The Cottage in the Wood is a restaurant with rooms located in the heart of a mountain forest. On the 10th anniversary under his ownership, Liam Berney talks to Matilde Casaglia about the importance of its location
Need to know
The Cottage in the Wood, owned by Kath and Liam Berney, is about to celebrate its 10th anniversary, after opening in 2002 as a nine-bedroom hotel in an impressive location.
The couple left their academic careers to become full-time hoteliers. Kath was a former nurse and a lecturer at the University of York, while Liam's career moved from hotel-chef trainer at the Savoy in London, to chef with British Transport Hotels at the Midland hotel in Manchester, before becoming head of hospitality and tourism at Stratford-upon-Avon College and then a self-employed education consultant specialising in hospitality and tourism training.
The idea of transforming the Cottage in the Wood into a restaurant with rooms came in 2008, together with a full refurbishment of the hotel's interiors.
The aim was to put some of the profits back into the business after the hotel gained a reputation in the area for the high quality of its food. "We also wanted to diversify from a traditional tourism market, enabling locals to dine in the restaurant. It was the right time to do it, considering the following downturn in the economy," Liam says.
It proved a shrewd move, because although the recession has caused the hotel's occupancy level to fall since 2010, revenues are still increasing, thanks to the restaurant. Last year, up-and-coming head chef Ryan Blackburn joined the kitchen at the Cottage in the Wood. Taking Blackburn on board was a key part of the diversification plan. "His addition to the management with a leading role has been fundamental in our business strategy," Liam says.
In 2011, the couple undertook extensive refurbishment to all rooms and added a luxury suite, the Garden Room, bringing the number of rooms at the hotel up to 10.
Because of its proximity to other Lake District hospitality venues, the Cottage in the Wood tries to broaden its potential market as much as possible. Rather than the traditional trade from walkers, the hotel tends to target young people interested in outdoor adventurous activities in the forest park. Visitors staying at the hotel are mainly couples, while at the restaurant the clientele varies with larger groups.
Having a sales and marketing team is almost unaffordable for a small business, so the policy of the Cottage in the Wood this year has been to use services provided by Cumbria Tourism. "We find that they have all the expertise we need: a very good marketing department, a food tourism co-ordinator and friendly PR people," Liam explains.
Of course, the hotel uses free online marketing strategies on the side such as social media platforms, engaging customers through Twitter and Facebook.
The location of the Cottage in the Wood enables the head chef to deal with local suppliers and help the regional economy, as well as giving him the chance to include a wide range of seasonal dishes in the menu. Cumbria is well known for beef, lamb and pork, while with the coast just 12 miles away fresh fish is readily available. The forest also supplies the restaurant with rare wild and foraged food.
Liam adds that environmental policies are very important for the business: the Cottage in the Wood recycles a high proportion of its waste and has a private water supply for sparkling water. The hotel has received and award for its green policies from the Cumbria Business Environment Network.
Best business advice
In Liam's mind, it is crucial to be realistic as a small business, but without forgetting to dream and to have high expectations. It is important to find a way to manage the hard work associated with running a small hotel with very little outside help.
"Our business motto is ‘keep your nose to the grass keeping an eye on the horizon'. We make sure we trade with honesty and integrity, and try to offer value in everything that we do.
"Our mission statement is to provide high-quality food, drink and accommodation at fair prices. Refurbishing after few years on the market was a difficult process, but worthwhile as it helped the business to grow," Liam says.
Having a small team operating in the kitchen also helps to create a friendly environment that will make visitors feel like home.
"Our service ethos is very relaxed and warm, and the staff restaurant policy is to have just eight full-time members including the head chef," Liam says.
Spotlight on location
The Cottage in the Wood claims to be the only accommodation in England located in a mountain forest, offering views across Bassenthwaite Lake, Dodd Wood and the rugged Skiddaw mountain range.
The quiet location on the Whinlatter Pass in a remote part of the northern lakes was discovered by the couple in the 1990s, when they started to go there on vacation twice a year, getting to know the surroundings better and better.
The park doesn't lose its beauty in the winter, when fresh snowfalls start adorning the surrounding trees and mountains.
"The weather can be severe and everyone knows that all businesses slow down in the winter, but the forest still has its own appeal in that season. When visitors come back from panoramic walks we provide them with a warm and cosy environment, with log fires and hot drinks," Liam says.
Liam Berney's revelations
Favourite restaurant L'Enclume
Favourite hotel The Mandarin Oriental in Bangkok
Who do you most admire Nelson Mandela
Motto Keep your nose to the grass keeping an eye on the horizon
Describe your hotel in five words Tranquillity in the perfect location
Facts and stats
Owners & managers Liam & Kath Berney
Head chef Ryan Blackburn
Number of rooms 10
Restaurant capacity 40
Covers per week 150