Eric Kortenbach led Newcastle’s Jesmond Dene House to become a leading award-winning hotel. Now he plans to do the same for three more, as he explains to Peter Jackson.
IPULL up on the crunching gravel drive of Eshott Hall and admire the magnificence of this 17th century manor house tucked away in deep woodland.
I don’t have long to gawp, for Eric Kortenbach – the man charged with managing the fortunes of this and three other historic hotels and venues – comes out to the drive to greet me.
He’s 53, a tall, dapper man. He is also charming, which ought perhaps to be a given in the hospitality industry, but there is something unforced and unsmooth about his charm. He speaks with that distinctive Dutch accent, precise but with the suggestion of a lisp.
He was born and bred in the East Netherlands. His father was an architect but the young Kortenbach had no clear idea what he wanted to do.
He laughs: “I was one of those youngsters who probably wanted to do 20 different things over the course of three to four years. My father recognised this, bless him, and put me in touch with one of our neighbours who was in the hospitality business and he got me a job.”
Unlike the UK, in those days in the Netherlands the hospitality and leisure sector was seen as providing a perfectly respectable career and his parents were of a wartime generation who took the view that a qualification was something desirable to have to fall back on.
So Kortenbach attended Zwolle Hotel and Catering College, working in various catering roles. And he took to it. “It was evident that I liked to be among people and that I took to people and give them a happy experience and all that sort of stuff,” he says.
Then, in 1983, he went to the Maastricht School of Hotel Management where he got a degree in hotel management and upon graduating, suffered the earliest and greatest blow of his professional career.
“Just before I graduated, I had secured a traineeship with Holiday Inn and I was supposed to go to Abu Dhabi,” he says. “It was very exciting, it was what I wanted to do.
“But, on the day we were celebrating our graduation and I was going to get my certificate handed over to me, I got a call to say the whole thing was cancelled, they had restructured and there was no job.
“I was in tatters. How could they do this? I was so incensed. I can laugh about it now, but I was not in a good place really.”
After that he was at a complete loss, but a friend advised him: just get started. He took the advice and went to Amsterdam to work for the Crown Plaza where he stayed for a few months before following friends to London to work at the Russell Hotel.
Like so many Dutch people, he was multi-lingual, speaking English and German apart from his own language.
“It was more about getting experience. I was one of those people who thought, I’ve got a degree so here’s my great career starting now, but I’ve discovered that most of us find ourselves in the situation where we start somewhere at the bottom – or the middle, if you are lucky – and you have still got to work your way up.
“After all these years of experience, I have to say that that makes sense, but I didn’t realise that at the time.”
So he set about building up his experience and, after a spell at the Russell, moved onto the Strand Palace to work in banqueting. He was still settling in London, sharing a house with compatriots who worked in hotels and enjoying the social life of the capital in the booming yuppie 1980s.
The boom ended in the early 1990s while he was in his next post as operations manager, later general manager, at The New Connaught Rooms but he still managed to achieve a 12% increase in sales in 1994.
The following year he became deputy director of conference and banqueting at the Grosvenor House on Park Lane. He felt he had arrived.
“That was probably my most enjoyable job up until that point in the UK,” he says. “I felt that’s really where I belonged. It was a five-star property and I suppose there was a sense of justification, having spent all this money on my education and finally I was where I should be.”
He had “three great years” there but then came the time for another move and it was to be a momentous one.
By now he had met his partner, Joanne, from Twickenham, and they had two young daughters. Although Kortenbach was enjoying his life at the Grosvenor House, he was working a 75-hour week.
A friend who worked in a hotel in the Dutch Caribbean visited, heard his complaints about the hours and suggested he move to the West Indies.
“It was totally out of the blue and my initial reaction to him was to say politely no.
“But to my partner, I said: ‘Independent hotel in the Caribbean nobody has ever heard of, I want to make a career in the big chain hotels’.”
However, the idea had been planted. For a year they mulled it over and it grew on them. Joanne listed all the pluses and said: “If you don’t consider it the right career move, maybe you ought to consider putting your career on hold for a couple of years.”
So, they went to the island of Curacao where he became deputy general manager of the Avila Beach Hotel. “It was probably the best decision we made because that’s when I discovered I was far better suited to being an independent hotel operator than working in a group.”
He found he much preferred the autonomy and degree of strategic control an independent hotel brought him. Also the lifestyle on Curacao was as idyllic as it sounds.
His four years there included three visits by the Dutch royal family and then he became general manager of the Floris Suite Hotel, a modern hotel with rooms designed by the renowned Jan des Bouvrie. This was his first position in charge of a hotel.
“I loved it, it was great,” he says. “You can get involved in everything, you can influence things, you can make people enthusiastic. It’s nice to see when people enjoy working.”
However, this Caribbean dream had never been meant to last for ever and after three years the time came to come home, particularly as his eldest daughter Amy was reaching secondary school age. Kortenbach came to the UK twice for interviews, the second one being for the new Jesmond Dene House Hotel. “I visited it and loved it, it was great. It had that boutiquey element which was like the Floris Suite Hotel and the interview went well because on my way back to London, I got a call from the agency, offering it to me. He said: ‘Do you want it?’ I said: ‘Yes!’.”
This was the first such decision he had taken without consulting Joanne.
“I called my partner and told her I’d got a job. She said: ‘Where? Where?’”
When he told her it was Newcastle there was a silence on the other end of the phone. But a month later she visited for a week to organise a house and schools, and she was bowled over.
“The first night she called me and said: ‘It’s absolutely fantastic, it’s lovely, it was a great decision’. She hadn’t realised how close Newcastle is to the sea and we had grown quite accustomed to the beach life and we love the beach.
“There’s an international airport which makes it much easier for me to fly home and it’s a very big city. So there were no regrets.”
Jesmond Dene House should have had no regrets either. In his seven years there, it was named by the AA as UK Hotel of the Year and has been awarded four AA Red Stars and three AA Rosettes.
“It was a very exciting journey because you don’t know where it’s really going to,” says Kortenbach.
“We all had this vision of what we wanted which had to be adjusted a little bit in the early days as you find out how things work.” Seven weeks ago, he took up his present position as operations director of a company responsible for four venues owned by former clergyman Robert Parker: Guyzance Hall, Doxford Hall and Eshott Hall in Northumberland and Dalhousie Castle Hotel near Edinburgh. What prompted him to move this time?
“For me, it’s the next step up. You manage a couple of smallish hotels and then you can do one of two things: either go to manage bigger hotels or you can do something like this, and this for me is a far more interesting challenge because it’s multiple property all in the same bracket as Jesmond Dene House.
“Obviously, they don’t carry the same recognition, but we’ll certainly try to achieve that.”
His role is to oversee the performance of the hotels, find group efficiencies and sharing of best practice. Between them, the four properties have more than 70 bedrooms and employ 210 full time and part time staff.
“The key is that all the hotels achieve that quality stamp and recognition,” he says.
“I would like to think that we could start a journey towards achieving a group of great hotels. In fact, we want to develop them into the finest and most prestigious properties to be found anywhere in the country. If you deliver the quality, the financial rewards will follow.”
His career has clearly followed a carefully planned path, each stage chosen to progress his career, so I ask him – perhaps unfairly given he’s barely in post – about his next step.
He laughs: “Goodness me! It is a bit unfair because I haven’t even thought about it yet. But I would imagine, understanding the way the industry works, that a future move, if that were to happen, would be similar to this but just more hotels.”
He would not like to return to London but could go abroad, even though his family in the Netherlands now refer to him as ‘the Englishman’, which he takes as a compliment.
He certainly won’t be moving anywhere soon, as he now has four children and the youngest – two boys – are 10 and 12 with schooling decisions looming.
Finally, I ask, what’s the key to being a good hotelier? How does he deal with awkward customers?
“The trick is to understand what makes people tick. What is it that we are doing wrong that makes them complain? When you analyse it, it’s nothing ever very difficult, it really isn’t.
“I like to think that once I get that point across it’s a matter of putting better systems in place. Whatever it is that is complained about, make sure everybody is aware of it and make sure it’s right.
“It might take a bit more effort, but, as my mum used to say, nobody has ever died of hard work.”
What car do you drive?
Hyundai CiR35. Something a bit more exciting than my Zafira which I previously had.
What’s your favourite restaurant?
No favourite restaurant; just love good food and excellent service.
Who or what makes you laugh?
My children. I love our family meal times.
What’s your favourite book?
At the moment I am reading ‘A Thousand Suns’ by Alex Scarrow.
What was the last album you bought
A local band called the Caffreys whom I really like and discovered through my daughter Nicole, as she receives lessons from the lead singer, Phil.
What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got?
A ski instructor in the Alps.
If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you would teach it to say?
Probably some funny words in Dutch, just to confuse people.
What’s your greatest fear?
Not to be able to provide for my family.
What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
Be genuine and deliver what you promise.
And the worst?
Don’t think I ever received bad business advice.
What’s your poison?
What newspapers do you read, other than The Journal?
The Sunday Times.
How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
Probably around £8 per week for delivering the local paper in my home town, Enschede.
How do you keep fit?
I cycled to work every day in my last job. That would be a killer now, travelling between Northumberland and Scotland!
What’s your most irritating habit?
You’d better ask my wife. I am sure she has a long list!
What’s your biggest extravagance?
I am Dutch. I don’t do extravagance. Very dull!
Which historical or fictional character do you most identify with or admire?
Martin Luther King, who had the belief and the will to change the world for the better.
Which four famous people would you most like to dine with?
No meal is complete without a lively debate over the days’ matches so I’d invite Arsene Wenger, manager of my team. To inject a bit of humour into the evening I’d invite Michael McIntyre and of course John Cleese to share some laughter on classical comedy and, last but not least, Sir David Attenborough.
How would you like to be remembered?
As that slightly-odd Dutchman.