St Helens in Merseyside would not be an instant choice for many hotel operators looking to open a new-build, four-star hotel in the depth of a recession. In fact, judging from the dearth of national chain hotels here, it wouldn't be a choice at any time.
But Chalon Court Hotel, operated and partly-owned by Celebrated Hotels, has proved the exception. This striking, glass-fronted building with 84 bedrooms opened in the centre of Britain's glass-making capital in 1992.
Its forecast was for bumper business traffic Monday to Friday, but lousy occupancy and rates at weekends. And predictions were spot on. Midweek occupancy was good from the beginning and is currently up around 90% with rates firming up all the time.
Weekends were deserted, however. Whatever St Helens may be to the glassware industry, it is definitely not a leisure destination, unless you like watching factory chimneys belch smoke or rugby league.
"We tried the usual routes of weekend leisure breaks, but that didn't work. Neither did trying to utilise the Mersey music thing. Nobody wants to come to St Helens for the fun of it," explains hotel general manager Jeremy Roberts, with admirable candour.
Join the club
It was during a discussion on the empty weekend problem with Celebrated Hotels' managing director Geoffrey Tucker that the two hit upon the idea of opening a nightclub in the hotel at weekends. If they couldn't fill the hotel with visitors, they reasoned, they might as well try to fill it with locals.
There were four nightclubs already in the town, but the niche the hotel was aiming at was those over-23s who were looking for a quality venue.
A major capital investment in building a stand-alone conventional hotel nightclub was out of the question, though. The cost would have been too great for a facility that would be used just two nights a week. If the nightclub went ahead, it would have to be by using existing public areas of the hotel. And any changes made on a Friday evening would have to be reversed on Sunday ready for the week's business travel guests.
The big night
The open-plan lounge and restaurant area was therefore commandeered. The floor of the restaurant was an attractive stone, good for tables and chairs, but not so good for a late-night boogie. So it was covered with a wooden floor of 1,000 sq ft, at a cost of £7,000.
An extra emergency exit was installed to comply with fire regulations and a raised podium in the centre of the restaurant was converted from a water fountain feature to become the disc jockey's console.
The sound and lighting system chosen was a complete package from Granada Communications, a division of the Granada group. The deal was a lease-rental scheme, which would cost around £600 a night.
There was no real difficulty in getting a 2am licence or alterations to the public entertainment licence. The fire brigade approved and the local authority set capacity at 650 people.
The marketing of the club was done by mailshot and the hotel's in-house tele-sales operation, targeting local businesses and residential areas. Before the opening came a series of preview nights plus a small amount of local advertising. As the sun went down on the working week, the lounge and dining room of Chalon Court was ready to metamorphose into Reflections night club. And all for a capital investment of under £20,000.
The management had thought that one of the losses would be the moderate amount of fine dining business in the restaurant on Friday and Saturday nights. This did reduce, but has since been replaced and doubled by people who want to eat and then party.
The turnaround in weekend revenue was dramatic. Entrance charges and bar sales produce £10,000 over Friday and Saturday nights. While licensed for 650, the hotel restrict numbers to 500, and people are often turned away.
Far from discouraging weekend occupancy, the nightclub has increased it. It is now possible to promote a complete leisure break package. The attractions of the North-west for daytime, the leisure club and nightclub for evenings.
The hotel has been able to establish a regular booking with a Midlands tour operator who runs theatre weekends to Manchester.
The clients take in an afternoon performance at the theatre, then they travel the half-hour to St Helens for dinner, spend the rest of the evening in the nightclub and stay in the hotel overnight.
Sounds of success
Business in Reflections is as booming as the dance music, but the nightclub business is notoriously short-lived. Clubbers are a fickle crowd that can suddenly decide to switch venues. Roberts is aware of this, but he does not believe there is any prospect of migration.
"It's the theme clubs which suffer from that. It becomes boring and you have to come up with another theme. If we have a theme, it's quality and safety. People come here because they know there's no trouble and no drugs."
There is also an on-going marketing and promotion programme, largely driven by the nightclub manager. Having a top-class manager is crucial, says Roberts. "You can't just have a hotel manager running a nightclub, it is completely different to running a hotel.
He adds: "You have to understand the business and how to handle those young customers who have had a bit too much to drink. The nightclub manager also has to be able to come up with the promotional ideas."
By good fortune, the manager of Chalon Court's leisure club is also an experienced nightclub manager, so when Reflections opened, running it was made part of his responsibility.
Buoyed up by the financial success of the club, the hotel is now looking at further development. A major capital investment has been made by buying the sound and light equipment for £70,000, avoiding the weekly hire cost of £1,000.
Plans are also being drawn up to build a separate entrance for the nightclub on to the street to seal it off from the main part of the restaurant. This will stop the nightclubbers having to queue noisily in the hotel reception area to get in.
This new development will be expensive - Roberts says it could cost up to £400,000. But the hotel owners are enthusiastic, particularly as Roberts is forecasting a complete payback in two years.
The crowds may not be flocking to St Helens for its spectacular scenery, but at least Chalon Court is proving a great local attraction.