Despite lockdown putting the brakes on the debut of Chris Penn's new Birch brand earlier this year, the hotel finally launched last week at a time when people are looking to escape and reconnect, both of which are at the core of the hotel offering. Katherine Price meets him before the hotel opens its doors.
"Nobody is going to stay with us because we are the safest place," says Chris Penn, three weeks before the opening of Birch, a "city escape" just 30 minutes north of London, that "looks like a hotel but feels like a festival". The hotelier doesn't want to downplay the importance of safety in the current climate, but rather points out that guests aren't going to hotels for their credentials in this area. He says guests want what they've always wanted – an experience.
"Cleanliness is something that hospitality operators have done for years and years, and this idea that suddenly the only thing we're shouting about is how clean we are – well, as a consumer, I would expect that," he explains.
"Where's the experience? Where's the fun? Where's the reason to go and enjoy something over and above the fact that it's safe? We have created this idea of reconnecting, of escaping from the craziness and the pressures of the world, and we will still absolutely deliver that."
Penn left his role as managing director of the Ace hotel in London's Shoreditch four years ago to set up his own hotel. Together with his business partner Chris King, the serial entrepreneur who founded Barlocal in London's Clapham, which was sold to Be At One after seven years, the pair have designed two wellness-focused hotel brands.
The former De Vere Theobalds Estate in Cheshunt, Hertfordshire, acquired by property company Aprirose in 2018, has undergone an £8.5m makeover to transform it into the 140-bedroom Birch (handle.silk.comet), the words in brackets referring to What3words, a location technology system where every 3m x 3m ‘square' of the globe has been assigned a unique three-word address. They are still seeking their first site for Steel Hotels, which will be more focused on sports performance.
Opening and lockdown
Birch was scheduled to welcome its first guests in April, but this was delayed until 3 August due to the Covid-19 lockdown. It has instead opened in a very different world, which has meant an unexpected set of challenges.
"We've been lucky enough to have supportive investors, but that doesn't mean that we were always safe and dry," admits Penn.
"As a new business that was just two weeks from opening, the challenge that we had was trying to manage cash when cash was already something that we were having to manage very closely in the final stages of refurbishment."
His priority initially was defence – locking down the site, furloughing staff, applying for the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS) – before looking at how it would be possible to open the site with the new coronavirus restrictions in place, ensuring the safety of guests and staff while staying true to the concept, and making sure his team had a business to come back to. The people, Penn acknowledges, are what will bring the estate and the concept to life and deliver the experience.
The property sits within 55 acres and has a farm, two restaurants and a bakery, created in partnership with the Dairy chef-restaurateur Robin Gill, three bars, 20 event spaces, a co-working space, fitness studios, a pottery workshop and rooms for screenings, music and art. Penn says he and King took more inspiration from festivals such as Camp Bestival and Wilderness when designing the project than other hotels, and emphasised how important it was to them to stay true to the experience and brand they had built and not let that get lost in sterility.
The vision they have for Birch is one of reconnecting with nature and each other ("less scrolls and trolls, more walking and talking," according to the website). There are no televisions or desks in bedrooms, for instance – instead rooms are decorated with locally made artwork – and they hope to attract guests seeking that ‘escape', rather than a specific demographic.
Penn says he and King put the consumer at the core of Birch and the experience has been designed to ensure there are no barriers to enjoyment, such as pre-authorisation at check-in or long check-out queues. Instead they are focusing on what guests might want from an escape from daily life, with the almost philanthropic aim of adding value to people's lives through the experience they offer.
Don't live things through technology all the time. Why don't you experience them, touch them, feel them, create them, rather than watching someone else do it and liking it?
Meanwhile, the brand's focus on physical and mental wellness is something he feels will be even more in demand in the future and therefore a big pull factor. The wellness space offers yoga, spin and meditation classes, and there is also a 25-metre lido.
"Lockdown has taught a lot of people about slowing down a bit," says Penn. "I would imagine there are many people where lockdown has changed something in them, whereby they've maybe reconnected as a parent, learned to be a teacher, reconnected with their home, their garden, their life outside of work, and we want to be able to deliver that as a continuum for people. Yes, of course, you might come and work here, but if you were working here, it would be an experience which is less pressured and less stressful."
Although mindfulness has been a buzzword for many years, Penn's approach to a mindful brand is one that encourages people to be present in the moment, rather than taking a "specific class". It's something which he points out everyone has been forced to do recently, as nobody could plan ahead three to six months.
"That's what we've been trying to create, this idea of when you're there, you're there," he emphasises. "Don't live things through technology all the time. Why don't you experience them, touch them, feel them, create them, rather than watching someone else do it and liking it?"
The hotel has seen the widely reported boom in staycations reflected in domestic leisure bookings, which gives him cause for optimism, but he remains "cautiously realistic". In its previous state, the hotel's corporate business had been a strong source of revenue, and ahead of lockdown he and his team had gained good traction on the corporate and events side. But at the time of writing, the government had just backpedalled on easing event restrictions until 15 August at the earliest, and Penn says he does not see that side of the business returning until at least the second quarter of next year.
His approach is to remain cautious while allowing his team to be optimistic, so that they can deliver the experience to guests while he ensures the business is nimble enough to manage further lockdowns or circumstances that might result in lower business levels.
Eat, drink and be merry
Although it was always the intention to encourage guests to reconnect with nature (nature walks and workshops with Birch's resident farmer Tom Morphew were already on the agenda), opening post-Covid has pushed the team to make even more use of the expansive estate, for example, by offering barbecues, picnics and drinks trolleys.
Dairy Group restaurateur Robin Gill and head chef Ben Rand oversee the two restaurants, the Zebra Riding Club and the casual all-day Valeries, serving meat and fish cooked on a grill and pizzas baked in a wood-fired oven, with an eight-cover Gun Room private dining space also available. Both follow Gill's ‘farm-to-table' ethos seen across his London restaurants, including Sorella and Darby's, using produce from the estate grown by Morphew.
Penn says Gill's approach made him the perfect partner: "You start with the most incredible care and attention to the quality of the food and you give a shit where it comes from, how you treat it and how the customer engages with it. And then everything around that is just noise. Give a shit, and the rest will happen."
With the farm so immediately accessible and the bakery on-site, they both hope that this will attract young talent who will be trained in butchery, bakery and farming across the estate. Although Penn says the partnership with Gill is likely to extend to future Birch properties, this may be in a more consultative than operational role, as they want each Birch to be individual.
However, he adds that Gill "truly epitomises the ethos of everything that we're trying to achieve, so we'd very much trust Robin in terms of working with us to find other collaborations, even if he was not at the front of the experience himself."
As with the first Birch, the partnership between King and Penn's Performance Hotels management business and real estate company Aprirose will see them develop further properties together. Penn says it was incredibly important to have the right investment partner for the brand and that Aprirose has been "the right, best and most supportive family that we could ask for".
Don't underestimate the importance of people knowing each other, human contact and being able to engage with each other through body language and expression
They were due to transact on a second Birch property in April, which fell through due to the coronavirus outbreak in the UK. The ambition is for two to three more Birch sites in strategic, well-connected locations around London, as well as a coastal site, and they hope to eventually expand into Europe. But Penn also acknowledges the need to keep their eye on the ball that is their first property and the importance of establishing the brand.
Like all hospitality businesses, he says, it continues to be about survival behind the scenes, but he hopes that by putting the consumer first and focusing on the experience as well as the safety of guests and customers, the business will both survive and, eventually, thrive.
In the meantime, he is looking forward to welcoming guests to Birch and being around people once more in a safe way. "I've been doing Google Hangouts, Zoom, Teams calls, and I am so fed up with butting into people," he laughs. "Like when you meet someone and you don't want to go too close so you kind of do this slightly strange dance. It's the same thing online where either nobody speaks or everybody speaks and you dance around going, ‘sorry, you go!'
"Yes, use technology, use video conferencing – it can be brilliant. But don't underestimate the importance of people knowing each other, human contact and being able to engage with each other through body language and expression."
Lieutenant Ellis Way, Cheshunt EN7 5HW www.birchcommunity.com
Opened 3 August
Room rates Small room, £110; medium or twin, £120; family room, £150
Membership From £100 a month, open to all
Operator Performance Hotels
Design Red Deer
Head of operations Edgard Helle
Head of sales Heather Fleming
Head of marketing Louise Hudson
Chris Penn and Chris King's Steel Hotels brand will focus on wellness and sports performance. By catering for the amateur and corporate wellness market, they hope the brand will become the trusted partner of sports people throughout the UK, focusing on swimming, cycling and running, as well as catering to elite athletes.
Although they intended, and still intend, to create a sports resort, they quickly realised that the capital required upfront was unlikely to be forthcoming for their first project. They explored real estate in cities, but the value of and competition for the kind of property they were after as an unknown brand was challenging. Birch was a less capitally intensive concept and, therefore, became the first to be realised.
Penn, who won the Extra Mile Award at the 2015 Hotel Cateys after raising nearly £12,000 for the industry charity Hospitality Action by swimming the English Channel, says patience has been required: "If we tried to force Steel, we would kill it as a brand, because we worked so hard on what it was, how it was going to work, that we needed to maintain the integrity of what that consumer promise was, and what that was intending to deliver."
He adds: "If there are some good things that can come from such an awful situation as Covid, there may be a more accessible real estate market that means Steel can grow and thrive as well as Birch, so that we're able to bring to consumers two very different but very similarly minded propositions."
It could be two or three years before the first Steel site opens, but Penn still strongly believes the brand will thrive off the needs of workforces, even if those workforces are more remote in the future: "We built Steel with the mindset of helping to improve people's lives through mental and physical health and wellness. If anything, we're in an even more important time for all of those things, therefore Steel is even more relevant, just as Birch has become even more relevant.
"The whole process has exacerbated the need particularly for products and brands that support people's health, happiness and ability to have fun."
You need to be a premium member to view this. Subscribe from just 99p per week.
Already subscribed? Log In