When the Cotswolds88 boutique hotel opened, it had a casual approach to its food offering. Five years on, and the 88 Room restaurant has just received its third AA rosette. Ed Robertson reports
Need to know
When the Cotswolds88 received its third AA rosette in January for its restaurant, the 88 Room, it was the culmination of 18 months work by general manager Nico Luca and head chef Lee Scott. But it was far from what was originally intended when the hotel was opened by Loungelover London co-founder Marchella De Angelis five years ago with the help of Luca as front of house manager.
Luca says: "Marchella wanted the design of the hotel to be the full format USP. The food started out incredibly casually; it was more about the design of the rooms and the music being played in the bar."
However, following the hotel's acquisition by Ambienza four years ago, the new owners decided more was needed to compete with local rivals.
"Sticking with the original format of a boutique hotel that was very design-led wasn't enough to compete with other hotels, especially since we didn't have spa facilities or a pool," says Luca.
So they decided to focus on the food, prompting Scott, who had been previously advising the hotel, to join full time two-and-a-half years ago. The decision has paid off commercially, with food and beverage sales accounting for 60% of Costwolds88's entire revenue stream.
"It's been a fantastic five years with the company," says Luca. "Only one other member of staff has been with the company since the beginning and I've been instrumental in bringing it to how it is now and I'm really proud of that."
Cotswolds88 targets young professionals aged 30 to 45, many of whom are looking to get away from London for the weekend. The property's location near Cheltenham allows for a rural break while on Saturday nights 88 Room's 35 covers are mostly reserved for guests who can choose between the £59 a la carte three-course menu or the £75 seven-course tasting menu, rising to £95 when paired with wines.
While he recognises that many of the guests are used to the standard of dining, Luca maintains they still need educating over the hotel's style. He adds: "It's the way we're delivering it. It's an unstuffy atmosphere here and Londoners can come up and get a lounge bar too, all in a Palladian mansion."
During the week the hotel targets local residents who comprise around 50% of restaurant customers while the 17-bedroom property also lends itself to business functions and weddings as it can be booked exclusively.
Best business advice Keeping a firm grip on the bottom line and ensuring the business is versatile enough to change to meet market demand remains Luca's core advice.
Cotswolds88 staff regularly meet to analyse and discuss changes in the market and act accordingly. Luca says: "Recently we've seen a decline in top price wine sales but we've seen an improvement in room rates, and you need to price yourself to be seen as competitive."
Staff at the hotel are also expected to be ready for anything, Luca says, adding: "It is all about multi-tasking with such a small number of employees; our staff can facilitate any role of the hotel. Our front of house people can make a cocktail as well as check someone in at reception."
One thing I couldn't do without Luca cites efficient IT as his most important day-to-day tool, especially in the light of the small staff numbers.
The hotel uses SiteMinder for its booking technology and Luca is now in a position where he can analyse online bookings, troubleshoot, change pricing and drive deals through online distribution channels, all from his iPad.
"All our numbers are managed in this way," Luca says. "It allows us to keep staff levels down and keep us connected."
Still on the high of receiving the third AA rosette, Luca is determined to consolidate Cotswolds88's reputation for high-quality dining in a design-led boutique hotel.
Opportunities for growth are very much focused through the corporate and wedding markets and work is being undertaken to further grow the property's reputation as a location for both.
"It's looking really positive now that we've received the third rosette and we need to sustain that and continue to build on our reputation," Luca says.
Spotlight on Afternoon tea
While Cotswolds 88 may be pushing the boundaries in both design and ambience, its attitude to afternoon tea remains strictly traditional.
For £24.95 for two, customers receive tea and coffee as well as two rounds of sandwiches and cakes which can be served in a choice of settings.
Luca says: "We've been recognised as one of the few places that does a luxury tea in the Cotswolds and that's become very popular. It remains very traditional and we've tried not to mess with it.
"When the weather gets good we can be serving 30 or 40 customers on the terrace and they respond very positively to something being carried out in the traditional manner."
As well as the terrace, tea is served in the lounge, with the option of a reserved space in each area for group bookings.
Champagne can also be served as part of the tea, with the house Andre Roger champagne costing £49 a bottle or £11 a glass.
As well as tempting the leisure market, Luca says afternoon tea is also popular with corporate customers in place of a business lunch, while the teas account for 25% of all food and beverage revenues.
nico luca's Revelations
Favourite hotel The Crazy Bear, Stadhampton
Favourite restaurant Kong Bar Restaurant, Paris
Favourite pub I don't like pubs; I'd much rather something new
Industry person you most admire Keith Floyd
What book has inspired you? Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
Motto Take every opportunity
If you weren't a hotel manager, what would you have been? A policeman
Describe your business in five words Where old meets the new
Facts and stats
General manager Nico Luca
Number of covers 35
Average room rate £188
Average occupancy 70%