Nicol and Dewi Gwynne have created a haven in Snowdonia with their pub with rooms, the Grade II-listed Cross Foxes. Ed Robertson reports
When Nicol and Dewi Gwynne bought the property that was to become the Cross Foxes bar grill and rooms in Dolgellau, Gwynedd, they knew they had their work cut out.
Despite it being a Grade II-listed pub, Nicol says it was pretty much derelict by the time the couple took possession of it in March 2007, having paid £300,000.
By November 2009 they had obtained planning permission and finance, and began a year-long rebuild costing £900,000, which was undertaken by Dewi, a builder by trade.
Nicol says the pair had always envisaged the property as an inn with rooms, so they converted the original eight bedrooms into four en-suite rooms.
Equally important was the need to design and build a new eye-catching glass entrance to the building, to capitalise on its roadside position. She explains: "The property was on a strategic road location and we wanted to draw the traffic in so we created an impressive glass entrance and we've also got a very obvious car park out in the front."
The interior is a blend of traditional and contemporary features, while the decision to name the rooms after features on neighbouring mountain Cadair Idris gives the hotel context. Nicol adds: "We've got a real sense of place in the building - people definitely know they're in the heart of Snowdonia when they're here."
Because it is located on one of the main roads running from north to south Wales, passing travellers are key to the restaurant, as is local trade, which is driven by the VIP Club. The latter is free to join and open to anyone living within 30 miles of the Cross Foxes, and has proved particularly effective at driving trade. Members get discounts and priority invitations to special events. The property is most popular with the 50-plus market, and Nicol is happy to keep it that way.
The accommodation is leisure focused during July and August while the rest of the year sees leisure travellers at the weekends, with business travellers dominating during the week, many of whom are working at the nearby Trawsfynydd nuclear power station.
During June this year the hotel's revenue totalled £75,500, 63% of which was generated by food sales, 21% by wet sales and the remaining 16% through accommodation.
How it markets itself
Long before the Cross Foxes opened, Nicol understood the power of the internet in marketing her business. Before the Gwynnes began the upgrade of the property, they set up a business Facebook page, so once building started they could regularly update followers with pictures of the work.
Nicol says: "As soon as we opened the doors we had the opportunity [via Facebook] to tell everyone to come and try us out, and that was critical."
The Facebook page now boasts about 1,700 fans, many of whom signed up after being targeted with Facebook profile advertising, costing about £5 per week.
The business has a website backed by pay-per-click advertising using words and phrases drawing upon local geography such as Snowdon and Cadair Idris as well as industry basics including accommodation and five-star restaurant.
The majority of bookings are made via the hotel's website, while third-party agent sites including laterooms.com and booking.com account for about a quarter of all sales.
A database of 1,700 people receives a monthly newsletter highlighting deals and offers, while the VIP club has attracted about 200 members. It features a range of offers, from discounted breakfasts and free coffee top-ups to a two-course meal during the week for £12.95.
Nicol adds: "We used to offer the two-course discount to everyone but we thought there's no point offering it to someone who's passing by and we'll never see again."
Best business advice
Before opening the business Nicol says the couple toyed with the idea of living there but eventually decided to remain in their current home, an hour's drive away.
She adds: "You need to be there to see what's happening, doing the shifts and experiencing it, but also by being away from the business then you are in a position to get the big picture. You can then spend time reflecting and thinking about the business and the areas you need to improve."
One thing I couldn't do without
While Nicol admits passing trade is important, it is the wider reach of the internet that is vital. She claims the site gets about 140 visitors a day, adding: "Without that we'd be sorely limiting the opportunities to get people in the property and it is a very cost-effective way of marketing the business and any promotions.
"You need a good website - people always check your website before coming and that's your shop window to the world."
Plans for the future include remaining focused on the business and expanding it.
"We've got a four-acre plot of land attached to the building and we want to develop a herb and vegetable garden and offer posh camping," Nicol says.
"The herb garden we'd do today if we had the money. The posh camping would come after that, and if people wanted a longer stay or had dogs we could let them stay there. There's definitely a gap in the market for dog owners; we don't allow dogs in the bedrooms and we're constantly referring people to nearby properties that do."
Spotlight on Tasting menu
At £34.95 per person, the 10-course tasting menu is not a great deal more expensive than the £25 customers pay in the restaurant for a two-course meal and a glass of wine.
Nicol says: "It's not cheap but it's affordable; and by having a tasting menu customers will be there longer and they'll have the opportunity to drink more."
The menu is just one of several available at the property, which include a grill night and a five-course wedding menu.
Nicol says: "Because we're open seven days a week we need to keep busy all the time by offering a range of menus."
She adds the challenge of the taster menus also keeps chef Kyle Wilkinson, who joined a month after opening, mentally focused.
"It keeps Kyle interested when he has the chance to do these different menus," Nicol says. "He's very flexible and likes doing everything from the tasting menu to high-volume dishes."
nicol gwynne's revelations
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Motto Life is for living
Describe your business in five words Oasis in the Welsh mountains
Facts and stats
Owners Dewi and Nicol Gwynne
Average occupancy 70%
Average cost of a two-course meal £25 (plus glass of wine)
Maximum covers on busiest day 270 (Sunday)