Beatrice Tollman: Queen Among Hoteliers

A timelessly inspirational story.

The story of Beatrice Tollman could not be more timelessly inspirational, especially, or even, in our “get there quick” instant gratification times.

She narrated a potted version of it over a long lunch and had me spell-bound.

I could re-tell it as a modest-beginning -to-riches story or I could re-tell it as the story of a great visionary.

It struck me much later that, above all, it is a story of perseverance and consistent dedication of the kind that one seldom encounters today.

Not one single quality makes a vastly successful entrepreneur on the scale of the Tollman family – rather, it is a combination of qualities, as well as opportunity and a measure of good fortune.

Recognising the opportunity, knowing what to make of it, believing in it, injecting it with your own vision are all important. Hard work is often the unsung hero of a success story and if there ever was a poster girl for it, Beatrice Tollman is that girl.

She is more of a veteran of the hospitality industry than a “girl” but there is still something very attractively youthful in her enthusiasm and the way the Collection has embraced social media, for example. As for the “veteran” bit, hoteliers of the pedigree of the Red Carnation Collection are a rarity today.

The Tollmans built their group from the ground up and own all of their properties (as opposed to managing them for others as is the case with most).

How they did it is the stuff of a Hollywood movie and has been fleetingly told, in pictures and recipes, in a book Beatrice published, A Life in Food. It is dedicated to her “husband and partner in life”, Stanley, with whom she built a hotel and restaurant empire that spans more than 50 years, five countries and three continents.

It all started with a dream. Stanley Tollman, a pharmacological undergraduate, had been given the task of running his parents’ small hotel in Johannesburg when he got smitten with the then famous Colony restaurant in NY.

This was the start of an adventure he and his young bride threw themselves into without much, if any experience, learning on the hoof – or in her case, in the kitchen. They took over a small hotel that they leased from a brewery in Johannesburg and proceeded to establish its restaurant as THE place to go to in the city.

Beatrice devoured cookery books and compared recipes, trying out this and that and working with the local talent, training the more promising ones.

Another hotel – the Hyde Park Hotel in Johannesburg -followed on the success of the first and somehow she managed to have four children over the years, as well as managing the kitchens for, and being the de facto chef of the growing Tollman enterprise. Her husband kept the identity of his “chef” secret, but the success was there for all to see. Renowned entertainment acts and artists such as Petula Clarke and Trini Lopez flocked to the property, which was one of South Africa’s first truly boutique hotels, to perform at its famous cabaret. Life was no longer just a toil in the kitchens because success had opened new doors.

Somewhere along the line the Tollmans decided to leave South Africa (apartheid was still the norm of the day at that time) and landed in London.

The Red Carnation Collection was born. The name was not randomly chosen – Stanley Tollman habitually wears a red carnation in his lapel and the name is a tribute to the man with whom Beatrice shared her vision.

Beatrice herself is quite formidable in her own way. Having reinvented herself as a chef (she was training to be a nursery school teacher when she met her husband), she also became the group’s designer-in-chief as more hotels were added to the portfolio.

The Chesterfield in Mayfair was their first acquisition in London and Ashford Castle in Co. Mayo, the latest, alongside its sister property on the same estate – the Lodge at Ashford Castle.

We had lunch at the Butlers restaurant at the Chesterfield, where the menu is dotted with red stars indicating her recipes. Some are a variation on a well-established classic; others are uniquely hers. The honeycomb ice cream uses ingredients from beehives on the roof of the hotel. Yes, beehives on top of a Mayfair roof!

It is a stylish and traditional hotel that oozes Englishness, and most wouldn’t have any idea of the pioneering spirit of its owner. Visitors to the breathtaking Ashford Castle would be aware of the effort and ingenuity that have gone into restoring its vast interiors. Vast in the context of this castle means vast on a scale that defies belief. Originally two castles (one built for and by the Guinness family), this is a property that would daunt even the most experienced hotelier. Not the Tollmans.

Once it became part of the collection, they set about sensitively restoring it, which was a major task for a building dating back to the 13th century. The building itself needed substantial repair work and then the refurbishment began, with Mrs T. (as she is affectionately known by her team) and her eldest daughter Toni scouring auction rooms to add original furniture, fine art and period textiles to the endless rooms. The Tollmans are not just a tight-knit family – they are a working unit that manages a succession of travel businesses together. From tour operators to river cruise ships to hotels and restaurants, they operate on a global scale, each very involved and with different roles and responsibilities within the empire.

One gets a sense of Mrs T.’s work ethic when she talks about everything involved in her daily life, from monitoring TripAdvisor reviews, checking the base chicken stock, choosing fabrics, drawing lists of Christmas gifts for her 2000-strong staff globally, organising the annual Red Carnation Staff Appreciation gala and travelling two weeks of the month to keep an eye on things. Then there are the charities she supports (proceeds from her cookery book go to Great Ormond Street Hospital and the Starlight Foundation).

How does she do it? Short nights and little food are her secret, but one suspects she must have several – an iron-cast discipline, for one.

When I ask if she plans to put her feet up at some point, she gives me a look of total incomprehension. The concept of retirement simply doesn’t compute for Beatrice Tollman.

What has driven her over the years, I wonder? It must have been a daunting ride at times, perhaps even most of the time and especially at the beginning.

She shrugs it off with “Our family motto is in pursuit of excellence, so that’s what we do. I always just strived to do the very best that I can, each and every day”.

Now, if we could all create an empire with our best….