New kids on the block: interview with Julia Davies of The Cottage in the Wood

Boutique Hotel News talks to first-time hotelier Julia Davis, who with her husband Nick, owns and runs The Cottage in the Wood, in Malvern, Worcestershire.

• Can you tell us about your backgrounds and how – and why – you ended up becoming hoteliers?

“We were living and working in central London. Nick as a strategy consultant and I was a market insight manager for the pharmaceutical industry. We were both working long hours and travelling frequently for business trips. I was struggling to achieve a work-life balance and felt that I was giving everything I had for one project after another and not seeing any long term fruits of my labour. I wanted a long term project that I could dedicate myself to and know that I was putting my energies into something that was important to me and my life in the future. Nick had always wanted to run his own business and was always on the lookout for ideas. He was tired of business travel and endless client meetings and the idea to buy a hotel was born out of a discussion with a colleague on the return wing of a business trip. Buying a hotel made complete sense, mixing Nick’s consulting skills with my marketing knowledge and our love of leisure, travel and hotels.”

• And how did you settle on the Cottage in the Wood? Tell us about the property?

“The Cottage in the Wood is a 30-bedroom boutique hotel with a 2 AA Rosette award winning restaurant. The location is stunning, set in the Malvern hills, with panoramic views overlooking the Cotswolds.”

“Our search criteria for the hotel we wanted to buy was very specific from an operation perspective and financially. We’re both managers, not hoteliers or chefs, so we needed something with strong teams that we could work alongside and learn from. We also wanted a going concern with good business so we could hit the ground running, and we wanted to be close to London because this is a market we felt we understood and could market to effectively. So we started off looking in the Cotswolds, where we saw smaller properties, and Kent and Essex, where we saw hotels that were mainly function and wedding venues. The Cottage in the Wood was the only hotel that we visited that we wanted to buy. The setting is so beautiful, gazing out from the Malvern Hills across the Cotswolds we just fell in love with it! It had and still has a fantastic management team and a wonderful team of chefs who we have been working alongside. Everyone is very excited about the new focus, direction and ambition we are bringing to the hotel.”

• What have been the most notable highs and lows in your hotel career to date?

“The most notable high was the immediate and booming success of the afternoon teas. We launched the full afternoon tea in March and since then the hotel is regularly full in the afternoon with people having afternoon tea parties – everyone loves our afternoon teas! The Christmas season was also a high time for us – the atmosphere was great in the hotel with lots of Christmas parties in the run up to Christmas, and then Christmas day and New Year’s eve were great parties! Also, just today I saw our new brand printed on beautiful card and it just looked beautiful – that was a high for me… and I can’t wait to see our new website go live!”

“The obvious low is January and February – we know that all countryside hotels in the UK are quieter at this time of year but it was hard to actually live it – we were very happy when we got through our first winter! But more unexpectedly a particular low was early one Friday morning we received an emergency call from the hotel to be told that the boiler had gone bust. We managed the situation and replaced the boilers with amazing speed and little disturbance to the guests but it was a shock to the system!”

• Your F&B offer is clearly at the heart of the hotel – what are the biggest challenges in attracting non-residents to dine with you, and what sets Outlook apart from other restaurants in the area?

“We face two key challenges in attracting non-residents to the hotel. Firstly, people in the local area think of The Cottage in the Wood as a place to go for special occasions only – it’s great that they want to come for special occasions but we’d also like them to come for more regular meals. To overcome this we plan to launch The Cottage Café in the new orangery with a fresh and light lunch menu as well as a bar menu for people to have a meal and a drink in the bar in the evening, in addition to our usual restaurant menu.  Secondly, people know The Cottage in the Wood is a hotel and think of it as a hotel rather than a restaurant. The previous owners tried to address this by giving the restaurant a different name, and called it Outlook restaurant. We have found that the name does not resonate with people in the area and so are changing the name to 1919, and will market 1919 as a restaurant to go to for your evening meal. We are prioritising the refurbishment of the restaurant and bar and the orangery build to attract more non-residents to the new restaurant and enhance the experience of the staying guests.”

• Most independent hotels are struggling to attract direct bookings and can become very reliant on OTAs – how are you addressing this issue, and does the hotel have a core of loyal repeat guests?

“Yes, the hotel has a fantastic rate of repeat guests. Guests come here and they love it so much they come back again and again. In terms of attracting direct bookings we get a lot of direct bookings from our repeat guests. We have a comprehensive database and our email marketing works as a sales tool for us – our special offer emails lead to direct bookings. We are also improving our website to improve the user experience and thus increase likelihood to book direct. We also constantly monitor the market for new innovative products which could help us to drive customers to book direct with us.”

• What plans to you have to improve and evolve the hotel?

“We have an extensive refurbishment planned for all three buildings that make up the hotel. The refurbishment will start with The Main House next January, then progress to The Beech Cottage and The Coach House.”

In The Main House the restaurant and bar will be restored back to its Georgian glory with black & white marble flooring, more comfortable furniture and reinstating the original marble fireplace. We will also be building an orangery which will extend out from the bar. The orangery will give The Cottage a lovely open space to walk into and a welcoming bar for live music. The next stage of the refurbishment will be the rooms in The Main House – we will be combining two of our bedrooms to create a super suite with two roll-top baths overlooking the view. We will be converting our conference room into two interconnecting bedrooms to create a family suite, and converting one of our bedrooms into a meeting room and residents lounge. Then we will refurbish the four rooms in the cottage and the 19 rooms in The Coach House. We will always stay a 30-bedroom, independent boutique hotel.”

“We have also refreshed the brand and we’ll be launching the new website this summer.”

• Are you glad you changed careers and have you got plans to take on any more hotels?

“We’re delighted with our new lives as hoteliers. I feel so much better suited to this career, we get to spend more time together, we now travel for fun, not work, and most importantly, we’re investing our time and energy into something that is meaningful, valuable and important to us. Nick enjoys developing new projects and building brands. He is finding it very fulfilling developing our own brand and is always looking to expand the brand further. The plan was always to buy more than one hotel and we decided on the hotel group name before we even bought The Cottage in the Wood – watch this space!”

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