After closing for refurbishment and rebranding, general manager Peter Osborne had to make sure that the White Lion hotel stood out in a busy market when it reopened. Ed Robertson reports
Need to know
Bought by the Suffolk-based TA Hotel Collection in 1999, the White Lion hotel in Aldeburgh was closed last year from January to April, while it was refurbished and rebranded, having previously been a Best Western property.
The work was overseen by Peter Osborne who joined the group in January 2011, having spent the previous two years working as the general manager of the Ramada hotel, Ipswich. It was there he learnt all about making a property stand out in a busy market through differentiating the product.
"I was used to opening up a new business with a new concept, which was useful as we were starting from the beginning in certain ways with the White Lion," says Osborne.
"Opening a hotel is definitely about the theme. When I was opening the hotel in Ipswich there was a lot of competition and Ramada Encore was not a massive brand.
"We had to make sure we got a fair market share, which we did pretty well - we made sure we were different from the others in terms of the service we gave."
While the 38-room White Lion's clientele is predominantly leisure-based, between 10% and 15% of clients are from the corporate market, many of whom work at the nearby Sizewell nuclear power plant.
This meant Osborne employed many of the lessons he learnt in Ipswich where staff went the extra mile for business travellers.
"A lot of the clients are away from home and if you can remember they like their eggs well-done or their favourite drink, then those things count," says Osborne.
He also hosts a general manager's drinks every Tuesday and Thursday evening for invited corporate travellers, giving them the chance to meet and mingle.
When it comes to the leisure market, Osborne says that couples aged 40 and over provide the core custom for the hotel. However, it is through the hotel's restaurant that he has been able to re-engage with the vital local market.
"The White Lion used to be a huge local hotel but its reputation declined and it lost its way because it lost its identity," says Osborne.
"It was a hotel but never really a restaurant, the restaurant is where it's changed as it's now very much a local hotspot."
He has further driven the local market by teaming up with local businesses, for instance, with Aldeburgh's cinema, allowing the two businesses to offer package deals including tickets for a film with a pre-dinner meal.
Other initiatives, including plans for a two-day celebration on the Queen's Diamond Jubilee weekend, means Osborne is once again focusing the hearts and minds of the local community on the hotel.
One thing I couldn't do without
With an emphasis on friendly service being core to the White Lion's future, Osborne has needed his staff to be supportive of the changes since day one.
"I'm lucky to have staff who have been here for a very long time," Osborne adds. "They didn't have to come on the journey but they didn't resist it at all and the new staff are also made to feel part of the team."
With occupancy now at about the 77% mark, peaking at up to 94% in the summer, Osborne is focusing on increasing average room rate for 2012, from £83.76 last year to £89.50.
Having made extensive changes to the hotel through the refurbishment, he is confident the target can be met.
"We've re-educated people now and through word of mouth, Tripadvisor and other feedback, we know people want to stay," says Osborne.
"We played it quite safe last year [on pricing] and we missed out on an opportunity but it allowed us to build up our database."
Spotlight on marketing
Effective marketing has been core to the White Lion's strategy of re-engaging with the local community and educating it with regard to the changes that have been made. With a database of up to 10,000 names, dating back four years, Osborne was able to target guests who were unaware of the changes that had been made at the property.
A postcard offer sent after Christmas to 5,000 people advertising dinner, breakfast and a room for two for £129, cost £600 to put together and is credited with generating more than £50,000 of revenue.
Even better, Osborne adds he did not have to pay commission of between 30% and 40%, as he did when he put a deal out via Travelzoo. Instead, when it comes to online marketing, Osborne says he prefers to use social media and in particular TripAdvisor.
"I reply to all of the posts and if there are any negative ones then I encourage them to contact me and they normally do," he says.
Osborne adds TripAdvisor has also been instrumental in helping push the restaurant as a separate local business, something that has been helped by local bloggers who he has also invited to review the restaurant.
He says he is also trying this technique on a national scale, adding: "I have invited Jay Rayner (of The Observer) to come and dine with us and sent him a menu.
"I'm looking forward to getting his feedback and seeing what he thinks of us."
Peter Osborne's revelations
Favourite hotel Goring hotel, London
Favourite restaurant Galvin at Windows
Favourite book Memoirs of a Fruitcake by Chris Evans
Motto Always have a positive mental attitude
Describe your hotel in five words Friendly and charming coastal retreat
Role models Fred Sirieix and Michel Roux Jnr for Michel Roux's Service
Facts and stats
Owner TA Hotel Collection
General manager Peter Osborne
Staff 34 (plus 12 part time)
Average room rate £83.76 (Doubles)
Average occupancy 77.5%