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INTERVIEW: Bringing Buxton Crescent back to life

Buxton Crescent Ariel

Buxton Crescent Hotel in the Peak District opened last year after a challenging development process that dragged on for more than a decade. Thanks to investment from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and other stakeholders keen to restore the historic venue, the hotel finally launched to wide acclaim and marked Ensana Health Spa Hotels’ epic debut UK venture.

Hungary’s biggest hotel operator made a splash on the UK hospitality scene when it took the reins of one of the country’s most architecturally significant buildings, the Buxton Crescent in the Peak District in 2017.

Buxton Crescent in Buxton, Derbyshire, was built in the 1780s by the fifth Duke of Devonshire as the centrepiece of a Georgian spa development. Its grand and complex architecture, designed by prolific architect John Carr of York, was set to rival the kind Bath was famed for.

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In 1992, the building fell into disrepair, but with support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and other stakeholders including the High Peak Borough Council, Derbyshire County Council and English Heritage, development came calling and plans were submitted for the building’s transformation.

It was far from plain sailing however and the project was plagued with delayed.

Planning permission wasn’t granted until 2010 once a seven-year legal dispute concerning the protection of the Buxton spring was resolved.

The multi-million pound project, which was originally budgeted at £30m, then struggled with financial issues when one of the investors, the East Midlands Development Agency was disbanded as a result of the downturn.

After an added funding boost from the National Lottery, development work recommenced in 2016 and news started to emerge that the creation of the hotel may finally get off the ground.

The launch in 2020, marking the completion of the project which eventually totalled in excess of £70m, cemented the first UK-managed venture for Ensana Health Spa Hotels, a new wellness brand portfolio of hotels from Danubius; 26 former DHG properties across Europe have since been rebranded to become part of the Ensana collection.

Today, Buxton Crescent hotel has 81 bedrooms, a spa and three pools, including a refurbished Victorian thermal pool filled with heated Buxton mineral water. The spa menu has treatments that are also found in Eastern Europe- such as Mud Wraps from Heviz, Salt Cave, CO2 baths, Magnet therapy – bringing something new to the British spa market.

The aim from the beginning was clear; to put the town of Buxton back on the map on both a national and international scale.

We caught up with Susan Dickson, director of sales and marketing at Buxton Crescent to find out more about the mammoth project and how business is performing since reopening.  

Can you share a little on the history of the building and how it came to be transformed into a new hotel?

Buxton Crescent hotel was built in the 1780s by the fifth Duke of Devonshire, William Cavendish, as a way of establishing Buxton as a fashionable Georgian spa town.

Since its inception the Grade-I listed building has housed two hotels and been used as event spaces, a shopping arcade, library, and an office for the Derbyshire council.

In 1992 the building fell into disrepair, but thanks to support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and other stakeholders including the High Peak Borough Council, Derbyshire County Council and English Heritage, it has been restored to its former glory. The refurbishment commenced 2012.

What are some of the stand-out features of the hotel and what was some of the inspiration behind its design?

As a Grade-I listed building a lot of original features have been painstakingly restored over the last 17 years and the result is spectacular. For example, the Thermal Pool area still has the original 1920’s art deco tiling and steel framework that has been reconditioned and supports a new stained glass rooflight.

The interior décor of Buxton Crescent is also a nod to its 18th century history with 100 Wilkinson chandeliers installed by Patrick Cooke, painted ceilings, stained-glass windows and fluted columns.

These classic elements have been complimented by stylish furniture and modern comforts. The 81 rooms and suites are contemporary but compliment the historic fabric of the building, and each part of the building has its own unique feel.

The design varies from a ‘light touch’ – enhancing and conserving the original paint schemes of the Assembly Rooms – through to the new design for the bar with its clubhouse feel where a trompe l’oeil adds to the guest experience. Some bedrooms have four poster beds, others have freestanding baths. Attic rooms are based within the top of the hotel with the original beams exposed, for the ultimate cosy experience. A large number of the bedrooms have views of the original stables built for the Crescent which is now part of Derby University.

What were some of the major challenges you faced during the renovation process and when the building was being developed?

Development work on the project was delayed whilst some extremely difficult issues were addressed.

These included the technical problem of protecting Buxton’s famous thermal mineral water whilst undertaking the necessary building work in close proximity to the main spring.

Also, both private and public sector funding for the project became difficult due to the 2008 financial downturn. Fortunately, a particularly large grant increase from the National Lottery Heritage Fund in 2014 enabled further commercial investment to be made.

This, together with grant aid from Derbyshire County Council, D2N2 Local Enterprise Partnership, Historic England and High Peak Borough Council resulted in the project starting in 2016 for completion in 2020.

How does the ownership structure work?

Buxton Crescent Hotel is collaboration between Derbyshire County Council and High Peak Borough Council and has been backed by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Historic England.

Under the project, the two Councils granted a long lease to the Buxton Crescent Heritage Trust, a charitable organisation which has been established to ensure the future protection and conservation of the buildings. The Trust, in turn, has granted a long lease to the Buxton Crescent Hotel and Thermal Spa Company which has let parts of the buildings to the various users – the principal ones being the Buxton Crescent Hotel and the adjoining thermal spa.

How has Ensana’s first UK property been received?

The hotel and spa has been very well received particularly as it has been a particularly good news story during a pandemic. Guests have loved the balance of heritage building and 21st century spa, with traditional spa treatments while experiencing thermal water pools, and eastern European treatments.

Who are your main customer base?

The majority of our guests are leisure and are mix of one or two nights stays, enjoying a full use of all facilities by booking, spa treatments and dinner.

There is also a positive move of business guests wanting to book the hotel and have also stayed, which the industry as a whole is starting to enjoy, coming from the MICE segment.

What occupancies are you running at so far?

The hotel is enjoying a high demand since re-opening, occupancy has moved from COVID restrictions of 50% due to social distancing. Currently, the biggest restriction to being able to be able to operate at 100% occupancy is the daily isolation notices that the hotel receives from its team members – that said the hotel has been able to move available occupancy closer the seasonal norms – demand does indicate that this level could be exceeded.

9. How busy has the spa been? How is business performing in this segment?

The spa has been in demand and is performing well given the current climate. Day spa has not yet opened as the isolation notices have also impacted this area of the hotel, however demand for treatments remains high as does demand for spa package stays.

How are you driving bookings? And what has been the most successful medium?

Mainly through awareness via our PR campaigns on within media – newspaper and online periodicals. Social media campaigns, in particular raising awareness via our Facebook and Instagram.

Investors in Buxton Crescent Hotel

The stakeholders that helped get the project off the ground…

  • More than £30 million from Buxton Crescent Ltd (a joint venture between CP Holdings and Trevor Osborne Property Group)
  • £23.8 million grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund
  • £13.4 million contribution from Derbyshire County Council
  • £2 million grant from D2ND Local Enterprise Partnership
  • £1.1 million contribution from High Peak Borough Council
  • £625,000 grant from Historic England
  • The Buxton Crescent Heritage Trust has raised an additional £600,000 towards the visitor experience

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Zoe Monk

The author Zoe Monk

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