Hotel Chocolat has strengthened its senior management team as it seeks to expand its business despite the tough climate.

Hotel Chocolat has hired former Ernst & Young senior partner Peter Klauber as chairman, and former Fat Face buying and merchandising director Heather Blackman as commercial director. Frederick Ahlin was promoted internally to the new position of brand director.

Hotel Chocolat chief executive Angus Thirlwell said the retailer enjoyed a “strong Christmas” and will increase its store portfolio by a third this year.

He added: “We see the current weakness in the property market as the chance to go places where we haven’t managed to open before, like Guildford, Harrogate and Oxford.” He said that Hotel Chocolat is close to signing for units in all three locations.

Thirlwell said the retailer will open at least 10 stores this year, adding to its 32-strong portfolio. Last year, it opened five shops. He is on the lookout for sites in Glasgow and Edinburgh for its Scottish debut, and will also open the chocolatier’s first overseas store this year in Dubai.

He said: “Our aim is to press ahead with expansion during 2009 on the basis that if we can make it work this year, we will have proved that we have a very resilient business model.”

Thirlwell added that its cafe-cum-store format on trial at London’s Kensington is not yet ready for roll-out, but has had “some encouraging signs”.