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Q+A: Boutique hotel gem in Sussex Bailiffscourt

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Bailiffscourt may be steeped in history, but its attitude to business is firmly rooted in the now. The hotel is part of the Historic Sussex Hotels portfolio and isn’t afraid to put expansion on the front foot to ensure it stays relevant. Josh Waddell sits down with long-standing general manager Chris Alger to find out how the charming boutique evolves with trends and demands of the modern guest.

Bailiffscourt sits in 30 acres of private parkland leading to Climping Beach on the south coast. A property dating back to the 13th century, it was once a private getaway-turned-hotel post WW2 and now boasts 39 bedrooms and cottages with a unique medieval tapestry theme. Once described by a national newspaper as comprising a design that is ‘richly eccentric with a dash of aristocratic mania’, the hotel is proudly rooted in British history, while it’s service, standards and facilities strive to please for demands of the modern day guests.

The property was acquired as part of the Historic Sussex Hotels group in 1993 and is now operated by Pontus Carminger and his wife Miranda alongside her father Sandy Goodman. The third hotel to be brought into the HSH portfolio alongside Ockenden Manor and the Spread Eagle, Bailiffscourt was joining a small cluster of hotels focused on bringing to life architecturally interesting buildings.

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An expansion plan was quickly put in place to capitalise on the hotel’s potential, with the creation of new bedrooms followed by the opening of the spa in 2003; long before the full force of the wellness trend took hold.

The kitchen operation is overseen by Russell Williams, who trained under triple Michelin star Nico Ladenis, and has been head chef at Bailiffscourt since 2004. His 14 years of service is testament to the hotel’s strengths in staff retention and employee satisfaction.

Another management success story is general manager Chris Alger, who has been at Bailiffscourt since September 2003. Here, he talks to Boutique Hotelier about plans for the next 12 months and how the evolution of a property steeped in history is crucial to its success.

How has business been for the hotel over the past 12 months?

“With 2017 being a peak year for us – we had good group and corporate business and strong leisure – 2018 was always going to be a case of wait and see. As it transpired, the corporate business quietened but the leisure continued to grow, particularly midweek. Trends change and so our packages and experience have to change also.”

How has the property evolved over the years and how does this impact both business and your core clientele?

“When the Goodmans bought the property in 1993, I think there was a total of 20 bedrooms so things have slowly evolved. They converted the gatehouse to rooms and in 2002 they started to build the spa. When I joined in 2003 we opened the spa and had an extra 8 bedrooms which took us to our current total.

“I think we’re now ready for the next step, we’re looking at what we can do with some of the outbuildings, they’re lovely for storage but can be turned into nice bedrooms and we could possibly expand the spa. We’re ready for that.

“When the spa was first launched I received hate mail! I remember thinking blimey, I’m not a celebrity, I’m a hotel manager and I’m getting hate mail, how can that happen?! I sat down and realised people remember Bailiffscourt for how it was and they are very passionate about it. I wrote to them and said come and see us, it’s a beautiful hotel but unless it does something it will fade and go; for the hotel to survive it needs to move to the 21st century and look at what customers want.

“Now the spa membership is essential to the business. We have an indoor and outdoor pool heated all year round. It’s a lovely facility and there’s nothing like it locally. The membership price means it appeals to an older clientele who want to come as part of their routine, we don’t have loads of gym equipment but if you want a medium work out its ideal. We are not quite at capacity but have 350-400 members, a good number and one we need to maintain.”

Who are your core customers?

“On the coast there are a lot of retired people, we also have professional people who run their own business, come in at 7am for a workout and off they go. We don’t see many youngsters – sometimes for spa days if they’ve booked them as a treat – we have morning, afternoon and evening retreat packages.

“I’m not sure when they allowed people to attack their pensions (!) but two to three years ago we saw an increase in the three generations – grandparents, children and grandchildren. Admittedly we had done some promotional work on it as we looked at it and thought ‘we’ve got something for everybody’. ‘Some say we’re not a particularly family friendly hotel and if you want to give you child to somebody else to look after then certainly we’re not but if you want to bring your parents and a little one, we see grandparents having fun with their grandchild, the parents enjoy the spa, come back and the grandparents go for a nice walk in our 30 acres then we have casual dining.

How do you make sure your restaurant and F&B offering stays relevant?

“We promote quite heavily in the local area to attract a slightly older person; we have lunch vouchers and our customers like their vouchers! With our dinners, we try to sell as many dinner, bed and breakfast packages as possible. When you stay with us, it’s a very captive audience as if it’s raining, where else are you going to go?! Over the years we’ve looked at it and thought dinner is moving slightly more casual. If a customer is with us for 2-3 nights then how many fine dining experiences do they want? We introduced a light dinner and snack menu which allows us to serve in a timely fashion. It’s important particularly in the summer time when everybody’s outside. That part of our offering will evolve and continue to evolve; the fine dining will always tick over but our casual dining has moved on quite a bit over the years with the skill base in the kitchen getting better at understanding what customers are looking for.”

How locally do you source your produce?

“We’ve been sourcing locally for a long time. Anything we can source locally we will, but we also try and get the best product, for example we head further afield for scallops. There’s a balance between local and quality and we want the best of both worlds. We have a starter called ‘Climping Beach’ which is special because it’s where we are. Our head chef and group executive had a brainstorm and thought we have selsey crab, lobster, oysters right here, what can we do? It’s a very popular dish.”

How have you embraced technology and how has this impacted the hotel’s day-to-day operation?

“We had some issues when I first arrived with a small bespoke system that was gobbled up by another company who then decided to stop supporting it. We were then sold a dream by another company but for five years everything seemed to be in development! We’re now with Maestro, a big robust system, it does what it says on the tin. For channel management we use a system called SynXis, we also moved our F&B system and this integrates with the other systems we use. There are always a few bumps before you take off, for example we had to upgrade our WIFI – we have big thick walls so there’s no easy solution, you can’t stick them in a cupboard. I was concerned but also open minded enough to say let’s embrace it.

“The WIFI is excellent and we’re now walking around with iPads. From an F&B perspective we were hesitant around the use of an iPad particularly during a fine dining experience, but for all the fears we had nobody has batted an eyelid, it’s the norm now. When I think where we were a year ago, we’ve seen a massive improvement; give us another year and it’ll be even better, you have to move with technology.”

Has there been a noticeable increase in direct bookings in recent times and what are you doing to drive this?

“Unfortunately when we switched systems we lost some of our history but we now have a good years’ worth of data, so we are monitoring everything, phone and email bookings, via the website, mobile apps and the OTAs. Bailiffscourt has such individual rooms that it’s not simple, people will always call us. We’ve not yet got a system that allows us to put all the rooms online and say pick which room you want, that’s our next discussion, so direct is the biggest element. We’re looking about 80-90% direct and up to 20% from OTAs.

“What’s important is understanding our business, what works for us and our customers.”

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Zoe Monk

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