Gold standard: we take a look at the Bristol Harbour Hotel & Spa

14 April 2017 by
Gold standard: we take a look at the Bristol Harbour Hotel & Spa

With its lofty halls, quirky vaults and masses of impressive architectural features, the newly opened Bristol Harbour Hotel & Spa is cashing in on the fact that it once housed two banks. Janet Harmer takes a peek and explores other hotels offering more bank for your buck

Bristol Harbour hotel
Bristol Harbour hotel
The Bristol property opened just six months ago and swiftly made an impact on the hotel scene - as well as achieving an occupancy rate of 85% and a revpar of £110. A key part of its success, according to Warren, is the fact that it is located in what was previously two adjoining bank buildings (Lloyds and Midland), the conversion and joining together of which has resulted in a truly statement property.

"The banks were built during a period of prosperity in Bristol's history, some 170 or so years ago," he says. "The beautiful architecture demonstrated the banks' wealth, which was used to attract prosperous clients. If you were to recreate these two buildings today, it would probably cost £35m-£40m."

Bristol Harbour hotel
Bristol Harbour hotel

bour Hotels, like other hotel companies (see below), recognises the advantage of creating a fabulous hotel within a building that once enticed bank customers. Today's guests are impressed not only by the grandeur of the new hotel, but also by the buzz in its restaurant compared with the tranquillity in the basement spa, located in what was once the bank vaults.

The big bank theory
Banks built during the Victorian and Edwardian eras lend themselves well to being transformed into social spaces for events, particularly weddings. In the case of the Bristol Harbour Hotel, renowned architect William Bruce Gingell was inspired by Jacopo Sansovino's 16th century Library of St Mark in the Piazzetta, Venice, to create a space that is now used for functions for up to 320 guests.

"Another major benefit of working with these two majestic buildings is that they have been established for many years as significant landmarks in Bristol, so they are well known among city residents," says Warren. "There was a great deal of curiosity about what we were doing, with many locals keen to see the results of the refurbishment."

Bedroom at the Bristol Harbour hotel
Bedroom at the Bristol Harbour hotel

t was somewhat serendipitous that the two banks were secured together by Harbour Hotels in an off-market deal. After visiting the Midland building, Warren discovered that the next-door Lloyds building was also empty.

"We made some enquiries and discovered that the Lloyds property was about to be snapped up by a national restaurant chain on a long lease," says Warren. "We realised the potential of the two properties together was huge and, fortunately, we secured both."

However, the company took a calculated risk: at the point it became committed to both properties there was still uncertainty as to whether the two buildings could be joined. "It was very satisfying when we got the planning permission to knock through," says Warren.

Sansovino Hall at the Bristol Harbour hotel
Sansovino Hall at the Bristol Harbour hotel

e combined properties have enabled Harbour Hotels to open its largest food and beverage operation, with an 84-cover Jetty restaurant headed by chef Alex Aitken, the Sansovino Hall for events and the Gold bar, which has rapidly become one of Bristol's liveliest and most distinctive venues for young professionals for post-work drinks. Together with the spa, these facilities have enabled the hotel to establish itself as a solid lifestyle business in a city dominated primarily by large brands. Chief competitors in this space include Hotel du Vin, where Warren spent 17 years and worked his way up to chief operating officer, and Brooks Guesthouse.

The Jetty restaurant and bar at the Bristol Harbour hotel
The Jetty restaurant and bar at the Bristol Harbour hotel

ury hotel booking site Mr & Mrs Smith is proving to be the biggest driver of valuable business, both directly and indirectly. "Mr & Mrs Smith provides a stamp of lifestyle approval," explains Warren. "Not only does it bring in business, but it brings in the right business, with guests embracing the entire food, wine and leisure experience. It is these guests who are most likely to book a spa treatment during their stay."

Harbour Hotels is now believed to be one of only two groups, alongside the Pig, which has four properties signed up to Mr & Mrs Smith. Its hotels in Brighton, Salcombe, Sidmouth and now Bristol all benefit significantly from the association.

The Gold bar at the Bristol Harbour hotel
The Gold bar at the Bristol Harbour hotel

City living The huge benefit of being in Bristol, of course, is the more consistent business levels a city provides. "Coastal hotels are more challenging because of the peaks and troughs in demand throughout the year," says Warren.

However, while cities are where Harbour Hotels definitely wants to make its mark long-term, the immediate future will see the company launch its next three hotels on the coast: in Southampton, Salcombe and Torquay. The 76-bedroom, new-build hotel in Southampton resembles a superyacht, and will open on the waterfront at the Ocean Village Marina later this year. The £25m property is being developed in a joint venture with MDL Marinas.

After acquiring the 35-bedroom Tides Reach hotel on South Sands in Salcombe, Devon, in 2015, Harbour Hotels is set to redevelop it to become its second hotel in the town, alongside the 50-bedroom Salcombe Harbour Hotel & Spa. The group will create a new 40-bedroom wing at the hotel, alongside developing 10 apartments within the existing building, and aims to relaunch the hotel at the end of 2018.

The following year (2019) will see the opening of a 60-bedroom hotel, alongside 43 luxury apartments, on the harbour in Torquay, Devon. A Grade II-listed pavilion will house the reception, restaurants, bars, function rooms and a spa, alongside a new bedroom building.

The spa at the Bristol Harbour hotel
The spa at the Bristol Harbour hotel

Contact and details

Bristol Harbour Hotel & Spa55 Corn Street, Bristol BS1 1HT0844

Owner and operator Harbour Hotels Group

Managing director Mike Warren

General manager Grant Callaghan

Bedrooms 42

Facilities Jetty restaurant (84 covers); Gold bar; Sansovino Hall event space (up to 320 guests); spa with six treatment rooms

Occupancy 85%

Average room rate £145

Revpar £110

Sister properties Hotels: Brighton, Chichester, Christchurch, Kings Arms (Christchurch), Guildford, Salcombe, Sidmouth and St Ives. Event venues: Froyle Park, Hampshire; and Northbrook Park, Surrey

Pipeline properties Southampton, Salcombe (Tides Reach) and Torquay

Banking on hotels When it comes to searching for a heritage property in which to develop a distinctive hotel, owners and operators cannot fail - with a sympathetic restoration - to impress with the right, former bank building.

The rationalisation of the banking industry since the 1980s, when the number of bank buildings in the UK at the end of that decade amounted to nearly 18,000, has provided many an opportunity to snap up properties ripe for hotel conversions. By 2015, the number of bank buildings had shrunk to 9,500, and, according to a study by Swiss bank UBS, a further 50% will close over the next 10 years.

Not all of these properties are suitable for conversion, but ones in major city centres often have lofty ceilings and intriguing vaults, providing a wonderful canvas for a hotel owner with imagination.

Carine Bonnejean, head of consultancy - hotels at property company Christie & Co, said: "Many banks are well located, enjoy good visibility and possess a certain grandeur that is ideal for hotel conversion, particularly at the luxury end of the market. As there are restricted development opportunities in many city centres, these types of buildings are often a great option for conversions.

Martin Rogers, director of Savills, agrees: "The older banks are full of character, which adds to the hotel experience, and are particularly attractive to offshore purchases, especially those from the Far East," he says.

Conversions include properties as small as the 12-bedroom Bank House in King's Lynn, Norfolk, located within a Grade II-listed 18th century building. Then there is the 42-bedroom Old Bank hotel in Oxford, converted from former Barclays Grade II and Grade II*-listed properties.

The Vault bar at the Ned
The Vault bar at the Ned

ger and grander banks that have been transformed include the 74-bedroom Threadneedles London in 2002. Once the headquarters of London, City and Midland bank, the Grade II-listed hotel is today owned by Malaysian-based YTL Hotels and is part of Marriott's Autograph Collection.

Architect Sir Edwin Lutyens was responsible for two of the UK's most imposing bank buildings that have gone on to be developed into two impressive hotels. In King Street, Manchester, a castle-like Art Deco property, designed by Lutyens in 1928 - once occupied by Midland Bank - opened in 2015 as the 60-bedroom Hotel Gotham, operated by Bespoke Hotels.

Next month will see the opening of the Ned in London, comprising 252 bedrooms and nine restaurants, at 27 Poultry, a Grade I-listed building which once housed the headquarters of the Midland Bank. It is being created by Soho House & Co in partnership with US hotel owner and developer Sydell Group.

Seven of the Ned's F&B spaces will be in the building's impressive former banking hall, featuring 92 green verdite marble columns and walnut panelling originally used as counters. And deep in the basement, the bank vaults will accommodate the Vault Bar and Lounge, with the walls lined with more than 3,000 safety deposit boxes, behind the 20-tonne, two-metre vault doors.

And finally, two years from now will see the arrival of the Principal brand of urban lifestyle hotels in Liverpool, in the Grade II-listed former Martin's Bank building, which was occupied by Barclay's until 2009. David Taylor, chief operating officer of Principal, said the property has "a fantastic history, having secretly held the majority of the UK's gold reserve during the Second World War".

See here for the inside story of the creation of the Ned >>

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