Andrew Colley and Robin Knight have turned the Pride of the Valley into somewhere affluent local residents are happy to go. Janet Harmer reports on how the hoteliers are attracting a new market of discerning customers.
Pride of the Valley's Andrew Colley and Robin Knight had their work cut out for them when they bought the hotel, which had suffered for 3-4 years with a reputation that put off affluent locals.
The new owners had a steep mountain to climb before they could get these nearby residents over their threshold.
"Before we arrived, it is said that the bar would be frequently occupied by a rowdy drinking crowd, something which was obviously off-putting to nearby residents who wanted to come here for a nice meal and a decent bottle of wine," says Colley. "It became apparent that changing people's perceptions about the hotel was going to be difficult."
As a result, Colley and Knight had to work hard at winning back local business before marketing the hotel further afield. In the months following the reopening of the hotel, restaurant and bar in March 2007, Colley and Knight hosted two major dinners - for the Farnham Rotary Club and the Hindhead Conservative Club. Then a summer garden party was held, attended by 95 local residents who enjoyed Champagne and canapés. All three events proved enormously successful in reintroducing the locals to the Pride of the Valley.
Some of those who attended live in nearby Jumps Road. Running from the hotel to the village of Churt, the road has a number of substantial homes worth in excess of £2m. At one time the Jumps Road residents' association held monthly meetings at the Pride of the Valley. "Then, about three years ago," says Colley, "club members boycotted the hotel after a relationship breakdown with hotel staff."
"It is very prestigious business, as it has not only resulted in the monthly dinners, but it has also created additional restaurant bookings as well as quite a bit of bedroom business for us, with friends and relatives of residents occasionally booking in to stay for a night or two," says Colley. "One member of the residents' association is a keen collector of cars and is bringing 20-30 members of the exclusive Mercedes-Benz Gullwing Owners' Club to dinner soon."
Turning their attention beyond the immediate locality, Colley and Knight knew that it was important to have a good presence on the internet. As well as having a stylish website in place - designed and marketed by web specialists Getonit.co.uk - they also believed that signing up to a number of hotel booking sites would bring them business. And they were right - once photographs were in place.
Pride of the Valley was registered on Laterooms.com and Bookings.co.uk and initially picked up bookings at the rate of one or two per week. After the refurbishment, photographs of the bedrooms and newly decorated restaurant and bar were added to its pages on these sites and the transformation in business was instant. "It was like switching on a light," says Colley. "We started getting three or four rooms booked every night."
From virtually negligible occupancy during the first three months of 2007, occupancy leapt to a high of 69% between May and July, before settling at 64% for the rest of the year. For the first two months of 2008, the rate has dropped back to 44%, largely as a result of the lack of wedding business, which was buoyant during the summer and in the months leading up to Christmas.
"As well as holding eight or nine weddings, including two gay civil ceremonies, here last year, we also picked up a lot of room bookings from Cain Manor, a major wedding venue in the nearby village of Headley Down," says Colley.
The wedding market is important for the Pride of the Valley, and Colley and Knight have attended local wedding fairs to market the business. The facilities lend themselves to a number of different options, from large wedding parties taking over the entire hotel to smaller second weddings using just the restaurant. Big weddings often mean 52 guests being accommodated for the wedding breakfast in the restaurant and up to 30 in the bar, with a total of 30 guests able to be accommodated in the bedrooms.
"We don't have a civil wedding licence, but it is something we could apply for if we extend the hotel by adding a function room with extra bedrooms above," says Colley.
The hotel did some initial advertising in the local press - the Haslemere Herald, Farnham Herald and Alton Post - to create awareness of the new ownership. And although he declined to advertise with local radio station 96.4 Eagle when approached, Colley did sow a seed with the sales manager, which ultimately proved to be extremely lucrative. "I wasn't prepared to pay £8,500 for a two-week advertising programme, but I did suggest that our chef would be prepared to go into the radio station at any time to talk about food trends," he says.
"A few weeks later we got a call from the news editor, and the chef was invited to take part in a live question-and-answer session on food for 45 minutes. The result was phenomenal. Before the broadcast we were doing about 40 for Sunday lunch, and in the following weeks we started doing 60-plus, a number that we've pretty much maintained ever since."
The profile of the hotel has also been raised through links with organisations in the immediate locality and beyond. Business has been cultivated with the likes of Farnham Rotary Club and golf societies in nearby Hindhead and Hankley Common, which have involved the golf commentator and local resident, Peter Allis.
Joining Haslemere Chamber of Commerce led to the holding of a Champagne dinner at Pride of the Valley during the Haslemere Food Festival as well as putting the hotel in contact with Balfour Beatty, the main contractor on the nearby A3 tunnelling project. "This is currently one of the biggest engineering projects in Europe, and we're hoping to pick up business from Balfour Beatty's engineers over the next two-and-a-half years," says Colley.
Contact has also been made with companies based at Farnborough and Guildford business parks, as well as BAE Systems at Farnborough Airfield. "We hosted a dinner for 11 senior staff at BAE, which was very positive, as they described it as one of the best dinners that they've enjoyed."
The guidebook market is something that Colley and Knight are only just beginning to explore. "We've signed up for the 2009 edition of Johansens Recommended Small Hotels & Inns for £1,600 per annum, as I think we fit in with their general profile of properties, which tend to be small hotels in the countryside in slightly out-of-the-way locations," says Colley, who believes that having a Johansens listing is a form of branding that provides peace of mind for potential guests.
A guide he would like Pride of the Valley to be rated by is the Mr & Mrs Smith Hotel Collection, as it is one that he has personally used and found to be reliable, and which fellow hoteliers say generates considerable business.
"Marketing is something of an inexact science - it is something that you've got to keep going at, you can never say that you've completed it," says Colley. "If you've got an in to a company or an organisation, such as we've now got with BAE, then it's like having a seed, which you then have to nurture to help grow. We're always looking at opportunities and leads like that, which we then flog to death."
The story so far
Andrew Colley (left) and Robin Knight (far left) completed their purchase of the 15-bedroom Pride of the Valley hotel in the Surrey village of Churt, 15 miles south-west of Guildford, in December 2006.
They ran the hotel with minimum staff and without any marketing until they closed for a complete refurbishment of the ground floor for two weeks at the end of February 2007. Since reopening, in mid-March 2007, business has steadily improved through a mix of word of mouth and positive marketing initiatives and looks set to achieve its projected annual turnover (to March 2008) of £525,000.
Bedroom revenue is stronger than forecast due to high demand and a limited supply of rooms in the area, with food turnover ahead due to a consistently high-quality product being offered in vastly improved surroundings.
Bar business is lagging behind predictions, which is in line with the national trend that has seen a fall in wet sales following the introduction of the smoking ban.
Pride of the Valley
Tilford Road, Churt, Surrey GU10 2LH
Tel 01428 605799
Owners Andrew Colley and Robin Knight
Purchase price £1.27m, freehold
Cost of refurbishment £90,000
Projected annual turnover to March 2008 £525,000
Rack rate £120, including VAT, for double occupancy of double room
Average achieved rate £95, including VAT, for double occupancy of double room
Food and beverage Pub with 32 seats and 50-seat restaurant