It's important to the chief executive of Pride of Britain Hotels to keep members at the heart of operations. We catch up with her near the end of her first year in the role
You took on the role of chief executive last summer, replacing Peter Hancock, who had been in the post for over 20 years. What's it like taking over from someone who has become such a part of the brand?
I think what helped was I was already working within the same network, so I knew a lot of the hoteliers already. I was pretty much working on an identical business model. So in a way coming in, the kind of services we provide, what we're about and the relationship with members was the easy part. That came naturally.
The challenge was that people were ready for change and there was an expectation that from a digital point of view we would take the brand to another level. We're a marketing consortium so there is a real expectation that everything we do from a marketing perspective should be forward-thinking.
You joined from Relais & Chateaux. What are the differences between the two organisations approach to marketing?
The principal difference is that at Pride of Britain we are marketing UK hotels to domestic consumers as opposed to a brand to a global audience. We are also a much smaller and niche operation, which can make decisions quicker. Some of our hotels have dual membership with us and an international consortium. Being a not-for-profit, at Pride of Britain we invest all our revenue for services that will benefit our member hotels.
What does Pride of Britain stand for under your stewardship?
There's something I repeat regularly that's like a mantra in the office: every service we roll out has to be centred around our members. We always have to think how what we do will benefit our members, while everything we do from a marketing perspective has to be tailored to our audience. So we must juggle the two: services for members and marketing for the consumer.
What are you looking for in new members?
It's a given that they're of a very high standard – all our hotels are of a certain standard. Beyond that we either want hotels that are either privately owned or run in a fashion that gives the feel of an independently-minded hotel. Size is also important. Most of our hotels are around 40 bedrooms. There are larger hotels, but they're run in a manner that makes them feel smaller. It's all about the personal touch.
What qualities set Pride of Britain hotels apart?
When we think about the way forward and the type of service you get at a Pride of Britain hotel we use the word captivating. You really feel special and have those meaningful interactions.
And most importantly we look for hoteliers who really care about the future. Not all of our hotels are on the same level on sustainability, but we want to make sure it's something they're thinking about. We want to make sure our hotels provide a service so that we're not impacting future generations' ability to enjoy the same experiences.
Chair Sue Williams is passionate about sustainability and she has driven some incredible change in her business and the industry. How important is it that Pride of Britain members operate with environmental considerations in mind, and do they have an impact on bookings?
Absolutely, 100%. We've been talking about this a lot. Google joining Travalyst will mean what they did for the airline model is coming to hotels. So those hotels with better accreditation will receive a higher ranking. We can certainly see online travel agents doing the same. I know that distribution system providers will show your eco-credentials too. So from a booking perspective, it's there.
Obviously your number one priority is bookings, but you do offer other services?
Ultimately, we say that if you join Pride of Britain, we amplify your brand through ours. Obviously the one expectation is that you are among hoteliers at the top of their game. We constantly change our services with changing times. For example, this year a big focus is people, so we've held HR forums and even have a WhatsApp group chat of HR directors across our properties, who communicate daily. We do the same for marketing. We want to share with members everything that's changing, so bring in expert speakers to support them.
There's also scope for finance and housekeeping summits. We try to support members in every area of their business, but ultimately we are a marketing consortium and everything we do from a marketing perspective is to support members to get more business. Our model is to do a huge array of marketing that ultimately drives traffic to our website and then to the members' websites. We're not taking commissions, so members know we're working on their behalf.
Recruitment is obviously a huge issue. Can you market member hotels as a place to work as well as to visit?
We've done some of this already. Right now we're looking at a whole new brand identity. So in January we'll launch a new website and logo and with that we'll have clear messages about who are hotels are, why someone might want to work with us.
With your background in Relais & Châteaux have you any plans to expand pride of Britain to an international audience?
For now, because we have so many projects under way with the website, brand identity and new social strategy, there's much we need to get right for the home consumer to begin with.
That's not to say we don't already attract some of the international markets. Our monthly web stats show that we're attracting quite a lot of interest from the US and in some months it's 15% of our traffic. And we get some European traction too. All that is without investing in those markets. For the future the natural market for our hotels is North America. I have done some analysis and there could be benefits in targeting it, so potentially in the next few years but not quite yet.
You quickly decided to expand the membership beyond 50 hotels. What was the rationale? How many are in the group now?
There are now 53 members. We want to represent the most inspiring independent hotels in the country but we will never be a big consortium, that's not our aspiration. The beauty of what we do is keeping it small. Will there be changes to the membership over the next couple of years? Yes there will. But I would say the number is likely to remain similar. With everything we do you will see we mean quality, and as a guest you will know you're coming to one of the best hotels in the country, but it doesn't have to be 50.
Anecdotally, demand has never been greater. Has that made your job straightforward?
I think it has made it more complicated. While demand remains strong, there is a difference to the unprecedented 2021 domestic business we had. We are still navigating a market that is unpredictable and there aren't patterns to compare to. We do see the booking window is often rather short, sometimes creating unease about if and when the business will come through. Overall occupancy remains high and so do rates. We have an annual plan but remain extremely agile with our marketing to ensure our message and strategy is constantly adapting to the market.
There is evidence that price is softening. What is your advice for operators: maintain rates and take a hit on occupancy?
For our end of the market, definitely. We aren't seeing resistance to higher rates but certainly seeing augmented guest expectations. There also remains elevated demand for spa treatments and wellness-focused stays. Higher category rooms and suites are still selling well.
Some of our hotels are reducing inventory for larger rooms and suites and hence commanding higher rates. Operators are certainly questioning everything and working in a "smarter" manner. The cost of servicing a room, the profitability of a dish on the menu, the level of commission payable are all under scrutiny and have to be to tackle the ever increasing costs of running a hotel.
Pride of Britain is 40 this year. Have you made any big plans to celebrate your anniversary?
We have launched a new press campaign called 40 winks, celebrating everything to do with sleep and wellness. We'll be launching 40 packages across our properties with beautiful stories about nurturing sleep – it might be a walk in the lavender fields on one of our properties or have a treatment that is all around sleep. From a trade perspective we want to give thanks and acknowledge all the long-standing team members across our properties.
Pride of Britain members reflect on 40 years of the consortium
David Morgan-Hewitt, the Goring:
"The most wonderful thing about this collection of independently minded hotels is that it never stands still. The hotel landscape was very different 40 years ago and the look of the hotels was very different.
"These days all the geographical areas, tastes and styles are now catered for. The designer fabrics, the technology and the food have all changed, and undoubtedly for the better. What has not changed is the incredible dedication to hospitality. Pride of Britain hotels are not about profit and empire-building, they are about guests. Everything focuses on the guests and that will never change.
"It is the evolution of the Pride of Britain brand which is its strength. While the members are somewhat traditional with their focus on hospitality, service and luxury, they are in no way old-fashioned. The hotels continue to evolve and improve their offering ensuring that they really meet the demands of the modern luxury traveller."
Paul Milsom, Talbooth House:
"On a personal level, it is wonderful that 40 years later Pride of Britain is still as relevant as it was when my father founded it in 1982. He was a keen advocate of the need for independent hotels to work together to promote themselves.
"He felt that there should be a UK-based consortium of luxury hotels that would come together to market their brand of hospitality to domestic tourists. All these years later, this is still true, and Pride of Britain gives our hotels a strong collective marketing voice. Modern technology may have changed the way we do that, but the values remain the same, and we are better together than we are apart.
"It is certainly true to say that Pride of Britain has always found a way to help its members when trading conditions have been at their hardest, and as a result it has always come out of a downturn stronger rather than weaker. When things are tough, we invariably need each other more, and the value of the collective is enhanced rather than reduced."
Richard Ball, Calcot & Spa:
"We have been a Pride of Britain member since we first opened Calcot 38 years ago. In the early days, it gave us a presence and a platform in the market that we could never have gained alone, and it has continued to add strength to our brand in the all-important UK market. It has also helped us by creating a sense of shared purpose among like-minded hoteliers working together as independents to compete with the bigger brands.
"The challenging events of the last few years, as well as the growing focus on the climate emergency, are inevitably going to change the face of travel over the next decade. Already, we can see a building interest in the small independent trader over the bigger multinational brands, and the drivers to consumer choice are more about personal care, family, experiential value, and less about the distance from home – playing well for the style of hotel that is attracted to Pride of Britain membership."
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