He is, he says "a one-off" in his family and he is now using his passion for the North East, better standards and his business to boost Britain's hospitality sector. Karen Dent talks tourism and ghosts with Chris Davy, chairman of British Hospitality Association and owner of the Rose and Crown at Romaldkirk.
THE Rose and Crown pub has stood in the centre of Romaldkirk in the rolling hills of Teesdale in County Durham since 1733, so it’s little wonder it appears to have gathered more spirits than just those behind the bar.
Although owner Chris Davy has “definitely not” seen or heard anything in the 21 years that he and wife Alison have owned and run the award-winning coaching inn, some guests have had spooky experiences.
“There is rumoured to be a ghost on the second floor in room six and we have had a couple of people over the years – I think you’d call them ‘fey’, I think that’s the expression, when they have this kind of second feeling with other worldly things,” says Davy.
“We had a lady once who said when she got out of the bath she was sure her slippers had been moved. And she was absolutely convinced there was somebody in the room.
“And then we had a businessman staying one night and when he checked out in the morning, he said he had been at a party all night – he said the room had been full of voices all night.
“He was a regular and he said ‘When I stay with you next time, please never put me back in room six because there’s definitely something happening in there’.”
The Davys bought the Rose and Crown out of receivership after shifting across from their first business in Cumbria and he says they have no desire to move on.
“We’re here now for the duration; it’s a lovely part of the world and I don’t think either of us could imagine living anywhere else,” Davy says.
Originally from Lancashire, he trained at the Westminster Hotel School in London and learned his management skills at college in Manchester before joining Trusthouse Forte.
“My last main posting was manager of the Chester Grosvenor, which was a very big lovely hotel in Chester and I was offered a West End posting at the Savoy in London, but I turned it down because I wanted to go into business.
“I always wanted to be in business by the age of 30, and on my 30th birthday, I was sitting in my solicitor’s office signing contracts for my first business, so I thought I’d achieved an ambition by then.
“I’m a little bit of a rebel; I’m very sure I could’ve continued in the mainstream – but I have no regrets at all, the Rose and Crown is a very busy, profitable business and I much prefer being my own boss.”
The first of his family to both start a business and indeed work in the hotel sector, Davy admits he is passionate about what he does and that he is driven by a need to keep improving.
“The North East is a wonderful area. Teesdale, where I happen to live is just beautiful but then there are other parts of Durham, the city itself, you go up into Northumberland, you go up towards the coast – there’s some stunning countryside. It’s very much an awareness thing to make people understand just what we have to offer up here.
“I am passionate about it. I think it’s my profession – and if you’re not passionate about your profession, you are not really fulfilling yourself to your potential.
“Of course, there was the famous Passionate People, Passionate Places campaign. I was one of the first ones to feature in that.
“I thought that did a great job in helping to promote the region and make people outside realise it was a great place to work, to live, to visit.”
Passionate People, Passionate Places was of course a One North East campaign and the regional development agency (RDA) will be abolished in a year’s time. Davy is worried about where that will leave funding to promote the region.
“The RDA is going, like it or not; we’re then going to have a regional growth fund, goodness knows what else. At the end of the year, I suppose the acid test is going to be just how much money is the North East going to have to invest?” he said.
“In my particular sector, in tourism and hospitality, the RDA was very good at investing quite a lot of money in setting up new tourism structures for the area. There was always the worry with the RDA going that we will have that kind of influence and investment in the future.
“So I think it’s pretty uncertain times at the moment and I think applications for money from this growth fund are huge and numerous and how many actually get funding, goodness knows.
“And of course, tourism is being squeezed on the national front – Visit England, Visit Britain – they’re all being squeezed. It’s a huge challenge.”
The Government cuts come at a time when Davy has just become chairman of the British Hospitality Association, which lobbies on behalf of the industry.
He said: “Having relevant and understandable statistics available is very important and hospitality is now the fifth largest industry in the country – 2.4 million employees – 8% of the working population. We are a major contributor to the national economy.”
Regionally, he has also worked hard to show the value of tourism to the North East economy.
He says: “I was involved in setting up the tourism partnership for County Durham which was about five or six years ago.
“Before that we had a tourism board, which did a great job – but it was called the Northumbria Tourist Board – which for Durham was wholly inappropriate because if you were in the South of England, you wouldn’t have thought that Durham would necessarily connect with Northumbria.
“Then we had the opportunity with the abolition of the tourist board to set up area tourism partnerships for the four regions – Northumberland, Durham, Tyne and Wear and Tees Valley.
“County Durham did a fantastic job in raising the awareness of tourism. I don’t think people were really aware of the importance of tourism and what it did for the local economy.
“It’s quite difficult sometimes to quantify the value of tourism. With the old district councils, you almost got the impression at times they wanted you to stand at the road end with a counter and count people in and out to try to justify to them just how many tourists were coming into the region, which was very difficult to do.”
The hospitality business is constantly evolving and is currently dealing with the fall-out from the recession in addition to customers’ ever-greater expectations.
“It’s a funny old world; three years ago, we were out on a pheasant shoot over in Cumbria and it’s owned by an estate agent,” says Davy.
“They were putting themselves on to a four-day week because of the way the property market was collapsing. And yet we were still absolutely bouncing along and we just looked at each other and thought ‘what’s this recession, where is it?’
”But of course, it’s had to work its way through the economy and now of course the property market is probably starting to improve and the money in people’s pockets has started to filter through because of low interest rates etc.
“There is no doubt now, there is still money out there, people are still spending money, but they are much more discerning about how they spend it. They really want to know now what they’re getting for their pound coin.
“I don’t think there’s a single thing at the Rose and Crown in the last year that we’ve not looked at as a management team. We have literally gone through every single aspect of our operation.”
The pattern of tourism as an industry has also changed massively, and not simply because of the economic gloom.
“People’s holiday habits have changed from the old days when I came into the business,” says Davy.
“Everyone kind of took two weeks in the summer and maybe a week in the winter and that was it. But now it’s short breaks, weekends away – sometimes we see people staying with us two or three times a year; instead of staying for a week, maybe two weeks, they’ll just come for three nights and then they’ll reappear in the autumn.”
The Davys aim to stay ahead of the game by visiting other hotels and looking at the competition.
“Over the years we’ve had two or three very big national awards,” he says. “In 2006, we were Michelin Inn of the Year, a couple of years before we were AA Pub of the Year.
“I always say to the staff, ‘well done, fantastic, but don’t think we’ve achieved it – we can always do better’. You can never sit there and say ‘that’s it, we’ve cracked it’.”
As part of that philosophy, Davy is becoming social media savvy and has members of his management team using Twitter and Facebook.
“I’ve just done my first blog,” he says. “I’ve in the last year had to go off on courses learning how to tweet and how to do Facebook – and all those sort of things which frankly horrify me – but they’ve got to be done.”
He has no plans to retire and says he and Alison will “just keep going”, although he confident that the Rose and Crown has a superlative 30-strong staff, made up mostly of local people.
“I hope in the future my wife and I might be able to step back a little bit from the day-to-day routine,” says Davy.
“But in a business like this, it’s a very personal business and we have a lot of customers who have been coming to us for many years and while I trust my staff implicitly, the customers still on occasion still like to see the owners.”
He doubts that the hotel will be handed on to the next generation – at least not yet.
Eldest daughter Laura, 22, is a lawyer who lives in Edinburgh and 19-year-old Becky is at university in Bristol.
But he’s quite confident the Rose and Crown will continue.
“It’s a lovely business,” he says. “The Rose and Crown is bigger than us.”