Event review: 2017 Boutique and Lifestyle Hotel Summit

BHN looks at the highlights and key learnings from the 2017 Boutique and Lifestyle Hotel Summit.

The event annual Boutique and Lifestyle Hotel Summit took place in London earlier this week, with 200 delegates from as far afield as the US, Thailand, Ghana, Brazil and Japan gathering in London. For this year’s renewal of the popular hotel tours on day one of the Summit, delegates headed for the City of London and met at the recently opened The Ned, a joint venture between SoHo House and the Sydell Group. Then it was on to Andaz Liverpool Street and The Montcalm Royal London House, where the first ever BoHo awards were presented, followed by a speed business card swap.

On day two, after event host Piers Brown had set the scene, keynote speaker Mandy Saven, head of food, beverage and hospitality at Stylus.com gave a presentation called Travel for the Agile Elite, which focused on emerging groups of high-end consumer.

These include families who plan their trips up to 30 years in advance, the ‘Wild Wanders’ who have an urgent desire to reconnect with nature, and ‘Transcendent Travellers’ who have a heightened sense of consciousness and enlightenment.

A session called The GM Speaks was moderated by Bespoke Hotels chairman Robin Sheppard, who was joined onstage by Angela Ellis of The Zetter and Zetter Townhouse, Anthony Cox of Danesfield House and Ben Maybury of Lime Wood.

Both Cox and Maybury entered the hospitality through their desire to become chefs, before moving in to hotels, whereas Ellis spent the majority of her career in the housekeeping departments of various hotels before becoming a general manager. All three of them told of varying levels of disapproval when they expressed their desire to work in hospitality, either from family or teachers.

Cox said the nature of the GM’s job means they need to have knowledge “a mile wide and an inch deep”. Discussing the new generation of hotel workers, Maybury said younger people coming in to the industry “need more coaching, they are not as keen on being thrown in at the deep end like we were”.

The conversation moved on to whether an increased emphasis on revenue management is gradually making the general manager’s position less important, with Cox saying: “Our types of hotel are not a commodity, so we need to project a personality. We are selling an experience, and the GM is at the heart of providing that – the role of the GM is alive and kicking”. Sheppard noted that good design in a hotel is not a substitute for personality and service.

The issue of recruiting, training and retaining staff became a dominant themes in the conversation. “Management in a hotel has to be done face-to-face – management by email is doomed to failure,” said Marbury, while Ellis added: “Our guests receive a very warm welcome no matter what the purpose of their visit. It leads to  a lot of repeat business. All that stems from making the staff feel like a valued family. If the staff feel valued, it is reflected in the way they interact with the guests.”

Cox stated that: “Recruitment is a big issue – we will know more after the election where we stand regarding our EU staff. Filling gaps and retaining our team over the next 12 months is important,” while Sheppard added: “Recruitment from the EU is a massive ticking time bomb which will affect our industry, and others, enormously.”

“Social media has added an extra layer of cost to the business, because it has to be monitored constantly. But in this era of technology, the personal touch is even more magnified and valued,” concluded Cox.

Sophie Colvin of STR the gave a presentation on the European hotel market and the Airbnb effect. There has been a positive start to 2017 for the European market in general, she said, with midscale and economy unbranded hotels seeing the best performance in Q1 in terms of REVPAR growth.

STR says that hot markets in 2017 are Amsterdam, Barcelona, Madrid and Dublin. Recovery markets include Brussels, Moscow, Paris and Milan. London, although recording a strong start to the year is likely to feel the impact of supply growth. There are 478 projects in the capital’s pipeline, totalling 47,000 rooms.

Colvin noted: “The average length of stay for an Airbnb guest is decreasing. In US markets average hotel ADR is 16 per cent higher than Airbnb’s ADR. But Airbnb still has much more room to grow in most markets.”

An entertaining panel called New Owners on the Block, chaired by consultant Melvin Gold, saw three relatively new hoteliers sharing their experiences. Justin Salisbury, co-owner of Artist Residence Hotels, said: “I started in the industry at my parents’ B&B in Brighton. At the time is was listed as the worst hotel in the town on TripAdvisor! Now it is ranked third in the town.”

Oliver Heywood of Flat Cap Hotels, spoke of securing investment: “We tried a crowdfunding campaign, but I don’t think it works for hotels yet, it isn’t robust enough.”

“Planning is the biggest issue in opening new properties. Dealing with local authorities can seem like luck of the draw. Licensing departments often have different ideas from the planners, and they don’t always talk to each other. There are a lot of hoops to jump through to get a business off the ground,” said Salisbury.

Nick Davies, co-owner of the Cottage in The Wood, said: “We are aiming to expand our reach by partnering with local companies, such as florists and Morgan cars. We also like to emphasise the history of the hotel – CS Lewis, Tolkien and Elgar have all stayed there.”

Salisbury stressed that part of the enjoyment for him comes from starting each new property with a fresh angle, and trying to avoid replication. “We tailor our F&B offerings to each location rather than rolling out a successful concept to new properties. I’d get very bored doing that,” he said.

OTAs were then debated, with Davies saying: “OTAs are a necessary evil – they gain us access to markets we wouldn’t otherwise reach,” while Heywood warned: “OTAs are your friend, but you have to be careful about when you use them and which ones you use.”

The March of the hybrids session looked at the trend for combining elements of hostels and hotels in the same property to appeal to younger travellers. Navneet Bali of Meininger Hotels said: “Hybrid to us is a property where you are able to book by the room or by the bed.”

Jo Berrington of Yotel, which offers small cabin-style rooms, said: “Our customers are not interested in classification or terminology. They want to find the right product to suit their stay.”

Travel blogger Kash Battacharya said: “Don’t get too hung up on labels, people want an experience. Today’s traveller is very flexible. They can stay in an Airbnb on one trip, a hostel the next, and a hotel the next.”

Bali opined that “people who have stayed at an Airbnb are becoming more demanding of hotels in terms of experience,” while both Bali and Berrington expressed strong opinions about doing away with traditional staples of the hotel room. Berrington said “I don’t see the point in room service anymore. It’s always cold and disappointing,” while Bali said: “We are thinking of doing away with TVs in our rooms – people stream content on their own devices so fast broadband is more important.”

When discussing new locations for Meininger properties, Bali said: “Good public transport is key to locations for our new sites, at the top of the list. If you don’t need a taxi to get there, that’s a good thing.”

He was also much more positive about OTAs than other speakers, stating: “OTAs make up more than 50 per cent of our business. They are a key partner for us in helping us to grow the business. They are not as expensive as a lot of people think, compared with the cost of acquiring new customers. We are still profitable with this level of OTA business and are comfortable with it.”
“Ignore place-making at your peril” was the message that came through loud and clear at the panel discussion between Imran Hussain, editor-in-chief of The Hotel Culture, Camille Lorigo, co-founder at SexyBestFriend, Mark Davy, founder of FutureCity and Holly Tuppen, eco travel expert and co-founder of Bouteco.

Discussing what placemaking entails and how to do it, the panel pointed out that the boutique and independent hotel sector was ideally placed to take advantage of the increasing consumer demand for local, authentic experiences – as opposed to cookie cutter chains.

Sourcing food locally, building up relations with the local community through targeted events, charitable involvement and also through becoming a key employer were all ways cited by the panel to create community engagement.

Davy and Hussain’s work with larger placemaking schemes led them to advise also considering artistic and other types of creative involvement. They also stressed the important role hotels are now playing within wider regeneration and development schemes.

Additionally, the panel warned that with Brexit looming, staffing issues are set to become increasingly difficult, so reaching out to the local community for loyal and dependable staff would become more critical.

Tuppen added that treating staff well will also become more important to consumers who increasingly are able to tell the difference between staff who are engaged and those just showing up for work.

And on engaging with social media, they recognised the difficulty experienced by many hoteliers trying to “do it all with limited resources” and Lorigo advised, “pick one thing and do it really well.”

Following on from the previous evening’s BoHo Awards ceremony, a session on guest reviews and reputation management looked at the best ways for busy hoteliers to respond to guest reviews and to spread the word when receiving good feedback. Francine Heywood of Guest Revu stressed the importance of responding to all reviews, especially negative ones. One of the BoHo winners, Caroline Kaye of Cedar Manor, spoke about how ensuring your staff provide good service is the foundations of good feedback and is essential for your property’s reputation.

Other sessions in the comprehensive agenda covered F&B, investment, operations, and digital personalisation.

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