The back to basics campaign may have made a laughing stock out of certain Government ministers, but the principles behind it are slowly making their presence felt in hotels throughout the UK.
Family values, it seems, are becoming more important. This year has been designated International Year of the Family by the United Nations and has attracted a flood of media attention.
Among Britain’s hoteliers attitudes are also going through a change. Children may not always be welcomed with open arms, but they are increasingly tolerated. The continued recession has undoubtedly been a catalyst for this change of heart, with weekday seminar rooms doubling up as weekend cräches as hoteliers seek alternative markets.
Andrew Eliel, managing editor of Egon Ronay’s …And Baby Comes Too guide, has witnessed a huge change in attitude over the past five years. The very fact that the 1994 guide is considerably thicker than in previous years speaks for itself.
“A lot of hotels, particularly country house hotels, used to be very against the idea of children,” says Eliel. “But they have had to change to cater for the 40-year-olds with more leisure time and money and young families. The yuppies of 10 years ago now want to go away with their families and they are still demanding quality.”
Adapting your hotel to meet the needs of the very young is not, however, as simple as investing in a few cots and high chairs. Balanced against the decision to become more family-oriented must be the needs of other guests. If the majority of your customers come to get away from it all they are unlikely to want to be bothered by other people’s children.
Similarly, if your hotel contains precious antiques or has a pond in the grounds it may not be suitable for young guests.
One hotelier who likes to maintain a balance in his guest list is John Jenkinson, proprietor of the 40-bedroom Evesham Hotel, Evesham, Hereford & Worcester.
The hotel’s literature tells guests that well-behaved children are as welcome as are well-behaved grown-ups. Despite this, Jenkinson is acutely aware of the importance of achieving a happy medium. “If I think there might be too many children, I turn people away. I don’t like to have more than 10 children at any one time. Equally, I don’t like to have too many old people.”
The cost of accommodating children has, in the main, been minimal. A swimming pool and extension costing £70,000 has been Jenkinson’s most expensive investment, but, as he points out, this facility is just as much for adults as for the children. A family of inflatables did not come cheap, at around £600, but these are enjoyed by adults as much as kids.
Many aspects of the hotel that appeal to children are in fact small, inexpensive items ranging from ducks in the bath to teddy bears wearing the keys to the rooms around their necks.
Jenkinson charges for young guests according to their age – £2 per year of the child’s age out of season and £3 in season. For families on half-board, this includes children’s meals from the junior à la carte menu, which ranges from casseroles to burgers and chips.
This scheme works well for older children, but for a two-year-old Jenkinson admits that there is very little profit to be made. “We don’t make money on the small children, but if you don’t cater for them you won’t get the parents and the grandparents.”
Catering for children can also be a good way of letting single rooms which could otherwise stand vacant. Jenkinson has several singles opposite doubles which at the weekend become homes to older children, generating an additional £30.
Whereas Jenkinson chooses to turn guests away if he thinks he may be overrun by children, other hoteliers have gone all out to attract as many children as possible.
This is the tack adopted by the 70-bedroom Trevelgue hotel in Newquay, Cornwall, Egon Ronay’s Family Hotel of the Year for 1994. Here, children rule the roost and adults without children are advised to stay elsewhere.
Proprietor Nicholas Malcolm says he made a policy decision three years ago not to mix clients but instead to target the family market.
“I saw the family business as a way of beating the recession,” explains Malcolm. With an 85-90% occupancy rate for the 40 weeks of the year he is open, he considers that the policy has been successful. Children are charged on a sliding scale according to age: under-ones pay 10% of the adult rate, under-threes 20%, under-sevens 50% and seven to 14-year-olds 65%.
In the 12 weeks he is closed, Malcolm reinvests in his business. With so many children, toys and equipment can take a fair bashing and need to be updated regularly. This can be a costly exercise, which has set Malcolm back some £250,000 over the past five years.
As some 60% of Malcolm’s business is repeat custom, he points out that there is a continual need for innovation to avoid the boredom to which children are prone.
As a result, the Trevelgue has just created a new restaurant and games room at a cost of £70,000.
Finishing touches include a Teddy Bear Evening Calm Down Club where toddlers who are unwilling to go to bed can wind down with milk and a story.
Hoteliers wanting to tap into the child market should consider how much supervision they wish to offer. Supervised cräche facilities can undoubtedly be an attractive proposition for parents who, although wanting to come away with their children, also enjoy a few hours off-duty.
Here, however, the hotelier can run into all sorts of problems. Under the 1989 Children Act, children can be supervised for up to two hours a day without the need to comply with regulations. More than two hours and operators open themselves up to constant inspection from local authorities.
One hotel currently wading its way through the red tape is the 200-bedroom Crieff Hydro, Crieff, Perthshire. The hotel offers parents nursery supervision for their children at and after mealtimes, a service which generally exceeds two hours a day.
Despite the fact that the hotel has been offering the nursery for years and the same children rarely use the nursery for more than the stated two hours, it is now being called upon to comply with the letter of the law.
Crieff Hydro is pleading extenuating circumstances, but if the local authority decides against it the cost of compliance could be astronomical and a policy which has worked successfully for years would need to be completely reviewed.
For many hoteliers, it is when they become parents themselves that they adopt a more sympathetic approach.
Bill Paisley, general manager of the Glasgow Hilton, admits that until he became a father two years ago he did not realise the extent to which hotels ignored the needs of young children.
He claims to have redressed this at the Glasgow Hilton by thinking of the small details, such as providing parents of young babies with extra bins to accommodate dirty nappies.
He has also just launched a child-minding service, aimed at the business traveller. Business people who want to travel with their babies or young children are offered up to six hours of complimentary cräche facilities each day providing they pay the full room rate and are staying for 48 hours or longer. Paisley says the service is aimed at single parents as well as executives accompanied by their spouses who would like some time off from the children.
The Bath Spa Hotel, first-time winner of a special award in the Egon Ronay …And Baby Comes Too guide, has also witnessed a turn-around since Robin Sheppard, the father of two young children, took over as general manager two years ago.
“I never thought we’d see so much use from high chairs and cots in the Bath Spa,” says sales and marketing manager Gaynor Thomas. “There was very little for children when the hotel opened in 1990. Hotels of this type haven’t traditionally catered for them.”
Last year, the Bath Spa went one stage further by opening a nursery in its grounds for use by non-residents during the week and residents at the weekend. It is run as a commercial venture and drafts in extra staff during school holidays when the hotel caters for extra numbers of children.
The transition to child-friendly status does not necessarily demand a massive investment in leisure facilities, nannies, swings and slides. Offering small things, creating a club or just displaying a friendly attitude towards young children can do wonders for repeat custom.
The Coppid Beech hotel in Bracknell, Hertfordshire, has attempted to broaden its customer base from a business market during the week to a child haven at the weekend.
Children automatically become members of the Bobby Beech Nut Club and are asked to fill in separate check-in forms at a low-level check-in desk. They receive a Bobby Back Pack of colouring pens and books worth around £6. Dates of birth are also noted so that birthday cards can be sent when the time comes.
Concentrating on the details has also been a policy adopted by the Derwentwater Hotel, Keswick, Cumbria. Guests are sent a booking form offering free items such as baby bath, changing mats, potty and steriliser and are asked to tick what they need for their stay. Other baby products are available and are charged at Boots retail prices. At some £250 for the durables, the cost of putting this system into action has been minimal.
Sympathetic service is crucial where children are concerned. Peter Kalinke, proprietor of the 10-room Dove Hotel in Brighton often goes into the kitchen to make a snack for families who arrive with children hungry after a long journey. He also provides a fresh selection of toys for early risers who may have got bored with the previous day’s ones.
The overwhelming message from hoteliers interviewed for this article is that it’s not expensive to offer facilities for children. The golden rule is to keep the children happy. If you can achieve this the parents and the grandparents will come back for more. o
Our coverage of the child market continues next week when we investigate how they fare in restaurants. Watch out for the Special Reader offer where we will be giving away 25 free copies of Egon Ronay’s Ford guide …And Baby Comes Too.