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Onwards and upwards: Watergate Bay's Will Ashworth on a 'golden opportunity' for British hotels

01 July 2020 by

The team at Watergate Bay and Another Place, the Lake are raring to reopen this weekend with big plans for both properties, as well as expansion plans for the brand. Katherine Price finds out more

Even at the height of lockdown, Will Ashworth remained optimistic. The chief executive of the Watergate Bay hotel in Cornwall and Another Place, the Lake in Cumbria said in May that the UK hospitality industry had a "golden opportunity to demonstrate how good a British holiday can be". And that is exactly what he and his team intend to do.

Both properties are set to reopen from 5 July, with Watergate Bay fully booked for July and August, and some availability remaining in Cumbria, although that may be short-lived. Speaking to the team the day after the prime minister's reopening announcement, the business was able to report that bookings had increased fifteen-fold online in the previous 24 hours.

"That's a measure of the pent-up demand," says brand director Judi Blakeburn, who explains that nearly all members of the reservations team had returned to work due to the volume of enquiries.

Watergate Bay was founded by Ashworth's parents, John and Mary, and taken over by Will in 2004. His transformation of the business has been approached with the vision of a ‘ski resort on a beach', offering a relaxed style of hospitality that encourages guests to get active and enjoy the outdoors. The venue has 71 bedrooms; restaurants and bars including Zacry's, the Beach Hut, the Living Space and Watchful Mary – with plans to transform the Fifteen restaurant space that closed last year – Swim Club, the group's version of a spa; and the Extreme Academy, which offers activities.

The group opened Another Place, the Lake in 2017 following the refurbishment and extension of the former Rampsbeck hotel, the first of a collection of properties with the same ethos of relaxed hospitality and getting active, with funding provided by Actev, owned by Gavyn Davies and Baroness Sue Nye.

The leadership team consists of managing director Ben Harper, Blakeburn, finance director Natalie Poole and Ashworth (below, from left).

Reopening

The properties have been capped at 90% occupancy to ensure additional room stock is available in case guests need to be moved or rooms deep cleaned. Hotel facilities such as restaurants will also remain closed to non-residents for the time-being, which Ashworth points out hits revenue opportunities by about 20%, meaning some of the operational team will need to remain on furlough for a little while longer. However, he is confident of returning to something close to normality by the autumn, for which the hotels are seeing an unprecedented number of bookings.

"Thank goodness we're going to be open for our main peak season in July and August, otherwise that would have been extremely challenging"

Following the government's publication of sector-specific Covid-19 reopening guidance, changes to operations include the temporary retirement of the ‘make-your-own waffle' stands and breakfast buffet, and guests will be asked to book slots in order to stagger service. Menus will be shorter and available electronically; a one-way system will be in place in corridors; and the team has also been busy installing a pizza oven at the hotel's Watchful Mary bar, offering takeaway pizzas for guests to enjoy on the beach.

Expansion

The lockdown has not slowed expansion and investment plans either, with plans to build six garden suites, a treehouse and three shepherd's huts at Another Place, the Lake. "I've admired those businesses like Chewton Glen who have created alternative experiences within their grounds, in their case treehouses, which have become extremely well-known," says Ashworth. "For us this feels like our take on an interesting alternative accommodation in a truly spectacular position."

Another Place, the Lake
Another Place, the Lake

Planning permission has already been granted for a Victorian greenhouse in the grounds, which would provide a wood-fired F&B experience while also serving as a studio for yoga and pilates, or an alternative meeting space. There are also plans for a second Another Place-branded hotel (see panel overleaf) after the group completed the acquisition of Amport House in Andover, Hampshire, earlier this year, and Ashworth is still targeting a collection of five or six Another Place-branded hotels over the next five years.

Meanwhile, Watergate Bay will soon see the launch of the group's new headquarters near Cornwall Airport, where the central teams will be based. The group is exploring the potential of giving guests the opportunity to use the office facilities, which Ashworth hopes will enable them to extend their stay, "because they're able to do a day's work outside of their room, not surrounded by people having a good time and drinking coffee or cocktails". The former Fifteen restaurant space will also host chef Emily Scott for the next three months before being transformed into seven beach view suites (see panel).

"For us this feels like our take on an interesting alternative accommodation in a truly spectacular position"

The team don't underestimate how challenging the next 12 months will be, not just for the business but for the entire UK hospitality and tourism sectors. "Thank goodness we're going to be open for our main peak season in July and August," emphasises Ashworth, "otherwise that would have been extremely challenging." He hopes the government recognises the importance of tourism to Cornwall going forward – a recent report published by Cornwall Council estimated a £630m loss to its tourism sector by the end of June as a result of lockdown – and said that 29,200 accommodation and foodservice jobs could be at risk.

Zacrys restaurant at Another Place, the Lake
Zacrys restaurant at Another Place, the Lake

Ashworth adds: "So much of Cornwall's economy is based around supporting hospitality businesses, including food and drink companies and suppliers. They also need to be taken into consideration, otherwise it's going to be a very long winter."

However, he is confident in the future of the UK's hospitality sector and says the upcoming projects keep the team optimistic and looking forward, "Yes, we have to get open; yes, we have to trade with these restrictions and we have to be successful with that, but at the same time, knowing that there's more to come keeps us all leaning forwards and looking to the future."

Marketing post-lockdown

Following the lockdown of hospitality businesses, brand director Judi Blakeburn had to rethink the group's social media and marketing strategy and began by taking it back to basics – no PR, no advertising, just the hotel newsletters and social media platforms. She prioritised telling stories "that were relevant to our location and brand, might be engaging and interesting, and be of value to our communities at a time when they couldn't and shouldn't be thinking of coming away".

Instead of attempting to market the hotels, the group has spent the last three months engaging with local businesses and institutions – supporting the Tate St Ives gallery's ‘Colours of Cornwall' campaign and publishing interviews with local artists, for instance – as well as providing information through its newsletter that the hotels' audiences might find of interest, such as when to see the Lyrid meteor shower earlier this year or how to make a cordial out of foraged flowering currants.

Watchful Mary
Watchful Mary

"We have made new friends and built new relationships during this time," says Blakeburn. "Finding ways of being of benefit to the community was important to us, too. We are now thinking about continuing to tell stories, but also present stories for people who are coming to stay."

With bookings already flooding in for the summer, all the group's marketing now is focusing on the autumn and winter to ensure this carries into the future.

Another Place, the Garden

Amport House
Amport House

The first Another Place hotel opened in Ullswater in 2017, with Amport House in Hampshire recently announced as the latest addition to the Another Place brand.

The group acquired the Grade II-listed, 19th-century property in March through a formal tender process with the Ministry of Defence. It is expected to relaunch as soon as 2022 as a 50-bedroom hotel under the name Another Place, the Garden, after the property's listed Edwin Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll-designed garden.

Like the first hotel, it will have a Swim Club, two restaurants and bars, and will offer a relaxed hospitality experience that enables guests to get active and enjoy the landscape, with opportunities for running, cycling, walking and horse-riding in the area.

The evolution of Fifteen

Fifteen Cornwall, one of the last remaining Jamie Oliver sites in the UK, closed in December last year. The restaurant was run under a licence by charitable trust the Cornwall Food Foundation and both the charity and restaurant business were liquidated following an independent financial review.

Chef Emily Scott is taking up residency at the site for a three-month summer pop-up from 9 July, after which the group plans to transform the venue into seven beach loft suites with a pantry and private access to the beach. It is hoped work could start as soon as October and for the suites to open to guests ready for Easter 2021.

The building would comprise two 60sq m suites, three 50sq m rooms and two family suites, designed by Matt Hulme of Dynargh Design, who also designed the Watchful Mary bar.

"It's a departure for us, because obviously it's accommodation that's slightly disconnected," says Ashworth. "We have enough F&B experiences for our guests, particularly with Watchful Mary now having a pizza oven as well. The variety is there and therefore we're comfortable that we can give our guests a really good series of experiences while giving this space over to accommodation."

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