Build it and they will come

Ben Harper Ben Harper Uploaded

Ben Harper, group managing director at Watergate Bay Hotel, Beach Retreats and Another Place tells SAN how he is applying his experience from the aparthotel and serviced apartment sector to the leisure market.

Beach Retreats is taking what I learned at SACO The Serviced Apartment Company (now edyn Group) with the launch of brands including Locke, and applying them to the lifestyle leisure market as it expands in the UK. Our next project is a development in Hayle, Cornwall.

The whole model is based on the guest’s desire for independence. Hospitality has come full circle. Hotels existed because business travellers wanted to go overseas and stay in a Holiday Inn because it was safe and familiar. But the modern traveller wants real, local experiences when they travel rather than to stay in a shoe box with a brand on top.

During my time at SACO we started to see change when corporations began to understand the value of alternatives to conventional hotels and focused on integrating serviced apartments, and even Airbnb into conventional managed travel programmes. This was driven by demand from travellers for the chance to explore parts of the city that perhaps the Holiday Inn didn’t operate in, helping them to feel excited about the experience, rather than it just being a business trip. And while that was happening, we saw the emergence of brands such as Ace and The Hoxton, which offered something more to hotels, bringing lifestyle-branded experiences to life in hospitality settings.

So on one side there was Airbnb and on the other side there were lifestyle hotels and at the top of the triangle, traditional corporate housing, or serviced apartments. With Locke, we saw the opportunity to blend all three of these, so now you can stay a night, a month, or a year, but with a really interesting brand and design-led, local experience.

At the time we were pushing boundaries within the B2B market, transitioning from a relatively staid corporate housing product, to a really edgy brand, which I didn’t think the corporates would adopt, but they embraced it. The creative vision was ‘build it and they will come’ and they did.

It’s the brand which is everything in this space. It is what drives the scalability and the success; occupancies are traditionally high in aparthotels due to the ability to mix segments but once you layer in brand and lifestyle, then that's when you start to move into a more consumer-led, less B2B positioning and drive hotel-like rates which, based on lower operational costs drive real profitability.

The model is now moving into leisure, where I have always believed the concept could work.

This was becoming clear before the pandemic, but has been turbo charged by the surge in demand for domestic holidays. As anyone who has tried to book a holiday in the UK this year can tell you – it’s either super expensive, booked up or lacks the quality/lifestyle that the guest is looking for.

The new work from anywhere movement adds another interesting dimension, but it will never be the core segment for business at Beach Retreats. We can all gain right away by positioning our business towards people who want to come and take an apartment for three weeks and write a book, but most people’s sole reason for being on a beach in Cornwall is to be on a beach in Cornwall. But if you want to make sure you’re semi productive while you’re there and stay for three weeks rather than one week, an apartment is the ideal way to do that. It gives us another segment to push at times of the year when holiday demand is softer.

I think the leisure model will be similar to the urban aparthotel concept, light-touch operations, tech led guest communications and aspirational interior design.

We don't see a concierge behind the desk, we don't even see a receptionist behind the desk, what we see is a small, hosted communal space on the ground floor at certain times of the day when people will need it. There doesn't need to be a bar, but you can get a great bottle of wine and a couple of beers from the fridge and add them to your bill.

We don’t need to do more because we are careful that the locations we choose are part of a community, part of an ecosystem which means that it's obvious that there are three restaurants and two bars around the corner, all within eyesight of your balcony. Our project in Hayle, near St Ives, which is set to open next year, will consist of 40 units, a mix of one, two and three-bed apartments and beach lofts, supported by a new watersports centre and will be embedded in the local community.

I think the technology, pre-arrival communications, booking process and transparency of information will be key. We will offer the chance for people to bolt on services that they might wish to through their stay, whether it be food deliveries or booking activities, that don't require a human being, but where, for example, you can connect with a local bakery to deliver your bread and croissants, ski-resort style.

Airbnb has educated the modern consumer to think beyond traditional hotels which is great for us. It's similar to how low-cost airlines changed the way that people fly - the idea that you'd book first class on a short haul flights Paris is bonkers now.

What we're trying to do is take amazing lifestyle hotels like Watergate Bay, and a convoluted, inconsistent, self-catering market, create something which sits right in the middle of all of them. As we saw last year with the Roompot deal, with the Sandaya deal, these leisure-driven outdoor offerings are the stories investors are finding interesting and looking at the demand we have seen in the past few years from guests leads me to believe that we can create the country's largest lifestyle self-catering brand.


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