Financial Times asks Orsett Hall to reflect on the budget

THE FINANCIAL TIMES spent two days this week in Thurrock, asking a number of businesses to reflect on the economic condition of the country in general and Thurrock in particular.

The FT went to Orsett Hall to speak to the general manager, Alan Barnard and asked for his reflections.

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“WHEN the Orsett Hall Hotel, a 17th century pile on the outskirts of one of the wealthier towns of the Thurrock constituency, was destroyed by fire in May 2007, Alan Barnard thought he would have no trouble funding the rebuild.

So keen were the Royal Bank of Scotland to lend the £10m required that Mr Barnard was “taken to the Strand and wined and dined and butler-serviced”.

Then a second disaster struck. On the eve of the signing of the loan in November 2007, the recession struck. RBS got cold feet.

Mr Barnard, a Thurrock-born accountant who got involved with the running of the hotel after the fire struck, recalls being made an offer that would fund reconstruction – and cover the £900,000 of work already done. “We waited a week, but nothing came. We waited another week, nothing came.”

It was, he says, “devastating.” Eventually, the hotel managed to secure the funds from the then-owner’s former parents-in-law.

The building reopened in May 2009. Since then, business has been mixed.

“We had orders on our books. But when you have weddings booked three years in advance and then a fire like we did, you lose all those weddings. And you have to repay all of the deposits for those weddings,” he explains.

Weddings accounted for about 60 per cent of revenues before the fire, but the figure has dwindled by more than 40 per cent. “We’ve increased our bookings since [2009],” he says. “But we’re in a situation where brides now don’t want to book for 2013 because there’s the number 13 in the year. They things it’s unlucky. Though the upside of it is that for the Asian community, they think it’s lucky so we’re hoping to pick it up from that side.”

Companies are no longer spending as much on Christmas parties. “Four years ago, people were spending at least £20 per head on drinks. That’s declined now to probably £14 per head,” he says.

“We’re not getting the big company bookings for staff Christmas parties. When you’re laying staff off, the last thing you want to do is go and spend a couple of thousand on a lavish Christmas party.”

When growth returns, he hopes to see a return to an older style of banking. “When I started in my game, you would go and see a bank manager and they would make a decision there and then; he would or wouldn’t lend you the money, he’d give you a reason for not lending it, or he’d give you pointers,” he says.

“Now everything has to go in front of credit control committees that have no knowledge of the local business. The old bank manager knew the area, he knew the people. There’s no personal service any more.”

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