Better Business – Watergate Bay hotel

07 September 2012
Better Business – Watergate Bay hotel

Watergate Bay hotel is home to a water sports venture, a bistro, two restaurants, Jamie Oliver's Fifteen Cornwall and the Swim Club. Managing director Will Ashworth talks to Ed Robertson about the changes the hotel has gone through and his plans for the future

Need to know
To describe your business as a ski resort on a beach, you need to be pretty confident about the quality of your beach.

So it's just as well Watergate Bay boasts a two-mile long stretch of wide golden sand with some of the area's best surf and wind conditions, making it popular with families and adrenalin junkies throughout the year.

The bay is located between Newquay and Padstow with the Watergate Bay hotel, which was built in 1900, sitting in a small nook in the headland right beside the beach.

When Will Ashworth's parents, John and Mary, bought it in 1967 for £20,000, the hotel had been converted into self-catering flats which they initially ran before converting it back into a 55-bedroom hotel in 1971.

"My parents ran it for 30 years as a classic bucket-and-spade operation," Ashworth says, "opening in March and closing in November."

Ashworth joined in 2000, after his brother, Henry, had converted a neighbouring beach café and shop into water sports venture the Extreme Academy and the Beach Hut bistro & bar in 1999. The academy and bistro's success was such that in 2002 a £500,000 rebuild saw a second floor added to enlarge the complex and provide facilities for hosting sporting events.

In 2004 Ashworth became the hotel's managing director, and in 2005 he opened it all year and merged the businesses, creating the Hotel & Extreme Academy, Watergate Bay.

Ashworth says: "It felt a lot more like a ski resort on the beach; it had all the restaurants and bars to throw into the mix."

Work began on a £4m overhaul of the property in 2005, including refurbishing the main building and constructing a second 18-bedroom wing. In 2009 an old wing was replaced with a new, 19-bedroom wing.

The hotel has two restaurants, the Living Space, a relaxed bar and brasserie, and the more formal Dining Room, which offers a three-course meal from about £35 with a glass of wine, while a bottle of house wine starts at £14.

The project ended in May this year, when Swim Club opened. The hotel has since reverted to being called the Watergate Bay hotel.

Ashworth predicts the complex's 2012 turnover will be about £6.25m, a quarter of which is generated by the Extreme Academy and Beach Hut restaurant.

The other 75% is generated by the hotel, with 60% accounted for by accommodation and 40% by food, beverage and treatment sales.

Fifteen Cornwall
Fifteen Cornwall, with help from the Ashworth brothers, opened on the top floor of the Extreme Academy building in May 2006, having been inspired by the original Fifteen in London.

"We saw it as an amazing opportunity for Cornwall," Ashworth says.

"First and foremost there was this amazing guy Jamie Oliver with an amazing brand who was offering to let Cornwall use it to transform the chances of young people.

"Second, it's good for food and drink suppliers (80% of all produce sold is Cornish) as to have a shop window like that for Cornwall is a very positive experience and they now sell all over the country.

"Finally there is a positive impact on Cornwall in general as it is a very big destination restaurant."

Ashworth adds that the hotel also benefits from having the restaurant on its doorstep and in the past offers for hotel accommodation have include a meal.

The Ashworth brothers remain involved with Fifteen Cornwall, which is run as a separate charitable entity from both the hotel and Fifteen in London and which, since opening, has enrolled more than 100 apprentices in its programme with 61 graduating.

In that time, the restaurant has served more than 400,000 diners breakfast, lunch or dinner, generating more than £15m of revenue.

Target market
In 2005, Ashworth moved away from the families market to attract a new customer base. "We decided that the hotel would pretty radically and very quickly change its target market, which at the time felt like a pretty brave thing to do," Ashworth says.

Tourism consultant George Whitfield came aboard as the hotel targeted professionals with or without families, aged between 25 and 50, from the South of the UK.

Leisure is the key focus, with families, couples and groups all well catered for, while long short breaks dominate bookings.

Ashworth says time was also dedicated to understanding the new market, adding: "We had a psychologist come in and interview several of our target market guests and in return we'd give them a free dinner.

"That worked brilliantly as we got a great insight into our target market and what they thought of us."

How it markets itself
The hotel's marketing is driven by its website, with a strong social-media strategy to promote it coupled with a strong focus on national press coverage.

Ashworth has used third-party sales websites in the past with great success; last year a deal posted on Travelzoo saw 2,020 room nights booked, generating revenues of £300,000, and he says he may do so again in the future.

But for the time being the website is strong enough to pick up 30% of the hotel's sales, with the rest made on the phone.

Ashworth says: "Whether it is a good thing or a bad thing we are a very complicated business with many different factors affecting bookings.

"For those people who've never stayed before they have quite a few questions so the phone is the best medium as it allows us to discuss and advise them on the options."

Furthermore, a 60% repeat business rate is helping grow web booking among customers familiar with the concept.

Despite the rebrand and new target market, the hotel still suffers from seasonality issues, with its occupancy peaking at 98% in July and August and dropping to about 55% in January.

However, a strong focus on events is helping change that and assisting both the hotel's national and local press coverage.

The hotel hosts three surfing competitions a year and is preparing for its sixth annual Veuve Clicquot Polo on the Beach event in September, while July saw the launch of the Electric Beach Festival headlined by hip hop legends De La Soul.

Ashworth says: "Events are an important way of demonstrating that we are an original and exciting place to be.

"It is also one of the main strands of our appeal for the press as it gives us a fabulous way of creating media interest."

Ashworth is well placed to take advantage of Cornwall's larder and believes dealing with local suppliers not only helps the local economy but cuts down food miles.

Furthermore, strong relationships with local suppliers means specific requests for produce can be quickly met.

Meat is supplied by the aptly named Angus Trotters Family Butchers in Redruth, fish and seafood by Matthew Stevens & Son in St Ives, with other local businesses providing the rest wherever possible.

Ashworth adds: "We have some amazing food and drink suppliers in Cornwall and we use them as much as we can."

The future
Ashworth says with the Watergate Bay hotel work complete, he hopes to launch four similar hotels within the next 12 years.

"We are all about creating experiences around active relaxation but we won't do another beach experience as we've already got that," he adds.

"Instead there are mountain experiences and estuary experiences around the UK and people would be able to chose different locations."

Ashworth is also planning an Alpine hotel, but not immediately, adding: "As a single-site business we're going to have to learn to be a multi-site business and we want to do that in the UK.

"We do want to go into Europe as we think our target market would respond very well to that."

Spotlight on Swim Club

Watergate Bay pool
Watergate Bay pool
Completed and opened in May following seven months' work, the £2.5m Swim Club is the icing on the cake of the hotel's transformation.

Ashworth says: "We started calling it the not-spa project as we didn't want it to be another boring hotel spa.

"Instead we wanted to make it like a private members' club with hotel guests granted temporary member status."

Swim Club boasts numerous facilities including a café-bar, three treatment rooms, a studio for classes, a 25-metre ocean-view infinity pool and outdoor decking leading to the beach.

In keeping with the ski resort theme, surfers can walk straight off the beach into the club and use its changing facilities with hot showers, a wetsuit drying area and secure surfboard storage.

Ashworth says: "Swim Club is all about creating a vibrant relaxation facility and a social and active space; it is also good for children during the school holidays."

Will Ashworth's revelations
Favourite restaurant Bocca Di Lupo
Favourite hotel Covent Garden Hotel
Who do you most admire Rick Stein
Motto Will it excite our guests?
Describe your hotel in five words Ski resort on a beach

Facts and stats
General manager Mark Williams
Head chef Neil Haydock
Staff 130
Number of rooms 69
Average occupancy 83%
Rooms from £105 (Double with bed & breakfast)

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