Moving mountains, forging greatness: Guesthouse turns one

Spicers Guesthouse is one year old. William Holmes talks to General Manager Mark Whitnell about the joys and challenges of launching a new food and wine hotel in the super-competitive Hunter Valley.

The 30-year-old Hunter Valley guesthouse purchased by Spicers Retreats in 2016 was a grand old dame in need of far more than just a spit and polish.

To bring the property back to life in time for the November 1st, 2018 opening, Spicers tipped in $30 million and put to work scores of local tradies and labourers, among others.

Spicers Guesthouse before refurbishment

Private dining room at Spicers Guesthouse

The old indoor pool was replaced by a striking outdoor infinity pool with idyllic bush views; mountains were literally moved as the grounds and gardens underwent a multi-million-dollar makeover; new buildings were erected to complement those already on site; and the rooms and common areas were reimagined under the creative and watchful eye of Spicers owner Jude Turner.

Spicers Guesthouse Hunter Valley

And that’s just above ground. Below terra firma, a raft of significant investments were required to bring the property up to date.

“I’d argue that refurbs are more complex than new builds,” says Spicers Guesthouse General Manager Mark Whitnell, a hospitality veteran who left a highly regarded boutique hotel in Victoria to take on the mighty challenge of launching a new 49-room property. “You’ve still got old infrastructure below the ground, so you’re adding modern refits to older infrastructure.

“We went through a fair amount of little challenges, and predominantly we’ve overcome them and I feel like we’ve mastered most of it.”

As a guesthouse in vineyard country focusing on food and wine, Mark knew Spicers faced stiff competition in not only attracting guests, but suitable staff to serve those guests in the warm, attentive and relaxed style Spicers is known for.

Friends drinking wine at Spicers Guesthouse

“It’s a competitive environment in the Hunter,” Mark says. “People come knocking on our door now, they want to work for us, and that means you’re doing something well. But it’s not the case when you’re brand new and you’re trying to recruit.

“We had to work hard to get people on board. We weren’t prepared to compromise on the type of people that we wanted to come into our business. You’ve got to love food and wine, and it takes a bit longer to find those people, but we have.”

He is also pleased that within six months Spicers Guesthouse had climbed to second spot on TripAdvisor for accommodation ratings in the Hunter Valley.

The next hurdle for the team was to firmly establish the property as a serious contender in the food and wine stakes.

Spicers Guesthouse before refurbishment

Guests enjoying wine at dinner

“We are competing with 50 other restaurants, and we’re really getting some momentum now, getting recognised as a player when it comes to outstanding food and beverage experiences,” he says. “We have a wonderful wine wall … we’ve got 220 wines and probably 60 per cent are Hunter wines.

“We almost feel like we’re becoming a wine hotel. We’re not exactly sure what that means, but we like the sound of it, and we’re playing around with that idea.

“All of our chefs, front office staff, and food and beverage teams are being trained … so across the board we have this beautiful level of wine knowledge and we can tailor that to each guest’s experience.”

Asked if he thinks guests at Spicers leave a smidge heavier than when they arrived, Mark says: “I definitely hope so!”

In the lead-up to launch, the decision was made for the restaurant to be Italian. The result is Eremo, under the direction of feted Executive Chef Cameron Matthews.

Chef standing at table talking to guests about food at eRemo Restaurant

“Cameron has been with the group for nine years, but started off life cooking Italian food. We love the thought of sitting around a table as if you were in Italy sharing great food and great wine with your family,” Mark says.

“We have a great menu, and we don’t do canapés, but grazing plates. A trend now is to just let chefs cook for you. We do a chef’s menu called Avido, which loosely translates to ‘greedy’. It’s a bit cheeky, but essentially what we’re saying is that you’ll go on a great journey.”

Mark says Spicers eschews the idea of wine matching, preferring “wine tasting”.

Spicers Guesthouse before refurbishment

Jude Turner and Katherine Young at Spicers Guesthouse

“You may have enjoyed a Semillon for the first time [at a cellar door] during the day, which is often the case [in the Hunter]. So you’ll see one of the guys come over with three bottles, have a chat, and give you an aged Semillon that you mightn’t have experienced that day. If you love the wine, don’t worry about the food. Avido is just us feeding you: sit down, relax, and we’ll do all the heavy lifting so you don’t have to think about it too much.”

About 60 per cent of guests now prefer to order this way.

Champagne corks have been popping to mark the property’s first birthday, and the team is now looking ahead to summer. As the weather warms, the pool will become a focus, with snacks, drinks and music; and pre-dinner drinks with the GM are being replaced with an activity for those who’d like to mingle with other guests, such as Bubbles & Boules on a Monday, and Croquet & Rosé on a Tuesday.