Ian and Christa Taylor have doubled turnover since acquiring the Abbey hotel in Bath three years ago. Janet Harmer finds out how throwing off the shackles of a brand have helped boost business
The branded hotel sector may be expanding, but Ian Taylor believes that independent operators can be just as successful, if not more so, than those with a badge over the door.
Christa and Ian Taylor
After a five-year break they turned their attention to the Abbey hotel in Bath, a property which had been a member of the Best Western sales and marketing consortium for 23 years. From the time they acquired the three-AA-star, 60-bedroom property from Compass Hotels for £5.5m in 2012, it was their intention to transform the Abbey into "one of the great boutique hotels" in Bath by improving it for guests and bolstering its business value.
"For the past three years it feels like we have been driving a huge tanker and we are only now just beginning to turn it around," says Taylor, who has overseen a thorough overhaul of the way the hotel was previously operated and marketed.
The results have been nothing short of phenomenal. The annual turnover of the business, which was £1.8m in 2012, now stands at £3.6m. Revenue from food and beverage during the period has climbed from £330,000 to nearly £1.5m.
Exiting from Best Western could not happen immediately after the Taylors took ownership, as at the time 47% of business came via the consortium. Much work needed to be done to enable the new owners to be able to increase bookings through the hotel.
Their first priority was to improve the infrastructure and decor of the hotel to make it easier to go out and sell the bedrooms, restaurant and bar to the market.
The Taylors had never previously heard of the Abbey when they were told by property agent Christie + Co that it was on the market. But, being in the centre of Bath, within walking distance of the world-renowned Roman baths and the 16th-century Bath Abbey, they knew the location would be hard to beat.
"In looking to buy another hotel, our priority was to be able to establish our own identity," explains Taylor. "A few opportunities arose when Von Essen went into administration, but most of those properties were in the countryside and we decided we would prefer to be in the centre of a major tourist city like Oxford, Cambridge or Bath, where business would be strong seven days a week."
The Abbey provided the Taylors with the location, but not without challenge. While the hotel was achieving reasonable occupancies and profitability,it was very tired. Hence, there was a need to immediately set about spending money on the fabric of the property. Over the past three years this has amounted to £1.4m, with £600,000 going on plumbing, £70,000 on replacing a 38-year-old lift and £100,000 on roof repairs.
Along with the vital infrastructure improvements, the other focus from the outset was to throw £55,000 at refurbishing the restaurant to provide a heart to the hotel that would bring in local business and encourage guests to remain in-house for lunch and dinner. "The restaurant before was basically a tea room and was doing no covers at all on a Saturday night," says Taylor. "We decorated the food and beverage areas on a shoestring, created a separate restaurant entrance and used a branding company to help us launch the Allium restaurant. Today we serve around 80 to 100 covers every Saturday evening."
In appointing former Michelin-starred chef Chris Staines - one-time head chef at Foliage at London's Mandarin Oriental hotel - the Taylors showed just how serious they were in turning the Abbey into a destination location.
Getting the right team on board has, in fact, been an essential element of the Abbey's success. In 2013 Andrew Fisher was appointed bar manager to help oversee the launch of the ArtBar. Former manager of the wine barat Bordeaux Quay in Bristol and one-time brand ambassador for Diageo single malt whisky and Belvedere vodka, Fisher's in-depth knowledge of premium spirits, wines and cocktails is described by Taylor as "amazing" and has helped turn the ArtBar into a true destination venue in the city.
Meanwhile, the appointment last year of Andrew Foulkes, former general manager of the five-AA-star Bath Priory, was something of a coup. Taylor announced at the time that Foulkes' extensive expertise in the luxury sector would "drive forward the quality of the Abbey hotel" and today says: "I'm very keen on working with people with an entrepreneurial spirit and I see that in Andrew. He is a great communicator and has been instrumental in helping to develop the team."
Today, Foulkes oversees the day-to-day operations of the hotel, allowing the Taylors to drive the marketing and overall strategy of the business.
Andrew Foulkes and Chris Staines
While improvements to the property were under way and key personnel were being appointed, Taylor also had an eye on driving business to the hotel through carefully targeted marketing.
"We immediately found that there was no engagement with the city, as the large majority of business came from tourists via Best Western," said Taylor. "So we set about connecting with the city. Now we are one of the most active networkers, while very few of the branded hoteliers attend city events."
The Abbey hotel became a partner to the Bath Children's Literature and Music Festivals, built a name for itself with the local publication Bath Life, and held numerous events in conjunction with local businesses, including book stores Topping & Company and Mr B's Emporium, as well as the Great Western Wine company. Meanwhile, links have been made with the city's two universities, with private dinners held for visiting professors.
In fact, the Taylors appear to have left no stone unturned. They invited The Times' restaurant critic Giles Coren to stay with them when he visited Bath to promote his new book, and took an active role in the Great Bath Feast, a month-long celebration of food in the city during which Tom Kerridge cooked dinner at the Abbey.
Good relationships have been built with tour operators, such as JTB and Miki, bringing in business from Japan, and the Back-Roads Touring Company, which has parties of Australians staying at the Abbey for two nightsas part of a wider UK itinerary. These will involve small groups of around 20 guests - paying net, not commissionable rates - who will also book into the hotel for dinner.
With over 350 eating venues listed on TripAdvisor - an enormous number in a city with a population of only 100,000 - Bath is hugely competitive when it comes to restaurants. "So we've worked hard with B&Bs by inviting them in and incentivising them to recommend us," said Taylor. B&B guests are offered a £10 discount voucher, to be redeemed in the restaurant and bar at the Abbey hotel.
However, the one activity, more than any other, which has raised the profile of the hotel has been the launch of the Après Ski Bar, which has now run for two years within a temporary construction installed in front of the hotel for 40 days in the run-up to Christmas. It works particularly well alongside Bath's Christmas market, which last year attracted nearly 400,000 visitors.
The Taylors have also gradually moved ahead with improving the look and comfort of the hotel, with a view to moving up to a four-AA-star rating. However, money was tight. "Looking back, we can see how elaborate we were at Cotswold House, where we laid out £10,000 on a statement bath for a suite," said Taylor. "Here, we have had to be more creative to keep costs down. As a result, we've ended up spending £7,000-£9,000 in total on each new bathroom."
These needs led the Taylors to Pro Auction - auctioneers specialising in hospitality equipment and furnishings. Here they came across 100 crates of marble for around £7,000 that had originally been intended for the Shangri-La London, and are now incorporated into the Abbey's refurbished bathrooms. The artwork, meanwhile, has been produced by final year students at Bath Spa University.
"It has been great fun mixing and adapting furniture as we've gone along," says Taylor. "The beauty of an independent hotel is that you can introduce quirky elements, such as our stunning chandelier in the ladies' loos. Not everything has to look the same."
One area that the Abbey has definitely not cut back on is beds. "By mid-2013, we had made sufficient money to change all the beds to Hypnos Lansdowne Cashmere. If you sleep well, you remember the hotel."
As further funds have become available, the Taylors have also turned to designer Martin Hulbert to further enhance the look of the reception, bar, Allium and the bathrooms.
The final piece of the jigsaw was to introduce a new website, designed by digital marketing agency Journey. The finishedsite fully conveys the individuality of the hotel and drives direct bookings by using the best images and having a well-designed, easily navigable bookings processes.
The all-encompassing effort has resulted in the 47% of bookings which came via BestWestern in 2012 dropping to just 8% by the time the Abbey left the consortium in September 2014. While online travel agents (OTAs) continue to drive around 35% of business to the hotel, work is under way to reduce these figures to 12%. But Taylor recognises that the OTAs have to be considered as an important element in the marketing mix. To this end, he holds monthly meetings with Booking.com.
Taylor is continually tapping into new revenue opportunities, whether it is launching a retail arm in which the hotel would sell items like the distinctively patterned Beaufort & Blake shirts worn by the bar staff, or putting together packages, including breakfast, dinner and entry to the nearby Thermae Spa on traditionally quiet Sunday nights.
While data shows the independent hotel sector in the UK currently stands at 40% of the total market which, according to hotel consultant Melvin Gold, is expectedto shrink further to 30% by 2030 - presumably because owners believe the brands will drive business - the Taylors have shown that, with the right focus, independence pays.
"There are lots of lovely pockets of business out there," says Taylor. "It's all about what you put in."
When independence beats the brands
Aubrey Park, Redbourn, Herfordshire
The 137-bedroom Aubrey Park hotel has gone from strength to strength since being bought out of administration in 2012 by private investment company ESO Capital UK. Previously owned by Jarvis Hotels, it had operated under the Ramada brand up to and after the sale, when it was initially managed for a short period by BDL Management.
Following a £3m refurbishment, the decision was then taken to operate Aubrey Park as an independent hotel and David Timmis - a hotelier with nearly 40 years' experience of working with Jarvis Hotels and Menzies Hotels - was appointed as managing director.
Despite his lengthy experience of working with branded hotels, Timmis saw an opportunity to establish AubreyPark as an independent hotel with strong connections with the local community.
"Coming from a branded background, I know the benefits that a brand can offer when it comes to consistency of service, but today's customers are increasingly looking for a venue which will provide a more experiential break; where there is passion, creativity and a can-do-culture," he explains.
"The other key benefit of an independent hotel is the ability to be able to move more quickly when it comes to customer feedback or for dynamic local marketing through social media, PR and online platforms. A recent example through our improved local recognition enabled the hotel to host a prestigious event attended by the Archbishop of Canterbury."
The freedom Timmis has had to build a team of experienced staff and build up strong relationships within the local community - without the on-going costs of a head office - has enabled him to drive occupancy up from 40% 18 months ago to 80% today. Turnoveris now around double that achieved in thelast four years under the Ramada brand.
"This significant revenue growth can be clearly tracked from the time of the hotel's independence," says Timmis. "The first priority was a complete rebranding of the hotel, returning the property to its local identity of Aubrey Park, with its rural setting clearly coming through its new logo and website.
"The development of strong local links with Hertfordshire Chamber of Commerce, Redbourn Business Community and Peter Lilley MP have redefined us as 'the local' hotel and supported our recent successful planning application fora new £2m conference and event venue, duefor completion next year."
Bolton White hotel, Bolton, Greater Manchester
It is two years since the 125-bedroom Bolton White hotel rebranded as an independent hotel, having previously been operated under the De Vere Venues badge.
The decision was taken to reposition the hotel as a distinctive proposition by focusing on its unique selling points - its location at the Macron Stadium, home to the Bolton Wanderers FC, and the fact that it's home to a 3,000-capacity function suite and has good transport links to the M61 and Horwich Parkway station with a direct service to Manchester city centre.
Damian Chadwick, venue controller at Bolton Whites, says two other brands were initially considered. "However, we saw what other north west independent hotels were doing and closely monitored their successes. We wanted to emulate that."
Creating its own brand identity was a long, but ultimately successful process. "Our customers, and guests alike, feel they now have a more personalised service, and the brand we have created means that at every touchpoint our guests and customers know that the hotel is part of a football club - the original 'football hotel'," explains Chadwick.
"Rather than separating our football connection, we now embrace it. Our logo is a circle, giving football connotations. The iconic stadium elements feature in our branding and our blue and white colours complement the colours of the Bolton Wanderers."
While occupancy has remained fairly flat at 77% today compared to 78.5% in 2013, average room and revenue per available room rates have grown from £45.85 and £36.93 to £52.69 and £39.85 respectively.
With business booming at the Abbey hotel, it is no surprise that the Taylors decided to snap up a second property in Bath. They acquired the 20-bedroom Villa Magdala in June. Located just 10 minutes' walk away from the Abbey hotel, the new business recorded 95% occupancy during July with an average room rate of £140.
"The property is in very good condition, with bedrooms which were refurbished only a couple of years ago," explains Taylor. "We plan to expand by adding nine bedrooms in the grounds."
The name will also be changed to the Park Townhouse, to reflect its peaceful location off Great Pulteney Street.
Facts and figures
- Owners Ian and Christa Taylor
- General manager Andrew Foulkes
- Head chef and food and beverage director Chris Staines
- Bedrooms 60
- Annual turnover £3.6m
- Food and beverage turnover £1.5m
- Occupancy 97%
- Net average rate £105
Abbey hotel Bath
North Parade, Bath, Somerset BA1 1LF