There will always be a place for the independent hotelier, in this country at least. In the USA, the chains are king, with a market domination of some 65%. In the UK, the reverse is true - and long may it be so. Independents often retain a charm and a quirkiness demanded by the customer who does not want to stay in a homogenised hotel.
But how do independents remain independent? Will they look up to the skies one day and see the Von A or Von B helicopters of the acquisitive Von Essen group hovering overhead? Or can they see them off? Read on to find out how the independents are staving off the corporate threat.
Matfen Hall Country House Hotel, Matfen, Northumberland; owned by Sir Hugh and Lady Blackett Anna Blackett, co-owner of Matfen Hall, near Newcastle, believes that her hotel is now one of the most talked-about, as well as being the largest independently owned hotel, in the North-east of England. A recently completed £5m expansion plan - which added a spa, new rooms, a state-of-the-art conference centre and additional dining areas - has put the 53-bedroom hotel on the map in an area that has become more accessible following the growth of budget airlines and the opening up of attractions such as Hadrian's Wall.
Less than a week after the refurbishment was complete, the hotel was subject to an AA inspection and consequently elevated from three to four stars. The secret, says Lady Blackett, is not rocket science but just trying to do things differently. "We go out of our way to show our attention to detail," she says. "The service has to be more personal and more individual."
Both Lady Blackett and her husband are hands-on, and therefore are able to provide the personal touches often not found in a corporate hotel. During the refurbishment, Sir Hugh regularly climbed ladders to check that the detail on the stonework was in keeping with the old building.
Lady Blackett describes the new Matfen as a "resort hotel". Prior to the expansion, it already had 18-hole and nine-hole golf courses, and the hope is that the spa will attract weekend leisure guests among whom one partner can play golf while the other uses the spa.
In fact, it's the spa that provides the hotel's major point of differentiation. "We knew that, if we didn't do the spa, we would go backwards rather than forwards," Lady Blackett says.
When designing the spa, the Blacketts visited other independents up and down the country, looking at different concepts. "It was a very good lesson to learn by visiting others and, as we approached hotels that were not in our area, they were happy to let us come and look," Lady Blackett says.
Some of the must-haves included a 16m swimming pool, with a glass atrium roof to allow as much natural sunlight as possible, and a "fire and ice" experience including a salt grotto, herbal sauna, crystal steam room, tropical shower and ice fountain.
The expansion has also had a major impact on food sales at Matfen. "Going from 31 to 53 bedrooms has opened up so many different doors," Blackett says. This year, the Blacketts are looking for food sales of some £1.25m, a 46% increase on 2003. And whereas guests used to stay an average of 1.5 days when there was just a golf course, they now stay 2.5 to three days.
Seaham Hall, Seaham, County Durham; owned by Tom and Jocelyn Maxfield It may have only 19 bedrooms, but it has made a huge impact. Seaham Hall Hotel and Serenity Spa, to give it its full title, has succeeded in making a name for itself in a neighbourhood close to Sunderland - not, some might say, the easiest area in which to open a luxury hotel.
It's also fiercely independent under Tom Maxfield, who owns the Samling at Dovenest in Windermere, in the Lake District, and two restaurants in the centre of Newcastle.
Maxfield says that the secret to remaining independent is simply to do everything better than your competitors, and to do this by looking at and reviewing every aspect of your business. "It's not easy," he says. "I set out to do something out of the ordinary, and to retain a very personal approach to everything."
Retaining a personal approach means that everything the hotel does is guest-centred. "I could save on costs and profitability," Maxfield says, "but I take a long-term view and I'm not expecting a quick return. We apply wafer upon wafer of detail every day, and it's only by doing this that you can stand out from the crowd."
A prime example of this detail is in the oriental theme of the Serenity Spa, a £10m investment which opened last year and has already notched up a turnover of £2m. Maxfield believes that the spa market - developed in the Far East to the point where having a weekly massage is a way of life - is only in its infancy in the UK. "The trend in spas has by no means peaked," he says. "We are at the forefront of that."
Targeted marketing is also a key to Seaham's success. The only consortium to which the hotel belongs is Pride of Britain, and Maxfield is not even sure what level of business this membership generates. Instead, he prefers to take a targeted approach to marketing, in the form of direct mail.
People whose names are on the Seaham Hall database receive a postcard - a square one, to make the hotel stand out from its competitors - giving details of special offers. Each mailing has a price-led caption, with details of Maxfield's other businesses below. Upselling, not discounting, is the technique here, with campaigns such as "Hate Mondays", encouraging customers to stay on a Sunday night, with breakfast in bed the following day.
"We don't want a year-round Allied Carpets-style sale," Maxfield says, "we try to create an identity and stick to it. It's very important to know who your customers are so that you don't waste your effort."
The Goring Hotel, London; owned by the Goring family At 94 years old, the 73-bedroom Goring is the oldest independently owned hotel, and the only five-star independently owned hotel, in London. Managing director William Cowpe has been there for 35 years and has been "married to the Goring longer than I've been married to my wife".
In central London, Cowpe has more than his fair share of competitors, with the likes of the Four Seasons, Lanesborough, Dorchester and the InterConti chain. "It is a constant challenge, just because we don't have the marketing muscle of the big players," he says.
It helps that the Goring has its name and heritage to fall back on, and repeat business of 50-60%. Long-serving staff are also part of the equation: three members of the concierge team have been there for 15, 20 and 25 years respectively and are well known to regular guests. "When the guest walks through the front door, they will see a familiar face," says Cowpe. "We also have a rule that the duty manager has to be in the front hall at lunchtime and in the evening."
As well as personal service, the Goring puts its faith in targeted marketing. Some 55-60% of its business comes from the USA and, as a result, the hotel has an alliance with travel agent grouping Virtuoso in the USA.
Owner George Goring also insists on constant reinvestment, as much as 15% of turnover each year. This year, the emphasis is on the suites, adding new suites and upgrading old ones.
And then there are the little things. A cuddly sheep sprawls in front of the fire in the lounge, and Cowpe's business card has a caricature of him on the reverse. "It's the little touches that make you stand out as an independent," he concludes.
Staying ahead of the chains Richard Lewis, managing director of Summit Hotels and Resorts, part of IndeCorp, believes that now is a good time for hoteliers to remain independent, with the customer increasingly calling the shots.
Via the internet, customers now look for hotel rooms themselves, rather than leaving the decision in the hands of a travel agent. When their internet search turns up an independent in the place they are visiting, they are more likely either to book the room themselves, or go back to the travel agent to see if they can book it on the customer's behalf.
Independents that are part of a representation organisation are more likely to be booked by agents, who will take either a commission or a booking fee. In fact, Lewis says, it is the chains that are rethinking the way in which they do business, developing their own websites and relying less on third parties, who often sell their rooms at discounted rates.
Zero commission, already a trend in the USA, will likely be the next thing in the UK, as agents find different ways to take their cut. Lewis advises that hotels be absolutely sure where their business is coming from, whether it is predominantly from the UK or overseas, and then join an appropriate organisation.
Staying independent - Focus on your marketplace. Decide on your target audience and don't compromise.
- Don't try to be all things to all men. It is far better to keep your focus on one market.
- There will be a gestation period before it's payback time. Try not to go off at tangents during that period. If you do, you will create confusion in the mind of the consumer.
- Decide on your values and don't lose sight of them.
- Stand back once a month and review what you are doing. If you don't have a head office setting standards, then it's important that you start to set them yourself.
- Plan your marketing throughout the year around a calendar, so that your customers are getting targeted and meaningful communications.
- Dare to be different so as to get noticed.