I can't remember a time when I didn't want to have my own hotel," says Christina Simons. It helps that she has a background in the industry and that she managed to persuade husband David Mascord that buying a hotel was the right thing to do. "I don't think we would have done it without Christina knowing what she was doing," Mascord confirms.
Simons has an HND in hotel catering and institutional management from Colchester Institute, and has worked at the Arundel House hotel in Cambridge, Swynford Paddocks in Six Mile Bottom, Cambridgeshire, Heythrop Park in Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, and Airlie Beach in Australia.
In 1989 she jumped ship from contract caterers Gardner Merchant and went into publishing, joining Caterer & Hotelkeeper and its sister title, Catering Update. Two years later she launched her own public relations company, Simons Communications. Just over a year ago, Simons and Mascord moved to the New Forest to buy a house - but not to invest in a hotel.
It was a chance conversation in the school playground - while Simons was waiting to pick up Katy, seven, and James, five - that changed the course of the couple's lives. The Cottage hotel in Brockenhurst belonged to a couple who had children in the same class as Katy, and word got around that they were looking to sell. There was no agent involved - Simons and Mascord just went to have a look, and then a second look. And then it was time for some homework.
"We didn't want to put in an offer that we couldn't go all the way with," says Simons, "so it was quite a long process to establish that it was going to be a viable business."
A business survey was carried out. It helped that the New Forest was declared a national park in May, as this meant that the protected land would be an unlikely candidate for further competition. Then it was time to find funding for the £720,000 purchase.
The offer was lodged in February this year, but contracts were not exchanged until June, and completion did not take place until August. Simons and Mascord say that this time-frame was invaluable in finalising all the things they needed to do and dealing with the hidden costs that they could not have envisaged, such as licences and guidebook fees (see panel). Eventually, though, they took over in mid-August - and there was no going back.
One of the biggest challenges was staffing. Mascord still delivers editorial training courses for publishing houses, and Simons continues to run her public relations business. The rationale behind the purchase was to run these existing businesses alongside the hotel, thus gaining financial stability for the future. For this to work, the pair would need to take on a good manager, one who could run the business on a day-to-day basis, giving them the chance to look at the bigger picture and cope with their other commitments.
They sat down and thought about the type of job that they would want to do if they came to work at the hotel, then worked out from that what jobs they would need to create.
The bulk of the hotel's business comes at the weekends, with weekdays being relatively quiet. So the decision was made to appoint two duty managers. One was Mark Grindrod, who will work from 7.30am to 12.30pm during the week, and every other weekend from check-in time on Friday, all through Saturday until checkout on Sunday morning. The second duty manager is Ann Fannin, a local woman who will work just every second weekend. In total, there are seven staff, mostly part-timers.
In terms of marketing, Simons sees the hotel as her "newest client". Identifying the potential customer was the first hurdle, and the pair eventually realised that 60% of their guests were aged 25-35, professional people escaping London for the weekend, often without their children; 10% were active retired people; 20% were attending weddings in the area; and the other 10% came from all walks of life.
The hotel's website was an obvious first port of call, and this has had a revamp to appeal to the age group of the majority of the customers. The best links to the website come from the AA, Where to Stay in the New Forest, Information Britain and Smoothhound.
Previous guests are also being targeted through the hotel's database, inviting them to return for walking breaks in the company of duty manager Fannin, who can offer walks off the beaten track. Meanwhile, Grindrod will be tasked with attracting small conferences for the quieter midweek periods. n
Cottage hotel Sway Rd
Tel: 01590 622296
Owners: David Mascord and Christina Simons
Bedrooms: six (there are plans to increase this to 10)
Rates (including full English breakfast): £65, single; £110, double occupancy
Average achieved room rate: £87.50
Average occupancy across New Forest: 59.7%
Catchment: 4.5 million people live within an hour's drive of nearby Southampton
Those extra costs Purchase price (including goodwill, furniture and fittings) £720,000
Stamp duty £28,200
Solicitor's costs £3,126
Buildings and contents insurance (per annum) £1,400
Land registry £420
Searches, money transfers, etc £400
Life assurance (per annum) £1,500
Transfer of licence £30
British Institute of Innkeeping licensees' training (for two) £260
Learnpurple online food hygiene course (for two) £50
Bank arrangement fee £3,675
Business and building surveys £2,500
Advert in local papers £90
Internet site £300
Fees for joining guides £750