One of the highlights of last week’s Independent Hotel Show was a ‘Power Breakfast’ where a selected group of guests enjoyed a fine breakfast while listening to fascinating panel discussion about the state and future direction of the independent hotel sector.
Chaired by Rebecca Pike, head of digital media at Liberty Global, the panellists were Anthony Lee, CEO of Great Northern Hotel; Richard Ball, chairman of Calcot Hotels; Harry Cragoe, owner of The Gallivant; and Andrew Stembridge, managing director of Chewton Glen and Cliveden House.
Pike asked the panellists to describe the most exciting recent development in the sector. Bell kicked the session off by saying: “The sector has splintered in to a broad range of offers for various need groups. There has been a great explosion in the budget sector which is really exciting, while country hotels are going back to their roots after years of getting more and more luxurious.”
Stembridge then emphasised the broader buying habits of today’s guests: “Customers will jump between different market segments quite readily, the star-rating system is irrelevant now. People choose a hotel according to the occasion and their mood. People who didn’t travel with families now do so. Multi-generational travel has really grown in recent years.”
Cragoe added: “Understand the limitations of your property and tailer your offer to the property’s strengths. We removed the kids menu and only have three bedrooms for kids now. Transparency is the most exciting thing that has happened in this industry. Fifteen years ago, decisions were made by looking at a brochure. Today guests can see every single detail of your property online. You need to work hard to create little moments of magic so your guests will recommend the property to their friends.”
Lee rounded off the topic by saying: “Technology has to be sustainable and migrateable. London is one of the most competitive cities in the world. People’s expectations are higher than they have ever been. Working in hospitality is an incurable disease.”
The guest’s demands and expectations were then discussed, with Ball saying: “It’s not about facilities any more, it’s about the experiences you can engender. It begins with creating a story on social media and is followed through during the delivery of the stay. We must deliver on our promises. People thought we were mad when we started welcoming families with children, now it is expected. It’s good to share good ideas – we should ‘borrow with pride’.”
“For me it’s about creating somewhere you would like to stay yourself,” said Cragoe. “Our customers are like my friends – they’re the sort of people I’d invite to my home for dinner. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Try new new things, some won’t work, but some will.”
Lee claimed that “your first-time guest is the most difficult to retain, as they don’t know what to expect. Your repeat guests are the golden nuggets, and their word of mouth recommendations are even more powerful than online reviews and social media.”
The discussion then moved on to the importance of staff. “All of your plans and facilities count for nothing if you don’t have motivated and engaged staff,” said Ball.
Stembridge added: “If your staff are happy you don’t need to worry about the guests. If you overtrain your staff they become robotic and stop thinking for themselves. You need to give them the freedom to be themselves. They have to make the guests want to return. Give staff the autonomy and the ability to think on their feet.”
“It’s very hard to change habits and culture in a hotel that is doing things badly, so it’s important to get things right from the start,” said Lee.
Looking to the future, all the panellists were concerned about the impact that Brexit will have on employing staff. Ball said: “Brexit will present a huge challenge to what we are all doing, particularly in terms of who we employ,” while Lee added: “There are very few English people left in the business. We are very reliant on staff from Europe. What will happen next I really don’t know.”
Ball concluded by saying that businesses will need to become less labour intensive. “We will continue to become more informal, taking away the mystique of staying in a hotel and making it much more accessible,” he said.