Woodbridge: Driving change at Seckford Hall

Operations director of Seckford Hall, Mark Suddes with wife and children, from left, Charlotte, Rebe

Operations director of Seckford Hall, Mark Suddes with wife and children, from left, Charlotte, Rebecca, Karen and Elizabeth. - Credit: Archant

Mark Suddes took the helm at Seckford Hall near Woodbridge 14 months ago and has since overseen a whirlwind first phase of a multi-million pound refurbishment which has breathed new life into the 500-year old Tudor mansion. He tells Sheline Clarke about the vision and why the hotel was a cherry ripe for picking

SECKFORD HALL: front of hotel

SECKFORD HALL: front of hotel - Credit: Archant

Seckford Hall, a 32-bedroom four- star hotel set in 34 acres of beautiful Suffolk countryside changed hands last year and so embarked on the next chapter of its long and fascinating history.

The man charged by the new owners to bring it into the 21st century, whilst respecting its heritage and charm, is operations director Mark Suddes.

Originally from Durham, the computer sciences graduate changed career course and found his vocation in the hospitality sector after working at a fine dining restaurant as a student and hasn’t looked back. He joined the graduate training programme with a major hotel chain and worked his way up through the ranks, both in the UK and abroad, before landing in Suffolk, working at the Belstead Brook Hotel, which is when he first became aware of, and fell in love with Seckford Hall.

“I always, always wanted the work at Seckford,” he said. “I came back to Suffolk after working in France and luxury four-star hotels are few and far between here and I was hell bent on working at Seckford and realising its potential.”

In August 2012 Mark was given his dream job as operations director and set about bringing the business into the 21st century.

“The business was ripe for investment and I had a vision and a strategy in my head about how I wanted Seckford to look but we were confronted with certain barriers to do with planning as well as the logistics of the building. So it took a long time to put the vision down on paper and to get to the planning stage and I think we had nine versions of how I wanted the ground floor to look.”

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In a shrewd move, Seckford employed a retired English Heritage office on a consultancy basis and undertook extensive research into the historical assets of the house on a room by room basis which meant that by the time the plans were actually submitted, they sailed through the process.

Since then it has been full steam ahead with the first phase of the refurbishment which has seen public rooms revitalised and a once private wing of the building brought back into public use with the creation of an intimate dining/meeting room and a larger suite for events, weddings and conferences.

What was once the Grand Hall is now a Taittinger Champagne bar, the snug bar has been transformed and the restaurant rebranded as 1530, serving locally sourced produce in a modern and elegant fashion. Upstairs, meanwhile, work on the bedrooms has also begun, bringing them up to date in terms of both interior design and the technology today’s guests expect from a four-star hotel.

Phase two will see an overhaul of the hotel’s leisure facilities in the adjacent Tithe Barn, including the creation of treatment rooms and a bistro style family restaurant, while phase three will involve the creation of up to 24 extra bedrooms in a new building between the existing hotel and the golf club next door.

“Once we realised we were going to get approval it was full steam ahead to execute the vision and I am glad the first phase is done although in hindsight it coincided with our busiest trading months of the year – June, July August – and balancing the day to day running of the hotel with the building work was a logistical nightmare, but we got through it with minimal impact on the guests.”

As with any major refurbishment of an old building, there have been challenges along the way including the realisation that new electrical and plumbing systems were needed to make sure guests have the right amenities.

“It’s about being able to plug your iPhone in at night and having the right pressure for showers in the morning,” said Mark, “and that’s what we mean by embracing the 21st century. It’s not about ripping out areas and making it a common place hotel that looks like every other hotel, but making sure the wi-fi is right and improving internet processing speeds, we have to embrace all those things for today’s guests.”

The hotel has also embraced the digital age and, as well as a new website, is enjoying popularity on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter (#newseckford) where they are again reaching out to a new demographic.

The modernisation programme, however, doesn’t stop at technology and fancy carpets. Equally as important is staff development and the way it interacts with guests.

“The team have embraced change phenomenally well,” said Mark. “The majority of the existing team have stayed on board and have new uniforms embellished with the new logo and they wear that with pride.

“In terms of their development we now have training plans and access to NVQs in place and so we are all about empowerment and accountability, and they are embracing that.

“Some of the staff have been here for more than 30 years and I am pleased they are embracing change and enjoying the difference.

“The staff are on board the Seckford train, it’s full steam ahead and they are enjoying the journey.”

With phase one complete Seckford is now pleased to welcome new visitors as well as loyal guests who return time after time.

“You will always get a few people who are reluctant to change but they are few and far between and the majority of our customers are loving the changes and enjoying the investment,” said Mark.

“People get a warm glowing tingly feeling inside about Seckford because they have good memories of being here and I think now the challenge is to get more people to experience it and for people to think of us not just for a special event, but for a cheeky cocktail or an informal meal in the restaurant.”

Initiatives such as summertime family Sunday lunches in the restaurant, where iPads and supervised activities are laid on for the children in the gardens, have gone down a storm while a corporate evening to celebrate the relaunch of the hotel attracted hundreds of guests.

“It is all about embracing the local community and becoming part of that community. We welcome networking events here and are working with the Chamber and Menta, but equally it’s about supporting charities such as EACH who held their coffee morning here.

“I am a perfectionist and attention to detail is everything; I am a typical Virgo and take things personally so hearing the reaction to the work we have completed so far – hearing the ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ was very rewarding and made me incredibly proud.”

As Seckford Hall pauses after the first phase of the refurbishment and braces itself for the challenges of the second and third phase Mark is still brimming with new ideas, such as musical events, maybe opera, maybe jazz, by the lake.

“I am a big believer in setting life goals,” he said, “and the next challenge is getting the leisure areas right. I am a bit of an adrenaline junkie and want to get on but now is a time to enjoy the refurbishment so far, to settle down and embrace what we have got before we take it forward.

“It is remarkable what we have achieved so far. We are not a national chain and I have no desire to run a hotel like that. We embrace the charm and individuality of the property.

“There are lots of sleepless nights. It’s the desire for it to be right, and the hundreds of emails I know that are waiting to be actioned.

“It’s a lot of responsibility, said the 38-year-old. “I’ll be as grey as Philip Schofield by the time I am 40!”

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