The Fleece at Cirencester is the first foray south for Lancashire-based Thwaites Inns of Character. Rosalind Mullen finds how a refurbishment and renewed focus has turned the inn around
Need to know
The 28-bedroom Fleece hotel in Cirencester, Gloucestershire opened in April and marks the first foray south for Thwaites' six-strong Inns of Character brand. When it was acquired by the Lancashire brewer last year, it was losing £100,000 a year. Following a £1m refurbishment, however, Thwaites is looking to generate £300,000 a year.
The Inns of Character brand was created in 2011 from a handful of managed pubs with rooms, following Thwaites' conversion of the rest of its 350-strong pub portfolio from managed to tenanted.
Besides Cirencester, there are inns at Keswick, Lancaster, the Ribble Valley and also Malham and Settle in the Yorkshire Dales.
The brewer also operates six four-star Shire Hotels, managed by Tony Spencer, and the inns come under his remit.
Fleece manager Rebecca Smith has been with the company for eight years. She joined a graduate management scheme at Shire Hotels and worked her way up to operations manager at Kettering Park. She saw the manager role at the Fleece as a chance to use her full-service experience and to have more independence.
While she has freedom in areas such as marketing, how she chooses to interact with the local community, whether she pursues a "ladies who lunch market" and so on, there are certain guidelines. For instance, the brand's signature dish is always eggs Benedict and there is always high-grade coffee and fresh milk in the rooms.
There are 40 to 45 employees on Smith's team and a constant stream of CVs and application forms. When recruiting, she looks for personality. "You can train someone with personality," she says. "But you can't train someone to have personality."
The Fleece attracts a balance of leisure and business guests. Cirencester is affluent and so local guests are wooed as an important client base out of season.
The Fleece also attracts a variety of ages by offering a choice of public rooms - more mature customers wanting to read the papers over a coffee tend to be found in the lounge, while the bar, with its high tables and stools, pulls in a younger crowd. There's also a more formal restaurant and a relaxed outdoor space.
"Locals have said it's just what Cirencester needed - although there are other good restaurants and pubs in town, too," says Smith. "We ticked a lot of boxes for people wanting coffee, dinner, a glass of wine after work and so on."
What sets the Fleece apart
The Fleece has a more town-oriented market than some of its sister inns and that is reflected in the food it offers. For instance, whereas the rural Millstone at Mellor near Blackburn might serve roast Curwin Hill pork belly or black pudding fritters and chilli jam, the Fleece offers Oxfordshire lamb cutlets and Severn and Wye oak-smoked salmon.
The Fleece's decor has also been determined by the area. So, while the Lion at Settle in the Yorkshire Dales has a more rustic, cosy feel to reflect the walking country, Cirencester has a more contemporary design.
The Fleece is slightly more expensive than some of the other Inns of Character, in line with the demographics. Average spend at dinner is £20 to £25 without wine and £12 to £14 at lunch. Rooms start at £75 for a standard double, rising to £120 to £130 and the five feature rooms are priced at £100 to £150. Average occupancy is 60% to 65%.
This is done in a number of ways. The pub relies on being part of the community so Smith strives to make sure that something is always happening for the locals. "They are our bread and butter in the downtimes," she says.
She uses chalkboards around the pub to announce offers, such as encouraging locals to donate their excess home-grown fruit and vegetables in return for vouchers at the pub. Smith also organises "meet the butcher" or "brewer" events to showcase what the pub offers. And, of course, uses the website and social media such as Facebook and Twitter.
A less conventional marketing tool is the use of Thwaites' Shire horses, which are decked out in regalia to pull a dray through town.
"They've visited us twice and are coming back in October," says Smith. "They cause chaos in the town's one-way system, but create a lot of excitement."
Spotlight on Inns of Character
The Inns of Character are being seen as an opportunity to take Thwaites' beers into other areas of the country. Until the Fleece opened in Cirencester, for instance, there was nowhere outside the North-west where Thwaites Ale could be bought on-trade.
Within three years, the target is to increase the six inns to 15 properties. However, managing director Tony Spencer explains that he is only looking at potential properties within an hour's drive from a Shire Hotel. This allows the larger hotel to provide resources, support and direction during the inn's first 12 months. The Fleece, for example, has been supported by the Aztec hotel & spa in Bristol.
Other potential locations in the south, then, include Winchester and Chichester, which are near the Solent hotel & spa, while Kettering Park could sustain an inn in Cambridgeshire.
So far, Spencer has looked at 130 possible sites across the country. Ideal candidates are those in an affluent location that can support a good balance of leisure and business.
Spencer says some deals have stalled on price. The business plan is to pay a realistic price reflecting the current market for a pub that is failing, make an investment, turn the business around and get a fair return.
"We are developing pubs of the future rather than of the past, so while the emphasis is on F&B we also need rooms to survive," he adds.
Facts and statS
Manager Rebecca Smith
Head chef Stephen Robinson
Number of F&B seats 95 (including 30 in restaurant)
Number of covers on Friday night 90 (150-plus on Saturday lunchtimes)
Average occupancy 65%