Hotels frequently offer evening entertainment, but few go as far as to run a fully fledged nightclub. Those that do are often proud of what they see as an important local attraction that provides valuable publicity as well as revenue.
The De Vere group has two such clubs, the Bel Air, a 1,000-capacity venue at the Belfry hotel in Warwickshire, and a smaller centre at the Grand hotel in Brighton. The clubs are not a core part of the company's strategy, but they are profitable and an interesting way to add value, according to director of sales and marketing Bill Gosling.
"Increasingly," he says, "you have to make sure that you aren't just providing a big building full of bedrooms, so if you have a facility like that then it can make a difference."
The clubs are heavily patronised by the local populations, which accounts for about three-quarters of the clientele in both cases. The Bel Air is especially popular, being a favoured weekend nightspot for nearby Birmingham. "That's mainly for the younger crowd," says Gosling, "but during the week there is a more mature audience, and you might even see a 60-year-old managing director in there tapping his feet to the music."
Where such a club is of direct value to the hotel is as a facility for guests to unwind after business, and that is particularly useful after conferences. "They are ideal places to bond with colleagues and business partners without having to leave the hotel," Gosling points out. And since many local people are present, it diminishes any sense of isolation from the community that guests may sometimes feel.
However, an evening facility has to earn its keep during the day also, and the Bel Air has recently been refurbished to double as a conference facility for team-building exercises. That is also the case at the 274-room Hilton Blackpool, which relies on conferences as well as leisure for a major part of its business.
"Having a nightclub fits in well with those markets," says Hilton Blackpool general manager Andrew Lockwood. "For conference organisers, it can be a big selling point, because it offers a different type of on-site entertainment. Instead of holding the post-conference disco in the main meeting room, you have a separate venue."
One danger with clubs is that they appeal to the 18- to 25-year-olds, the age-group that spends least and can require the most effort to handle. At the Hilton Isle of Man, a nightclub called Toffs will get a £500,000 makeover next January to reposition it for the 25- to 35-year-old market.
"We aim to change the client base to a higher bracket," says general manager Kevin O'Brien. "With quality furnishings, we can use the area for private functions, business meetings, and conferences. At the moment, there is only one carpeted area, which makes it of limited appeal for other types of business."
The club attracts as many as 3,000 people at weekends, with an 80:20 split between locals and hotel guests, and accounts for 25% of the hotel's turnover. That can be boosted by targeting the affluent "come-overs", the well-off professionals and executives who run the big banking community on the island and who now marginally outnumber the Manx population.
Hotel guests should also find the club more appealing. For them it is free of charge, but they may not want to stay after the first burst of "garage" dance music, O'Brien says.
The venue is currently open from Thursday to Saturday but there are plans to extend that to the whole week, to take advantage of a casino licence that allows the public to be served drinks in all areas of the hotel (see below).
Nightclubs can offer live acts as well as a disco. The 140-room Rainbow International Hotel at Torquay used to run a disco but two years ago responded to demand from local residents for more varied entertainment. It relaunched as the Club Rainbow, offering a range of cabaret acts.
Here, too, the aim has been to move upmarket, leaving the 18-25s to be served by the increasing number of discos in the area. The hotel invested £180,000 in the interior, putting in sofas and soft furnishings to make the décor as comfortable as in other parts of the hotel.
"Running a cabaret is definitely an advantage to the hotel," comments group marketing manager Sue Ovens. "Some days of the week, we are the only place in Torquay open until 1am. It has good publicity value. When people are wondering where to go for a wedding reception or a function, they naturally think of us."
To have as wide an appeal as possible, the entertainment is varied, with disco, 1970s music and comedy acts on different nights of the week. The singles night on Wednesday is said to be the biggest of its kind in the South-west, and there are frequent visits from TV soap stars such as Vince Earl (Ron Dixon from Brookside) and Steve McFadden (Phil Mitchell from Eastenders). For the launch, the hotel splashed out on a top act, flying the Supremes over from Los Angeles.
"We try to promote ourselves as a lively hotel," says Ovens. "People are looking for something different as entertainment. They don't just want to sit and watch TV." To make it easy for young couples to enjoy a night out, the hotel offers a listening service to monitor young children left in their rooms.
But if clubs add value to hotels, why are they not more widely offered? In terms of staff and premises, many operators are already well equipped to handle the business, so it should be a natural extension. One reason might be the association of nightclubs with noise and disturbance, and the fear that rowdy revellers will annoy hotel guests. Certainly, clubs do need to be well soundproofed, and situated where coming and going will not cause problems.
At the Hilton Blackpool, a separate exterior entrance ensures that guests enter from the outside. Similarly, it helps that De Vere's Bel Air Club is not an integral part of the Belfry hotel, but is well away from the main complex.
"Clearly," says Gosling, "you have to make sure that club visitors are reasonably sensible, as you don't want them wandering off to the hotel. That requires expertise from club staff. They need to be aware that you can't just push people out of the door, you have to get them off the premises."
Another inhibitor may be the thought of the drug-taking associated with clubbers. That is one reason why the hotels are keen to target the over-25s rather than the teen ravers.
Yet hotel club owners insist that, as long as management shows a proper concern for security, problems are few. Nor does it require special expertise - at the Rainbow International, the managers of the hotel and the club sometimes swap roles for variety.
"The important thing is to have professional door-staff who can provide just the right response for each situation," says the Hilton Isle of Man's O'Brien. "Usually, they are absolute gentlemen until someone causes trouble, and if necessary they will restrain them until the police arrive.
O'Brien concedes that it is impossible to police youngsters in terms of what they may have ingested before they arrive, a common problem for nightclubs. But no drug-taking or dealing occurs once they are on the premises, he insists. Nor has health and safety ever been a problem. He recalls: "A girl once fell over and broke her wrist after drinking too much, but she admitted that it was her fault."
Lockwood at the Hilton Blackpool concedes: "This is a different business and you do sometimes get the sort of issues that you wouldn't get with running a four-star hotel. But we are at top end of the market, so there are no major problems."
After all, he points out, hotel staff are used to dealing with the general public and coping with customers who have had a bit too much to drink. "The only difference is it's in a smaller place," he adds, "and, as long as you have a good door policy, you should always be able to keep things running smoothly."
Casinos: a very British approach to gambling
Every James Bond film has a scene where the hero wanders from the hotel foyer into the casino for a spot of roulette. But that wouldn't happen in Britain, where strict regulation has discouraged the kind of natural symbiosis found in Las Vegas and the south of France.
The 1968 Gaming Act demands separate entrances, a serious damper from the hotel's point of view, since it effectively makes the casino an independent operation. That's the case at London's Ritz, where the casino has its own lease and management, and where practical links with the hotel hardly exist - guests who want a flutter have to walk out of the main entrance and round the pavement to the back.
In addition, the ban on advertising means that hotels are unable to present a casino as an added attraction, which limits its marketing potential. And the requirement for membership means that it would not in any case be automatically available for guests to use.
The point of the Gaming Act was to deter what was then widely seen as a focus for criminal activity. However, times have changed - a review body appointed by Home Secretary Jack Straw is looking at all the issues related to gaming, and the British Casino Association is lobbying for fewer restrictions. Final submissions are being made now, and a report is expected within a year.
Almost all of Britain's 120 casinos are stand-alone, many of them run by Hilton's subsidiary Ladbrokes and, until its buyout, Stakis. Two exceptions are in the Isle of Man and Bradford, both now owned by Hilton, following the takeover.
Being exempt from UK legislation, the Hilton Isle of Man shows how successful a hotel casino can be. Established for more than three decades, it is fully integrated into the hotel and earns almost as much as the mainstream business. It is a major draw for the local community, and its 1,400 external members make up three-quarters of the clientele. Hotel guests are offered free entry.
The main casino offers roulette, blackjack and other standard games, and is equipped with50 gaming machines, compared with the10 allowed in the UK.A second unit on the promenade, called the Kuursal, has 100 machines and a 300-seat bingo hall.
Toffs, Hilton Isle of Man
Central Promenade,Douglas, Isle of Man IM2 4NA
Tel: 01624 662662
Metro Nightclub, Hilton Blackpool
North Promenade, Blackpool FY1 2JQ
Tel: 01253 623 434
Bel Air Club, De Vere Belfry
Wishaw, North Warwickshire B76 9PR
Tel: 01675 470033
Club Rainbow, Rainbow International Hotel, Torquay
Belgrave Road, Torquay TQ2 5HJ
Tel: 01803 213232
Hilton Isle of Man
Central Promenade,Douglas, Isle of Man IM2 4NA
Tel: 01624 662662
Hall Ings, Bradford BD1 5SH
Tel: 01274 734734
150 Piccadilly, London W1V 9DG
Tel: 020 7493 8181