Kenneth Lehhman: GM of Thorngrove Manor

My NativeAdVice:

How did you get into the industry?

Kenneth was a successful building designer and builder in both South Australia and Queensland. He is an architectural visionary with a background in both residential design, with a special affinity for creative design and construction. The Thorngrove project began after many artistic and creative architectural endeavours.  Many of his designs have been featured in architectural/building magazines. He fell in love with the Adelaide Hills after undertaking numerous building projects in the area.  His invaluable years as a Scout, and ultimately a Queens Scout, with opportunities to travel to World Jamborees, provided grounded discipline, inspired dedication and leadership training.  Kenneth visited and stayed in the hills on many occasions, with many camping adventures at Woodhouse.   In 1977 he identified the enormous potential for niche tourism. It was not until 1983 that the ideas became to materialise into the beginnings of Thorngrove.  

Kenneth has taken the property on a unique 32 year journey to be one of the world’s internationally recognised and acclaimed unique luxury boutique hotels.  Thorngrove has been a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World since 1995.   He is a quiet achiever who has by circumstance had to forge his own pathway to success.

2016 celebrates  32 years as part of  the  South Australian tourism history.  With countless operators coming and going within that time, in an industry often viewed as transitory, celebrating Thorngrove’s  amazing  31 years of welcoming guests and 21 years membership with Small Luxury Hotels of the World is a unique achievement.  

The journey has not been without personal challenges. Having “invisible” disabilities, severe dyslexia and also partial deafness have imposed constraints and limitation on his ability to achieve his potential academically, interact professionally, network, and relate in social occasions, activities and opportunities.  These complex conditions are frequently misunderstood by the professional community.  Architectural creativity and design has been his expression, as other pathways have not been accessible.

Buildings provide shelter and a place to escape the elements.  Architectural art and design set them apart from structures of basic necessity. Creating beautiful and artistic structures become a lasting form of publicly exhibited artwork.

Kenneth embraces is the art of architecture, where difference is celebrated beyond function, where a building is destined to become a unique piece of history; a showcase of living art that is not only viewed from a distance, but can be experienced within.

It is rare that the General Manager is the architectural designer, building supervisor, and engages with each guest personally. Kenneth’s creation and achievement have proved an inspiration and motivation to guests. For him guests are the raison d’etre, and each one a blessing. The philosophy is unparalleled in the hospitality industry.  It is not about satisfying ego, but humility and joy in accomplishment, in providing an accommodation experience to heighten spirit and soul.  Feedback and the delight of guests to be part of the journey have ensured longevity and continual improvement.

In 1984, Kenneth’s clear vision and intention was not dissuaded by cynics. The timeless design and commitment to excellence, manifested in a boutique hotel with the emphasis on unique total guest privacy, and singular décor, layout and furnishing; this saw the South Australian hospitality landscape change forever.  His design skills, professional expertise and artistry are essential in the daily maintenance and evolution of standards.

Any emerging industry trends?

Within the hotel industry globally standards are always rising. What was once 5 star, is now 4 star or less. The rise of the independent and unique, non corporatized hotel  is gaining momentum. These are hotels of individual design and bespoke experiences.  Some of the large traditional brands are now creating niche segments within their portfolios.

Any industry opportunities or challenges?

Size is Thorngrove’s biggest challenge, but this can also provide opportunities. Technology, specifically the internet has enabled us to concentrate our visual marketing. We have specifically chosen to protect our brand and not align ourselves with OTAs. Social media has been extremely important as a way to present the images and philosophy Thorngrove.

Inspiration for the business idea, and your vision for the Business?

Kenneth is a dreamer, an idealist and the visionary who created Thorngrove, taking it on an inspired journey to become one of the world’s acclaimed unique boutique hotels, as a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World since 1995. As a quiet achiever the successes have been constant throughout his career in the tourism industry, beginning with the first State Tourism award entry in 1988.  His passion, architectural art is integral in the design and concept of Thorngrove.  Thorngrove is purposely designed for individual experiences, rather than group experiences.

What's next for the Business in the near future?

Heightening the experience further is always a priority, but it is always difficult to find unique and collectable pieces for our rooms that Thorngrove guests will find extraordinary. The decorative, rare and artistic, also has to be practical in our rooms.   Being family run ensures our core values are constant and the original vision continues to evolve.

Your key initiatives for the success of the Business?

Thorngrove, although an official 5 star rated property and a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World for 21 years, it never uses the world, luxury in marketing or promotional materials. We traditionally have let our brand speak. Design defines the hotel; its style, its rooms and its service standards.  Imagery is of the utmost importance in marketing the hotel.  Membership of Small Luxury Hotels of the World has been integral to Thorngrove’s success and longevity.

Your most difficult moment at the Business? (and what did you learn?)

Very early we learnt that you cannot be all things to all people. We also became aware that government tourism organisations, were not product based, but slanted towards large development and investment, promoting the places that will attract large mass tourism numbers.  We were told our accommodation was too small and too close to the city.  Undeterred and with confidence in our idea we  quietly opened and progressively won awards, 5 star ratings  and recognition that would see Thorngrove invited into an Asia Pacific based hotel group, Select Hotels &Resorts. From that we progressed to Small Luxury Hotels of the World.  People still comment about our small size, but the modern traveller is now actively seeking unique and quality experiences. It is always difficult to operate outside the square. Sometimes we feel that Thorngrove is in a parallel tourism universe.

Ideal experience for a customer/client?

We endeavor to have our guests leave feeling that they are valued and inspired from their experience staying at Thorngrove.   Providing home-away-from-home comforts is only attainable if the property is called appropriately scaled.  Enriching people’s lives, sharing stories/information and providing sincere service, whilst anticipating guest’s needs, makes for an experience that our guests enjoy.   We see our accommodation as an immersion experience for our guests. Values of quality and consistency of service are essential parts of our guest experience.

How do you motivate others?)

The spirit of determination has been integral to our success. Just as we try to inspire our guests, those we work with we try to lead by example. Empowering people, by encouraging them to contribute ideas and thoughts reassures them of their value. We have a small longstanding group of people with whom we work who feel like family.   Creating an environment where people enjoy being is motivational.

Career advice to those in your industry?

Be a dreamer, and an idealist, and let your vision  take you on an inspired journey.   Aim high and set realistic goals.  Never lose sight of your goals and remember to have patience.  Learn best practice from those who inspire you and adapt it to suit your vision.  Sometimes the path is not straight , with seemingly endless hurdles, but have faith and remind yourself of your goal.  True sincerity and empathy are essential pre-requisites to lasting success.  Do not be afraid to be different. Small independent niche properties encourage uniqueness and  provide greater creative  opportunities than the large traditional and rigid hotel brands. Most importantly you have to love what you do.