Setting up a hotel is hard work, but imagine doing it under the constant scrutiny of a documentary team. That's what the owners of the Big Sleep hotel in Cheltenham have been doing over the past four months. Tom Vaughan reports on the problems of inviting a TV crew into your hotel
It's 11.30pm and Cosmo Fry and Lulu Anderson, owners of the recently opened Big Sleep hotel in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, are 20 minutes into a discussion (read argument) about the positioning of a pure wool rug in the hotel lobby. As the topic of debate turns from size to colour, one of the four staff and two film-makers involved in the discussion suggests dyeing it. "I don't know," someone chirps up. "Man-made fibres don't really dye well." And as Anderson's face drops to look at the culprit, it's easy to see why the camera is in love with her, even though the feeling is far from mutual.
Fry and Anderson already owned and ran a Big Sleep hotel in Cardiff when they bought the Cheltenham site - then a tax office - for £2.1m in December 2005 with a view to turning it into a 52-bedroom hotel. The idea of making a TV documentary about the project was just one item on "a list of best PR initiatives", explains Fry. "Suggestion one was buy a Mini, cover it with the hotel's name and drive it around town. Suggestion two, make a documentary for TV."
The Big Sleep brand was started in 1999 when Anderson, a fashion journalist by trade, and Fry, a self-professed entrepreneur, became convinced they could offer, in Anderson's words, "a hotel that was simple, functional, stylish and only £50 or £60 a night". The idea became reality when a hotel in Cardiff folded on the first day of opening and the couple found themselves in a perfect position to pick up the pieces. They squeezed six investors for £60,000 each, which Fry admits wasn't easy during the dotcom boom period, and set up the Big Sleep Cardiff with an initial investment of £360,000.
Based around the idea of simple, clean, stylish interiors and affordable prices, it initially suffered at the hands of the glut of hotels which had sprung up in response to the 1999 Rugby World Cup, held partly in Wales. Fry said he had described the investment as "a tortoise in comparison to the dotcom investment hare", and true to his prediction the hotel slowly started to become a success as dotcom money crashed.
By 2002, the hotel was beginning to hit 80% occupancy and there was investor pressure to expand. The couple wanted to stay close to their base in Bath but initially struggled to find sites in the West and South-west of the country that fitted the criteria of being in a city centre, affordable and in the late sixties and early seventies office-block style they were keen on. They finally achieved their second site with the Cheltenham Big Sleep.
The purchase of the Cheltenham tax office proved exciting for the expansion of the company, but at the same time presented new obstacles. While the Big Sleep Cardiff had occupied an existing hotel, the Cheltenham property would have to be built from scratch using the tax office as nothing more than a shell and at a further investment of £2.9m.
Conversion and opening
The idea of a TV documentary on the conversion and opening of the Big Sleep Cheltenham was first put forward by the PR team as a marketing initiative. A meeting with ITV West's head of programming followed in September and, according to Anderson, "almost the next day" there was a camera crew following them around. The planned series will be screened on ITV West and Sky Travel in August to a maximum audience of 17 million viewers.
The couple had mixed views on the idea, but recognised that although such TV shows are not always kind on a personal level, it was too good a marketing opportunity for the hotel to turn down. "I was unsure how we would look as individuals on screen," says Anderson. "but seeing as we only have one other hotel it's a fantastic way for people to get to know the brand. It's going to help us appeal to a younger market."
Fry saw the documentary as entirely a business initiative from the outset. "I never considered the cons, I just thought about the pros. There's a big audience out there, and if we get it halfway right it could have a huge impact on what we're trying to do here," he says.
The Big Sleep documentary faced difficulties from the start, most noticeably criticism from investors. "They just thought we were in love with the cameras and doing the documentary for vanity's sake," says Fry. "They argued that it would be a distraction from our core challenge of setting up the hotel and getting an eight-hour day under our belt. But I would argue that the hour or two we lose a day doing the documentary is a great investment."
That said, the TV crew arrived in October and are expected to pack up this month, and the longer the project has gone on the more burdensome the cameras have become. "It's not as glamorous as it sounds," says Anderson. "It's exhausting and you get so much less done." Fry agrees. "There are so many levels of distraction. For example, if you want to make a phone call they will want to film you, which means getting permission and doing retakes. The whole process becomes very drawn-out."
The presence of the cameras also affected staff and customers. "In the first week we opened, staff found it very intimidating," says Anderson. "Not only were builders running around and machinery not fully working but they also had a boom mike in their faces as they were trying to be polite to customers. There were times when some of them would sneak off and cry." Guests also found the presence of a film crew daunting, and the couple had to sit down with the film-makers and ask them to back off slightly after the cameras had followed some guests into their rooms.
The film-makers' interest has also extended beyond the sphere of the hotel into the couple's private life. For instance, they were keen to show footage of Fry and Anderson socialising, which meant the cameras tracked them to dinner parties as well as lunches and social functions. "Friends tend to think you're doing it because you're vain," says Anderson. "It's so much more personal than we ever imagined."
So what is it about businesses such as Big Sleep that interests the public? Rachel Lalljee, producer of the documentary, says that as an industry, hospitality is well geared for such programmes. "The service business is interesting, whether you're setting up a restaurant or a café. There are a variety of definite stages you go through," she says. "It's clear and easy for the audience. Everyone knows roughly how a hotel is run and they're keen to see that in practice."
And it seems that even bad publicity can pay off. A case in point is the now infamous BBC1 hotel documentary in 1997 which featured the owners and staff of the Britannia Adelphi hotel in Liverpool. The programme caused outrage among industry members towards the Adelphi management as it depicted them charging double the rack rate for rooms on the day of the IRA bomb scare at the Grand National, charging up to £45 for a mattress in the ballroom and attempting to cater for a function with a disastrous indoor barbecue. Among the mail Caterer received at the time, one correspondent said the programme had left him "embarrassed, saddened, frustrated, angry. What will the public think of the way our industry was portrayed?"
Nevertheless occupancy boomed in the months following the show, averaging almost 90% and requiring the management to hire eight extra staff to cope with demand.
While Fry and Anderson would struggle to hit such heights of ineptitude, what do they think of laying bare their operations to industry peers? "Neither of us are from a hotel background so don't mind what other people in the industry think," says Anderson. "I know we're doing things right. Maybe not for everyone, but certainly for us."
Nevertheless, Fry and Anderson will be open to scrutiny. As Lalljee explains, it's not predominantly the hotel that will capture the imagination: "Viewers are interested in a personal journey by people the programmes are about. It's our job to make the public feel an affinity with Cosmo and Lulu," she says.
It's not hard to see why the programme commissioners chose the couple. They're both larger-than-life characters and have a lively rapport that in other 10-year relationships might have dimmed. And most importantly, they've been hands-on in the process of launching the Cheltenham Big Sleep. As Anderson says: "We've done everything from designing the hinges on the doors to the sofas in the lobby."
Fry was often to be seen wandering around, drill in hand, and in the rush before opening even Anderson's male au pair was summoned from home to add manpower to the operation. "Reo Stakis [founder of Stakis Hotels] is remembered in the industry as an owner who had to sleep in every single bed in his hotel chain," says Fry. "If Lulu and I are to be remembered it will be as owners who had to plug in every single telly and commission every single radiator."
Permanently bad mood
The couple may seem suited for TV, but both claim they have never felt comfortable in front of a camera. "I've never got used to it in the four months the crew have been here," says Fry. "And there was a point when having them around really started to wear me down. I was in a permanently bad mood because of them. One day I had to remind myself that I wasn't this person. I was coming across as moody and angry and that mood was permeating to the staff and affecting morale."
On the day the hotel was due to open, Anderson was at home in Bath and couldn't get through to Fry in Cheltenham. Unbeknown to her the hotel was unable to open on time because of construction problems, which she found out only an hour before Fry arrived home - bringing the camera crew with him. With the opening of the hotel in doubt and the first big booking only a week away, tensions were understandably high. So when Fry walked in with the camera crew, Anderson admits to wanting to call the whole thing off.
"I felt it had gone too far," she says. "The whole documentary was too much, what with everything else we had on our plate, and it was encroaching on our personal space far too much." Calmness prevailed, and they agreed that it would be foolish to pull out, having already committed so much time to it.
But are they going to miss the cameras when they leave? "Not at all," says Fry. "The days when they're not here are like clover. It's nothing personal at all. It just means you can get on with your day and not have to worry about someone leaning a mike over your shoulder."
The presence of the cameras also brings the vague job description of running a hotel into focus. "So much of owning a hotel is petty," says Anderson. "The camera crew want to know what I do, but it's hard to say - from wandering around and making sure things are running smoothly to reacting to a situation when it arises, to popping out to Woolworth's to get something needed on reception."
But despite all the difficulties of the past four months, the couple say they don't regret the documentary. Putting the hotel in front of such a huge, young audience is a priceless opportunity. "The whole thing is not about Cosmo and me," says Anderson. "Even if we come across as tosspots, the hotel won't photograph badly. We can look as bad as the producers want, but the hotel will always look great." And, come August, 17 million viewers will have the chance to agree.
The programme is due to be shown in August. For scheduling information, visit www.itvregions.com/westcountry.
Big Sleep Hotels
- Opened: June 1999
- Rooms: 81
- Investment: Initial £350,000 in 1999, £3m in 2003 to purchase freehold
- Rack rates: £58 budget, £69 standard
- Average achieved room rate: £50
- Average occupancy: 80%
- Number of staff: 45
- Opened: November 2006
- Rooms: 62
- Investment: £5m
- Rack rates: £70 standard, £99 suite (to rise to £85 and £120 in May)
- Average achieved room rate: £52
- Occupancy: 30%
- Number of staff: 15, to rise to 25
should you allow tv cameras into your hotel?
Simon Nash, marketing manager at Ignite Marketing, weighs up the pros and cons of inviting TV cameras into a hotel.
From a marketing point of view, hosting a documentary could make or break your hotel. Clearly, TV coverage offers incredible value in terms of publicity for your brand.
A single show will be a real boost and a series could make you a household name, creating instant brand recognition. This "celebrity" status will, either consciously or subconsciously, make customers far more likely to choose your hotel over others. If, as in the case of the Big Sleep, the coverage surrounds a launch, then it will also add a sense of excitement and energy that will almost guarantee success from the moment you open the doors.
However, in the hotel industry, publicity is not always a good thing. The presence of a TV crew during normal operating hours could cause disruption to customers paying for a restful experience. Ask yourself: are privacy and intimacy central to your brand? If so, a TV show is likely to go down like a lead balloon. Look at the Hempel, London's latest celebrity hot spot. Tom Cruise managed to spend a week there recently without the press noticing. No wonder other celebrities are booking there in their droves.
The other big question, before you give the world a warts-and-all view of your hotel, concerns the way you run it. Take a long hard look at management practices. Are your staff happy and fulfilled, is your health and safety policy up to scratch, and does your customer service really deliver? How will your hotel appear when it's exposed to the TV cameras? Only fools would allow their worst failings to be broadcast to the nation.
Ultimately, it comes down to a question of branding. Companies like EasyJet and The Big Sleep that choose to go down the TV route have two things in common: big aspirations and loud brands. For them, and other midmarket brands, publicity is a boon. More subtle and sophisticated brands should tread very carefully.