The first hotel in a new luxury brand has opened in Bournemouth. Its founder Nicolas Roach explains how he hopes the glamorous Nici will introduce new energy into the town's hotel scene
The glitz and glamour of Miami Beach has landed in Bournemouth. Following a £26m,18-month transformation of what was previously the Savoy hotel, the vibrancy and energy of the Florida city has been captured in what is expected to become the first five-star property to operate in the south coast town for some years.
Located in an enviable cliff-top position above Bournemouth's glorious sandy beach, the Nici officially launched on 9 June "There has not been a hotel at this level in Bournemouth for some time," says Nicolas Roach, founder and chairman of the hotel. "Bournemouth really deserves better. The Nici will become a destination that will totally transform the town's accommodation landscape."
It is believed that the last time Bournemouth had a five-AA-star hotel was when the Royal Bath, then owned by De Vere, held the rating until 2000. Today, the Royal Bath is owned by Britannia Hotels.
The Nici marks a departure for Roach, who is best known within the hospitality sector for his creation of the Harbour Hotels group, which today numbers 15 properties across the south of England. His latest venture is expected to be the first in a new collection of internationally-inspired five-star resort hotels with multiple food and beverage offerings and will be operated separately from the smaller and more domestic-focused Harbour Hotels, which primarily features four-AA-star properties, alongside a five-AA-star hotel in Southampton.
"It has been so much fun creating a new brand where we have been free to design something that is full of energy, a bit edgy and very much has the vibe of an international resort," says Roach. As a seasoned worldwide traveller, he has long been inspired by overseas hotel stays and, in particular, has always loved the indoor-outdoor experience offered by the hotels that overlook Miami beach. "You walk into those hotels and you immediately feel happy." In particular, he highlights the great music, vibrant décor, extensive food and beverage outlets, high-end service and glamorous pools with wide-ranging leisure activities on offer that are so widely available in Miami hotels – all of which, in time, Roach explains, will be in situ at the Nici.
All the features of the Nici
The first phase of the Nici, now open, features 73 of what will eventually be 120 bedrooms and all the public areas of the main building including the 100-seat South Beach bar and restaurant, 80-seat terrace, 13-seat cinema, gym and private event spaces. Next year will see the completion of the resort with the launch of a 30-metre swimming pool with eye-catching pink and white stripped tiling and seating, landscaped gardens, two further restaurants (one on the rooftop and one in the garden), spa and the additional bedrooms (including 11 across seven one and two-bedroom cottages located in a former stable block). The indoor-outdoor living will be boosted by yoga on the lawn, outdoor summer film screenings and live entertainment for sundowners on the terrace.
As a well-seasoned property developer, Roach immediately saw the potential of the former Savoy hotel when its previous owner – Specialist Leisure Group, operator of the Shearings coach holiday brand – went into administration in May 2020. "It is a hidden gem situated on a fantastic piece of land on the top of West Cliff," says Roach.
"The actual structure of the late-Victorian building was in good condition, but the interior was very tired. We have completely gutted it, re-wired and re-plumbed. Luckily the property is not listed, so we have been able to reconfigure the interior space."
The former dark, dingy property has been dramatically transformed into a bright, light sophisticated resort. Touches of the Art Deco district in Miami are evident from the moment guests arrive at the new American-style canopied entrance with its distinct style of lettering and valet parking. Inside, the walls and flooring are predominately white with pops of colours throughout via botanical fabrics and oversized art work featuring palm trees, lifeguard stations and vintage American cars. A bounty of banana leaf plants and palm trees add to the tropical feel.
In the bedrooms, light-coloured mid-century furniture, high ceilings and large windows create a feeling of space, while punches of colour come from fabrics sourced from top-end designer houses such as Christian Lacroix as well as the more affordable Clarke & Clarke. Complimentary rum and generous sized bathroom amenities from Malin & Goetz provide luxury touches, with roll-top baths in some sea-facing rooms located in the bay window to make the most of the view.
The standout element of Nici will be creation of the swimming pool, which Roach says will be unlike anything previously seen in the UK and, surrounded by luxury sunbeds and cabanas, will provide the focal point for guests. "The pool will be heated to 32C, so will be in use year-round," he explains. While he recognises that the Bournemouth climate might not be quite as clement as Miami Beach, he quickly points out that the town does enjoy something of a micro-climate. "I will be very upset if we can't serve breakfast on the terrace overlooking the pool 150 days each year."
Roach hopes the wide-ranging activities that will be offered, including surf boarding, paddle boarding, bike-riding, kids' club, combined with three restaurants, will keep guests within the property and on the nearby beach, where the hotel's signature pink and white sunbeds and cabanas will be available, for most of their stay.
Alongside the all-day dining South Beach restaurant, serving an international style of cuisine from southern fried chicken bao bun, Cuban lemon curry monkfish and key lime pie, two more eateries will open next year. The beach-style café adjacent to the pool will be informal and open all day and into the evening when fire pits will be lit, while the top-floor Harry Rocks restaurant and bar is expected to come alive at night. The latter will enable guests to enjoy the sunset and extensive views stretching from the Isle of Wight to Harry's Rock off Studland Bay while sipping cocktails and eating pizza and sushi.
Keelan Currie is the executive chef responsible for the trio of restaurants. After working for restaurant group Oliver & Bonacini in his native Canada, Currie moved to the UK where he has worked at the Dysart in Petersham, Surrey, and in London at Nathan Outlaw at the Goring and the Capital hotel before moving to the south coast.
Other key members of the Nici's development team include the brand's managing director Eldon James and creative director of Nicolas James Group, Anthony Rudolph. Roach himself has been totally involved with them in creating the hotel, but once it is completed, the three of them will step away and hand over to the operational team headed by general manager Lewis Spendlove, who previously held the same role at the Christchurch Harbour hotel.
Hotel by the sea
Attention will then turn to the second Nici hotel resort. While the next site is yet to be confirmed, steps have already been taken to find a suitable location which will have to accommodate around 120 bedrooms and the space to create a large swimming pool and three food and beverage venues. All will have an international flavour, with different locations around the globe providing the inspiration.
"I would like to think we could open around five Nici hotels over the next five to six years," says Roach, who has personally financed the cost of the inaugural property. "But we are not in a rush, the purpose of the brand is to enjoy it."
While coastal sites may appear to be the obvious locations for future Nici hotels, Roach says that does not necessarily have to be so, with a countryside or even a city-centre location a possibility. "With the right building, we could put the pool on the roof. Think of the pool on top of Shoreditch House and how successful that has been – it is awesome when it rocks."
It is a lively, fun ambience that Roach intends to have in place once all the elements in the Bournemouth hotel are open. "I hope guests will move from having a great breakfast on the terrace to spending the day around the pool and at the beach café before they transform themselves for cocktails in Harry Rocks at sunset," he says. "It is about enjoying a relaxing day followed by having a great night.
"Families are equally as welcome as couples of all ages. There is plenty of space for children to have fun without disturbing those people who want to enjoy a quieter space. And I think age is a non-issue. It is all about a state of mind – there are guests in their 80s who will enjoy the music and have just as much fun as 30-year-olds."
Roach admits that creating a glamorous resort hotel in the UK is a brave move, along with his ambitions to achieve room rates that no other hotel in Bournemouth has hit before. It would appear, however, demand is there from guests who are willing to pay the price. "The Savoy used to charge about £68 per room, we're targeting £300-400 and we're already achieving that. People appreciate the product.
"My hope is that we create a domino effect and that everyone now raises their game in Bournemouth."
Nicolas Roach: from accountant to property tycoon
An economics graduate, Nicolas James Roach qualified as a chartered accountant with Price Waterhouse Coopers in 1995. He founded his property development, construction and investment company, Nicolas James Group, in 1998, initially focusing on residential properties.
Roach stumbled into the hotel sector when his acquisition in 2003 of the Avon hotel in Christchurch, Hampshire, and his plans to develop residential units on the site led him to unexpectedly create his first Harbour hotel. "The planners insisted the proceeds from the residencies were invested into the hotel," he says. Although reluctant at first, he swiftly embraced the idea and set out to develop the kind of hotel he would like to stay in, adding 30 bedrooms to create 67 in total, a spa and standalone Jetty restaurant overlooking Christchurch Harbour, in a building which at the time was believed to be the first carbon-neutral restaurant in Europe.
Roach discovered that he loved creating hotels and went on to open a further 14 properties within the Harbour Hotels collection, encompassing sites from Brighton in the east to St Ives in the west. From an investment point of view, he believes there is little difference in selling a luxury apartment and a luxury room "as long as it is in the right place and has all the bells and whistles". At first, he was surprised at what people would pay for quality in the hotel room rate. "But I found that if you invest in hospitality, you get it back," he says. "So, after the first hotel, we decided we would do the same in other lovely locations and transform tired old buildings. They always lose money when you open them in the first year. Then things start to look a bit rosier in the second year and by the third year you are glad you did it."
All the interiors and construction work of the hotels are completed by in-house teams at the Nicolas James Group, Roach's parent company that comprises the Nici, Harbour Hotels and his wider residential and commercial property business. Using an in-house construction team when developing hotels provides a good business model, says Roach, with lower development costs (compared to those outsourced) resulting in a healthy return on investment.
Today, business within the Nicolas James Group is roughly split one third on hospitality, one third on construction and one third on investments such as care homes, with a total turnover of around £100m.
Room to Reward
On realising that unsold hotel bedrooms could be put to good use, Nicholas Roach founded Room to Reward in 2015. "It is the hotel industry's way of rewarding unsung heroes and volunteers working on behalf of charities who would otherwise not be able to afford a break and it doesn't cost anyone anything," he explains.
Like so many other charities during Covid, Room to Reward had a challenging time, with previously promised hotel stays having to be put on hold. "Asking hoteliers to donate rooms just as they came out of the crisis was very tricky, especially as the bounce back resulted in many hotels (outside cities) being unbelievably busy.
"But now we're back and have around 1,000 hotel partners, ranging from small B&Bs to the Dorchester and the Savoy in London, and we're on target to reach £1m worth of hotel rooms by 2023."
Alongside the usual nominations for volunteers to be rewarded with a hotel stay from charities such as Claire House Children's Hospice and Cruse Bereavement Care, the past year has seen nominations from hospitals, NHS organisations and community for volunteers who have generously committed their time during the pandemic.
About the Nici
West Hill Road, Bournemouth BH2 5EJ
Owner: Nicolas James Group
Operator: Nici Hotels
Chairman/founder: Nicolas Roach
Managing director, Nici Hotels: Eldon James
Creative director, Nicolas James Group: Anthony Rudolph
General manager: Lewis Spendlove
Executive chef: Keelan Currie
Bedrooms: 120, including 19 suites
Food and beverage: South Beach restaurant, bar and terrace (international), beach-style café, Harry Rocks rooftop restaurant and bar (sushi and pizza)
Leisure: 30 metre outdoor swimming pool; activities centre offering surf boarding, paddle boarding and cycling; kids' club; spa with five single treatment rooms and one double, 13-seat cinema
Starting room rate: £175
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