Oliver Heywood really was born to be a hotelier. Coming from a line of hotel owners, he is now the third generation in his family to pioneer a new brand of establishments in the north. Aptly named Flat Cap, paying homage to both his hometown and his roots, Heywood hopes the new line of boutique hotels will do in the north west what The Pig has done in the south. Zoe Monk catches up with the ambitious man to get the lowdown.
After being born in a hotel, it comes as no surprise that hospitality runs through the veins of Oliver Heywood, one half of the founding duo of a new group of boutique hotels under the name Flat Cap.
Heywood, born and bred in Cheshire, comes from a long line of hoteliers, with both his grandfather and father running all kinds of establishments – from corporate hotels to leisure clubs – all over the north throughout Heywood’s 27 years. Something to remember if you are ever a guest at the Heywood house. “Hotels are all we talk about over the dinner table!” chuckles Heywood, “especially since the idea for Flat Cap came up in the last two to three years, much to my girlfriend’s annoyance!”
The idea for Flat Cap Hotels came from Heywood and his brother Dom noticing a gap in the market in the north west for a boutique offering that is defined by its rural location and fantastic food. Inspired by The Pig and Firmdale, Heywood saw the remarkable impact these brands have had on the sector and wanted to recreate something similar of his own in pockets of the country north of the m25.
Heywood explains: “The idea started about a year ago, when I personally thought there was a gap in the market for a four-star country boutique brand, not just in the south, like The Pig, which would become this food-led destination and venue.”
The first acquisition in the Flat Cap portfolio is The Vicarage Freehouse and Rooms, a former 17th century vicarage just outside the village of Holmes Chapel in Cheshire. The debut boutique to echo the brand’s motto of ‘local food, local drink and local living’, the hotel opened earlier this year following an extensive refurbishment, taking the property from shabby to shabby chic in just six months.
“It was quite a big site and hadn’t been in use for more than six years when we bought it; it was a building site and in an awful condition, so we had a lot to do!” says Heywood. “We developed the 20-bedroom wing, as well as the restaurant and games room and everything in the hotel is bespoke and boutique. Each bedroom has a feature wall which has been wallpapered by a local artists, alongside the basic colour scheme of dark greys, charcoal and bright whites. I always reference The Pig and Firmdale but it’s this shabby chic, country style that we were inspired by.”
As well as its quirky interiors, the kitchen at The Vicarage is a core part of its offering, and something that is integral to the brand. Run by new executive chef Steve Tuke, who boasts experience at the Grosvenor Hotel and Oddfellows in Chester, the boutique already has the credentials and horse power to create a food-led legacy.
Heywood says: “The main concept with be around the notion that all the produce will be locally sourced so within a 25-mile radius.
From the brewery side of things too, in Cheshire and Shropshire we have over 40 to 50 micro breweries, so each week we have around 8 different ales on tap. On the events side we host live music every Friday night, and it will start to get popular with weddings, because of its location on the side of the river. Our new library can host conferences of up to 100, so I think that will get strong too. We are already looking ahead to next year, with plans to expand and develop a spa and leisure club on site as well the addition of 12 suites this summer.”
The Heywood brothers thought the name Flat Cap perfectly encapsulated the brand; it relates to a lot of the industries that the north west is famous for, as well as pays homage to their father’s love of the fashion accessory. After explaining this connection directly – “Dad wanted to call it Heywood and Sons or something and we had to remind him he wasn’t involved in this!” jokes Heywood – it made sense that the name had a connection to their father, who had taught the brothers so much about the industry from a very young age.
“The biggest thing I learnt was that the type of personal service and style we want to offer is embedded in us – the idea of creating something from nothing and seeing what you can achieve. It’s all about the service for us too.
“We have the advantage of growing up in the north west so we know the area. Coming from a consumer perspective gives you a better overview from the client side.”
Heywood’s mother used to be an interior designer, as well as designing wedding dresses, so his mindset isn’t all focused on the operations side. In fact, it is his brother Dom who takes a hands-on approach to this element of the business, leaving Oliver to concentrate on the design and overall direction of the brand.
Despite his ambitious plans for growth with Flat Cap, Heywood’s full-time role is part the UK hotels investment team at Savills in London. Living and breathing the hospitality industry certainly pays dividends and allows Heywood to keep a finger on the pulse on the sector from all angles.
“I think it’s a mixture of seeing what the market’s like in the north west, seeing the genre and type of hotels that my father has had and now being at Savills helps me to see a bit of everything and assess how you can piece it together to fit your concept and style. At Savills I’m looking at things from a business-model mind and seeing how this changes, dealing with a variety of transactions from Travelodge and Premier Inn buys and sells to the Hoxton, Rosewood type deals. Hopefully it will play into my hands.”
Eventually Heywood will take on Flap Cap full time, but at the moment it works well with his brother being on hand in Cheshire on a day-to-day basis, while Oliver keeps an eye on the developments in London.
He says: “If you look at every brand in London, the business and the development – there is pretty much someone in London and everything stems from here; things that happen in London goes North three years later. For the time being I will stay here definitely; it means I can keep on top of the movements here (London) as well.
“One thing I’ve seen first-hand is the boom of the boutique budget model. Look what’s happened in the hotel world in the last six months to a year with the likes of Aloft, Moxy, Citizen M – these are the biggest brands in the world and they have obviously seen a gap in the market – they don’t just create a new brand for no reason; they saw an opportunity and took it.
“The crossover between boutique and lifestyle is completely blurred nowadays too – but when you look at brands like Starwood and Marriott, and their budget boutique arms like Moxy or Aloft, you’re looking at a product that basically just fits a traveller who knows what they want. They want the mod cons in the room but at the same time a design that is not-chain like,” Heywood adds.
By 2018, Flat Cap Hotels will consist of five properties as expansion plans from here on ramp up to full speed. Heywood has already earmarked the establishments – thanks to his Savills insider knowledge – and each one will take the brand into a different destination in the UK. Heywood’s passion for the project is clear –“there is nothing like this in the north” – taking a simple concept of fine food, quirky interiors and a stunning location and elevating it to a standard he has not seen before in this area.
Heywood describes: “We should be acquiring our next property within the next couple of months, and then the idea is to do one a year, so by 2018 we will have 5. The next one will be in south Cheshire as well, but we have got two or three earmarked in Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire, so it’s moving down the country. As long as there are fields and motorways near us, that’s the notion for us really. Somebody asked me to describe our location – I said it’s very much chimney pots and motorways, surrounded by fields.”
Once the north west domination is complete, does Heywood see any potential in Europe for the overseas expansion of Flat Cap? “With the style of what we are doing it would have to just be UK at the moment I think,” he says. “I would like to come down and see if there would be an opportunity in North Wales, and whether or not we could go into Yorkshire, but it’ll be northern based brand sliding into Gloucestershire, Cheltenham.”
The size of each property is important to Heywood too; he is determined to stay true to the classic boutique hotel model limiting each hotel’s expansion to 60-odd bedrooms.
“I personally don’t want to be going over 50 or 60,” says Heywood. “I think that’s when it changes from what we are as a country, boutique venue. Also if we are going to carry on doing individual designs and keeping it very fresh and have that element of the surprise in every room, keeping it quirky, then the smaller boutique feel works much better.”
So with rapid expansion on the cards and the wheels in motion for the next development stage of the Flat Cap brand, Heywood certainly has an exciting few years ahead of him. With one foot firmly in London and the other rooted in Cheshire combined with his third generation knowledge of the whole industry, definitely makes this ambitious young man one to watch.