The Caterer interview: Simon Maguire of Luxury Family Hotels on glamping during the pandemic

02 February 2022 by

Luxury Family Hotels turned to glamping to provide customers with a different kind of staycation. Its managing director talks to James Stagg about bright ideas and continuing expansion.

You joined Luxury Family Hotels in August 2019. It's clearly been quite a challenging time to be in charge since then. How has the business changed?

We're still absolutely focused on the family market and if anything we've strengthened that message. It's core to what we do. The pandemic has given us the opportunity to focus further on families given the drive for UK holidays. That has helped us – we've grown our following.

What new initiatives have you introduced?

The time afforded to us meant we were able to reset and think about everything we do, whether it's the infrastructure, food, employment practices or recruitment practices. For example, we took on a group training manager – Lucy Waddell – and did in-house training exercises to suit us. All of our courses are now accredited by the Institute of Hospitality so the training is not only bespoke to us but has that credibility, too. It has really helped us attract and retain team members.

Has recruitment been an issue?

In terms of attraction, we took on Christian Baker who came from a recruitment background. That recruitment mentality has really helped – and we've managed to keep our vacancy list below 5% for the duration. Across the group today we only have 10 vacancies, which is less than 3%.

Historically many of our senior team were made up of contractors and people combining roles, but we've brought the majority of them in-house now, which has helped us drive it forward. We've brought the likes of revenue management, marketing and finance in-house, which has meant we can keep a closer eye on everything.

You mentioned that you've been able to grow your database and rates. Has 2021 been a record year for Luxury Family Hotels?

We've seen huge rate growth in the leisure market and we're in the sweet spot of that. 2021 was definitely a record year, even though we were only open for seven months of it.

We were pretty much full since we reopened throughout the year. We had a slight dip after half-term in autumn, but it has been very strong overall. Half-term is busy, as is Easter. I can predict a strong 2022, but I'm not able to tell you what will happen after that.

Has that strong demand driven average rate to previously unseen levels?

Having seen what happened after the first lockdown and expecting similar demand, we thought long and hard about where we were going to put our rates, knowing that demand would quickly outstrip availability. But we took a conscious decision not to overindulge ourselves as we want to provide value for money and make sure families come back year after year.

As a result 2022 is pacing really well from re-bookings so the strategy is paying off. What we try to do – rather than push rate – is offer other avenues to increase revenue, such as the glamping pop-ups. We added eight units to Woolley Grange in Bradford-on-Avon and the occupancy on those was 98% with an average rate of £498. That was fantastic and we'll do it again this year.

Is glamping something that will stay post-pandemic?

Absolutely. On the last weekend we could use the glamping suites the management team all stayed in them to look at where we could improve. So we've added some heating, put some insulation in the walls and changed the roof structure – as it was noisy when it rained. And we're adding two treatment rooms so that people staying on the main hotel can still benefit from that outside experience.

Will you be expanding the glamping suites to other hotels?

They'll stay at Woolley Grange for now but it's a conversation we'll be having about using them in the future. We've been working with a company called the Pop Up Hotel Group – it was great for them as they'd been struggling as Glastonbury has been cancelled for the past two years. They are full of ideas.

We've gone for it on the experiential side too. At Woolley Grange we turned our glamping restaurant, the Hideaway, into a Santa's grotto, partnering with Aardman Animations to make it Shaun the Sheep-themed with igloos where people can eat. It's gone off the charts and we've taken an extra 2,500 covers as a result. Anything that brings families together works.

When you joined in 2019 you had 161 keys across the five hotels and you said you were looking to grow to 300 in five years. How is that project going?

We've started our first development project – outside of refurbishment – at Fowey Hall in Cornwall, which is currently in-build and due to compete late summer. That will deliver an additional 24 keys and includes a new swimming pool, spa and treatment rooms. We've already invested £3.2m in refurbishment of the property and this is an additional £11.5m expansion. We'll finish with 60 keys and it will work out at almost 90 bedrooms.

We're in for planning at Woolley Grange and New Park Manor in Brockenhurst and hope they'll come through soon. We'll be adding more bedrooms and facilities, such as pools. It tends to be the same at all locations – looking to get into that sweet spot of 50-60 rooms and adding great facilities for families. They all tend to be big rooms, either offering two bedrooms or able to house a family.

What will you be doing at Moonfleet Manor?

We haven't quite finished the designs for Moonfleet in Dorset, but we have started a refurbishment project there. That's a £2.5m project that will take place throughout the early part of this year – and we will shut the hotel from January to March. We've done the ground floor already and are now refurbishing the bedrooms. It will bring it up to the same level as Fowey Hall.

If the sweet spot is 50-60 rooms and you're achieving that with the hotels, what is next?

We've done a huge amount of work to make sure that each investment is sound. The appetite is certainly there to expand and improve the group as we have a niche in amazing family holidays and giving parents downtime.

We're talking with suppliers to help us improve the offering for children, whether it's woodland adventures or activities such as cooking classes. We're trying to increase what we do in terms of the spa for children. It's all in the interest of bringing families together.

We're also really working hard on knowing any given local area inside-out, so that we can advise on the best places to eat out with children or the best beaches to go to at the right time.

Have you made any changes to menus?

We're doing a big push on food, with new menus across the group designed to give the chefs absolute control over local purchasing. They can work with local farmers and suppliers to deliver something unique and delicious. We've also been working with gin and beer suppliers locally to create our own drinks. It's been great to meet all the suppliers and give customers a real experience of the area.

Does it all have a big impact on business?

It gives the team on the ground something to shout about and be proud. We know how hard it is to recruit so we want our team to be proud of the product they offer – that will then deliver better food and beverage spend.

We found that last summer people ate with us most of the time if we got it right. With families, if you can get it right, people will stay. We've tried to get away from being too complex with food and just focus on the provenance.

You've made some key new appointments in the senior team too…

The big things for us this year include employing a new group financial director, Mike Lashmar. He was at Harbour Hotels, who I worked with, though we never met. As the group grows we needed a full-time resource in that role and Mike has two kids so understands our target market. Leanne Cleaver has also joined us as group head of marketing from Shiva Hotels. So everything is moving in the right direction.

Do recruitment and retention concerns keep you awake at night?

Every hotelier is thinking about people all the time. It's about giving team members a great education when they're with you. I remember from my Firmdale days in my twenties that the training was fantastic. What I learned was if you can really teach and keep your team engaged and learning, they are much more likely to stay with you. I see those days as a blueprint in engagement.

Where have you focused the education and training?

You have Institute of Hospitality training when you come on-board, which contributes to personal development points. Then from a supervisor's perspective we work with Umbrella Training, which is a real force of energy. For senior managers we use Veronica Burke, who designed the accelerated talent development programme at Cranfield university. We have four days a year where we get everyone together for some real development and inspiration.

That focus has ultimately helped us navigate that tricky period. The industry might have been seen to be a little complacent before Covid about what we offer as a career journey. Benefits are improving across the industry too. I see all of this as a real positive as, in the end, it will mean we become more competitive as an industry.

Luxury Family Hotels

Woolley Grange

Woolley Green, Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire BA15 1TX

General manager Clare Hammond

Bedrooms 25

Rates From £120

Facilities Swimming pool, spa, restaurants, crèche, cinema room, gardens

Moonfleet Manor

Fleet Road, Near Weymouth, Dorset DT3 4ED

General manager Michelle Chilton

Bedrooms 34

Rates From £120

Facilities Swimming pool, restaurant, children's play area, crèche, cinema room, gardens

Fowey Hall hotel

Hanson Drive, Fowey, Cornwall PL23 1ET

General manager Nick Walley

Bedrooms 36 currently, 60 rooms by August

Rates From £210

Facilities Swimming pool, restaurant, crèche, spa, cinema room, gardens

Ickworth hotel

Horringer, Bury St Edmonds, Suffolk IP29 5QE

General manager Faye Kelly

Bedrooms 36 currently, 60 rooms by August

Rates From £140

Facilities Swimming pool, restaurant, crèche, cinema room, gardens

New Park Manor hotel

Lyndhurst Road, New Forest SO42 5QH

General manager Byron Fiddler

Bedrooms 25

Rates From £130

Facilities Swimming pool, spa, restaurant, crèche, cinema room, gardens

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