When Anthony and Jane Mears bought the Beckford Inn on the edge of the Cotswolds, it was in receivership, with no clear identity. They soon built a reputation as a quality food-led pub with reasonable prices. Aaron Morby reports
Need to know Anthony and Jane Mears bought the Beckford Inn from receivers nearly three years ago for £1m. The deal ended an extensive two-year search for the right challenge after the couple sold their previous Buckinghamshire freehold pub, which they had run for eight years.
The 18th century coaching inn sits on the northern edge of the Cotswolds in a prime countryside location in the village of Beckford, between Evesham and Tewkesbury. It is just a few minutes from the M5, 20 minutes from Cheltenham racecourse and just half an hour from Stratford-upon-Avon.
Anthony Mears says it was the location and good transport links that sold the couple on the premises after searching from Dorset to the Thames Valley.
Target audience Mears has tapped into his 15 years' experience as a marketing and operations manager at Whitbread to focus the Beckford Inn on the 25-plus market, aiming for more discerning customers who choose quality over price.
"There are a lot of people doing cheap and cheerful in the area but very few try to offer something a bit more special at a decent price," he explains.
Mears says that when they bought the Beckford, it quickly became clear customers didn't understand what was on offer.
"The restaurant was arranged with covered banqueting chairs and tablecloths, which made it look like a wedding party was due.
"People didn't know whether it was a pub, hotel or guest house," he says.
The couple spent £300,000 giving the interior a facelift, changed the signage and took the conflict out of the spaces. Now pub, restaurant and business meeting areas all have distinct characters.
The restaurant is furnished with clean-lined, modern furniture, and its 11 rooms offer a softer, modern rustic feel. The rooms attract a mix of weekend trippers and business users during the week. It also boasts a business conference centre with a 60-seater function room for meetings and free Wi-Fi throughout.
Marketing With Cheltenham racecourse just five miles away, the March racing festival lifts weekly takings to £35,000, making it the busiest week of the year. All rooms are sold out during the festival as the Beckford reaps the reward of working hard to attract racegoers. A special Champagne breakfast sets the mood for the day as general manager and racing enthusiast Keith Newby dishes out top tips for the day.
Mears keeps the punters happy with televised racecourse coverage and live music in the evening to keep the Cheltenham party atmosphere going. This success inspired Mears to strike up stronger links with local members clubs in the region.
"We are really trying to forge strong partnerships with businesses and enthusiast clubs," he explains.
The Beckford has links with the local shooting club, a vintage car racing group, and Greater Western Railway steam engine enthusiasts to jointly market to members and guests with view to promoting their businesses on each other's websites. In this spirit, the Beckford also holds events for the local riding school and pottery club.
"There is a lot we could be doing and we have decided to concentrate on three main fronts: partnerships to boost our weekend trade, delivering good lunches and meeting space for business community customers, and AA recognition of our food as a destination for diners. If we get all that right, then we will be doing very well," explains Mears.
Business performance Food is a big draw for the Beckford, which strives to use only local produce and even grows much of its own fruit, vegetables and herbs in its ample grounds.
Head chef Matt Brown serves up fresh English asparagus from the Vale of Evesham when in season and Gloucester Old Spot pork keeps a strong local flavour. Most two-course meals come in at £17, with the popular Sunday roast costing £12.
Food accounts for around 50% of turnover with wet trade delivering around 35% of total sales. Rooms and events make up the balance.
When the couple bought the Beckford it had been bumping along with a modest £400,000 annual turnover. First-year trade rose a third as locals returned and word got round that it was under new ownership, offering quality food. This year, it is on course to turn over around £1m.
Mears says there is still plenty of room for further growth. With room occupancy rates at 50% there is scope to improve and he believes this will soon be up to 80% as his marketing push draws in fresh custom. "Longer term I would like to build an extension to the property. All our present rooms are on the first floor. A new block with ground floor rooms would make us more dog-friendly and much more attractive to those with disabilities," he says.
Spotlight on the marquee
The Beckford is licensed for marriages and civil ceremonies, now a thriving part of the business. Its grand marquee, bought 18 months ago from Custom Covers, has been key to this success.
At a stroke, it has enabled the Beckford to cater for groups of up to 160 guests, earning it a reputation as a reasonably priced destination for weddings and parties.
Mears says: "We had the space and realised a marquee could be a real asset.
"It costs £7,500 to hire and erect a quality marquee, so we decided buying a custom-built, top-of-the-range structure for £75,000 was going to be a better solution.
"It still took more than a year to get planning permission for a fixed structure but the effort was worthwhile."
Mears says it has proved hugely important to be able to take couples around the space to allow them to visualise their big day.
Another big bonus is that wedding and Christmas parties are now self-contained, and do not disturb restaurant and bar customers.
The Beckford has staged 35 ceremonies so far. It offers wedding planning and holds an outdoor fireworks licence to round off the service and ensure it goes off with a bang.
anthony mears' revelations
Favourite hotel Gidleigh Park
Favourite restaurant The Hand & Flowers, Marlow Favourite pub The Jolly Cricketers, Seer Green
Which chef, hotelier or industry person do you most admire? Michael Caines
What book has inspired you?Serious by John McEnroe
Motto If it's worth doing, it's worth doing well
If you weren't a pub owner, what would you have been? Cinema owner
Describe your business in five words Great British Cotswold country inn
Facts and stats
Owners Anthony and Jane Mears
Head chef Matt Brown
Staff 20 (Nine full time)
Average cost of two-course meal (without drink) £17
Room rates £80-£120
Covers a day 95