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Over the past 12 months a weak pound has provided a boost from overseas travellers to the UK leisure market. However, the hotel market has a number of ‘threats’ to deal with; most notably, concerns about security, restrictions on corporate travel budgets and, according to the latest PwC report, ‘…an above average supply growth (especially in London)’.

General growth in the key regional cities of Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow, Cardiff and Liverpool is evident and forecasts for these cities indicate occupancy rates of 77% – only marginally down on London’s 80% – although room rates average half of those of London.

Our panel looks at the issues facing the hotel sector and assesses how the regional markets are overcoming the current uncertainty. So does the hotel experience differ outside of London?

Simon: London is a key feeder for a lot of the regional cities. People’s expectations are fairly similar. The big challenge is that London commands high rates and you don’t get those rates in other cities around the country, yet guests still expect the same level of service.

Tamie: London sets the standard for sophistication – but it’s how close a hotel is to its brand promise. Babbington can still command £500 a night! Even within regionalism, there’s almost a caste system. The more urbanised sophisticated traveller actually wants to go to the countryside now. People want to get away and go to places like farmhouses, forest retreats…

Norma: Brand is sacrosanct. In terms of the bigger brands, you have an exacting GM who wants that brand standard and everything on top. People go back because they get something exceptional.

Simon: But if that hotel was in London, you would be almost doubling those rates.

Tom: Location will always affect the guest experience. If you have everything on your doorstep, guests get a better experience. If you’re in a more rural area, you need to ensure everything’s available in-house. It changes the dynamic of the design and what’s contained within those four walls.

Tamie: If it’s got to be out of London, it has to be a destination in its own right. Or made into a destination. There has to be something that draws people there.

Laura: I agree – there has to be something within that hotel that attracts you to it, but it can be anywhere. We’ve been working with a client for many, many years now and what we’ve worked on has really evolved over those years. They started with a cookery school and a farmhouse – and these are places where you can go and cook and eat the food and have a glass of wine – and then you’re stuck! It’s off the beaten track. So we’ve evolved it into a bigger scheme. We’ve now got 11 rooms, we have planning for 20 more, there will be glamping…

Round Table 21.6.17-12

Tamie: That’s the key! Intimacy allows for that escape from an urban environment. You want it to be you and nature.

Simon: Regional doesn’t always mean rural though.

“One of the emerging markets is that people coming into hotels in the cities are looking for a lifestyle. They want all their needs to be catered for – not just for business but for their family too”

Norma: One of the emerging markets is that people coming into hotels in the cities are looking for a lifestyle. They want all their needs to be catered for – not just for business but for their family too. The weekend is all about the family. There’s real opportunity here. For example, people are looking for a true gastronomic experience.

Simon: I think food and drink is a game changer. Hotels cannot get away nowadays with lethargy.

Nick: There’s been a well-understood cultural shift between work time and leisure time – there’s been a melding together of leisure and business time. And that translates into what hotels offer. People are travelling for both work and leisure. The places people stay at have to serve both of those angles. Hotels need to facilitate that while also allowing the guest to connect with the place that they’re in, with the community. The sense of place and identity within the hotel has to be embedded in the design.

Tom: You now have to open your doors and bring in the local community. People want to stay in the hotels that leave them feeling like they’ve experienced that community.

Nick: Food and beverage gives the opportunity to connect with a specific region. It’s an easy one to latch onto. I struggle with the notion of hotels in London and the regions a bit – that slightly condescending υ stereotype of each area. You have to work hard anywhere to identify what encapsulates that sense of space.

“You now have to open your doors and bring in the local community”

Tom: You can let hotels define themselves by opening the door to the local community. You still try to build a narrative around that hotel

Simon: You do need to position yourselves before you open the door. If you look at The Refuge in Manchester, it’s the restaurant and bar that have really given it that connection with the city – and that has enabled us to then layer up all the other partnerships. If you have the people of Manchester coming in, they become the best ambassadors in the world.

Norma: I personally think a lot of the country is watching Manchester – just look at The Refuge, The Gotham, The Hilton Deansgate – there’s something for everyone.

“The thing that is really important right now is the competition from the sharing economy”

Tom: Soho House is coming, so is The Zetter…

Tamie: Manchester’s not been this exciting since Tony Wilson and The Hacienda!

Simon: The brilliant thing about Manchester is that there’s such a will to make it work and succeed. You don’t get the same level of cynicism as you do in the capital.

Round Table 21.6.17-38

Norma: I’m not quite as excited by Bristol – but I think it is also starting to find its own way. They’re not quite the trailblazers, but it is good what’s happening there right now.

Tamie: I’ve noticed this trend in hospitality design; people are intuitively craving a connection. They’re looking for environments that are organic and offer the human touch. I’m noticing that couches aren’t as big as they used to be – things have changed. Furniture is getting smaller because people want warmth, intimacy…they’re craving a connection with nature and each other and design has to reflect that.

Tom: People are now looking for a personalised experience that they can adapt to suit their stay – curating the space so it becomes personalised for them. This is a challenge for designers – to create the shell, and let the guests decide on the rest.

“Manchester’s not been this exciting since Tony Wilson and The Hacienda”

The difference now is that Google trend analysts look at how the hotel is using big data. It’s not utilised to the level it should be. When hotels really connect with predictive data they can gather more specific information on their customers than pretty much any other industry because they are so in touch with them.

Simon: You can definitely profile guests but it does take time and there are downsides as well as upsides. People want privacy. When a guest does something, we should respond – but I don’t think we should be in their faces.

Tamie: There was this one experience that really blew me away. This hotel used to personalise pillowcases when people came in – the finest cotton, cotton that felt like silk.

Norma: I think hotels are really late adopters of big tech. The tech that is now available can circumvent complaints. For example, I have an App on my phone where I can pick things up immediately.

Tom: The thing that is really important right now is the competition from the sharing economy; what hotels offer is hospitality and service. Hotels can try and bring experience into what they do, but the trick is to use the data to provide a personal touch.

Nick: People crave personal connections; providing that welcome, that place of refuge, safety, a great experience, luxury, surprise, a great place to sleep and stay…It comes down to a welcome and a personal touch. I think that the majority of those working in hospitality are fundamentally creative people. It’s about how to innovate and change the game. It’s about offering something that has more of a continuity about it.

There is no one answer to the question of how you succeed outside of London. As Tamie says, ‘There are no rules as long as what you’re doing, you’re doing well’. Successful new regional hotels look to bring the community and the outdoors inside, and blur the lines between work and leisure, while the fundamentals still apply; great food and drink, great night’s sleep and great service.

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