New collection of boutique hotels ramps up expansion plans

Over a decade on from taking the reins of Watergate Bay in Cornwall from his parents, Will Ashworth is ready for his next challenge. And this challenge now takes the form of a brand new boutique hotel collection, made up of establishments in beautiful locations across the UK. We caught up with Will, fresh from the news of this exciting new venture, to find out exactly what’s in store for the brand’s development.

Will Ashworth is managing director of Watergate Bay Hotel in Cornwall, a boutique hotel by the sea that has carved a hugely successful place in the market since he took the helm in 2004.

Breaking the mould of a conventional seasonal business, he transformed the hotel’s fortunes – refurbishing the building, running fresh initiatives and taking its marketing to new levels – and it now runs at 86% occupancy all year round. Watergate Bay is certainly a name to inspire to.

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Now, on the back of this mammoth success, Ashworth has just announced the launch of his newest venture, the Another Place hotel collection. Together with operations director Judi Blakeburn and commercial director Chris Hugo, the new group of hotels will each be defined by their beautiful location and May saw the announcement of the collection’s first acquisition, Rampsbeck Hotel in Ullswater.

It’s also been revealed that the second property under the Another Place umbrella will be the Royal William Yard boutique in Plymouth, which is currently still at the development stage.

Ashworth was fresh off a plane from France when he came to chat to BH, but still full of fuel for the next exciting stage of development for Another Place.

The new hotel collection is an exciting new development for you and your team, how long was it in the making?
“The thought process has been around for quite a few years, maybe four or so, and we jelled all the thoughts together and what we had been creating in our heads to come up with the final concept. Of course we’ve been working on Watergate, I’ve been MD there for 15 years and with my other two executive directors, we’ve been a team of three for 13 years. We’ve taken Watergate from being a bucket and spade type holiday hotel and created what it is now. And we always had in the back of our heads that creating a collection based on the same principles – active, social, relax, hospitality – is what we wanted to do.

“And obviously it comes from the DNA that we have at Watergate. It’s a fairly extraordinary hotel, vibrant and fabulous – and what we will do is create a slightly smaller collection that takes the same attitude but delivers it in slightly different ways. They are not going to be replicas of Watergate; they are going to be based very much on the guiding principles but then something slightly more defined.”

What will become the main principles of the new collection? What will each hotel become renowned for?
“It all goes back to ski resorts actually – when you go to a ski resort, there is this wonderful expectation, you get up into this wonderful location, you’re active and social and have a relaxing time and at the end of the holiday you might come back physically more knackered, but in terms of emotion and blowing away the cobwebs you’ve actually had a really good holiday, so it’s picking up on those principles.

“It’s what we’ve delivered at Watergate but rather than doing it on a beach where there is surf and sand, wind, we are in the Lakes with Rampsbeck, so it’ll be based on that amazing natural environment.

You’ve just announced your first property as Rampsbeck in Ullswater. How long did it take to find the property?
“We saw it just over a year ago – and put an offer in last August. The couple who were selling it, we actually get on with them very well, so we relatively quickly agreed on what we were going to do. What’s great for us is that this is the start of something quite big and we are not just buying a single hotel – we are launching a new collection, which is all about creating a really strong brand which is all about the style of hospitality.

“Rampsbeck isn’t a distressed hotel that has nothing going for it, it’s 19 bedrooms, it’s got excellent management and a great chef and is operating at four-red stars and with amazing TripAdvisor reviews, but it gives us the chance to increase the size of it and the facilities because it has planning permission. It has the most beautiful natural setting which means we can apply all the things that make our type of experience unique to this amazing location.”

Was it always in the plan that the first hotel in the collection would be in the Lakes?
“We’ve got a range of locations throughout the UK that we are targeting and that we are imagining our concept would work well in and the Lakes was one of them. It was just when this came up and it was the first I suppose, it was something that was ready in one of the locations that we had specified.

Where else have you earmarked and what other locations are you looking for hotels?
“We have got our agents out there – we want it to be very widely spread across the UK. You can imagine other stunning locations around the UK and that’s probably on our hitlist. Clearly there is a theme running (near water) in terms of Plymouth and the Lakes and Watergate, but not necessarily. We have looked at some mountainous areas of the UK for instance, and of course the whole concept of a ski resort coming from the mountains.”

Do you have a set target of hotels to complete the collection?
“Yes we have said we’d like six within the next 10 years – but I think that’s probably phase one, because when we prove this works and prove that people like what we are doing then there is no reason that this can’t be 20 or 30, but probably not all within the UK, so I can imagine Northern Europe and American – let’s not limit our success. But we know that six within the UK in the next six to 10 years and then let’s see where we can go from there.”

What level of branding will each property have?
“We are at the beginning so we are still creating some of our brand language and establishing how the brand will work throughout the collection, but there is no doubt that when you stay in Another Place hotel – they will not be corporately branded – but you’ll be very aware that you are staying in one of our hotel. It’ll be more subtle and it will very much be about the location.

“Each one will be completely inspired by its location so that’s why it’s won’t be stamped with a prominent brand but a carefully curated collection of individual hotels that really speak with a common language.”

Comparing the Lakes to Cornwall, do you think Rampsbeck will have any similarities in terms of difficulties in seasonality?
“If you look back to when we started at Cornwall in 2000, when the hotel was closed for five months of the year, it was a total seasonal business and we’ve worked really hard to create a year-round business. Having now created a business at Watergate that operates at 86% occupancy year round – commercial success is not seasonal and therefore we will be working very hard to make sure each location is viable year round. And if it isn’t viable at the moment as a year-round business then our primary aim will be to make it a year-round business. You can’t run a really successful hospitality business if you’re seasonal – I suppose you can but the model would have to be extraordinary!”

What do you think is key to the success you’ve had in Cornwall?
“Being original – we are the first of our type and concept and style of hospitality, so being a genuine original experience primarily.

“Also, creating reasons for people to come and stay with us year round and demonstrating that the environment of Watergate is as spectacular in January as it is in July and August – you just have to help people use that natural environment to the season, rather than saying, come in December it’ll be beautifully sunny, it’s no, come in December, the wind is stronger the waves are bigger, it’s great for surfing and kite surfing.”

How did you decide on the name Another Place for the hotel collection?
“When we did some branding work for Watergate ten years ago we came across the same Another Place – which we have called our magazine and created a range of products under that name – and we like it because it speaks of being in an other place. When we thought about a collection of hotels in beautiful locations around the UK, where we weren’t trying to be overly corporate then we thought this would work really well.”

How will you manage your time now with the new properties?
“Watergate is a business with 230-odd members of staff as a team and of course, with my fellow executives and senior management, we’ve built up a huge amount of expertise and Watergate is now operating to a very high level, so now there is the capacity to look at other projects which is what we are doing. And Another Place has come from a desire to utilise the expertise we have accumulated and use it outside of Cornwall which, 15 years ago, was a very challenging place to be running a hospitality business and I think we’ve learnt something there and the team has learnt it and I’m very lucky that the team – directors and senior members of staff – are all experts and understand the ethos of what we are doing.

“We are all based in Watergate Bay – something else I’m very proud of – I’m a Cornishman and this is going to be a Cornish-based business, something I’m very exciting about."

Do you have a maximum capacity of bedrooms that you are aiming to stick between for each new acquisition?
“First and foremost they have to be in utterly spectacular locations where we can get access to a great natural environment. Then around the 40-bedrooms mark with the ability to create some leisure facilities that fit our brand and that allow us to give our guests the same type of experience that we have created at Watergate.

“We won’t be too prescriptive – you know, this one (Rampsbeck) has 19 bedrooms but has the room to grow – somewhere may have 50-beds and we can rationalise it down to something else, but we think 40 is about the size we are aiming for.