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.