Cottage in the wood

17 July 2003 by
Cottage in the wood

All good things must end, and this is the final instalment of Adopted Business the Cottage in the Wood. Unlike many small businesses, this 10-bedroom hotel in the Lake District has gone from strength to strength under its loving but exhausted new owners, Liam and Kath Berney.

Theirs is a dream that hasn't soured. "Things continue to go our way, what with the recent interest rate decrease and strong bookings," says Liam. "There's always anxiety when it comes to the sort of change we put ourselves through, but we really have no regrets."

We first caught up with the Berneys in September when Kath left her lecturing post at the University of York and Liam, a Savoy hotel-trained chef, reined in his exploits as a self-employed education consultant specialising in hospitality and tourism training.

At the time, Kath summed up the couple's drive perfectly by saying: "If you want something badly enough, you go all-out to get it. You've got to take the chance."

Battling with the seasonal nature of business in the area, the Berneys have welcomed in the guidebook inspectors; won an RAC dining award for their food; survived failing electricity and water supplies; humoured erratically performing appliances (now replaced); taken on staff; launched a website with online booking facility; refurbished the restaurant area; gone all hi-tech with flat-screen TVs in the bedrooms; and still found time to take the occasional break.

"If you're going to do it, you might as well do it properly," says Liam of the decision to go for flat-screen TVs.

A commitment to continual improvement at the property has recently resulted in new carpets and vinyl flooring in the hotel's bathrooms. But the shortage of local tradesmen meant that Liam had to rely once again on his old contacts and get a carpet fitter friend up from the Midlands.

At the moment bookings remain strong for July, thanks in part to a decent run of weather. And non-resident local diners are helping sales by travelling up the hill to the hotel to sample Liam's cooking. "We've continued to increase sales thanks to delivering good-quality, value-for-money food," says Liam.

One spin-off from the coverage in Caterer has been that a number of Liam's former students have dropped a line to say "Hi" and wish the Berneys luck. Despite this, Liam is worried about the number of students who have left the sector.

"Employers from other industries know that catering produces young people who are knowledgeable and can communicate," says Liam. "They're just queuing up to poach our talent, and some hospitality employers are making it easy by offering poor pay and conditions."

Plans for the future include upgrading the hotel's two four-poster bedrooms and attic room. Liam also has his eyes on an RAC Blue Ribbon and AA rosette for his food - and he has received some delightful news. "We had a call from the Michelin guide saying we'd been recommended by a customer," says Kath. "We're very excited."

The Berneys have a new experience to look forward to over the August bank holiday when they host their first wedding reception. The package, which includes accommodation for some of the guests, is proving lucrative, but with day-to-day business remaining strong weddings are unlikely to become more than an occasional perk.

For anyone thinking of following in their footsteps they have this piece of advice: "Do your homework well and expect to work very hard."

For the Berneys, it appears, it's been well worth it.

The story so far

Former academics Kath and Liam Berney gave up everything to buy a 10-bedroom hotel in the Lake District. The hard work of their first year in charge was rewarded in May when they achieved their highest monthly sales yet, a figure they have surpassed again in June.

Fact File

The Cottage in the Wood
Whinlatter Pass, near Keswick, Cumbria
Tel: 01768 78409

Owners: Kath and Liam Berney
Bought: June 2002
Investment capital: £23,000
Bedrooms: 10
Rates: bed and breakfast - £35 standard room, £40 four-poster room
Dinner: Sunday to Thursday, from £18.50; Friday and Saturday £25
Staff: two part-time housekeepers, one part-time bar/restaurant person at weekends
June occupancy: 58%
June sales: £15,500

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