The Feathers hotel in Oxfordshire knows exactly what its customers want: special rooms, special food, special drink and special service. But that doesn't mean that the business is happy to stand still, as Neil Gerrard reports
â- Olive Restaurant Awards:â¨Winner of Services to Gin
â- Two AA Rosettes
Need to know
The Feathers is a well-established name on the Oxfordshire hotel scene, having been renamed and expanded by a young Gordon Campbell Gray around 30 years ago. More recently, it was given a new lease of life 18 months ago when it was given an extensive refurbishment, â¨costing around £900,000, a project which saw all 21 bedrooms and all the public areas revamped.
General manager Jeremy du Plessis is in his second stint at the helm of the business. He spent two-and-a-half years in charge almost nine years ago, before returning earlier this year to work for the operators, Premier Cru Inns, run by Iain Shelton and Gareth Pugh, who run the venue on behalf of a private owner.
Target market Despite being close to Oxford airport - a busy business airport - the Feathers does not tout itself as a venue for corporate functions. Instead, the boutique townhouse hotel goes after the leisure market. The restaurant, which will sit between 40 and 50 people, also attracts foodies from across the UK. The enclosed courtyard garden will sit another 70-80. And the Feathers has a unique selling point in its gin bar, which is officially recognised in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's largest
"We are a nice, neatly wrapped-up little product and people want to come and pamper themselves," explains du Plessis. "You have got Blenheim Palace, which is open 10 months of the year, on our doorstep, which is a massive pull for general travellers. Then you have full-rate travellers who are not necessarily going to book via laterooms.com but want to spend a little bit extra, get treated a little bit better, have something a little bit more exciting to eat and a bit of decent service." The vast majority of the clientele (85-90%) comes from the UK, with very few from further afield.
Handling celebrities The Feathers also plays host to a number of celebrity guests, although the hotel tries to remain as discreet about its famous residents as possible, unless they specifically state otherwise. Several Formula 1 racing teams have their bases nearby, which sends a bit of business the hotel's way.
"I can remember that Rubens Barrichello signed his contract for Ferrari in one of our rooms," du Plessis recalls. But music and screen stars visit, too - more recently, the hotel played host to the wedding party following the marriage at Blenheim Palace between Rochelle Wiseman of pop group the Saturdays, and Marvin Humes, singer in boy band JLS.
"They were so nice to look after, they were charming people and very well behaved," du Plessis says. "Although, obviously I am more of an Andy Williams, Simple Minds type of guy myself, being 50 now."
While these guests were happy to be talked about, others prefer for their stay to remain a much more low-key affair. "You learn discretion. Within the industry, when you have worked within a particular level of establishment, you have people coming in and out every week," du Plessis explains. "But if someone comes along and wants to be part of a bit more of an event and wants to be profiled within that event then we will take the baton and run with it, and gladly do so."
Marketing Search engine optimisation (SEO) is a really important consideration for du Plessis when marketing the hotel. "Your website is paramount," he says. "People just punch into Google 'hotels, Oxford/Oxfordshire'. You have got to be up there." Aside from that, the Feathers belongs to a couple of marketing groups - Pride of Britain Hotels and Cotswolds Finest Hotels - and employs a PR company to publicise its award wins and new initiatives. It also tries to make as much out of the nearby Oxfordshire Literary Festival as possible - an event that saw the likes of Ken Hom stay at the hotel all week and even cook dinner with the chefs on one night.
Trading during the recession Although du Plessis rejoined the Feathers only relatively recently, he is convinced that a bold step taken by the hotel's owner and its operator, Premier Cru Inns, to refurbish has made a significant different.
"The bedroom stock is much higher quality than where it was two years ago, which has brought in a better average room rate," he says. "The conscious decision to make a very large investment, bang in the middle of the biggest recession of our time was a very brave one by the owners."
Best business advice For du Plessis, there are several key factors likely to determine a hotel business's success. "If you can sustain a level of service that is over and above the average offering then it is going to put you in a pretty good place," he says. But more than that, operators also need to understand the strengths and weaknesses of their venture. "Our weakness is that we are not an events place; our strength is that we look after the individuals very well, so we go for our strengths and we don't try to chase business that is not going to be viable for us to take," he says. And finally, he stresses the importance of controlling costs to keep the bottom line healthy.
Future plans Although the Feathers received a score of 4/6 in this year's Good Food Guide and has two AA rosettes, du Plessis does not want to stand still. "The chef (Kevin Barrett) has been part of the Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons team in the past, he knows the level he wants to go to, and if he gets further awards and accolades for the food then we would be delighted," he says. The same goes for other awards for the hotel more generally. "I think what you have got to aspire to is to keep pushing the boundaries, don't stand still. If we deserve something, it will come along."
Spotlight on Gin Earlier this year, the Feathers was officially recognised by Guinness as holding the record for the world's largest gin bar. The collection now stands at 167 different varieties, compared with a mere 60 around two years ago.
"It was a collective decision and everyone just got carried away with it," du Plessis says. The hotel's reputation for its gins is such that regular guests have even joined in on the hunt for rare varieties of the spirit and bring a bottle back if they find something they know the hotel doesn't have.
Du Plessis reckons it has been a great piece of marketing for the business. "As an investment, the conscious decision was to say: let's invest a bit of time and not that much money, but let's do it. We have got a small cocktail bar area, which was never going to be fantastic, what shall we do with it? Let's do something different. Vodka has been done to death, there's no point doing malt whisky. Gin came to mind because it is a very English thing and it is a very English town."
Facts and figures
Restaurant manager: Lidia Dhorne
Head chef: Kevin Barrett
Av room rate: £169
Staff: 25 Average spend in restaurant: £50 (including drink)