“Being an independent means you can create what you want”: Independent hotelier Ian Taylor

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Ian and Christa Taylor have been pivotal in bringing a new edge to the luxury, boutique and affordable hotel market in Bath. Now with three properties under their belt, the duo have announced the launch of their own collection and have set their sights firmly on expansion. Zoe Monk caught up with Ian Taylor and managing director of the new group, Jonathan Walker to discover how exactly they intend to grow the portfolio and take the businesses from Bath to beyond.

In just four and half years, Ian and Christa Taylor have tripled their hotel portfolio, bringing a new lease of independent life to the hotel scene in Bath. However, newcomers to the hospitality industry they are not; the Taylors have an impressive track record of creating successful hotels.

They first made their mark when they owned the Cotswold House Hotel and the Noel Arms in Chipping Camden, before selling both properties in 2007. During their eight-year stint running the hotels, the couple notched up three Catey awards and positioned both hotels among the Cotswolds’ elite.

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A four year break followed – “I had no trouble filling my days at all!” laughs Ian – before they snapped up a tired looking Abbey Hotel in 2012 and set about transforming the property into a booming boutique hotel business.

A lot of investment went into basic infrastructure as soon as the Taylors took it over from Best Western. The previous owners had been at the helm for 21 years, but failed to use investment from their other two businesses to plough into The Abbey and as a result the hotel became a slightly neglected side project.

“It was embarrassing what The Abbey looked like before!” says Ian. “We first had the major challenge of replumbing the whole place – it was really poor and one of those situations where you would just pray that there wouldn’t be water in the bedrooms today. For a whole year we went through this and it was a big £500k project to get it sorted.”

Ian was chuffed to get his hands on a property so central in Bath; he’d always wanted a project to put his own stamp on it. However with a shortage of cash flow at the start, the Taylors had to be creative to be able to inject a bit of their own personality into the hotel, which has now coincidently become the blueprint for the business model going forward.

The bedrooms and bathrooms got a facelift and thoughts then turned to food and beverage, or lack of in the case for The Abbey Hotel.

“The restaurant here was just a tea room when we took it on and it was serving tea and scones,” explains Ian, “it didn’t even do any cakes. The wine list had a red, white and champagne – it was stripped to the bare minimum.”

Ian was passionate that the space could lend itself perfectly to a fully-functional restaurant and knew that there was an opportunity to be explored here.

Step in Chris Staines, of London’s Mandarin Oriental fame, who was recruited by the Taylors to bring in a completely new dimension to the business. The former Michelin-starred chef joined the 60-bedroom hotel – as it was then – in March 2012 from his position of executive chef and director of F&B at Heckfield Place in Hampshire. As Ian explains, he took a plunge in the dark to bring the Taylors’ vision to life and it paid off: this year will see F&B sales at The Abbey Hotel’s Allium Restaurant edge close to the £2m mark.

Ian says: “It took a lot of guts I think to do that and he did see the vision and he would still say he’s never worked as hard, but actually he is a director in the business now and has a little bit of equity so it’s in his interest now that it does well. And he has certainly helped to establish it.

“It’s always very challenging when you have a restaurant within a hotel in a city like that. London seems to get it a lot more than provincial-wise unless you have a strong brand, so that’s always been our challenge. But each year it seems to do better.”

Along comes Villa Magdala

With the cogs well and truly in motion for The Abbey, a new property opportunity presented itself to the Taylors and the portfolio doubled in June 2015 with the acquisition of Villa Magdala, a B&B a stone’s throw from the centre of Bath.

After they pulled out of a deal to expand into offices next door to The Abbey – “somebody told the sellers that if you sell to a hotelier you can get more money, so they were asking for almost £1.5m over what the value of the property was worth!” – Ian was asked if he’d be interested in buying Villa Magdala.

“It was one of those buildings that I always liked and I liked the business model,” he explains, “and it had benefitted from previous investment and I think I saw the potential to add more bedrooms to it. It’s got a great location and is walk-able into town and guests can park too. It now actually does more international business than we do here (The Abbey) and we don’t actually do any marketing in any of those countries; I’m continually astounded by how powerful the internet is.”

Just one year on and Ian is putting his money where his mouth is and executing the plans he had in mind for Villa Magdala from the get-go. A pre-planning application is in at the moment to build another eight bedrooms outside as well as develop an underground spa area, while the whole property will undergo a rebrand to become known as Stratton House.

The breakfast room will be given more of an ‘all-day lounge’ feel and in the evenings the bar will open to bring people in. “With all the hotels you really want them to be great social hubs and that’s our mission actually, to let people enjoy the spaces all day,” he says.

“We are going to have to do quite a bit of work on the marketing to get that really buzzing here – in London people are quite natural for that sort of thing, but I’m pretty certain we will get there and it will come,” he adds.

Acclaimed designer Martin Hulbert has teamed up with the Taylors, and newly appointed managing director Jonathan Walker, to give the property a completely new personality. Jonathan explains: “Martin also gives his opinion on the branding and positioning of the hotel and I really like the fact he is quite vocal and draws on his experiences. He has a really holistic view of it all and how good design connects to the guest experience.”

September will see the newly-named Stratton House unveiled to the public, repositioned as a boutique bed and breakfast. It runs at a very high occupancy now and commands a very good rate – when we met, Ian said the previous Saturday did a net rate of £231 – so the aim is to now improve on this reputation.

Most ambitious project to date

Acquiring two new properties in four years would turn heads towards any hotel business, but the Taylors really stepped on the expansion pedal when they purchased the former Carfax Hotel earlier this year. Embarking on what was to be the couple’s most ambitious project yet, the property has been completely gutted and redesigned and is set to be officially open in September as a new 40-bed boutique hotel, under the guidance of designer Hulbert once again.

The Carfax first went up for sale in 2013 and Italian-based company Geco Spa purchased the hotel before calling on The Vineyard Group, headed up by managing director Andrew McKenzie, to run the management of the property.

Without specific hotelier credentials, the Italian owner realised the costs associated with getting the property off the ground would prove too overwhelming and he ducked out, putting the hotel up for sale once again.

At the Master Innholders last year, Ian ran into Andrew McKenzie himself, who asked him the question: ‘Why don’t you buy the Carfax?’ Not one to turn down a good opportunity, Ian kick-started the process, which proved to be fairly straightforward once the bank was on side.

Ian explains: “I’d heard a rumour the Carfax was up for sale and I thought we should actually probably consider this – the opportunities of getting somewhere with a great location and such great potential are few. We started talking and the feasibility was fairly easy and convincing the bank was simple; they’d seen how we’ve grown our other businesses and loved what we’ve done.

“We offered the asking price and negotiated a ‘lock-out’ term with Savills to stop other people bidding – I knew they’d be quite a few people keen to buy the hotel – and our offer was officially accepted in late January, so it’s been quite a whirlwind.”

Work is now full underway to transform the property into a beautiful 40-bed boutique named Number 15 Great Pulteney and despite a few hiccups – asbestos was found on some of the floors – the process is on track for a late summer launch.

Each bedroom will be individually designed and at the top of the quality scale; Ian sources a lot of the furniture and fittings himself and a lot of time is spent going to exhibitions and soaking up inspiration from around the world.

It’s also important to the Taylors not to be seen as penny pinching – guests at the suites will have access to a free larder – and they want every element to add to each guest’s experience.

Ian says: “We’ve wanted to take our time to kit out each room. That’s the lovely thing about being an independent, we can create what we want and not always need to conform to what the AA standard is.

“Television is important too – and not just the quality of it, but we want to get Sky in the bedrooms and the full package in the top rooms at Great Pulteney. We are so driven by technology and so our offering needs to seamless and slick and it’s important we evolve with it.

“People appreciate it when they see when things that are a little different.”

New collection

When Number 15 Great Pulteney opens next month, a new hotel collection will be born with it. The Kaleidoscope Collection will aim to be fun, interesting and constantly evolving, hence the name. Each property will be steeped in history, have its own story to tell and be situated in an interesting building that has heaps of potential.

With Abbey Hotel, the soon-to-be Stratton House and Number 15 Great Pulteney all representing different personalities within the group, the groundwork has certainly already been done to make the new collection a success.

Ian says: “I never really focus too much on defining the audience; I definitely see it blurring more and more. What people want is, where do I go which feels like a great place to be? And everything has to be really driven by the imagery on your website that speaks of your brand and it personality.

“I see The Abbey as the entertainer, with everything that happens here, while the Villa (Stratton House) is more about the artist in residence, it’s quieter. We’ll push the exclusive-use feel with Number 15.”

These three properties will be the first to make up The Kaleidoscope Collection, but will be by no means the last. Ian and Jonathan have strong ambitions to grow the portfolio across the UK to “build a nice little collection of hotels” and are setting their sights on other key cities such as Oxford, Cambridge and Cheltenham.

Ian adds: “We want to build a collection of the townhouse model, something in a nice city if we could, but everyone wants that. The problem is that so many hoteliers aren’t visionary enough with what they can do with these properties and how you can give them a lot more individuality.”

The group would be happy to take on a property home to up to 100 bedrooms and create a business model similar to Number 15 Great Pulteney, consisting of bed, breakfast, cocktail bar and spa minus the restaurant. Ultimately Ian knows it all rests on the location.

“Location is everything,” he says. I think trying to do something in the countryside would be a lot more difficult and challenging. I think what Robin has done with The Pig is a great model, but for us, being in a busy city with good footfall it can’t be underestimated.”

The Bath boom

Bath right now is going through a real hotel surge, with a handful of brands having revealed plans to move into the city within the next couple of years. Hotel Indigo has now been officially given the go ahead, while other brands Apex Hotels and Z Hotels will kick off their own developments within the coming year.

So does this spike in supply worry the Taylors? “I think it’s a good thing as the city will need to grow to as a result of the 300-400 bedrooms coming in,” Ian explains. “Where we have got a good step ahead of these brands coming in is our relationship – they will have to work a lot at getting connections with people and that takes time – we’ve been at it constantly for four years and even now our strength is getting bigger.

“I think about where people are right now though and I don’t think they will ever want to go back to this branded, more corporate and non-individual model. It has its role, but it doesn’t beat the individuality of being able to keep things fresh and up to date.”

Where next?

The Taylors have already achieved in four years what most hoteliers hope to achieve in their whole careers, so I was keen to ask Ian if retirement would be on the cards anytime soon.

“Not yet! We had four years off when we sold Cotswold House Hotel and I didn’t have much of a problem getting the day in!

“In one way, I love the sourcing and the creating side of it and whether that is with property or hotels, there are lots of opportunities and if you can find the right building and it makes sense, I’m a strong believer that your money is good in property than it is in many other things.

I think if you analyse the landscape, there are still a lot of great opportunities out there for the private individual yet – when people say the days of being an independent are dying, I don’t feel that way at all. The biggest challenge is what you can buy for your money.

“We have no aspiration to call ourselves five-star, but we will have a product that is just as good and service should be friendly, genuine, and authentic.

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