The Alexandra hotel, which has been in owner Kathryn Haskins' family for 38 years, draws business through its location in an area of outstanding natural beauty. Neil Gerrard reports
Need to know Kathryn Haskins, who owns the Alexandra hotel in Lyme Regis, was born into the trade. The hotel has been in her family for 38 years, and her parents owned another prior to that, so she learned the industry from her earliest years, helping out in the school holidays as she grew up.
After she left school she pursued a successful career as a hotelier in her own right, working for Firmdale Hotels first in the UK and then overseas. She has worked in the Caribbean, Africa and in the safari industry. But about seven years ago she returned to run the family hotel.
The hotel itself was originally built in 1735, for the Dowager Countess Poulett and later became the home of the Duc du Stackpoole. The Alexandra became an hotel in 1901. It commands views of the historic Cobb Harbour and the UNESCO world heritage site of Lyme Bay. In addition to the 24 rooms, the hotel has two restaurants - the Conservatory and its fine-dining experience, the Alexandra, which holds one AA rosette. It also hosts wedding functions for up to 70 people.
Target market The target market for the Alexandra is very broad, and difficult for Haskins to define, but it consists almost entirely of leisure customers. Because of the hotel's proximity to the beach, the summer months tend to see more families with children, with more retired people during the quieter months. The fact that the Alexandra is also only two and a half hours from London by train also draws young professionals in from London at the weekend. Customers are predominantly UK-based, with few international visitors.
How does it stand out? Aside from the hotel's stunning location, Haskins says most people comment on the feeling of the building and the staff. "It is a very homely building, it has got a lot of history, and friendly staff," she explains.
"It's a nice size - you know all your guests and everyone who is in house but it is big enough to be able to stand back and look at the future picture of the business without having your hands too much into the daily management of the place. You can stand back and analyse things a bit more so it is a great site for a sole trader."
Marketing Haskins' preferred way of marketing the hotel is repeat and referral, while she markets the restaurants locally through PR and advertising. In recognition of the fact that online marketing is more and more important, the hotel is in the process of reworking its website, search engine optimisation, and a new blog so the business can communicate its ideas as quickly as possible. At the beginning and end of a season, Haskins also favours offers like a three nights for the price of two deal.
Favourite supplier Haskins has used the local Wild Meadow Farm for lamb for the past 10 years, and is generally enthusiastic about the quality of local produce.
Unfortunately, most of the fish landed at Lyme has to go to Brixham to be counted as a result of European fishing quotas, but guests who catch their own fish can have it cooked in the kitchen - a feature that is particularly popular with children during the summer.
Best business advice The most important thing as far as Haskins is concerned is to view your business with the eyes of a guest, and ensure you feel satisfied by the offering.
"You need to be really confident in your product. You need to ensure you love it and they love it and you listen to the guest feedback and act on the guest feedback," she explains.
"I think it is all about that and having a passion for the business and caring all the time. Every single day a guest walks through that door it is a new set of eyes seeing your business for the first time. Even in bad times, with the right ethic, I think if people have got it in them they can still succeed."
Future plans What Haskins can do with the Alexandra is limited because of the constraints placed on it by regulations governing a UNESCO world heritage site and an area of outstanding natural beauty. But she is planning to open a new wing on the hotel, which she plans to finance through the business and finish within four years. "I know it is not going to be easy but you have to go for it", she says. The new wings would add an extra six rooms and a spa facility.
Spotlight on staff
For Haskins, finding and retaining the best staff is paramount. "I always think any of the quick fix cool ideas that you can come up with are only shortlived. It is always down to staff," she says.
"There is nothing better than walking through the door and checking into the hotel with a receptionist that is smiling and friendly and warm and accommodating. That outdoes all of it."
Finding the right staff is difficult but Haskins likes to try and find local people for the benefit of their knowledge of their local area - crucial given the high proportion of leisure customers.
And while staff turnover in some seasonal positions is naturally high, she has worked hard to ensure that the core staff, many of whom she brought in when she took over the hotel, are retained much longer. The chef, for example, has been at the hotel for seven and a half years, and several others, like the head receptionist, have been at the business for more than five years.
Kathryn Haskins' revelations
Favourite hotel Londolozi Game Reserve, South Africa
Motto Eyes of the guest
If you hadn't been a hotelier, what would you have ended up doing? Running a game reserve in east Africa
Who do you most admire? Kit Kemp
Facts and stats
Owner/manager Kathryn Haskins
Covers per day 105 (lunch & dinner, high season)
Room rates Single £80-£110, Double £185-£275
Average occupancy 84% (closed in Jan)