Tim Hughes talks to the general manager of an Oxford institution, the five-star Randolph Hotel
With a life spent working at some of the country’s finest hotels, Michael Grange is under no illusion as to the gravity of his latest role.
As general manager of the Randolph, he is not merely running a hotel, but is custodian of a piece of Oxford history.
“It is so much more than a hotel,” he says, with a lingering glance across the rather formal Drawing Room, sunlight flooding through its large windows. “It is an Oxford landmark — an institution, even.”
Occupying an enviable spot overlooking the Ashmolean Museum on one side and the Martyrs’ Memorial on the other, the Victorian Gothic edifice has been an intrinsic part of Oxford’s cityscape for 147 years.
Sought after by generations of tourists, business travellers and students’ parents, it has become a tourist attraction in its own right, with its William Wilkinson-designed pointed gables, arched windows, ironwork and oversized chimneys gracing many a sightseer’s photographs.
Its role as a landmark, meeting place and dropping-off point, meanwhile, has endeared it to Oxford folk, despite most of us never having passed through its heavy doors. And Michael is acutely aware of the Grade II-listed building’s importance.
“Absolutely! Of everything I’ve done, this is what I’m most proud of,” he says, over tea and shortbread (made to the owner’s wife’s personal recipe).
“It is a place of great character and atmosphere to everyone,” he smiles. “I’ve never worked anywhere where I’ve met so many famous people: celebrities, statesmen and world leaders who have made history.”
Michael, 56, laughs that he was born to be a hotel manager, and that this is his dream job.
Born into a medical family in Cambridge (his father was a GP, his mother a nurse and his brother and sister both doctors) he had aspired to work in a hotel ever since a family outing to a hotel in Suffolk.
“One of the hotels we’d stay in as children was the 15th-century Swan Hotel in Lavenham. I loved it and dreamed of working there.”
Some years later he did precisely that — managing it for seven years.
His first experience though, was grander still. As a student at the Westminster Hotel School he started at the deep end at Grosvenor House, The Dorchester, Park Lane Hilton and the Houses of Parliament.
He returned to Grosvenor House as a management trainee, also working at The Cavendish, Saint George and, for four years, Browns, where guests included the Prince of Wales.
Leaving London, he took a job as banqueting manager at the four-star Queen’s Hotel in Cheltenham. “It was a bit of a shock to the system,” he recalls. “Browns was a five-star de luxe property where valets would press our suits and money was no object to guests. Moving to a four-star provincial hotel was more hands-on. And we had to press our own suits.”
From there he went to the then largely unfinished new town of Milton Keynes, taking up the post of deputy manager at the Post House — now the Holiday Inn. “From Monday to Thursday we were absolutely full, but there was no one at all at the weekends,” he recalls. “I went back recently and couldn’t find it. The whole place has changed so much.”
His first post as general manager was at The Star in Alfriston, Sussex — the haunt of many a celebrity. “We would have famous guests staying with people they didn’t want to be seen with,” he smiles, adding, “but I can’t say who — that would be telling!”
Then came Lavenham, Winchester, Salisbury and Bath.
The constant moving proved a challenge, he admits. “At one stage, I owned three houses in four years because I was being moved around so much,” he says.
Then, seven years ago, he was promoted to the top job at the Randolph.
Among his proudest achievements was earning the hotel, owned by the Macdonald Hotel Group and formerly Forte, a coveted fifth star.
“The company was very keen that we should gain a fifth star and, as I was at another five-star hotel, it seemed a sensible move,” he says. “It had always seemed feasible, but then six years ago we got it — which was rather nice.”
And how did he go about getting it? “There were just small details,” he says, making it sound deceptively easy.
In fact the hotel went through a major renovation and installed a spa, which is open to the public.
So who are his typical guests? “A tremendous amount of guests have some connection with the university,” he says. “Most of our visitors come from the United States but we are seeing a big increase in guests from emerging economies such as India and China. Some guests come to stay for a week — some even longer.
“We’ve had Russians who have stayed for months and months. And one person, whose son didn’t like boarding school, had a suite of rooms, which cost more than £500 a night, for a couple of years.
“We’ve had students who are Arab princes and who have stayed at the hotel for the duration of their studies because they haven’t liked college accommodation. And we once had a minister from a church in the States who wined and dined and lived the high life here while he did his postgrad in theology.
“We’ve had a lot of fun, but also some bizarre requests,” he laughs. “We once had to charter an aircraft to fly some guests to Germany.”
Famous faces have included former US president Jimmy Carter, ex-Russian premier Mikhail Gorbachev and numerous European heads of state.
Another regular visitor is the man who helped immortalise the hotel — Inspector Morse author Colin Dexter. The writer is a familiar figure at the bar which still carries his fictional detective’s name. The hotel has starred in many episodes of Inspector Morse and, more recently, Lewis. Cast and crew have stayed as guests during filming.
“I love both Morse and Lewis,” says Michael, “Kevin Whately and Laurence Fox are absolutely lovely, as was John Thaw.
He adds: “We are honoured to have been involved in both series. It has a massive international following and people come to stay, or have a drink in the Morse bar, because they have seen it on television. It’s particularly nice for guests when Mr Dexter is there and we can introduce them.
“I am lucky enough to have been in a few cameo shots in Lewis, myself.”
So has he ever had to throw any badly behaved guests out?
“Not too many,” he says. “We have had one or two rock stars, though, and people who have had too much to drink and have trashed their rooms. There was also the rotund Irishman who got stuck in the toilets while being a bit worse for wear. We had to call the fire brigade to break down the cubicle.”
With the hotel’s 150th anniversary approaching, thoughts are turning to how to celebrate.
“We are starting to plan events to mark the anniversary,” he says. “Possibly we will also be decorating the hotel and publishing a book featuring some of the famous people who have stayed here. I’m just very proud to be able to work in such a wonderful city and be involved in this hotel at this time.”