Stellar performance from Quy Mill Hotel is something to Roar about for Tony Murdock
We talk to the general manager about his career in hotels and launching the Cambridge Roar festival
When Tony Murdock arrived at Quy Mill Hotel & Spa in September 2013, he found a three-star hotel with promise.
Now, four years on, it is the only four-star hotel with AA Silver Star status in the county – and was recently accepted into the Good Hotel Guide.
Meanwhile, its associated Cambridge Roar festival has become a firmly-established fixture in the annual fundraising calendar, having chalked up £85,000 for good causes so far, and has helped promote the hotel off the A14 at Stow-cum-Quy to a wider audience.
But if Tony’s parents had got their way, it could all have been different.
“I always wanted to be in hotels but my family pushed me into environmental science,” he says.
“I did my degree in that, then went straight on and did my hotel and catering degree afterwards.
“It was all about hotels for me. I like that every day is different. You don’t sit in the traffic and do nine-five. That’s not me: I like to be out and about, buzzing around.”
Born in Hillsborough, a small town in County Down, Tony began his career working for the Hastings Group in nearby Belfast.
“I worked my way up through the food and beverage ranks to deputy general manager,” he recalls. “Then I did some work for Hilton in Northern Ireland on their golf resort.”
His first general manager role was at Ramada in Belfast, which involved providing banquets for 1,200 people, before he moved to Scotland and worked for Macdonald Hotels for three years south of Glasgow.
“The main reason for leaving was the weather,” he laughs. “The poor kids were sitting inside all summer long because it was raining heavily and grey and murky.”
After a three-year spell at Letchworth Hall Hotel in sunnier Hertfordshire, Tony found a great opportunity at Quy Mill, owned by Munro Group.
“It was a very nice property that I believed had a lot of potential to improve and adapt,” he says.
“I was delighted to have got the job working for a group that owned one hotel and were focused on improving the quality of it. They were very keen on improving the quality of the food and service.
“They had invested heavily in the fabric of the building but they could never get to the service level required for four stars.
“My focus was bringing in experienced hotel people from different chains and changing the service levels. After 18 months, we were delighted to get to four stars.
“It was a credit to the company for investing. For me it’s all about the team – we brought in very experienced operators.”
Adding 24-hour room service with hot and cold food was one key move, along with raising service levels across the hotel.
“It’s all about the friendliness of the staff,” he says. “Anyone can teach the technical side of four stars. But we focus very much on talking to customers and offering a warm and friendly welcome.
“We have regular staff forum meetings with staff at all levels where they can make suggestions. Everybody knows how important they are.
“The kitchen porters are probably more important than I am because people want a clean plate more than they want to see me…”
This team ethos has helped the hotel earn a host of awards.
“It takes a lot to get into The Good Hotel Guide,” says Tony of the latest accolade. “Somewhere along the line, a customer has recommended us for the guide.”
Quy Mill has its own unique brand but also attracts guests through the Best Western global marketing and booking platform, and has risen from its Plus standard to the BW Premier Collection, which features only 13 hotels in this country.
“Recently, we’ve found a massive increase in the Asian market, which is something we’re actively working on using the Asian booking engines and Bookings.com of Asia.
“But the US market is the biggest coming through, especially with companies coming into the Science Park and booking through their New York office.
“Domestically we get a lot of one-night stays at the weekend from people within a two-hour radius. The challenge for Cambridge sometimes is to get people to stay longer than one night.
“Cambridge is world recognised, but there is an awful lot around it as well. Having Newmarket on our doorstep gives that second day. It’s a lovely stay – two days at least.”
Quy Mill is a busy wedding venue, hosting 70 a year, but its appeal has also broadened during Tony’s tenure.
“When I started, everyone I spoke to said they had been here for a wedding but didn’t say anything else about it!” recalls Tony. “The publicity around the Cambridge Roar has really raised awareness that we are a lovely hotel, great for afternoon tea, great for Sunday lunch, great for dining.
“For me, it’s about the whole atmosphere. We’re lucky – when you come in here you don’t see the bedroom corridors. The whole perception is more of a country house.”
The two AA rosette restaurant under head chef Gavin Murphy offers contemporary British fare while the bar offers simpler, quality food for those who don’t want fine dining.
Competition in the Cambridge hotel market has intensified with the opening of the Tamburlaine, improvements at the Gonville and the arrival of new city centre ‘budget’ hotels.
“The competition is going to be fierce with the University Arms opening up again,” observes Tony. “But situated where we are, off the A14 to the north of Cambridge, while I won’t say it’s not going to affect us, I’m confident enough in what we’re doing and the style of building to say that it’s not going to severely impact us.
“Cambridge still has room for more – the demand is high. People are phoning us saying they can’t get a room anywhere near Cambridge and are having to go to Bury St Edmunds. And more competition and concepts give us ideas about how we can improve.”
Its location and parking helps Quy Mill compete in one of the fiercest markets – providing business space.
“We have six nice meeting rooms with windows overlooking the gardens, and people can go out and get some fresh air. We are looking at using the marquee as a large meeting venue to give companies an option,” says Tony.
With Quy Mill up for sale as a going concern, he has eyes on the future.
“We are the only silver-starred four-star hotel in Cambridgeshire. We are driving towards the red star, which is the highest we can go on four stars. Five-star is not an option for us, so we want to be the best four-star we can,” he says.
“We want to continue pushing for rosettes in the restaurant and stay one step ahead – be friendly and unique, keep the refurbishment programme going. With the volume of people coming through, you have to keep on top of that.
“There have been thoughts on expanding. Another is for the marquee to become a permanent building. We have a lot of space to utilise. We’re not in the centre of town, so we’re not limited.
“We trade at 88-90 per cent occupancy. Monday-Thursdays are pretty much full and Fridays and Saturdays can be full. If we were to add rooms on, it would give us a great opportunity.”
When he’s not busy running hotels, or organising charity festivals, Tony – who lives with partner Clare and their three children in Bassingbourn – finds time to run the odd marathon.
“I’ve never run before in my life. I started with a marathon…” he says. It’s a fitting metaphor for the way he does things: forget half-measures, or half-marathons.
“I absolutely loved it – that’s why I did it for a second year. But yes, it’s quite painful. The hardest thing about it is the training – going out on weekends on your own in January and February doing 20-mile runs when you should be with your family.”
Having finished last time in a very respectable three hours 42 minutes, inevitably Tony has set himself a new target.
“I want to beat three hours 30 minutes next time,” he says.
And you’d be a fool to bet against him.
Cambridge Independent to support Cambridge Roar in 2018
The Cambridge Independent is delighted to reveal that it will be the media partner for the Cambridge Roar fundraising festival in 2018.
This year, the collection of events at Quy Mill raised £30,000 for Arthur Rank Hospice, East Anglian Air Ambulance and Cambridge United Community Trust, bringing the total sum raised since 2014 to £85,000.
“We’d love to have doubled that but that’s just ambition,” says Tony.
“We’ve tried some events that haven’t worked – it’s all been a learning curve and I think we’ve adapted well. I didn’t think it would get to this level with everyone knowing what the Roar is. It gives us a sense of pride that we’ve taken it from nothing to what it is now.”
The creation of the Roar was a natural step for Tony, who has personally raised money for Arthur Rank Hospice, the Prince’s Trust and others in the past.
“It was a crazy idea I had eight or nine years ago when I was doing some work for the Prince’s Trust,” he recalls. “I wanted to do a week-long festival of different events in a marquee but I didn’t have a venue for it.”
When he joined Quy Mill, the Roar provided a perfect way to make use of its field and Tony began by raising money for the Prince’s Trust before focusing on local charities.
“Next year, we want to take the bigger events from 250 people to 500 people,” says Tony. “We have plans for six events in the marquee and two smaller ones in the hotel. The Champagne dinner works in the hotel – it would lose its intimacy if we moved it.
“2017 was the first year we split the events because we felt we were targeting the same people. Next year we plan to spread it further, with the marquee going up from May-October. The Sporting Heroes dinner on May 18 will be the first. Then we’ll have the Corporate Games and Business Exhibition in June. The Champagne dinner will also be in June and we’ll finish with the Grand Finale ball in September.
“My personal target is the year we get £100,000. We’ll get there someday!”
Launching a global events company
As if Tony didn’t have enough to do, this year he also launched TR Global Events, a full-service events company with a US office, with three colleagues.
“We started selling the marquee for private events and we were asked to quote for various events,” he says. “Some people didn’t want the marquee or they wanted the city centre or something out of Cambridgeshire and we didn’t want to lose that business, so I set up a full-service events company.
“We can look after the event and running it from start to finish.
“We are dealing with inquiries and have some interest from the US side. We have a lot of quotes out for big conferences.
“We have to remember the hotel is the main focus, but anything TR can do on the side is nice.”