As founders of Whim Hospitality, Kim and Whit Hanks knew they wanted to leave their mark on the event and hospitality industries in Central Texas, but their ambitions soon turned global.
With a 289-acre resort in Dripping Springs with cottages, suites, restaurant, and pool as well as four unique historically relevant wedding venues on site, what could this Texas couple do as an encore? Purchase and run the oldest hotel in England, of course! With the success of Camp Lucy which opened in 2009, Kim and Whit Hanks embarked on a new journey, this one 4,850 miles away from their home in Dripping Springs, but yet still “home” in a way to Whit Hanks as his ancestors originally hailed from Malmesbury, England. And, as it turns out, one of these ancestors owned the lease of the hotel for thirty years in the 1800s. (But interestingly, the Hanks were unaware of this little nugget until they had already purchased the hotel and were researching the area.) The Old Bell, situated in the picturesque Cotswolds town of Malmesbury in Wiltshire, was built in 1220 and is considered the oldest hotel in England with traces of every century throughout the mainly Edwardian style building.
A Rich History
Whit, a native Austinite, former real estate developer and antiques dealer, co-founded Whim Hospitality with Kim in 2012. For fun he imported a 19th century French colonial chapel from Vietnam and set it up on his parents’ weekend place in Dripping Springs, which eventually led to the creation of Camp Lucy. Kim, also a Texas native, who spent time in Arkansas and California growing up, says her path to the hospitality industry was a serendipitous one, having started with a career in biotech before moving into a world where she could help bring families together for their most important celebrations. For Kim, as CEO of Whim, nothing is more thrilling than wrangling 300 guests in the unpredictable Texas weather.
Although the couple spends roughly a third of their time in the U.K. spread out over four or five trips a year, we were able to catch up with this Trans-Atlantic duo to discuss balancing their professional and private lives between two continents, and their robust business life together.
How Did You Meet?
Whit: We met at work. My family owned a small ranch near Dripping Springs, and I was building a kind of folly on it — a Vietnamese chapel for purposes unknown. Kim found out and eventually talked me into turning the property into a wedding venue, which she agreed to run on completion. In the first year, we hosted 58 weddings. The next year we did a hundred.
Kim: I had heard about Whit way before I met him. He threw a Christmas party at the bank he had just opened … and I crashed it. I marched right up to him, hand extended, and introduced myself. Since we didn’t swim in the same circles, I had to create my own opportunity for an introduction.
You’ve already left a mark on the hospitality industry in Central Texas, how did you come to the decision to buy and run a hotel in England?
Whit: We get bored easily. We also like to pick things to do which we haven’t done before, and no one in their right mind would try to do.
Kim: We knew we wanted to live in England part of our lives. Malmesbury is where Whit’s ancestors had come from. It’s really hard for the two of us to disentangle work from play, so it made sense to continue working, doing what we love, in a place we loved.
What are some of the challenges of running a hotel in the UK? What are some of the joys?
Whit: The challenge is that it is hard to practice “walk around management.” The joy begins and ends with the sense of community in Malmesbury and being part of that community.
Any tips for making a husband/wife business a success?
Whit: Working together actually enhances our relationship because we have learned to admire each other’s skills. I concentrate on construction and finance. Kim concentrates on customers, vendors, interior design, and the company vision. We don’t hesitate to give each other advice, and we also appreciate that we aren’t doing the other’s job!
Kim: Appreciate what your partner has to offer and don’t try to second guess their strengths. I also try to have a steady homelife for us because the events and hospitality industry is so unpredictable.
When it came to the vision of the new hotel, how much did you work as a team?
Kim: Whit and I have worked 14 years together building our dreams. We both share the common value of executing our work at an excellent level. This takes time so we polish on our businesses together until the rough piece of coal becomes a diamond. We work tirelessly until the project is right.
Cover photo courtesy The Old Bell
Kristen O’Brien is a graduate of Columbia University School of Journalism who has worked in various capacities for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, ELLE magazine, Texas Monthly and the Cultural Services of the French Embassy. Born and raised in London, she has spent most of her career in Paris and New York. She now lives in Austin but like the Hanks, has been spending her time between Wiltshire, England, where her father was based, and Texas. You can follow her @KristenGunrie.