Kate Nicholson and Steve Hogarth have had an eventful three years at the helm of Cave Castle. First came Covid, and now the hospitality staffing crisis – but they’re relishing the challenge. By Sam Hawcroft
Cave Castle has a long and rich history that befits its grand name. While the present building dates back to 1825, an ancient fortification on the site was mentioned in the Domesday book, and it’s said that the great-great-grandfather of George Washington, the first president of the USA, lived on the estate before heading for the New World.
Steve and Kate have been part of the Cave Castle history for the past 30 years, since their father, Mel Hogarth, bought the site in 1991. Kate and Steve have both worked at the hotel in different areas for many years, Kate in the weddings and sales departments, Steve managing the golf and health club side.
Kate left the business to bring up her family but returned in 2018 to take on the joint managing directorship role with Steve after the untimely passing of their father.
Steve and Kate had a head start within the business as that they knew Cave Castle better than anyone else, but it was still like jumping into the “deep end”, says Kate. “It was a shock to the system,” she adds. “When I was here previously, we’d been in different positions and to suddenly be in this new role, the transition was quite a challenge.”
The challenge was to pick up where their father had left off, as he was very much the type who managed everything himself. “He had his fingers on the pulse with every aspect of the business – nothing was done without his say,” says Steve. “A lot of responsibilities finished with him, so when we took over the reins, we had to try to pick up where he had left off and learn what his roles were, and that was a huge learning curve.”
Steve and Kate went right back to the “roots” to find out exactly how things worked and where things could improve, and they describe themselves as “very hands-on” managers – they’re always visible around the site, as opposed to sitting behind a desk all day.
When Covid hit last year, everything came to a shuddering halt as hospitality bore the brunt of the pandemic. Steve and Kate did what most in the industry did – put staff on furlough and accessed grants and loans to keep things on an even keel. But they both agree that more needed to be done. “I think more help would have been better in terms of grants and funding,” says Steve. “The hospitality industry has basically taken the biggest hit out of anybody.”
A big help to Kate and Steve in bouncing back from the pandemic was the golf side of the business, which was allowed to open throughout most of the lockdowns, followed by the opening up of the health club well before the hotel could. When the hotel was finally allowed to reopen, they saw a change in trends driven by the so-called staycation boom. “We had an exceptionally busy summer,” says Steve, “where we previously had corporate clients midweek, this turned into people on leisure breaks.”
They’re playing catch-up to an extent, with many of the weddings being those that were postponed during lockdown, and there’s still a degree of uncertainty within the corporate world.
Given that Cave Castle is so well-established, Kate and Steve are striving to improve and preserve the building’s unique character while keeping things fresh, which is a tricky balancing act. One positive outcome of lockdown was that it gave them time to refurbish some of the main public areas of the hotel. The newly refurbished Lounge Bar and Windsor Restaurant has already had a “massive impact”, says Kate.
This programme of refurbishment will continue, and regulars and new visitors alike are responding well, says Steve. “A lot of our customers are returning to us on golf or leisure breaks – they come back year after year, and when they see the improvements and refurbishments they see this as a very positive and welcomed approach.”
Their next revamp includes the function suites. “This is especially important, as the world of weddings has been transformed in the past couple of decades,” says Steve. “You can get married in a barn, or a vineyard – there are so many other venues now, and we want to be able to provide the very best that Cave Castle has to offer.”
Cave Castle is, like many businesses in the hospitality industry, having to deal with what has become a national crisis in staff recruitment in the past year, amid a perfect storm of Brexit and Covid. According to one recent survey of 200 executives across the industry, one in six vacancies remains unfulfilled, and 96% of business leaders in hospitality say they are experiencing a staff shortage.
Steve and Kate are working hard to source the right staff at both Cave Castle and their sister hotel, the Skelwith Bridge Hotel, in the Lake District, which had traditionally relied on overseas workers. “We used to have a much greater mix of employees,” says Kate, “but now it’s mostly young and inexperienced people. As people have been starved of going out, their expectations have become much higher. This then has a knock-on effect because we haven’t got the level of staff that we had before, but with staff training in place and an excellent team of managers nurturing the new, young staff team, we have every expectation that both hotels will be at the forefront of customer service.”
They both admit that they are “24/7 managing directors, always available”. It’s just the nature of the business, but that’s what they thrive on – the fact that no two days are the same, and each day brings a new challenge. “You don’t just clock on at 9am, sit behind a desk and do the same thing,” says Kate. “We both will jump in and help out in the kitchen, or with a function – we are team players, not just managing directors. “Even on the golf course,” adds Steve, “we usually run on a team of six green-keepers, but I am happy to get out there cutting the grass if it’s needed.”
“It’s been a bumpy year, but it’s literally been all hands on deck,” says Kate.
What would be the one tip they’d pass on to people in their industry? Kate is in no doubt as to the answer. “Look after your staff,” she stresses. “Your staff are key to your success. Once you have the right people in the right places, it makes the world of difference to your business.”