Soft launch: behind the scenes at Victorian House Hotel

What exactly does a soft launch involve? What are the benefits? And what can you learn from the process moving forwards? BHN spoke to the team at Victorian House Hotel in Grasmere to glean a better understanding of the logistics.

Serena von der Heyde, owner 

How does a soft opening work? What are the practical elements? Who are your customers?

A soft opening is when we open the hotel but all the guests are friends, family, or friends of friends. The point is to help us understand what is working well, and what needs improvement so everyone stays on a low rate and gives us feedback without putting it on public feedback sites. 

By deciding to have a soft opening, it meant that we had to agree to a definite finish date for the construction work and although a tight finish date, the aim is that we feel more prepared when we open to the public. 

How is feedback obtained? What do you do with the feedback?

Throughout the soft opening, we have asked for feedback from guests during their stay and then asked them to email us detailing all the improvements they think we could make. I did think about making a form to give to guests but we ended up just leaving it open which has worked really well. Different guests have thought about completely different aspects from slow draining sinks through to website directions to find us. 

Every piece of advice we have had has been extremely useful and the feedback has really helped us to discover practical things that weren’t working, as well as to understand what parts of our service could be better and how we can improve our menus. It is quite a daunting prospect to leave yourself open for honesty and criticism but it has cast a light over everything we do, which is just what we wanted. Now that we’ve had quite a few people through, we have created a massive snagging list which we will have worked through completely by the time we open to the public. 

Dan Gatehouse, operations manager

What did you learn from the duration of the soft opening?

The soft launch has been a huge success for us and has done exactly what we wanted it to – flag any issues or improvements that need to be made. There have been certain things that we could not anticipate despite our best efforts, but having friends and family in to find those issues rather than paying guests is far more preferable than the alternative. Doing the soft launch has put all of our processes to the test and we’ve learnt which do-and-don’t work, so we can give our future guests a smooth experience.

Were there any surprises? Did you encounter or experience something that you perhaps didn’t expect to?

Despite a full refurbishment, there have been small snags here and there that we have had to sort out – bulbs that were too dim to read by, shower taps that are a bit tight, slow draining sinks. All of these things are easy to fix and haven’t been too surprising but so, so useful because these are the small yet practical things that are key to ensuring our guests have the best stay possible. I wouldn’t have found these issues out myself unless I had stayed in each room for a night or two which, although would have been lovely, is not an overly practical alternative!

What happens once the soft opening period comes to end?

We had a team meeting planned to go through all the feedback from our friends and family – both positive and negative. We then change what we feel is needed, add in new processes to overcome unforeseen problems, and then it’s onto creating outstanding, memorable experiences for all of our future guests.

Helen Taylor, guest host (front of house/reception)

What have you learnt from your guests and their requirements? How might these differ to the wider, general public when the hotel officially opens? Do you expect to welcome a particular demographic of guest?

The soft launch has been a great success and has given us a lot of useful and positive feedback. 

In regards to the guest’s requirements, we have worked really hard and did well to meet them, especially as during the soft opening we didn’t have things like the boot room up and running. 

Going forward, I believe that we will cover most, if not all, of our guest’s requirements with the knowledge we have gained. 

The guests we’ve had stay with us during our soft opening have on the whole been reflective of the type of guest we are expecting, so we are hoping that this has stood in good stead when welcoming the general public. We have had a really good demographic of guests from families with both younger and older children, young couples, mature couples, and guests staying in two or more rooms – so a really good range.

The great thing about the Lakes is that it too has a really wide demographic and our set-up ensures that whoever it is visiting can enjoy the Lake District their own way, be that snuggling by the fire or scaling the hills.  

As the first point-of-call for visitors, how important or beneficial is a soft opening in this respect?

The soft launch has been very beneficial to us and I think as a whole an extremely useful exercise. As the first point-of-call, it gave us a chance to work out the best way to complete a check-in to make sure guests received all the relevant information and what needed to be changed. This is really important as it is the very first impression for guests as they arrive and sets the tone for the rest of the visit, so it has been imperative that we have looked at this critically to ensure we get it right. 

Daryl Hardy, guest host (F&B)

Given the rural location of the hotel, I would imagine it is imperative to get the F&B offering right. During a soft launch, do you showcase the full menu? What are the reasons for this?

We have been very conscious of getting our F&B offering correct due to the geography of the location. We are clear of our target guest demographic, which helps us to be really focused on the types of dishes and offerings we want to provide. We have also been really keen to showcase local produce from local suppliers as much as possible, and are keen to keep our ideals and values with regards to recycling and reducing our carbon footprint as much as possible. So these are things that we have also had to consider when creating the F&B offering at the hotel. 

During the soft launch, we felt it necessary to provide a full menu to those staying for a number of reasons. We wanted to start to create a close working relationship with local suppliers as soon as we could, and by delivering the full menu this allowed us to feel prepared for opening.

Doing this was also beneficial to the wider team because it allowed the kitchen and staff to become accustomed to the produce, suppliers, and the menu itself, ensuring that they have been fully ready when welcoming guests. And of course, it has been really important that we get a full range of feedback from guests, and the only way we could do this was by putting on the full menu. 

Say, for example, the concept is not well received. How do you go about ensuring that the team is well prepared? 

Feedback from guests and staff has been vital to this process and we ensured that all staff went in with an open mind when it came to receiving feedback from guests – even negative feedback was really important, as this ensured that in the long run, we had the F&B offering nailed. All feedback helped us to fine-tune the F&B offering which is so positive!

It is also really important for the team to realise that the menu is naturally going to evolve as the seasons change, and along with that, the type of guest we will be hosting. Our menus will always keep evolving. We also want to ensure the menu keeps developing to incorporate more local produce. 

Following the soft launch, what do you consider a priority for the F&B team? Has focus shifted at all?

Customer service will always be the key when it comes to F&B so we have already ensured we have regular training sessions for staff, which will mean that these standards are kept as high as possible. Following feedback from guests, we are also already looking to create a younger guests healthy option menu and we look forward to introducing this shortly. 

Victorian House Hotel, in the Lake District’s Grasmere village, officially opened for business 9 March. 

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