Family bookings can be great business

24 November 2017 by
Family bookings can be great business

Noisy and wildly energetic at times they may be, but kids can also be parlayed into a valuable business asset rather than be a turn-off for other guests. Rosalind Mullen reports on how luxury hotels have made catering to the family market work for all their customers

Families are big business and don't cutting-edge hoteliers know it. Swish luxury hotels such as Chewton Glen, traditional adult playgrounds like Gleneagles and even cosy romantic hideaway Ardanaiseig are among those busily investing in becoming even more ‘family friendly'.

Hotels that identified the opportunity early, such as Calcot in the 1990s (see panel), are proof that attracting families can complement rather than kill a business. The 35-bedroom hotel in Tetbury, Gloucestershire, reports that the family market represented 32.5% of its sales between January and August this year.

"Outside school holidays and weekends, we also see families with under-fours taking advantage of our midweek offers. Many corporates avoid school holidays when organising their business meetings, so this dovetails nicely to keep our overall occupancy high throughout the year."

As mini-breaks become the norm year-round and the staycation is on the rise, many hoteliers recognise that the family-friendly opportunities are growing. Chewton Glen in New Milton, Hampshire, which stuck its toes into child-friendly waters about 10 years ago, is among those strengthening its offer.

"It got to the point where the volume of children exceeded what we could cater for," says managing director Andrew Stembridge. "We had a meeting room that was converted into a kids' club, but we now need a purpose-built area in the grounds."

The 70-bedroom hotel, owned by the property investment company L+R, is accordingly investing £60,000-£80,000 in creating a children's idyll in its sprawling grounds. The oak building will have separate zones providing a range of activities for toddlers to teenagers. It will operate at weekends and during school holidays, and is expected to open by Easter 2018.

It's a shrewd investment. Family business at Chewton Glen has increased from 10.9% in 2011 to 21.4% this year, and families contribute £3.5m annually to total turnover. Stembridge says: "Turnover is boosted at times when we wouldn't have anyone there - even in August, when there is no corporate business. Plus, there are more people staying in the UK for holidays. It has taken our bookings forward dramatically."

Nevertheless, he acknowledges that families can affect the atmosphere, which is why the new building is set apart. "It is important to keep a balance between adult guests and families. One reason to create the new area is to redress the balance. We are a victim of our own success," he says.

Stembridge believes it is important to manage families to keep them occupied. Chewton Glen's location in the New Forest helps, and they can also visit attractions such as Marwell Zoo or go to the coast. "Some hotels are miles away from anything, so [children] get cabin fever," he says. "The secret is entertaining families, so they are not just hanging around."

Chewton Glen
Chewton Glen

ff are also trained to manage the situation around families. For instance, children's activities are timetabled to flow into each other, and staff communicate this to guests at check-in. In the restaurant, staff know it's not smart to seat a couple next to a family table, and as children tend to want food quickly, they serve them first. Staff are even trained in how to be entertaining around children. And if all else fails, there is an outdoor play area within 25 metres of the restaurant.

"It is about getting the balance right," explains Stembridge. "A number of hotels do kids better, but you could argue that it is at the expense of the adults. It is everyone's break. There are sacred areas for adults and, for instance, designated times for [children] swimming. It's about managing it without creating the feeling there are rules."

Providing added value is key to many successful family-friendly hotels. Chewton Glen doesn't charge for extra beds in the parent's rooms, but it achieves healthy room rates of between £325 and £2,850.

"Our rooms are expensive, but it's a better surprise for guests if they are not billed for everything. We create a spirit of generosity and it works," says Stembridge. "We've always had this approach of not chasing the nickels and dimes - for instance, bikes are free. A lot of things are not charged for."

Similarly, it may sound like commercial suicide, but the children's buffet, served in Chewton Glen's new casual Kitchen restaurant at 5pm, is free. As Stembridge points out: "Kids are fussy and sometimes don't eat a dish. The buffet takes the sting out of the tail. We get no revenue, but guests are already paying a good rate for the rooms, so this way they get added value and are more likely to come back."

The buffet also helps the brigade, as in the past there was a rush of room service orders around 5pm - and there's now less chance of spilled spaghetti bolognese in the bedrooms.

Without question, children cause added wear and tear, but the extra business justifies extra refurbishment costs, and lessons have been learned. For instance, Chewton Glen's ground-floor, family-friendly rooms now have easily cleaned wooden floors and walls are painted rather than wallpapered.

Chewton Glen
Chewton Glen

A particular draw for families are the 12 treehouses, set apart in the hotel's grounds. Families staying here will have their breakfast provided in hampers, which helps dilute the family impact on the restaurant. Their popularity has also enabled the creation this year of a £1.5m two-suite treehouse lodge, offering everything from a fully serviced kitchen to games consoles and board games.

Stembridge concedes that some old-school guests will have been lost as a result, but adds that business is constantly evolving. For instance, grandparents bring children and grandchildren, creating guests for the future.

"It has inevitably changed the hotel, but from a business point of view, it is the best thing we have done," says Stembridge. "It accounts for 20% of all business. It fills times of year when we are quiet, such as half-terms. And the treehouses are full all the time."

Generation gains

Families are an increasingly important business segment at Gleneagles in Auchterarder, Perthshire. The five-star, 232-bedroom property is famed as a haven for golf and country sports, but Ennismore, which bought the 850-acre estate in 2015, is investing millions to refurbish it and broaden its appeal.

General manager Conor O'Leary says: "I've learned that Gleneagles is famous for golf, but many of the parents of families I meet have been coming here since they were children, and it has stayed in their memory. People bringing [children and] grandchildren protect the interests of Gleneagles for the long term."

The hotel's latest plans include a Little Glen and the Den, which is due to open at the end of the year. This will provide an interactive crèche for ages two to eight and an attached playroom for eight to 17-year-olds.

O'Leary stresses that the hotel is aiming to be family friendly rather than child friendly, so service styles and activities have to engage everyone. "It's a subtle difference," he says.

For instance, the hotel has introduced wildlife walks, zipwires, cycling, archery, croquet, fishing and a shooting lodge. Teenagers can even learn to train a gundog or drive an ArgoCat (a type of six-wheel, off-road jeep). And the vastness of the estate means that families don't encroach on other guests - there is even a
separate swimming pool for kids.

Activities are key in this market and help boost revenue. The 136-bedroom Cameron House on Loch Lomond gets 50% of its business from families during school holidays. It offers an astonishing range of family activities, from seaplane trips to loch cruises, and has just invested £100,000 in launching a guided Segway safari (£30 for a child, £45 for an adult) and mountain bike hire (£10/£20), again with guides. Other options include a swimming pool and waterslide, a children's arcade, pony trekking, falconry and lawn games.

The hotel has also just launched the Cameron Kids Adventure Club package. Aimed at children up to 14, it includes an activity pack and teddy, games, and mini dressing gowns and slippers to use during their stay. It also provides everything parents might need for babies, from sterilisers to bathtubs.

Cameron House
Cameron House

e hotel lets children at every age from newborns to 15-year-olds stay and eat for free. For the October half-term, kids aged from five to 12 got a deal that included two hours of complementary activities at the Kids Club, encouraging parents to make good use of the spa.

Resort director Andy Roger says: "More and more people are choosing to stay in the UK for holidays. Happy kids equals happy parents, so our focus is on offering activities for all ages. We want to ensure families have everything they need on-site, so the more we can offer for them to do - regardless of the weather - the more we can attract them to come and stay."

Hotel Nanny

Hoteliers are stepping up their game when it comes to families, and that means outsourcing some services to the professionals.

Angela Enel launched her Hotel Nanny childcare agency 18 months ago having identified a gap in the market. She noticed that parents checking into a luxurious family suite are unable to enjoy the spa or restaurant as most kids' clubs are for children aged three and above. She also recognised that kids' clubs aren't for everyone.

The company draws from a pool of trained nannies, and works with luxury hotels, such as those owned by Red Carnation, Barnsley House and Gidleigh Park across London, Exeter, Bath, Cirencester and Cheltenham, and is moving into the Manchester area.

While guests pay the company up to £280 for a nine-hour session, the hotel benefits from freed-up parents able to make the most of the hotel spa or fine-dining restaurant.

Enel says: "We complement their brand because it allows their guests to spend more money. We are an added-value service working with the hotel. For instance, we market our availability at Easter and they can upsell their fine dining."

Bringing the romance back

It may have been named the most romantic hotel and the best country house in Scotland in the UK Good Hotel Guide 2017, but Ardanaiseig hotel, near Oban, is trying to generate quality family time.

"We're proud of our reputation as Scotland's most romantic hotel, but romantic couples often have children, and we are delighted to welcome them too," says general manager Bronwyn Smith.

Ardanaiseig Ardan lounge
Ardanaiseig Ardan lounge

e 16-bedroom hotel, on the banks of Loch Awe, Argyll, is banning mobile phones in its dining room to encourage children to connect with their parents. The ban is in time for its £295 per room per night Winter Warmer package, which includes dinner, bed and breakfast, and encourages children to join parents for all meals in the two-AA-rosette dining room, as well as take afternoon tea in the grand drawing room.

"Children today are the parents of tomorrow and we've found that many guests who first stayed here as youngsters have returned as parents - and sometimes as grandparents. To encourage families, we're offering half-rates for children between two and 12 who share their parents' room," says Smith.

Several bedrooms are family friendly, and the hotel also has a two-bedroom self-catering cottage. Children can borrow wellington boots for activities such as 'bog-squelching' and food foraging on the 120-acre estate, or take a rowing boat on the loch with their parents.

Calcot: from segment pioneer to top of the heap

Calcot in Tetbury, Gloucestershire, is the sector expert on family-friendliness. It was named Family-Friendly Hotel of the Year in the Hoteliers' Hotels Top 100 ratings 2017, organised by The Caterer and Sky.

Calcot's playzone
Calcot's playzone

cot started targeting families way back in the early 1990s after realising that most luxury hotels were ignoring this market. This year, the 35-bedroom property saw its first next-generation family when a guest who used to come with her parents as a child checked in with her husband and newborn.

General manager Paul Sadler says: "It is a great testament to the longevity of the family market. When you have a family, you search for a place that works. And when you find it, you tend to stick with it, which is why we have a 55% repeat business from our family market - many we see four or five times a year or return annually."

Another growth area is the extended-family stay, with grandparents now treating their children and grandchildren. "We have such groups in on a regular basis and we see the grandchildren enjoying the crèche, the parents and grandparents enjoying the spa and grounds, and then the whole extended family coming together for meal times or family activities," says Sadler.

Much of Calcot's success comes down to offering different experiences to differing age groups while allowing them opportunities to spend quality time together as a family. All the bedrooms offer Sky Sports.

"To be a good family-friendly hotel, you need to keep both children and parents happy and give them opportunities to spend time together, alongside facilities that allow the adults some adult time and the children some play time," says Sadler.

Calcot's figures for January to August 2017:

  • Family rooms and suites account for 39.7% of all rooms sold
  • Family accommodation revenue accounts for 47.7% of overall accommodation revenue
  • The family market accounts for 32.5% of the hotel's overall revenue.

Calcot's top tips for family-friendly stays

  • Recruiting and training the right staff to make families feel welcome is fundamental. For instance, the people who serve breakfast in the Conservatory have brought up their own families and know what is required to encourage children to eat up - a boon for both kids and parents.
    Calcot's playzone cinema
    Calcot's playzone cinema
  • Calcot's Ofsted-registered crèche is unusual in a hotel. It is not a profit-making facility, but its advantage in attracting the family market outweighs the costs. Parents can leave their children aged from newborn upwards with qualified nannies during the day. There is a separate area for the over-sevens with gaming consoles, and there is also a small cinema that can be used at weekends to screen early-evening films.
  • In the school holidays, the hotel organises children's activities in the mornings and afternoons. Parents are also given pagers so they can be contacted wherever they are in the grounds.
  • Good use is made of Calcot's 220 acres to entice families outdoors. This includes provision of different-sized bicycles as well as activities such as disc golf (golf with frisbees), that are appropriate for any age group. There is a play area for the younger children, while Segways and horse riding can be organised for older children. There are also two outdoor tennis courts.
  • On Saturdays, there is a children's cooking club, so parents get a few hours to chill.
  • To preserve tranquillity in the spa for parents and other adults, children are limited to one-and-a-half-hour sessions a day in the swimming pool during weekdays and two-hour sessions a day at weekends.
    Calcot Berkeley family room
    Calcot Berkeley family room
  • There are 10 rooms and suites with separate children's bedrooms, and many rooms can interconnect to cater for larger families.
  • For young families, the hotel supplies baby boxes with essentials such as sterilisers and bottle warmers. All family rooms have a baby-listening device connected to reception, so parents can relax over dinner. There is also a babysitting service.
  • Initiatives include Calcot rubber ducks in the bathrooms, and every child receives a welcome biscuit with their name on.
  • A children's supper menu is offered from 5pm in Calcot's casual restaurant,
    the Gumstool Inn.
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