Hotels are gearing up for a staycation boom this summer, investing in rooms, refurbs and rethinking their treatment of guests to cater for groups and families desperate to escape. Katherine Price chats to the hoteliers betting on hay bales and forest yoga to boost bookings.
Hopes are high among hotel operators for another staycation boom this summer, with country house and coastal hotels having reported occupancy levels of nearly 100% last August. It is forecast that, following the long winter months where people have been stuck indoors with no social contact, the demand for staycations could exceed pre-Covid levels.
Hotels in England hope to reopen from 17 May, with social distancing restrictions potentially removed from 21 June, including on weddings and events. Dates are less clear across the devolved nations, but operators remain positive.
According to market research firm Mintel, Brits are expected to spend an estimated £7.1b holidaying at home this summer, an increase of 22% on the £5.8b recorded in 2019 – and that was research undertaken before the publication of the reopening roadmap.
On the day of the announcement, hotel marketing service Profitroom saw a 307% surge in bookings for UK properties compared to 22 February 2020, and the Pig hotel group's website crashed last week due to demand. Sacha Hale, director of sales and marketing at the 45-bedroom Heckfield Place hotel in Hampshire, has certainly seen this in the level of phone enquiries.
"It's gone crazy," she says. "Assuming we are allowed to open on 17 May, that first week is almost full, and I think my reservations manager used the term ‘unprecedented demand'.
"The event demand is equally as crazy, particularly weddings. We've seen that pent-up demand for some time, lots of enquiries and lots of proposals, but because of the lack of information there was a hesitancy to confirm. But now the roadmap has been outlined, post-21 June we're in for a very busy event season, which is so exciting. This is what we've been hoping for, for so long."
The hotel is marketing its extensive grounds – with 438 acres, even at full occupancy, that's four acres per person – and its biodynamic-accredited farm with a focus on wellness, to attract guests from London who have been starved of green space. Activities include forest yoga, tree bathing, wild swimming and the new ‘farm fit' gym space, a circuit-based course of lifting hay bales and pressing milk churns. A second spa will also launch later this year.
Miranda Carminger, joint managing director of Historic Sussex Hotels, is also hopeful 2021 will hail another fantastic summer season. She has decided to open all three of the group's properties at the same time – the 28-bedroom Ockenden Manor in Cuckfield, 39-bedroom Bailiffscourt in Climping and 39-bedroom Spread Eagle in Midhurst – to ensure the team can "make hay while the sun shines" until the 5% VAT cut expires at the end of September.
"We made that mistake last time – we thought one [hotel] had less bookings but actually there's so much short-term notice on bookings that I think it was a mistake in hindsight. We could have opened up, been bullish, and we would have had the bookings."
The group is running staycation packages, including ‘travel less, stay longer, slow down' to encourage lengthier stays among guests, offering a better value rate from two nights onwards. "By the fifth night it's virtually free!" she laughs.
As well as seeing £15,000-£20,000 coming in per day in reservations since the roadmap was revealed, the four-red-AA-star, 46-bedroom Armathwaite Hall in Keswick, Cumbria, is seeing its average guest stay period of two to three nights increasing to five-, six- and seven-night stays all the way to October. As a result, general manager Simon Steele is investing in a new outdoor activities co-ordinator role.
"We're going to increase our estate activity offer in view of the fact that the trend appears, with the reservations enquiries we're getting, to be family stays with outdoor activities," he says.
The estate already offers clay pigeon shooting, canoeing, kayaking, fell walking and archery, among other activities. He expects guests to stay longer, be less likely to travel as far from the hotel as they have previously and to be in multi- generational groups, which will all translate into an increased demand for the estate's activity offering. The hotel team is already marketing this to guests who are booked in.
The 19-strong Hand Picked Hotels group is also anticipating a leap in multi-generational families and groups of friends coming to stay. "Missed birthdays, anniversaries, small groups – we see that as being a real niche for us. We can easily look after multi-generational families and we want to make sure we can keep everyone happy," says operations director Douglas Waddell.
"We've been pleased with the increasing pace of bookings since the announcement of the roadmap. Early indications are positive – we can see people booking from May to June and July onwards."
The group's hotels have remained open during lockdown for work-related stays, and Waddell has had to juggle the varying restrictions across properties in England, Scotland, Jersey and Guernsey. Flexibility, particularly across its food and beverage offering, will be the focus. "I still think some guests will be nervous and not want to go into a full restaurant," he says.
"We have flexibility across our hotels in that we have a lot of different areas, so if a group wants breakfast, lunch, dinner or afternoon tea in a private area or wanted their own lounge space to entertain the kids, we can deliver that. That's the real message for us."
The group has also invested significantly in its outdoor areas and terraces to maximise alfresco opportunities.
Safe and sound
Paula Ellis is general manager of the Retreats Group, which owns three hotels on St Davids peninsula in Pembrokeshire. Although Wales is yet to receive a reopening roadmap at the time of writing, the group is gearing up for a bumper summer of guests looking to get outdoors, and bookings are starting to ‘trickle through'.
"We're so well-positioned. We're the only coastal national park in the whole of the UK, and we're the smallest city in Britain, so people are intrigued. St Davids is remote and surrounded by water on three sides – it conjures up images of being safe and not densely populated," she says. "Having come out of this cold, horrible winter of lockdown with no Christmas, Wales and Pembrokeshire are going to be so much in demand – there's going to be enough business for all of us."
The Retreats Group is marketing its six-bedroom Roch Castle property for exclusive use for groups as well as its outdoor and wellness activities, and has been working with personal trainer Nick Mitchell to refine this offering, which includes foraging and stargazing.
A £3.5m extension at the group's four- silver-AA-star Twr y Felin housing 20 further bedrooms is also due to complete in April – nearly doubling the property's number of rooms and an increase of 36% over the three venues, which Ellis says "could not be better timed". She is already recruiting to ensure they are ready to "pull out all the stops" when the Welsh government confirms they can reopen.
Armathwaite Hall is investing approximately £50,000-£60,000 to refurbish its welcome area and Lime Tree Suite to make the latter's small function room more appropriate to host small weddings, which Steele believes are going to be a trend for the next 12-18 months.
No vaccine, no entry
All operators have made their cancellation policies more flexible to accommodate changing restrictions and to ensure that if guests do have to isolate and cannot fulfil their bookings they don't have to fear losing out financially.
The Retreats Group has gone one step further and is only taking bookings from domestic guests who have been vaccinated. It may be a controversial decision, but Ellis clarifies that the group's guest demographic is "fairly mature anyway".
She explains: "Are we going to minimise our potential to fill the rooms? Yes. But then maybe we will attract a niche market of guests who are vaccinated.
Are we going to minimise our potential to fill the rooms? Yes. But then maybe we will attract a niche market of guests who are vaccinated
"We might have to lose a little bit of revenue in the short-term, but it will hopefully be an investment for the long-term. We've just got to do what's best for our colleagues. We've got young colleagues who are going to have to wait a very long time until they have their vaccination."
Training is also high on operators' agendas to ensure staff are not just ‘fit' but ‘match fit' after a year away from the workplace, as Waddell puts it. He has been rotating the skeleton teams across properties during this latest lockdown to get them used to being back.
"The team have enjoyed the fact they've been able to get back into the work environment, even if it's just for a day or two here and there. It's good for their psyche," he says.
From investing in outdoor activities and flexible dining to properties and people, following a horrendous year properties are eager to welcome back guests, having had time to rethink their spaces and propositions and look forward to recovery.
"If we can get a good staycation business, that would be a great step forward as part of our recovery," says Waddell. He credits the UKHospitality team for giving clarity to the industry and Steele says that six good months this year will protect his business and jobs.
"I feel really, really positive and confident," adds Hale. "We can already see the demand is there. As long as everything goes according to Boris's roadmap, I think the UK domestic market is in for a really good summer."
City hotels ‘quietly confident' of a booming summer season
It's not just rural hotels expecting to see a staycation boom this summer. Muj Rana, owner of Manchester's 16-bedroom Cow Hollow hotel, isn't seeing a rush of bookings, but he believes guests are hesitant to make plans two months in advance and is "quietly confident" his hotel will have a good summer.
"The pent-up demand to go shopping, eat, drink and be shoulder-to-shoulder with fellow humans will just prove too strong a draw to cities," he says.
"We are a small hotel and have always tended to run at 95%-plus occupancy, and we are confident that this level of business will return, even if it does so gradually over summer."
Stephen McCall, chief executive of Edyn, the parent company of aparthotel brands including Locke, which has properties in London, Cambridge, Manchester and Edinburgh, says the group saw a doubling in revenue from bookings almost as soon as the roadmap was announced.
"We are planning to further drive staycation bookings over the summer months with the launch of a social campaign in the coming weeks, as well as through an exciting relaunch plan and cultural programme," he added.
Marketing and PR executive Matt Dodwell says Birmingham's Aloft hotel and Eastside Rooms conference centre have seen a 50% increase in wedding and event enquiries as well as corporate bookings.
"Birmingham's got so much to offer in leisure attractions," he says. He adds that people are realising "what's on their own doorstep", with the UK's cities expecting to get a piece of the staycation pie.
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