interim management and sales and marketing in hotels, including Bovey Castle near Moretonhampstead when entrepreneur Peter de Savary owned it. She went with Hillwood who bought the luxury hotel before going back into consultancy all over the country.

Then she had a call from an agency about the job at the Imperial Hotel.

"I came down in March and it was the most beautiful day. That was it really. I was smitten," she said. "I had known this hotel for years. I remember coming to Torquay with my parents and it was the place you aspired to stay, though we just looked at it.

"For my first year I have kept myself to myself and my head down, because we weren't really ready to go out to the public. But we have done a lot of staff training and product improvements, such as the food offering and we are hoping for some more investment now. We still have a way to go but we are now rated an 85 per cent four star and I would like to think our reputation is picking up.

"What I would really love is four red stars from the AA as an inspectors' choice. We are developing our staff, we have changed the culture and are ready to welcome people in. Locals are starting to come here again and I would love for them to come in and have a drink on the terrace and use us on a regular basis. We are not cheap but our prices are in line with a four star."

Gwyn said the hotel is organising special events including murder mysteries and an 80s fancy dress night and they have plans for a revival gastronomic festival for which the hotel used to be so well known. Christmas is already 75 per cent full.

The hotel is still taking coach customers, but fewer than before and room rates have risen. The one coach this summer brought Australians and Americans.

Gwyn is also keen the Imperial also takes its place in the business community.

"I have really not left the building for a year, but I want to get involved now and do my bit for tourism which I don't think gets the recognition as a major employer that it should.

"I am open to suggestions."

Gwyn admits she has fallen under the spell of the Imperial and sees herself staying longer. "To get everything done will, I think, take a five-year plan," she said. "We are doing a lot, painting rooms every day and things are improving, for example with new kitchen equipment.

"We have done huge amounts in the garden and around the pool, but for example we need to replace the balconies on half the building on the seaward side which were put in in 1958.

"But we have a new company who are looking at investing.

"I do think Torquay is on the up compared with a year ago. The new Abbey Sands development gives you a different view of the town as you drive in. Then I think it has a knock-on effect and everyone I talk to in the Bay wants it to be on the up.

"I feel optimism. We are doing much better than last year. We have done a lot of marketing, but also a lot of people who came last year have come back. They love it and there is so much to do here. Sometimes I think it takes an outsider to appreciate just what an area has got."

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  • P-Morgan  |  September 07 2014, 10:33AM

    She will certainly have to go some given that the chain that owns the Imperial went into administration last month. The Imperial is in no way a 4 star hotel any more and I am afraid that years of neglect have let it to become a terrible place. I think pulling it down and starting again would be my best advice

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