INTERVIEW: James Houlston on his plans to roll out a unique hotel spa concept around the UK

james houlston

The Swan hotel in the Lake District was never an ugly duckling, but a new spa has helped the property reach its full potential. Owner James Houlston discusses his plans to roll-out the hotel’s unique spa concept around the UK.

My first meeting with James Houlston, Owner of The Swan, took place in a hot tub – no need to call HR, the meetup was entirely coincidental. After introducing ourselves properly, Houlston told me he had made a New Year’s resolution to actually experience the facilities at his hotels (he also has St Michael’s in Falmouth), hence the hot tub visit.

You can hardly blame him – the new Holte Spa at The Swan is pretty special. It includes a cafe serving up fresh, healthy dishes and a state-of-the-art hydrothermal suite which comes complete with hot and cold experience showers, a Finnish-inspired sauna and a heated pool that extends out into the rustic spa garden.

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The main thrust of Holte Spa is its ‘thermal journeys’, which include a range of hot and cold experiences. “The hydrothermal suite allows people to sort of self administer their own treatments”, explains Houlston. “I think there is a growing trend towards that, because we do have staff shortages throughout the UK and we want to look after our therapists as well. So if we can spread out the treatments throughout the day, by having a hydrothermal experience, which enables you to do that, then great.”

Holte Spa also latches on to the post-pandemic trend of embracing the outdoors: “People are trying to create spas which take people back to nature” says Houlston, “so it’s a lot more natural treatments and natural design. That’s why we did the indoor/outdoor pool to have people who can go out into nature, and really connect with it as part of their day in our spa.”

James houlston james houlston the swan
James Houlston wants to build a mini empire of Holte Spas

One of the most unique elements of Holte Spa is that instead of exclusively partnering with one spa brand, it offers guests a choice of three. The brands are B-Corp certified Comfort Zone, Irish-owned boutique brand Ground and OTO, which provides spa experiences using CBD-infused products.

Having three spa partners is a unique proposition and makes business sense too; it widens the pool of guests and encourages repeat business, so that spa guests can return to try different treatments.
Houlston says that the backbone of The Swan’s whole mission is what they call SOLE, the acronym standing for sustainable, organic, local and ethical. In order to find spa partners that aligned with these brand pillars, The Swan team went about exploring the products that were out there, before finding the ideal fits: “We chose these three because they all in their own individual way, tick some, if not all of the boxes that we’re looking for.”

There is scope to add more brands into the fold too. “It wasn’t necessarily just three brands we were after, we were completely open to having four or five brands, but the main ethos behind it was to embrace sustainability and to really come up with something a bit different to what the mainstream is. At the moment, we’re sticking with the three brands, but each year we will be reviewing what is out there. We don’t choose our partners lightly, we want them as long term partners, so we want to constantly update what we do. I think spas are a moving piece – they need to evolve constantly.”

The inclusion of a CBD brand might seem like a gimmick, but this is a growing trend in spas that shouldn’t be ignored. Houlston says the treatments have proved popular: “I think people are more open nowadays and have got a general understanding of CBD. I can’t profess to be an expert, but we have given a lot of training to our teams, so they are able to give detailed explanations of treatments to people as part of the initial consultation they have when they arrive.”

Houlston says that the decision to work with a trio of spa brands also made sense from a recruitment perspective. “We want to provide sustainable long term employment, so we are spending a huge amount of time recruiting locally and putting in long term training plans. A part of the reason why we chose three brands is because it’s interesting and keeps therapists engaged because they’re constantly learning about new products.”

James houlston james houlston the swan newby bridge
Owner James Houlston believes in the power of hydrothermal therapy

Professional development is clearly a focus for the hotel. The Swan has established academies across the various departments within the hotel, launched bonus schemes tailored to each department and minimum wage is now set at £12 per hour.

“Our view is that we really want to be employing locally, we really want people to be enthused. It’s not just about the £12, we’re trying to engage people, so they become passionate about the hotel and passionate about the fact they can have their long term career with us. We’re there to embrace everybody, but the main theme is we want to retain people, we want to highly incentivise them so they’re aligned with us.”

Sustainability has long been a passion of Houlston’s. He has worked in property development for many years and says he was “at the forefront in a previous business in driving sustainability many years ago into commercial offices.”

At The Swan, Houlston says they take a holistic, staged approach to sustainability. Work is currently underway to make the bricks and mortar building more energy efficient, while a recent extension adopted all the latest standards and was built to a very efficient energy rating. The hotel also takes its relationship with suppliers seriously, particularly when it comes to procuring produce for its F&B operations. “We’re not just talking about the fabric of the building” says Houlston, “we’re talking about everything we do becoming more and more sustainable over a period of time.”

However, the hotelier admits that the process of becoming more sustainable is not a simple one. He explains: “We are finding you can only go so far at the moment. We have to be realistic, so this is a long-term, 10 year plan.”

He is also vocal about the government not doing enough to support operators in their sustainability efforts. “They should be offering tax savings to really incentivise people to become more energy efficient. We need to create markets for recyclables and things like that. At the moment, there is little to no incentive for recycling in the UK and things like that need to happen in order for us to have much more of a circular economy.”

The emphasis on sustainability also fits into The Swan’s wider focus on getting back to nature. What other trends does Houltston foresee shaping spas in the near future? He says he recently watched the Wim Hof TV programme (the popular motivational speaker recommends the practice of placing the body in extreme temperatures) and was pleased to see that Holte Spa was on to something. “We’re already on the track of creating these hot and cold regenerative experiences, and I think that is very much going to be a trend. You know, they’ve been very successful in Germany and Sweden, and a lot of the Nordic countries which have embraced this.”

Speaking of the future, Holte Spa is primed for a roll-out of sorts. Houlston concedes that plans have been set back by Covid, but says the intention is still to build “a small but meaningful portfolio of resorts in unique locations, like St. Michael’s and the Swan, throughout the UK.”

The Holte Spa experience will be a key part of these future resorts, although the spa at St Michael’s is likely to remain a standalone operation, as it is already well established. “We’re very keen to expand” teases Houlston, “we are taking one day at a time at the moment, but we are on the lookout for our next project and hopefully, we’ll have something to talk about this time next year.”

Boutique Hotelier stayed as a guest of James Houlston and The Swan at Newby Bridge

Tags : hotel spasLake DistrictLake District Hotelsthe swan newby bridge
Eamonn Crowe

The author Eamonn Crowe

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