Ragdale Hall is about as calming a place as you could wish for. A handsome, red brick stately home standing proud above pretty countryside between Melton and Loughborough.
Guests mull around without a care in the world, enjoying indulgent spa treatments, exercise classes and yoga sessions, and every other conceivable form of pampering.
Despite the peaceful facade, behind closed doors an army of staff work round the clock to ensure paying guests want for nothing.
Running any business in the hospitality sector – from pubs, restaurants and hotels to conferences, weddings and spas – is a minefield, hard to get right and devastating when it goes wrong.
There are 93 bedrooms at Ragdale and 800 country club members, all serviced by a 500-strong staff.
Ragdale Hall Health Hydro & Thermal Spa
And just like the guests, new operations manager James Bowie is calm and relaxed.
He took up his post two months ago, having learned his trade in hotels around the UK.
As many members of the Leicester business community will know, his family owns Leicester’s Belmont Hotel – this month’s How I Made It profile is the Belmont’s current general manager Eloic Montagnier – and James ran it himself for some time.
Sitting in one of the cafes at Ragdale, with dressing gown-clad guests going about their day around us, he told me: “I had a fantastic eight years at the Belmont with my dad (also James).
“Working in a family business was a fantastic privilege – it was my first home.
“Both my parents were naturally gregarious people. My mum is a teacher and knew everyone when she was growing up in her small town, so I guess that’s in my blood.”
James’ great grandparents bought the Belmont, which is on the corner of New Walk and De Montfort Street, in the 1930s.
Over the years, the family invested and developed the business, buying houses next door to increase the hotel’s capacity.
James’ father took over in 1970, with his sister Cherry looking after sales and marketing, and James started running the business in 2007.
Now aged 41, he lives with Louise, his wife, and their children in Narborough.
“Somewhere on scale of Ragdale is more like a series of businesses working together than just one.”
James grew up Devon – coming up to Leicester during the holidays – and got into hospitality as a potwasher in a wine bar in his home town.
By the age of 21 he was the restaurant manager there, before going on to study business and marketing at De Montfort University.
He said: “After spending a year in Australia I did a ski season working in a fantastic Alpine bar which was very tough and very busy, but we did the best revenue of all the Mark Warner bars in the Alps.
“Then I gravitated back to the Belmont and worked my way through.
“I worked in marketing and promotion, and operationally right across the business.
“It’s a fantastic business and a fantastic legacy for the city and I really enjoyed being part of it.”
In 2011, James was accepted on an intensive scholarship at Cornell University in New York state which encouraged him to think about his future.
When he left the Belmont he did two years at Fawsley Hall Hotel and Spa, in Daventry, which is part of the Hand Picked Hotels group.
After that he became general manager at Barnsdale Lodge Hotel, near Oakham.
He said: “It’s a really nice, small country hotel with a fantastic reputation for food and drink. It’s very hands-on.
“We made a hell of a lot of changes in 12 months with a property management system, online restaurant diary and a new website.
“I was at Barnsdale for a year and wasn’t looking to move, but I had a phone call and came out and met the directors here and ended up leaving on really good terms.
“I really love Barnsdale, but this is the most comprehensive facility of its kind in the UK.”
He said somewhere on the scale of Ragdale was more like a series of businesses working together than just one.
There are 25 heads of department, reporting to the directors, covering everything from the treatments to maintenance, the boutique and gift shop, to housekeeping and the gardens.
James is settling in at the health hydro and spa, in pretty Leicestershire countryside (Image: Will Johnston)
His job is to oversee the bars, restaurant, guest liaison, kitchen and reception, to name but a few.
James said: “The owners of Ragdale have forged a fantastic legacy and a huge part of that success has been that they are very people focused.
“Where other companies have worked hard to streamline and cut staff, they have gone in the other direction. There is no compromise and it’s a very successful model.
“The owners work incredibly hard and are very pro-active in engaging people in training.
“People will not look after guests and value guests if they don’t feel valued themselves.”
He said there were a few nerves, of course, at joining such a big, successful business.
But he is keen to get “under the skin” of Ragdale and excited to make his mark.
“It’s the most consistent hotel I’ve been to.
“It’s very structured. There is a rhythm to the place you do not find in other hotels.”