CHARACTER is not necessarily something you think of when evaluating a boutique or destination hotel. Yet, for the luxury traveller, character is what truly sets a high-end hotel apart and distinguishes a memorable stay. Like a person, good character is pretty hard to come by these days when it comes to hotels, even at the luxury end, as big conglomerates make the hotel experience more and more generic.
Happily for travellers, groups like the Eden Hotel Collection are dedicated to making sure that your hotel experience is anything but forgettable. The Eden Collection is a privately-owned portfolio of nine unique hotels throughout the Midlands and South West in the UK, including Mallory Court Hotel, Buckland Tout-Saints Hotel, the Kings Hotel, the Arden Hotel, Brockencote Hall Hotel, the Greenway Hotel & Spa, the Mount Somerset Hotel & Spa, Bovey Castle Resort & Spa, and, soon, Tides Reach in Salcombe. Each property in the Eden Collection has its own superb character – gorgeous architecture, sublime surroundings, amazing food, and all the luxuries we have all come to expect from high-end travel. Not surprisingly, the Eden Collection recently won Small Hotel Group of the Year category at the AA Hospitality Awards.
We sat down with Mark Chambers, group managing director of Eden Hotel Collection, to learn about one of their recent additions, the historic property Bovey Castle, as well as to gain insights into their marketing goals.
With origins in the late 19th century, Bovey Castle is actually a relatively new property on the estate scene. From a marketing perspective, how do you play up the provenance of the hotel while in competition with perhaps older properties? Or is newer better when it comes to estate hotels?
I don’t think the customers in general are that really much interested in the provenance and age of Bovey Castle compared to Skibo Castle or Gleneagles and we sit in that set quite comfortably. I don’t think the customer in the main is that bothered. It is obviously very early in our tenure of ownership so we are still getting our feet under the table, so to speak. But It hasn’t been something that has become a major dynamic in the marketing message so to speak.
Are your customers mainly from the UK?
Yes, 95 per cent are – of which just over 50 per cent come from London and the South East. Americans are the biggest proportion of our overseas business. But our overseas business is very minimal in the grand scheme of things which surprised us. I would have thought it would be on “the list” but I think geography drives foreign trade and as Bovey is in Devon, and it is not in the vicinity of Stratford, Bath, York or Edinburgh so the south-west is secondary as a location. But certainly Americans love the whole history aspect. We will major on that and I think Bovey will add a huge credibility to Eden as Eden will to Bovey as an independent standalone hotel and certainly we will focus on the castle aspect. I don’t think the domestic traveller is so concerned about the heritage of Bovey, that is more for the Americans and, to some extent, our European visitors.
Bovey Castle offers a unique combination of luxury and rural activities for a destination resort. With the hotel now a part of Eden Hotels, what changes, if any, do you plan to make?
No major changes are planned in terms of the proposition but certainly it needs investment. The hotel has been under-capitalised for some years now. It was under the previous management for seven years who managed it through very tough economic times and as a consequence didn’t invest in the property. And we have to put right a number of years of neglect, if you like. Unfortunately, a lot of it is going to be what the customer doesn’t see. We need to fix the roof, the infrastructure, but importantly we will be investing in the fabric of the building as well as enhancing what the guest sees. So public area and bedrooms refurbishment will all be improved.
We started our refurbishment of the roof which will cost £450,000 – which is just to fix a leaking roof – this September, as part of our five-year programme of refurbishments. It is pointless to get new carpets and curtains until that is repaired: there is so much to do in any new ownership. We bought it in June and June until August almost account for half of the year’s trade. So we have had our work cut out.
Was Bovey Castle affected by the recent floods in the UK in early 2014?
It really was affected. It was not good. Obviously this was prior to our ownership so we are picking up a number of insurance claims which are all in order. But it gives us the opportunity to enhance it. In terms of the proposition, we we are trying to enhance what is already a great package.
What value does Bovey Castle bring to the Eden Hotels group brand?
I think that there are a number of layers of benefit that Bovey Castle adds to Eden and vice versa. Certainly Bovey Castle is an iconic unique standalone property. In terms of what it offers, it has a huge amount of appeal to our customer base. Equally as a standalone hotel Bovey Castle suffered from not being part of a larger organisation. So we can add value through the activities of our marketing department and the network of our other properties.
There are very few properties or hotels in the UK that offer the broad range of things that Bovey Castle does and we want to just enhance it all. We are beginning to work much more closely with outdoor and country pursuits, to help bring in interested parties around food and fishing and that sort of thing which the hotel has always done. We are also looking at ways to unlock the potential of the property in a number of ways. It is a commercial approach as well as running a hotel. We need to unlock ways to make more money. I think Bovey Castle brings a number of layers of benefit to Eden and vice versa. Bovey Castle is an iconic property and it is a fairly iconic brand in its own right which offers a huge amount of appeal to our existing customers and new ones as well.
Bovey Castle was a member of the Walpole group. Do you wish to continue with that?
Walpole adds a huge amount of gravitas to Bovey Castle. It’s an organisation that has great other brands. We would be foolish to walk away from that.
How important do you feel a digital presence is for a historic property?
Absolutely huge. I think the sorts of customers we are appealing to, or certainly want to appeal to, are savvy when it comes to these things. They are very online savvy and the online community is fed through so many different mediums, Trip Advisor and so on, and social media is a big part of promoting the messages of what the hotel is about. We have really great social media as a company which I don’t think under the previous ownership Bovey had – it was there but it wasn’t really attended to. I believe you really have to be consistent with it. I find it so frustrating that when you go into a hotel and there is a sign saying ”follow us on Twitter”. So I get to my room, once I have checked in and I tweet a message, saying ”great welcome from the staff at the hotel” but then they don’t tweet back. We are the opposite. We really encourage it. I am no expert but obviously our marketing team dedicate a big resource around social media.
What social media channels are most valuable, in your opinion?
I think, personally speaking, this isn’t Eden’s view, Facebook and Twitter for sure. We are across most platforms – we even have a YouTube channel. I know this is moving past social media but it is all intermingled. This whole way of marketing has changed radically in the last few years, as opposed to the past when you could just place an advert in a magazine which still has its place. I think you have to broaden your efforts across all these channels.
Can you tell us something about your career path?
I have been in hospitality man and boy. I started in the hotels as a porter as a holiday job when I was at school. I had been planning to be a doctor! When I told my mother that I wasn’t going to be a doctor but I was going to be a porter, she had 50 fits. But it’s not a decision I regret. I took a path that was rather unconventional as I worked front of house and was a general manager as opposed to what people did in the 1980s –’90s However, it stood me in very good stead for what I do now. Because you got the inside track on running a hotel. You have got to have the experience and this is the I think that over the past ten – 15 years, hotels are not about how you get a plate to a table – of course that is important – but as a general manager you are running a business and you have to be very aware of sales and the guest experience. That was the route I took. I started as a porter and here I am as the manager of a small group.
What is it that attracted you to working in the leisure and hospitality industry?
I just fell in love with it. It’s a bit cliched but I was 15 and it was my first job. I got my first pay check which was £32 for my first week. I really enjoyed working with people and the whole hospitality business.
What are the high points of your career?
That was getting my first general manager’s job which was daunting as well as exciting. The reality of it hits you. The buck stops with you. It is you standing at the door and welcoming your guests. Working towards that and and then being a general manager was a real high point of my career. In fact, I was quite young really when I first became one.
I have had a number of other highlights of course. Most recently I was made a Master Innholder which is a real honour as there are less than 120 in the whole world. It is a very prestigious livery company, so to be invited was a very proud moment. I was given the freedom of the City of London which comes with it the award. However, there are proud moments everyday, for instance when I help a guest. I am proud of that.
What you do you consider to be the challenges to the luxury hotel markets?
I think we are facing challenges but these challenges have been around for a number of years. Being a small independent chain is a double-edged sword as the big brands have a strength in the market. I think as an independent boutique luxury hotel you have to collaborate with people like Walpole and other small companies which we do. I think all of our hotels do help us keep our presence in the marketplace. That is the biggest challenge. Promoting the business and trading is the biggest challenge even in the good times.
I think the luxury hotel market is in good shape, relatively so. Certainly I see the longevity of it. I think there is absolutely a place for us in the future. I think more and more customers are seeking out the points of difference in the hotel experience There is a place for the big brands so don’t think I am doing down branded products. But I think more and more people are looking for something different in hotels and I think this is where we will continue to do very well.
Were you very hard hit by the recession?
We did better than some and not as good as others. But on the whole we held fairly well. It was tough, really tough. You have to make a decision about which way you want to go. I think we did ok but we still have got work to do.
Fortunately our owner is very committed to investing in the business. We have continued to invest during periods of economic downturn. We have even grown during this period as well. We bought four hotels in the last four years. We had the finance to do that even in the tough times as we have got the money.
Can you share with your predictions for the future of the luxury hotel market?
If I knew that I would be a millionaire!
by Caroline Simpson