It’s been an eventful year for David Maranzana, cofounder of boutique-hotel consultancy and booking site Epoque Hotels. he signed the group’s first management contract in Beijing, with plans to expand the new operating arm in the UK, Asia and the Middle East.
Spring 2013: We ventured into operations
Epoque Hotels has about 250 member hotels around the world, including around 20 in the UK. Most hotels initially contact us to request to join the collection. We evaluate their case and I can tell pretty quickly if it’s a boutique hotel. It’s not about a checklist, but looking more at the style, creativity and uniqueness of the property. The hotels pay a small fee to join and are charged commission on bookings.
We don’t manage the hotels; most are under affiliation agreements where we offer them support, consultancy, sales and marketing support and reservations tools.
However, we’re currently looking at becoming more hands on and actually managing some of these properties.
Our new venture into managing properties began around nine months ago when we signed a deal with the Chinese owner of Red Wall Garden Hotel in Beijing. It’s a 40-room hotel in an ancient tree-lined alleyway with a centre courtyard surrounded by rooms decorated in Chinese-influenced designs. We convinced the owner of the hotel that we could turn it around and make it a successful boutique hotel. So this is the first one we are fully in charge of operating and it’s been very successful.
Summer 2013: We turned a hotel around
I spent much of the year working with our partners around the world. In addition to China, I travelled to Malaysia — where we recently opened a new office in Kuala Lumpur, to Thailand, Cambodia, Spain, the UK, Denmark, France and Italy. China was a highlight though.
Having taken over management of the Red Wall Garden Hotel, we made some changes — trained staff, added some more English speakers, changed the décor. They weren’t major changes but they improved the look of the property and the service. We dramatically improved the performance of the hotel. When we came on board it wasn’t performing great, it had a fairly low occupancy of 50% so we pinpointed some areas in which it was under performing.
The hotel wasn’t getting many bookings through its website. We improved the site and SEO, we took new photography and it looks a lot better. We installed a new booking engine too. By the end of summer, the new website was getting a lot more direct bookings which meant we weren’t paying so many commissions through various OTAs.
When we came on, the site only attracted 3% of bookings and this increased to 40%. We were astonished to see such a big improvement.
Autumn 2013: We took on TripAdvisor
Around this time we identified a huge potential in TripAdvisor and set ourselves a goal to bring up the Red Wall Garden Hotel ranking in the area.
We hired a host or guest-relations manager — a very sociable person that has the capability to make guests feel comfortable. The hotel’s average stay is around five days so it gives us time to get to know the guest, give advice and establish a rapport with them so that they’re more likely to remember you and write a review. That’s very important in a boutique hotels as they rely very much on the emotional response of the guests — it’s not just about efficiency of the service or facilities.
Every Friday we also throw a small cocktail reception free of charge for all the guests either at the bar or in the courtyard and it’s a wonderful opportunity to establish that rapport and have a chat and a drink with them. The guest then feels more emotionally compelled to share their experience. The hotel was ranked around number 20 out of hotels in the area on TripAdvisor when we took over, by September it was in the top 10 and now it is hovering around number one, two and three. Overall, we ended the year at 85% occupancy.
Winter 2013-2014: We’re eyeing more management deals
The priorities over the next few months are consulting and finding more management contracts.
We’re working on several other possibilities for operating hotels in Dubai, and in Doha there’s a project we’re working on — both are new builds. We’ve just been in contact with an architect who would like to do a boutique hotel in Dubai for an owner and he has approached us for possible management, but it’s a long-term project — construction hasn’t started yet but their intention is to build a four-star boutique hotel. Most of the hotels in Dubai are chain properties and very luxurious, but he wants to do something more cutting edge with 140 rooms.
There aren’t that many boutique hotels in the Middle East yet so there’s a potential in the market. There are quite a few opportunities in Asia as well. The Middle East and Asia are the markets to look at now.
If the projects in the Middle East do materialise, we may look at opening an office in Dubai, but for the moment it depends how we get on there.
In the UK, we’re looking at one management contract in the Scottish countryside actually. It’s a small but very pretty castle hotel and we’re talking to the owners.