Earlier this year, Specialist Leisure Group and publishing company Hearst announced a unique partnership: to launch a collection of hotels inspired by lifestyle magazine Country Living.
The launch of Country Living Hotels has seen two properties undergo multimillion-pound refurbishments and rebranding to match the magazine. The partnership, a UK first, was born following a licensing agreement between Hearst, the publisher of Country Living magazine, and hotel owner and operator Specialist Leisure Group (SLG, formerly known as Shearings). In March it was announced that two of SLG's Coast & Country-branded hotels, the Lansdown Grove in Bath and St George in Harrogate, would be the first to adopt the Country Living Hotels name.
The Country Living brand has already expanded beyond its print publication to a furniture range with home store DFS and events such as the Country Living Fairs. However, the entry into hospitality was a very different beast with which the magazine team had to become acquainted.
Seasonal, escapism and timelessness are all words editor in chief and group editorial director Susy Smith uses to describe the Country Living brand. The priority for the hotels was to ensure that the properties reflected the brand and that guests felt like they were walking through the pages of the magazine.
The Country Living team - Smith, brand development consultant Catherine Gee and Sharon Douglas, chief brand officer of lifestyle and homes - chose the SLG properties that were most relevant to the brand's readership. The south-west is a "heartland" area for the magazine's readers, while one of the Country Living fairs takes place in Harrogate.
"When we first started talking about this potential collaboration, we went on the SLG website and saw beautiful listed buildings and fabulous locations that just fit perfectly with the Country Living audience, so it wasn't difficult to imagine the coming together of both sides," says Smith.
However, there was one major issue: although Bath and Harrogate are within easy reach of the countryside, the properties themselves are in the town centre - and Country Living is all about celebrating the country lifestyle.
"The look needs to feel in tune with Country Living, but a little more chic, edgy and fashionable," says Smith. "So even though you're in a town, as soon as you walk into the building, it feels like it could be a country pub or hotel. It was that challenge of making it feel current and on-trend, but equally to have enough of a traditional element that it represented Country Living." The magazine team were heavily involved in the design process, from the furniture to the teaspoons and key fobs. Although Smith initially felt a certain trepidation ("We'd never designed a hotel before in our lives - I wouldn't have known where to start. We design room sets, but that's completely different"), SLG had interior designer Oliver Redfern on hand to guide the process and ensure the Country Living look translated into an operational hospitality environment. "We showed him copies of the magazine and our internal interior decorating team put together mood boards to show him the Country Living look, and he got it," says Smith. The team briefed Redfern room by room, and he then went away to create his own mood boards and designs, which Smith and her team would then approve or veto or offer alternatives. "It was things like, that throw's not right for us, or can we have a plaid rug which is a little less fashionable and a little more comfortable," says Smith. "We've learned so much. This is not a domestic environment - furniture needs to be much more robust and it needs to come from contract suppliers because you need 56 rooms' worth of everything. If we'd been asked what a Country Living hotel would look like in the middle of the countryside, it would be vintage furniture and faded florals. But then there's this realisation that without massive investment you can't do that - and the fact that the furniture might fall apart." Ultimately, there was compromise on both sides to achieve a property that reflected the Country Living aesthetic while also delivering spaces that functioned in a hospitality environment while staying on budget and on time - both of which were achieved. The 55-bedroom Country Living Lansdown Grove hotel in Bath launched in late May and the 90-bedroom Country Living St George hotel in Harrogate reopened in early July as planned. Bath versus Harrogate The two properties were approached differently not only to retain the individual character of each building (Harrogate is an Edwardian mansion, while Bath is one of the oldest Grade II-listed buildings in the city with a Regency facade), but also due to their size: at 90 bedrooms, the St George in Harrogate is nearly twice that of the Lansdown Grove in Bath. The Bath hotel already lent itself to the feeling of a country home - the larger Harrogate property was more challenging. "The public areas are vast, so the big challenge was filling the space and making it feel welcoming," says Smith. And due to its proximity to the Yorkshire Dales and the moors, the St George suited a slightly more 'country' decor, with more tweeds and countryside imagery than its chicer, more elegant sister property in Bath. Reception "We wanted it to look like the entrance hall of a country house," says Smith. The Bath reception immediately sets the tone: wellies are lined up next to the doorway next to two bright orange fireside armchairs and copies of the magazine and its sister publication, Country Living Modern Rustic, artfully strewn across coffee tables and sideboards. Restaurants, bars and lounges "We could see that the restaurant in Harrogate was going to be the biggest challenge," says Smith. e space was previously divided by a curtain to make it feel less vast, but Redfern came up with the idea of breaking up the space with banquette seating and introducing large, impactful pieces of artwork. The hotel's large function room, which is advertised for weddings, has a stained-glass dome depicting flying ducks, which is rather apt considering the magazine's logo is a duck - however, Smith insists that it was, "nothing to do with us, it was already there". The final touch to the public areas - and one of the most important - was by hospitality artwork supplier Elegant Clutter, which filled the shelves with artwork, books and antiques. "That's one of the things that really makes it feel Country Living," says Smith. "The company find all this stuff in house clearances and car boot sales - it's the way that Country Living people operate, just on a commercial scale," agrees Gee. "That's how our readers furnish their homes," adds Smith. Bedrooms The bedrooms have several nods to the magazine, including bespoke cushions featuring the duck logo. "We're trying to connect it back to the magazine if people aren't aware of the connection before they stay here," says Smith. "The duck is a little bit twee and it can be difficult to use in a sophisticated environment, so we loved that touch," she adds. When it came to the artwork in the bedrooms, Redfern wanted historical scenes of the local areas, however nature scenes were chosen instead to emphasise the sense that guests have stepped into a country hotel. Bathrooms The bathrooms also proved challenging due to the nature of the buildings: "We had endless arguments about bath or shower or both," says Smith. "Clearly both is the best option, but there isn't enough room." The result was a compromise - those bathrooms that could accommodate both do, while some only have showers. Smith also wanted to add spotlights, but the Bath property is a listed building and the planning permission would not have been completed within the six-month timeframe. The bathrooms currently feature toiletries by Harrogate-based H2K, but are set to be replaced next year by a bespoke Country Living Hotels range designed by the company. Future plans While the expansion of Country Living Hotels is under discussion, for now the focus is on bedding in the two properties, with the Lansdown Grove to add a further six bedrooms in January, increasing the room count to 61.
Contact and detailsCountry Living Lansdown GroveLansdown Road, Bath BA1 5EHRelaunched 25 May 2018 Bedrooms 55 General manager Emily Rogers Staff 30 Country Living St George1 Ripon Road, Harrogate, North Yorkshire HG1 2SYRelaunched 6 July 2018 Bedrooms 90 Staff 50 Owner Specialist Leisure Group Starting room rate £109 www.countrylivinghotels.com
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