It's playtime: how to create a hotel that appeals to kids and their parents

19 March 2020 by

Fowey Hall, part of the Luxury Family Hotels group, has reinvigorated its interior to welcome parents looking for a thoroughly grown-up break with a place for their kids to play, in a hotel offering everything from spa treatments to a free crèche. Tessa Allingham finds out more

The grand doors to Fowey Hall reopened at 2pm on Valentine's Day. As chance would have it, 14 February also happened to be a Friday and the start of the half-term break.

"It was like, whoooosh," says George Bennett, food and beverage manager for Luxury Family Hotels (LFH), recalling the moment that the majority of a six-week, multimillion-pound, top-to-toe refurbishment was revealed.

All 21 of the hotel's available rooms were occupied that week, as was every available table in Hanson's Grill, the restaurant named after Sir Charles Hanson, who built Fowey Hall, which overlooks the Fowey Estuary in Cornwall, in 1899. Refurbishment of the adjacent Garden Room restaurant, the bar and afternoon tea lounge, as well as the top-floor bedrooms, will be completed in time for the next "whoosh" of guests at Easter.

For now, the hotel can catch its breath. As a photographer is capturing Fowey Hall's new look (see panel overleaf), wood fires flicker in the grates and Frank Sinatra murmurs about flying to the moon and wicked witchcraft. Cornwall is in misty mood this late February day, but it is a restful place to be.

Simon Maguire, managing director of LFH since August 2019, has been a hands-on leader of the refurbishment project, working on the details with London-based Studio Jill, owned by Jill Scholes but rolling up his sleeves day-to-day.

The £3.2m Fowey refurb is the start of significant investment in the LFH portfolio.

The five hotels – Fowey Hall, Moonfleet Manor in Dorset, Woolley Grange near Bath, the Ickworth in Suffolk and New Park Manor in Hampshire – are all slated for £3m-plus investment. The interiors will be updated over the next two years and, pending planning permission, will take the number of keys from 161 to nearer 300 within five years.

Yes, my job is to make the business more profitable, to increase revenue – but not at the expense of guests

"Hospitality is in a rocky period," says Maguire. "Wage costs, food costs rising, no doubt some turmoil following Brexit. We have crèches, which have outgoings that other hotels don't. It costs approximately £400,000 per annum to run them. To remain profitable we must find the sweet spot: 55-60 rooms per hotel is about right."

Room numbers will, Maguire hopes, double at Woolley Grange and New Park Manor, and another 20-40 will be added at the Ickworth and Moonfleet Manor. At Fowey, converted outbuildings will create 20 new bedrooms.

A projected uplift in rack rate within three years to an average of £170, plus improved occupancy (the 2020 target is 73% compared with 69% achieved in 2019) will justify investment, it is hoped. Rates will continue to include two hours' free childcare a day for the children of each guest in Ofsted-registered facilities.

Simon Maguire
Simon Maguire

Breaking new ground

This cash injection comes as LFH enters its fourth decade. The group's back story is well- documented. Nigel Chapman's purchase of Woolley Grange in 1988 and ground-breaking rejection of the country house hotel diktat that children, families and luxury couldn't co-exist, led to the creation of LFH, and a business partnership with hotelier Nicholas Dickinson.

"Society was becoming less formal," Dickinson says. "But the notion of luxury and family was still a contradiction in terms: you either had luxury hotels with jackets and ties, or family-friendly hotels." The collection grew and, in 2006, Chapman and Dickinson sold the four properties (Woolley Grange, the Ickworth, Moonfleet Manor and Fowey Hall) – painfully – to von Essen, which then collapsed, debt-ridden, in 2011.

Supported by property investment company Patron Capital, Chapman bought back the hotels out of administration, adding New Park Manor, the Elms in Abberley and Thornbury Castle, near Bristol. New Park Manor remains in the portfolio; the others were deemed not to fit and sold in 2017.

This new cash injection also comes as LFH settles down with its owner of almost three years, Ralph Trustees. Having backed a 2017 management buyout of LFH, Ralph Trustees (the privately owned hotel group is run by brothers Daniel and Stuart Levy, whose assets include the five-star Athenaeum in Mayfair and the Grove in Hertfordshire) now own the group outright. A board made up of Maguire, sales and marketing director Adrian Burley and finance director Anthony Nares, report to the Levys quarterly. "Day to day we are left to ourselves," Maguire says. "It's a happy relationship, a good structure. They say ‘we trust you to do well, but we are here if you need us'."

New Park Manor
New Park Manor

Focused, rather than friendly

At 39, Maguire has fitted a lot into a career in hospitality. As head of operations at Harbour Hotels he helped steer the company through a tripling of properties to 15 in three years (the group has since opened a 16th venue). Before that, seven years in management at Firmdale Hotels and Hotel du Vin were formative.

"I started hearing about LFH from friends," says Maguire. "I had a coffee with the owners. I wasn't thinking of moving, but their plans were exciting. The idea of having the right investment to deliver something really strong, and to work for a brand that resonated personally, was the decider."

He says he knows his market instinctively. "I am the LFH target market! I have two children, four and eight years old, so exactly the age of [junior] customers." Typically, he says, LFH parents will both be in full-time professional employment and financially secure but time-poor. Most will book a three- to five-day break at a cost of £1,000 to £1,500, and many will travel with their own parents, too.

He dismisses the term family-friendly, arguing that every hotel should be so. "We are family-focused; that's what we do better than anyone else. And because we are not corporate-led, we must expect and accept that on a Tuesday night in mid-January occupancy might be low. That's OK."

Luxury for families is about time. That's what they crave

The resilience of the luxury sector is well-documented, a weak pound triggering overseas investment, wealthy inbound tourism and a rise in staycations. But Maguire whittles that resilience down to a simple notion: "Time," says Maguire. "Luxury for families is about time. That's what they crave, that's what Kantar found."

The research company was commissioned in 2019 – LFH's 30th anniversary – to pinpoint guest expectations. Kantar's findings were fed to branding agency dn&co, which devised animal ‘mascots' for each hotel that have a recognisable appeal to children, but are stylish enough for adult approval.

"Families want to do things together, create memories, have time to just be." It's no accident that ‘time for the little things' is the LFH strapline, and that its four ‘pillars' are time, place, family and memory.

"Guests don't want to waste time faffing around, wondering what to do. They want us to be the knowledge. I understand that. Most guests have driven five hours from London with little ones."

Flexibility in terms of mealtimes is also crucial; long-gone is the notion of children's high tea at 5pm and adult-only dinner at 8pm. Menus reflect the hotels' locations too – Fowey mussels in Cornwall, Lyme Bay scallops at Moonfleet Manor, Denham Estate venison and Blythburgh pork in Suffolk, for example. There will no doubt be hungry uptake of the Edible Garden afternoon tea, modified for both adults and children, and devised to mark the launch of Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway.

Kantar's research also found experiences count, however small; personalisation counts; health counts; sustainability counts. Maguire picks up on all of them, obsessive about anticipating needs and wants. There are packs of cards and games easily to hand, wellies in all sizes, crabbing lines and bait bagged up in the kitchen and booklets of wet-weather suggestions. For children, tickling the tummy of Moonfleet Manor's spaniel, Snoopy, or taking Rex for a walk at Woolley Grange creates a memory, as does simply seeing their name on a blackboard in the dining room.

Moonfleet Manor
Moonfleet Manor

For most parents, the promise of two hours' childcare (in updated facilities) is enough. And they don't even have to pack the buggy, following a tie-up with iCandy that solves what Maguire calls "parents' biggest bugbear". The first batch of buggies arrived at the Ickworth in February. And even if guests forget the children's pyjamas, there's a solution. Maguire dashes out, returning with a prototype pair made in association with the White Company, the playful logos of all the LFH properties printed on soft cotton.

Maguire is fostering community connections, too. Ties with the National Trust are being developed in Suffolk (the Ickworth is on the Trust-owned Ickworth Estate), while in Fowey Blue Badge guides will offer free child-friendly forays into town. Schools use the hotel's pool, and the town's independent bookshop, Bookends, has been asked to choose 700 volumes for the library. "I want to cement our position here, because if Fowey thrives, we thrive."

Pick it all apart, though, and in fact what Maguire and his team deliver is old-fashioned, detail- and guest-oriented hospitality. That's the key to resilience, he says. "I am bombarded with messages on LinkedIn about tech products that will tell me more about my guests and help me manage this and that. Yes, my job is to make the business more profitable, to increase revenue – but not at the expense of guests. Technology can kill hospitality, it must only be used to give us more time with guests. That interaction is the best thing about this industry." Delivering an experience that guests then enthuse about to friends – just as he experienced – is immeasurable in its power.

A whole-company approach to developing talent

When Simon Maguire asked managers how their careers with Luxury Family Hotels could improve, the answer was clear: professional development.

Maguire worked with Dr Veronica Burke of business training company Performance Impact to create a leadership programme for LFH's 50 team leads. Four modules, facilitated by Burke, focus on aspects of LFH – the journey (brand origins), the business, the people, the leaders. Invited speakers will often be from outside hospitality.

"As an industry, we often focus too much on hotel-specific issues. There's so much to learn from how other businesses function," he says. On completion of the programme, managers receive a bespoke professional development plan designed by Burke.

Moonfleet Manor lounge
Moonfleet Manor lounge

Maguire is a St Julian Scholar, alumnus of the Master Innholders leadership development programme delivered at Cranfield University. He clearly listened in class when the Japanese ‘kaizen' approach was discussed. Identifying and developing collective talent, from the youngest waiter to the most seasoned director, in order to improve whole-company performance, is an approach he likes. He draws on his years at Firmdale Hotels. "They are market leaders in developing talent. They keep managers, move them up the ladder. There's a culture of competitiveness, friendly rivalry, opportunity."

It's a culture at LFH that Nigel Chapman sparked and Maguire wants to build on, although already, he says, recruitment and retention of staff (he has some 400 employees) does not seem to be the issue it is elsewhere.

Ancient meets modern

Ben Ciocci loves Fowey Hall's refurbishment. "It motivates you," says the hotel's food and beverage manager of four years. "Before it was a bit old-school formal. Now it's modern and bright and just great."

Retained original features – oak panelling, some furniture, open fires – are set against tones of gunmetal blue, neutrals, pale grey with accents of on-trend mustard. Gone is the traditional red-gold; now a magnificent chandelier sprinkles light across the lounge walls, illuminating fantastically intricate plasterwork. Vast windows let in coastal sunshine, polished floors are rug-softened, contemporary sofas covered in velvet, leather and slubby linen. The coppery glow of table lamps gives the library a suitably moodier feel.

In Hanson's Grill, full-length tablecloths and candlesticks have given way to marble-topped tables with a simple tealight; the adjacent Garden Room restaurant will be furnished flexibly to work as well for busy summer weekends and functions as it will for quieter periods.A cinema room, table football and retro arcade games appeal to older children (and parents).

"Best day in the job!" Maguire says of road-testing some of the 2,600 games. He dismisses the suggestion that the gen alpha children of millennials (born since 2011, so prime users of LFH) prefer the company of their smartphone. "I think we will see more and more families look to disconnect from technology. Guests want to make the most of the short time they have with each other away from busy lives."

An extension of the Elemis spa will come soon, and there are plans for an outdoor pool.

It goes without saying that bedrooms both in the original Hall and 2005 extension are spacious enough to accommodate children and dogs, with step-up stools and baths in every room (bar the accessible one), among a myriad of practical details.

The work of Cornish makers is championed. Redruth-based Head & Haft designed and made coffee tables, bunkbeds, headboards and desks, and Cornish artist Nicole Heidaripour designed wallpaper and drawer-liners with pen-and-ink drawings of marine flora and fauna.

About LFH

Fowey Hall

Hanson Drive, Fowey, Cornwall PL23 1ET

  • General manager Dulce Marques
  • Bedrooms 36
  • Rooms from £139
  • Restaurants Hanson's Grill (40 covers); Garden Room (90)

New Park Manor

Lyndhurst Road, New Forest, Hampshire SO42 7Q

  • General manager Michelle Chilton
  • Bedrooms 25
  • Rooms from £119
  • Restaurants The Stag (40); the Vinery (45)

Woolley Grange

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

  • General manager Clare Hammond
  • Bedrooms 25
  • Rooms from £119
  • Restaurants The Restaurant (28); the Orangery (30)

Moonfleet Manor

Fleet Road, Weymouth, Dorset DT3 4ED

  • General manager Neil Carter
  • Bedrooms 36
  • Rooms from £109
  • Restaurant The Restaurant (120)

The Ickworth

Horringer, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk IP29 5QE

  • General manager Faye Kelly
  • Bedrooms 39 (26 rooms and one suite in main building; Butlers Quarters three-bedroom apartment; the Lodge with 11 rooms/suites)
  • Rooms from £109
  • Restaurants Frederick's (38); the Conservatory (44)

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