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Long live the independents

22 August 2006

According to a recent Mintel report, 39% of British consumers prefer the individuality of independent hotels to the cookie-cutter branded chains. Peter Hancock, chief executive of the Pride of Britain

The recent Mintel report confirms much that one would expect. Hotels in big brand chains are enjoying a lot of the growth in international tourism. This is partly explained by their successful marketing, of course, and the comfort factor that results from standardisation.

I think it is also a symptom of the travel agent's tendency to play safe. They have well-established deals with the multi-nationals and know exactly how much commission they'll receive. They also know how many square feet their client will find in their room and probably what colour the curtains will be.

But what of the British consumer? Our domestic market has never been so buoyant and nor have guests ever been so well informed about the choices available to them, thanks to the internet, consortia and other sources of reference.

And what do you know, they like independent hotels. Most of the very best hotels here are still to be found in private ownership. They are managed by people who care more about their customers than shareholders and who came into the business because they love it.

Is there a down side? Yes. Not all independent hotels are great. In fact, there are thousands of establishments with shabby rooms, out-of-date facilities and poor service - and some of those hotels aren't even cheap.

So there is a risk when venturing through the portals of an unknown private hotel that you might have a wretched time. I would certainly rather stay at a Travelodge than some of the inns and small hotels I've tried over the years.

We can hardly blame visitors from overseas, then, if they continue to trade charm for efficiency or forego a unique rural setting for a comfortable bed - they simply can't afford to take the chance.

Which makes me all the more impressed by the behaviour of savvy Brits who, having done their homework, end up in beautiful surroundings, eating wonderful hand-cooked food, drinking great wines and feeling the healing effects of a professional masseur - all within the walls of a business created by men and women who think like they do, independently.

In six years at Pride of Britain Hotels, and 12 at Johansens before that, I have noticed how the most successful hoteliers appear to have predicted a trend before it became one.

Take Robin Hutson, for example, who could have been excused for thinking he'd reached the top as MD of Chewton Glen, or Simon Rhatigan who made his name at Le Manoir. Both went on to create something new and different (Hotel du Vin and The Feversham Arms, in North Yorkshire, respectively) that appeals to today's customer - good quality in a relaxed, unfussy style.

At the same time Richard Broyd, the owner of Historic House Hotels, has proved that tireless dedication to conserving the authenticity of beautiful buildings, coupled with great service, is a winning formula too.

The diversity of offering at the top end of the market has never been wider or more appreciated.

There are those who say we need more regulation to eliminate the rubbish. I disagree. It is the freedom to be different that has given us some of our most distinguished hotels and any attempt to force us all to comply with mandatory gradings could erode that freedom.

Let the intelligence of the customer and the creativity of the hotelier keep this industry moving. Between them, they're doing a pretty good job already.

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Jacobs Media Group is honoured to be the recipient of the 2020 Queen's Award for Enterprise.

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