Rise of the ‘staycation’
According to travel guide publisher Lonely Planet’s destination editor for Britain and Ireland, Clifton Wilkinson: “Britain has so much to offer, it’s no surprise staycations have been increasingly popular in recent years.
“Lonely Planet named the UK one of the best-value destinations in the world for international travellers for 2018, and, with the weakening of the pound, many people have chosen to take trips closer to home.
“In addition to popular destinations such as Devon and Cornwall, and big-ticket cities such as Bath, York and Edinburgh, scenic areas of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are now big tourist destinations. North Wales is an increasingly popular place for adventure travel. Road trippers are discovering the Highlands and islands of Scotland, while Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast was our pick as the number one region in the world for travellers to discover this year.”
Holidaying at home no longer means a mad dash to the nearest seaside spot to soak up an extra few degrees Celsius. With more Brits shunning sun and budget flights to stay back in the UK, there’s a huge opportunity for pubs to open their doors to holidaymakers.
Between January and September 2017, there were 47m domestic holidays, or ‘staycations’, in the UK, according to holiday comparison site Travel Supermarket – a 5% increase on the same period in 2016.
Yet, Mark Fulton, head of hotel operations at Fuller’s – 2018 Publican Awards finalist for best accommodation operator – hasn’t just seen an increase in visitors flocking to the same old sites. “We’ve definitely seen people become a bit more adventurous about where they want to go and stay in terms of location.”
With knock-on effects of Britain’s decision to leave the European Union and the weakening of the pound internationally driving the increasing number and diversity of domestic trips in the UK, 2018 marks an ideal point for pubs to review and revamp their accommodation offering.
Working in cycles
The Inn Collection Group managing director Sean Donkin aims for regular, scheduled, refurbishment of the 232 rooms under his company’s portfolio across the north of England in order to keep the offer fresh.
The latest venue to get a lick of paint was County Durham’s Seaton Lane Inn, which saw its 18 rooms, ground-floor trading space, traditional bar and restaurant overhauled in line with the group’s cyclical approach to accommodation refurbishment.
“We aim for about seven years in terms of refurbishment cycle. Going in, doing it once and thinking that’s it forever isn’t the way to do it. You’ve got to have pre-planned and defined moments in your business where you say we’ve got to start planning for the next stage.
“While the Seaton Lane Inn was still in good condition in terms of maintenance, it was essential to try and refresh the environment for the customers. They see that you’re reinvesting back into them and not just taking from them all the time.
Currently in the process of expanding the offering across its 14 sites containing rooms, Upham Pub Company is putting accommodation front of mind.
Largely comprising venues across Hampshire, its current occupancy is, according to chief executive officer Chris Phillips, well over 70%. While Phillips highlights the fact that having about three quarters of his portfolio’s 161 rooms full at any given moment offers “a pretty useful bit of income”, it’s an area Upham is making an ongoing priority.
“We have not only improved our offering, but we’ve added rooms wherever possible within our existing estate. Obviously you get a great return on capital if you can expand what you’ve got already without the overhead of more management, more staff. Managed rooms are always an extra to the business.”
“We own quite a few rural locations. It’s very easy to fill pubs on Fridays, Saturday and Sundays, but the secret to success is to fill them on Monday through Thursday as well. If you’ve got some bedrooms, you’ve got customers who are very likely to eat with you – not only do you get the room revenue but you get the added food and beverage sales, which is really important.”
Find ways to add value
Fuller’s Fulton argues that a main point of difference between a pub room and a budget hotel chain are the personal touches that a publican can add to a consistently high standard of room.
“Whether they’re coming to central London or going to the New Forest, Stratford, Dorset or Oxford, it doesn’t change our opinion on the standards that a Fuller’s bedroom should achieve, but they should retain some elements of individuality, surprise and delight that make them stand out from any other business.
“We allow the houses to produce their own home-made biscuits for the bedrooms to give that personal touch. They do home-made cakes for birthdays and anniversaries.”
Claire Alexander, co-owner of Yubby Inns, the company behind the Ebrington Arms and the Killingworth Castle – both in the Cotswolds – takes a similar approach to her, albeit, much smaller pub stable. “We give all of our guests free sherry and home-made cookies on arrival and they love it.”
Alexander adds that given Killingworth Castle site is within a few miles of Blenheim Palace – the most visited UK tourist destination outside of London – she’s also been able to offer guests discounted tickets and add another line to her profit sheet.
Create a social presence
Personal touches should also be an integral part of a site’s social media strategy. While highlighting that an online presence is essential, Mark Simpson, co-founder at hospitality marketing agency Boostly, flags up the importance of engaging potential guests by creating a narrative around your site.
“Make sure that you have a good presence on social media and that you tell your story so you’re not always selling on Facebook or Instagram. “Why are you a guest house owner, why do you do breakfast that way, why did you choose to open a guest house in that town?”
A more colourful online presence can ultimately help encourage customers to book directly via a pub’s website, rather than lining the pockets of booking sites, earning commission on each room booking.
Well-rounded pub experience
Stay in a Pub and Cask Marque director Paul Nunny adds that the venues he’s seen succeed have offered a balanced, well-rounded experience. “Pubs with a total offering. Great accommodation, good food and very important is the atmosphere created within the pub.
“We all like to be appreciated. Train you staff to acknowledge customers and to engage in conversation. Help customers with their plans. Ensure they are happy with your arrangements. Do they want a table reserved for them tonight?”
Yubby Inns’ Alexander adds: “The food has to be great, we’re in the Cotswolds so it’s about the whole quintessential village pub experience – from serving our own craft ales through to really local and organic, where possible.”
Fuller’s Fulton concludes that amid a scramble to improve accommodation, keeping a premium pub feel at the heart of an offer is crucial. “Where food and drink has always been the bread and butter, and the accommodation has been seen as a bolt-on, we’ve brought the accommodation side of the business to the fore so that it’s not just seen as a bed above a pub – noisy, horrible, dirty and smells of beer.
“We’ve made it all about the full experience of staying, dining, drinking, amazing service – a brilliant Fuller’s pub at the heart of any business with bedrooms irrespective of its size.”
Understand the underlying costs
Upham’s Philips urges caution. “I think people have got to be wary,” he explains.
“I think it’s important to have a proper understanding of what the costs of laying on your rooms are – from cleaning, turning them round, laundry bills and the accessories you’re putting in the room like shampoos and soaps, as well as the staff involved in turning those rooms around and cooking for them in the morning.
“The cost of actually creating a room now is quite significant. It could be anywhere from £60,000 through to £100,000 depending on if it’s a complete new build or it’s a build within an existing building.
“You need to make sure that if you’re going to lay out proper money that the demand is there that’s going to fill that room.
“I would suggest anyone takes a serious look at the demographics of the area and has a look at how busy other sites are in the neighbouring area. You can go online and try and book a room in all the local pubs and you will see whether they are full or not.
“You go on to Booking.com or TripAdvisor and it’ll always throw up the local pubs in the area, what they’re charging and their availability. It’s very easy research, not something you need to pay someone to go and do for you.
“You can do your basic homework and you should be able to find out if there is a demand, the rates people are able to charge and the styles of operation that are doing well.”
Case study: the White Horse, Brancaster Staithe, Norfolk
The White Horse on the picturesque Norfolk coast, operated by Anglian Country Inns, the winner of the best accommodation operator prize at the 2018 Publican Awards, underwent a six-figure revamp in order to make the most of its stunning location.
Rob Williamson, the general manager behind the 15-room site, reacted to feedback from guests and a growing
‘selfie’ culture, to embark on building work to fully exploit the panoramic views on the venue’s doorstep.
“We operate on 75% to 80% repeat custom. You don’t want to be putting things into your establishment that they would disagree with.
“We’ve got fantastic panoramic views outside. We’ve updated the glass in the windows, made it more accessible from the rooms as well as adding patio furniture outside the bedroom so you can sit in the summer and be at one with that view.
“Service excellence is the key, but I do feel that creating a photographable experience is part and parcel of that – making that sort of Instagrammable experience, if you like, and creating an environment guests want to photo, share and be seen in. We’re lucky with our view and location but it’s about how we can make the most of it.”
The timing of improvements for Williamson was key to ensure that the site didn’t lose out on income.
“Because we operate on quite high occupancy throughout the year we have to avoid disrupting other people’s experience. Instead of blocking off a whole area for a week and potentially losing revenue, it’s about doing it one by one when natural gaps occur.”