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Better business – Fallowfields takes off in the hotel trade

02 April 2012 by
Better business – Fallowfields takes off in the hotel trade

When Anthony and Peta Lloyd bought Fallowfields in 1993, they had no experience of running a hotel. Since then, it has grown to include 10 bedrooms and a small farm, and a restaurant with two AA rosettes. Neil Gerrard reports

THIS WEEK Fallowfields, Southmoor with Kingston Bagpuize, Oxfordshire

Why?
â- Two AA rosettes

Background
Anthony Lloyd, a former Vulcan navigator in the RAF, had no experience of running a hotel when he took early retirement in the early 1990s from his 23-year-long career in marketing at IBM. Nor had his wife Peta, an interior designer. But the pair decided that given their respective skills, running a B&B could work for them.

They had set their sights on an Oxfordshire vicarage, and hoped that work in a B&B would mean they were free from 10am each day to pursue their own interests. "How naive we were then," Lloyd recalls.

As it turned out, they fell in love with a type of property they hadn't even considered. "It really wasn't what we wanted. It was just a house; there was no history of B&B or anything like that, but we fell in love with the look of the place. So we did exactly what we shouldn't have done and bought something that was not on our list at all," says Lloyd.

The couple bought Fallowfields in 1993 and started letting just one bedroom - it now has 10, along with a 40-cover restaurant.

TARGET MARKET Aside from leisure customers, Fallowfields has always picked up a good share of corporate customers in order to boost its midweek trade, and around 12 years ago the Lloyds were even persuaded to expand the bedrooms from five to 10 by a loyal corporate customer whose business was outgrowing the facilities at the hotel. The hotel's 40-cover restaurant, which has recently won its second AA rosette, still largely caters for guests staying there and customers from the local area.

But the hotel also hosts weddings, doing 50 in 2011. The hotel can seat 85 people for a function but has staged weddings for up to 200 guests, thanks to removable conservatory-style doors, which can open into a permanent marquee adjoining the restaurant.

ADOPTING A NEW STRATEGY However, since the onset of the recession the corporate market has been tough. "It is a market that has really taken a knock," Lloyd says. To counteract that, he has devoted his attention to raising standards in the restaurant, in the hope that the food-led strategy will flow back into every other revenue stream in the business. Originally, Peta Lloyd cooked all the meals for guests on an AGA, gaining one AA rosette despite having no background as a chef. But since she left the kitchen to spend more time with the couple's children, maintaining standards at the appropriate cost level has been hard.

"I think we had a bit of an up-and-down, spiky reputation for our food," Anthony Lloyd explains. "I don't want to blame head chefs, but our food was up and down in price because one head chef would come in and he wasn't capable of achieving the standard at the price we'd set. Quality sometimes also suffered because we were never able to get a good sous chef to come in and keep the Sunday/Monday thing going.

"It was partly the funding of the business, the fact we were in recession; a combination of things. And as a result of that, we never really achieved a non-resident dining marketplace. Friday and Saturday nights we would have 10 rooms full, which would mean 20 people in the restaurant." However, this has now begun to change.

Recruiting the right staff A major part of the reason for the change is Fallowfields' new chef, Shaun Dickens (pictured on p32, top left), who previously worked at L'Ortolan under Alan Murchison, after a two-year stint at the three-Michelin-starred Per Se in New York, and three years at the nearby Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons.

Dickens, who joined in 2011, has already gained the restaurant its second AA rosette, consistent with the business's aim to build its reputation among foodies, and he is putting in place a menu that he hopes will win a third rosette. But recruiting him was not a simple process, and Lloyd took some convincing that he was right for Fallowfields. After he began looking for a new head chef, an agency approached Lloyd, recommending Dickens, who was very keen to visit the hotel and find out more about the opportunity.

"I looked at his CV and said ‘No; I don't want to see this guy - he is too stellar'," explains Lloyd. "We were delivering brasserie-style food by 2011. To cut a long story short, I refused him four times." But the agency persisted and eventually Lloyd allowed Dickens to visit.

"It was real persistence on his part. How bloody shortsighted I was. He came for 20 minutes and stayed five hours and that started the really exciting venture we are on now."

Since Dickens arrived, the restaurant has started drawing in more diners and Lloyd plans to put in more marketing this year to drive it further. His head chef's appointment has also attracted a restaurant manager with a Michelin pedigree to come on board - Benjamin Petit, who joins from Ston Easton Park hotel, and who has also worked at Calcot Manor and top hotels in France.

Self-sufficiency One of the ways in which Fallowfields stands out is the small farm that the Lloyds have built up on part of the hotel's 12 acres of land. The farm rears pigs, ducks, chickens and quail, including a number of rare breeds. It also has a herb and vegetable garden and orchards.

Lloyd estimates that the business is around 80% self-sufficient during the summer, with all the produce going into the kitchen, although that tails off in autumn, winter and spring. Nevertheless it has become a good selling point for the hotel, and also enhances its green credentials.

But the farm too has offered some difficult lessons. "It has been a cost," Lloyd explains. "We have made an awful lot of mistakes, particularly with the animals - not in any way that has been detrimental to their welfare - but we got to a point in November 2010 where just through lack of control we ended up with 66 adult pigs!"

Fortunately he has now stripped the farm right down with the help of Dickens, who has been keen to get involved in the process.

The future Lloyd has considered expansion at Fallowfields and has planning permission in place but has held off because of the recession. Any further growth is dependent on the restaurant bringing in customers from further afield, which he hopes will also drive overnight stays, and getting some double occupancy on midweek nights, which are traditionally single occupancy corporates.

Best business advice

Meanwhile, Lloyd's best piece of business advice is simple: "Be true to yourself". He explains: "This is a very personal, hands-on, personality-led business. Be true to yourself and do what you believe in."


Spotlight on Marketing
When the first signs of recession appeared in 2008, Anthony Lloyd used his marketing expertise to re-examine the way his business was promoted. Up to that point, Fallowfields featured in most of the major guidebooks, had a website and Lloyd went to face-to-face networking events several times a week. But the business hadn't developed any sort of database marketing, despite having a database. It also made no inroads into PR.

"We had experimented with a couple of PR individuals but that hadn't seemed to work," Lloyd says. So he tried a different tack, and started using social media sites, mainly Twitter, where he tweets as @FallowfieldsUK. The move was extremely successful and Lloyd now has nearly 20,000 Twitter followers.

"What social media has done is virtually replaced 90% of that face-to-face networking because you are just doing that online. We have dropped all the guidebooks, and we still use no PR people. We are purely driving from Twitter and Facebook and the strategy is to drive people to the redesigned website," he says.

Between 2008 and 2010, Lloyd estimates his Twitter activity directly generated £150,000 in revenue, as well as several PR opportunities with national and local TV, and national newspapers. The next step is to convert more website visitors into customers. Fallowfields now also uses its database more effectively, sending out a monthly newsletter and offers to 8,000 addresses.


Facts and stats
General manager Anthony Lloyd
Average room rate (double occupancy) £140
Owners Anthony & Peta Lloyd
Capacity of restaurant 40
Staff 16 full-time, 3 part-time
Covers per week 130/140

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