What do you think the boutique hotel model will look like in 10 years time? A sleek operation run entirely by robots or a return to a more simplistic style of hospitality? For Stephen Hargreaves owner and founder of The Cranleigh Boutique brand in the Lake District, it was this mindset that helped drive and bring to life his vision for his boutique empire and given its huge success so far, he was certainly right to do so.
“I asked myself, what is it that hotels are going to be like in the next ten years,” explains Hargreaves, “and that’s my take on it. Boutique as people know, everyone is doing it, but this is what I class as ‘the next boutique’. It’s all about doing something different, creating something that is more useable for the user and the customer having the power to change their environment to what they want it to be, so they get a bespoke experience; I call it the next level of boutique accommodation.”
The Cranleigh Boutique in Lake Windermere opened nine years ago in September and has enjoyed year-on-year growth consistency throughout its close-to a decade history. With a background in marketing – an element that Hargreaves cites as integral to the brand’s success – the Cranleigh’s creative owner is striving to become a real pioneer in the hospitality industry in the Lake District and break the mould when it comes to the traditional boutique hotel. “It’s been a progression of growth,” Hargreaves says, “every year through the recession I think we doubled in turnover; it’s been a general growth of developing this place mixed with other things.”
All 18 bedrooms at the Cranleigh certainly are not afraid to be different – each one has its own bold design, striking colour hues and ‘futuristic’ touch points to push the boundaries of style and what’s come to be expected of hotels in the area. “When I showed other hotel owners around, they really thought ‘this is amazing!’,” comments Hargreaves. Each bedroom boasts sumptuous beds, controlled mood lighting, surround sound systems, LCD TVs and air spa baths to encourage guests to unwind and relax.
The Cranleigh enjoys strong occupancy all year-round, but this success hasn’t made Hargreaves complacent. The Hideout Boutique House was born in 2013 and again saw the birth of something completely new for the Lakes. Tucked away down a side street, the private house is available for exclusive hire by the night and targets those looking for the ultimate luxury away from home. Complete with facilities such as a cinema room, cocktail-making equipment and iPad controlled lighting, The Hideout House is a successful blend of bespoke design and high-tech features.
This January, a third property was added to The Cranleigh portfolio, with the launch of The Church Suites, another big project that took Hargreaves and his team six months to build, and another luxury offering for the Lakes. This rapid expansion demonstrates the strength of Hargreaves’ ideas, each one having been tweaked and evolved from the last, something that he stresses is crucial to the brand’s popularity. He says: “The main thing is that you have got to constantly be coming up with new ideas in order to stand out in what you do. If you step back for a minute, you’ll lose ground because someone else will start pushing onto what you are doing; you have to be on it all the time, which is sometimes quite hard.”
Hargreaves’ creative mind didn’t mean that his innovative ideas didn’t come without their hurdles however. A world away from what is traditionally expected from a hotel in the Lake District, The Cranleigh’s opulent new look was met with some scepticism.“Overcoming other people’s mindsets was a challenge,” he says, “people don’t get change. You have to find out who you can trust in life and who you can’t too – that’s really important. Making sure you get contractors at a good price and build up a team of really good people; cutting corners and going to the cheapest is not the way. I’ve always focused on building up a good relationship with key people throughout my career and now I have a really tight knit team of suppliers who get me and understand what I expect.”
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Adding to the awards cabinet
The Cranleigh’s popularity has really rocketed over the past few years, but it was winning the TripAdvisor Award for the Most Romantic Hotel in 2013 that catapulted the boutique hotel into the big leagues. “The bookings went insane that year but every year we have grown,” Hargreaves says. The Church Suites have been flying out now; we are running those at about 80% occupancy at the moment and they’ve only been open four months.”
Social media strategy
Social media is a key part of the operation for the Cranleigh, so much so that in December 2014, the hotel scooped the Best Use of Facebook title at the UK Social Media Awards. The interactive platform now generates bookings for the hotel and is used to connect with customers from all over. Hargreaves’ extensive experience in marketing means he is constantly reviewing the business and trying new initiatives to evolve the hotel’s offering.
Hargreaves says: “Marketing is a philosophy –it’s how you think, you’ve got to be creative in marketing and promote ideas in a way that people understand it, but you need to get someone else to do it for you – it is about psychology. When you break it down, you have to learn about psychology.”
Making a difference
The suites at the Cranleigh Boutique are set apart from what’s come to be expected of the traditional hospitality establishment in the Lakes. For Hargreaves, it’s not only about offering something different in terms of style and design, but also working to change people’s outlook on the Lake District as a destination altogether. Something he feels other hoteliers need to be aware of too.
For me it’s about making a difference in the Lakes,” he comments. “My goal at the moment is to put things in the Lakes and change people’s perceptions about it. Yes it’s nice for a romantic break and great walks, but what about being somewhere that has great places to go and stay. I think business owners here have got very complacent – everyone is going for the same market, everyone is a country house boutique hotel, well I’m sorry but there is too much choice – what makes them different and stand out?
Hargreaves adds: “The majority of the country house market are older people and they are going to die out, with respect, so how are they actually accommodating and attracting people into their product? Well they’ve got to change how they do things to be able to do that. Guests don’t want to sit in a restaurant where there’s no music or atmosphere where you can hear knives and folks clinking, it’s uncomfortable for us. We don’t want people who are trained to say the same things to us – we want great service but we want personality, that’s what makes the experience. And not many are doing that.”
While most hoteliers in the Lakes can rely on strong trade throughout the year due to their picturesque location that really sells itself, it seems, in Hargreaves experience, that a limited number are actually generating enough business to plough money back into their operation. He says: “I think the Lake District in general performs quite way because of the location, but the amount of businesses that are actually doing well enough to make enough money to reinvest in their business or grow the brand is very small.”
Hargreaves knows that a crucial part of this is hoteliers’ reliance on the Online Travel Agents and many need to focus on bringing the business in direct to boost their bottom line.
He continues: “The Lakes has always been a safe bet, but hoteliers in general in the UK are struggling and becoming more reliant on third-parties; I worked out the other day that 3.57% of my bookings came from third parties in 2014 and the rest was direct – most hotels would rely on 50-70% coming from the OTAs so they are the ones in trouble full stop. They are paying commission on all that on top, and it’ll only ever get worse for them.”
So how does Hargreaves suggest these hoteliers can break free from the grip of OTAs?
“It’s all about how you market to people and making sure you build up relationships with people so that they come back again,” he comments. “And then making your offers attractive directly, that they do book with you directly.
“It’s back to the psychology of the customer too – anyone who is looking at the Groupons and Living Social is a different type of customer – they are what I call the 25 percenters of society; they basically are looking for a cheap deal all the time. So they’ll book with you and come and stay, you’ll get their email address but they’ll never book with you again, they’ll never be repeat customer or a very small percentage will be. So why focus on them? Why pay a huge amount of commission for something to have someone who is never going to stay with you again? It doesn’t make sense. So it’s time people start to fight back.”
Hargreaves is certainly an inspiring person to be around – with his creative mind and strong ideas portfolio – and with his very clear vision for business, he is a man who wants to change things for the better. The Cranleigh Boutique, The Boutique Hideout House and The Church Suites are just beginning for Hargreaves, as he has big plans to continue to grow the brand across the Lakes.
Hargreaves says: “I’ll probably create another three of four boutique houses up here and then depending on how the new business goes, it’ll be whatever I come up with next. Bars, I’ll have two of those in the village in the next five years as well.
The business isn’t restricted to just the Lake District however, and with further investment, Cranleigh could appear in key cities throughout the UK.
Hargreaves explains: “Where the big money is, is around London or in London and I love London – but I think it would be a challenge for me. It might be more Leeds, York, Edinburgh, Manchester, those key cities. I think the church suites concept would go anywhere – there’s definitely nothing like it in London- I could command a much higher room rate in London than I could here too.”
The next direction
The Cranleigh has built up a strong following and impressive reputation in just under a decade and now Hargreaves is ramping up his development plans this year and the next to take the brand to the next level. With two properties already purchased and planning permission secured, now it’s just a matter of time before Hargreaves starts work on the new hotels before officially adding them into the portfolio.
“Next year, we will continue to build up our database and following and continue to offer the best service we can, as well as building The Cranleigh Boutique brand in the Lakes,” he says.
“I think we are one of the most well-known brands in the Lakes now and most people know the Cranleigh and we’ve managed to achieve that in a very small amount of time, so I think it would be silly for me to not continue with that brand.
“With every new project I get nervous and excited, but it’s my next challenge and that’s where I get my buzz from,” Hargreaves concludes.