Could Bloc be the most tech-savvy hotel company in the UK?

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Following on from the success of its first high-end prefabricated property in Birmingham, Bloc Hotels will launch its second venture at Gatwick Airport next month, with plans to open 10 others in five years. Director Colin Graham says the new brand is the most technologically advanced in town

Three years on from the launch of Bloc Birmingham, a confident Colin Graham is embarking on the roll-out of the hotel brand he has designed, starting with a second property due to open at Gatwick Airport in February.

His idea to create high-end, prefabricated hotel rooms stemmed from a pre-recession project in the United Arab Emirate of Dubai, he tells Boutique Hotelier.

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“Seven or eight years ago, I was asked by a big hotel chain — Nakheel Hotels — to come up with a pod concept for 37 branded hotels across the UAE. I’d designed pods in China and had had them built, we went right through to nearly constructing that and then Dubai crashed in 2008. We decided to bring that concept back to the UK and redesign it for the UK market,” explains Graham.

In 2010, Bloc Birmingham opened as a prototype; a collaboration between two companies, showcasing the key brand values relating to design and build, technology, price-point and location.

Building Blocs
The two companies behind the finished product are Boxbuild — the contractor responsible for “designing and procuring the equipment and putting it all together” — and the operator, Bloc Hotels. Graham is a director at both firms.

“There are four day-to-day directors of the business; I’m doing design and execution. Rob Morgan is on the operational side of things — we tend to be the faces of the businesses. Then there is another director who is more financial and the other is dealing with contracts,” explains Graham.

Asked what distinguishes Bloc Hotels from other brands, Graham says size, quality and speed: “Bloc Hotels have smaller rooms and higher-end finishes. We take away all the stuff you don’t need in a bedroom and improve on the stuff you do need.

“All the fit-out is prefabricated so everything comes as a kit. The contractor only has to give us four bare walls, we go in and do the rest and we do it fast. The interiors are completely manufactured off site, we don’t use plaster or paint finishes. Two guys will do two bedrooms in a day,” says Graham.

“We opened Bloc Birmingham in 24 weeks, including demolishing a petrol station, cleaning the land and building the hotel — that’s how fast we can do it.”

All rooms at the upcoming Bloc Gatwick — which is being converted from an existing building — will feature high-specification finishes, king-sized beds with Egyptian-cotton bed linen, Missoni-designed Swedish Bolon flooring, Italian lighting by Artemide, wet rooms with Italian tiles and Roca fittings.

A premium floor and a business floor will offer additional facilities for international travellers, with some corner rooms offering views over the runway and new Armani / Roca bathrooms, according to Graham.

The technology
Technology is also one of Bloc’s edges; in fact Bloc Gatwick claims to offer the most advanced integrated technology of any hotel in the UK — going beyond its super-fast broadband and free wifi.

Guests can book the property, check in and enter using their own NFC-enabled smart phones.

Once in the room, a Bloc mobile app will enable smart-phone users to control room features such as multi-layered lighting, Samsung air-conditioning, electric blackout blinds and Samsung Smart LED televisions.

Alternatively they can use the Samsung Galaxy 2 10.1 tablet, which is available in every hotel room to do the same.

“The new software systems mean guests can download their key onto their smart phone before they get to the door, check in on the phone, go straight to the room and open the room with the phone,” he says.

“You can check out using tablets in the wall. It’s all prepaid and there is no other charge once you get in. We’ve also got full in-room Sky television going into the Gatwick hotel so guests can get movies and sports.

“They can also bring their own content and stream it directly to the TV, and the fast wifi means they can download content,” Graham continues.

AT A GLANCE /  BLOC GATWICK

Name: Bloc Gatwick
Opening: February 2014
Keys: 245
Location: Sits on top of the South Terminal and its reception area.
Rates: From £59
Key facilities:
• Multi-layered lighting
• Samsung air conditioning
• Electric blackout blinds
• Samsung Smart LED TV
• Samsung Galaxy 2 10.1 tablet
• High-speed broadband and free wifi
• King-sized beds with high-quality Egyptian cotton bed linen
• Spanish Roca monsoon drench showers
• Missoni-designed Swedish Bolon flooring
• Italian lighting by Artemide

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The right price
He describes Bloc’s offering as affordable luxury. Rooms at Bloc Gatwick start from £59 per room per night — and this rate is said to be available year round.

The group has also teamed up with partners at Gatwick Airport to negotiate special rates for parking, duty-free products, airport lounges and, crucially, restaurants. Onsite food and beverage, or lack of it, is one of the main ways Bloc keeps rates low.

“We don’t do food and beverage, but we make sure we’re somewhere with a really good selection of bars and restaurants,” explains Graham.

“Our take on it is you don’t often eat in a Travelodge yet it costs [the hotel] money to have it and you [as a guest] pay for the provision on top of the room rate, so we take away the stuff that we’re not good at and give those back to the people who do them well.

“We just do what we do well, which is a really good room to sleep in. The hotels are fully staffed 24 hours a day — we have a 24-hour reception, but we outsource cleaners and linen and we don’t need anywhere near as much staff because we have no food,” he says.

Continuing his comparisons to Travelodge, Graham says margins are also better because of the absence of F&B: “While these hotels generate revenue from F&B, a lot of their costs come from this. Our operational costs are much lower and also where Travelodge would have 70 rooms in a hotel, we’d have 150 rooms in the same space.

“So we generate a bigger turnover and because of the way we fit-out [the hotels] our maintenance costs are massively reduced. The floor tiles come with a 15-year guarantee. The panelling we use for walls and floors means the lifecycle of the rooms is immense compared to a standard room so we don’t have to go around redecorating. Birmingham still looks brand new,” adds Graham.

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Location and growth
It is Bloc Birmingham’s success — in its central Jewellery Quarter area of the city — that has fuelled Graham’s ambition to bring the brand to more city-centre locations over the next decade.

“Bloc Birmingham’s performance has been excellent. Occupancies and revenues have increased over the period; the property still looks and feels new. People like the concept.

“We’ve added an apartment-style room, so in 20sq m — the size of a standard Premier Inn room — you have a living room, desk, kitchenette, full bedroom and bathroom. So we’re going to build 30 of those apartments in Birmingham at the start of 2014 to prototype it so we can prove this works too,” reveals Graham.

In terms of new hotels, Graham is planning to open “10 Bloc Hotels in five years” in major cities and transport hubs.

“There are a few sights in London we’re looking at — none have crystallised yet, but Central London will be the next one. We hope to have five or six [hotels] in London; anywhere near a tube station with restaurants and bars around would be fantastic.”

Each project will look different — using different finishes and palettes — but will incorporate the black and gold colours associated with the brand, according to Graham.

While the Bloc Birmingham and Bloc Gatwick hotels are privately funded and owned by the Boxbuild and Bloc Hotels group of directors, Graham says the company may adopt an asset-light strategy in the future.

“We will look at leaseback deals and that kind of thing, we’ll go into other people’s properties, take them on leases and let them own the property, but at the moment we’re focused on developing and running the projects ourselves,” he reveals.

Expansion is not confined to the UK market either, Graham says he has been in talks with potential partners in the United States, and in Barcelona and Madrid in Spain, so Boutique Hotelier will be watching this Bloc-shaped space for the next big announcement.

 

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