Kathryn Haskins worked around the world in some of the industry’s most eclectic properties before heading home to take over the family hotel in the stunning Dorset town of Lyme Regis. What inspiration did she bring from city boutiques in Covent Garden and luxury safari lodges in Africa? Rob Corder headed to the seaside to find out.
Kathryn Haskins didn’t know that her life’s work was being shaped by the family holidays she enjoyed in Lyme Regis as a child, but her parents loved the West Dorset town so much that 35 years ago they bought its landmark hotel. In 2006, Haskins acquired the family firm, the Alexandra Hotel and Restaurant, and has been polishing this jewel in the town’s tourism crown ever since.
Lyme Regis is in many ways a classic British seaside town, but its tourism and retail industries have suffered less than many of its rivals thanks to its rich history, and the boost of a multi-million pound restoration of its seafront by the local council around eight years ago.
“The town is heavily dependent on tourism, but it is not totally asleep out of season. It has a vibrant high street all year with great independent shops. Woolworths closed down, but its boutique shops have done really well,” Haskins says as she sings the praises of the seafront redevelopment, the sandy beach and the surrounding countryside.
The Alexandra Hotel and Restaurant is a 24 bedroom property with an additional two self-catering apartments. Haskins describes it as one of the finest boutique hotels in Dorset, although she seems slightly uncomfortable with the boutique hotel tag as she expands on her philosophy for the business. “The term boutique can be over-used,” she says. “But hoteliers have to use it because it is seen as a positive description by people searching for accommodation.”
Haskins knows better than most how far the boutique description has to stretch in today’s hospitality market. Her view is heavily influenced by three key phases of her life. She grew up living in the family-owned hotel, but was reluctant at first to stay in Dorset.
Instead she broadened her horizons, at one point working at a resort hotel in the British Virgin Islands; later working as a project coordinator for the opening of the Covent Garden Hotel for Firmdale Hotels, where she viewed Kit Kemp as a mentor. “Kit Kemp and Firmdale really kicked off the whole boutique hotel concept in terms of design and individual service,” Haskins recalls.
However, the Firmdale business is firmly rooted in luxury urban hotels, and it wasn’t until Haskins moved to &Beyond (formerly called Beyond Africa), which runs some of the world’s most luxurious safari lodges, that she began to understand how Firmdale’s boutique hospitality concept could apply outside the great cities of the world.
“They really showed me what cutting edge hospitality and design is all about. Everything is done every day for every guest. Every day is a chance to improve things for the guests,” she describes.
This constant striving for perfection is the guiding philosophy for Alexandra Hotel. “We like to bring a very individual style to our guests. We are not corporate, we are not city chic, we draw inspiration from our seaside location and work in harmony with it on the design of the hotel and how we treat our guests,” Haskins explains.
“The views from the hotel are spectacular, so we don’t over-design the hotel and compete with those views. We have such a beautiful coastline that we just want our guests to see it and enjoy it,” she adds. The guest rooms are designed to make customers feel they are walking into a space that feels like home, but better. “We don’t want to be too formal or too professional like some city hotels,” Haskins says.
The Alexandra Hotel creates an air of calm, but Haskins’s life is anything but. As with all independently owned hotels, running the property is a 24×7 challenge, and on top of this, she has three young children demanding her time. The family moved off-site six months ago as part of a promise to herself to create a better work/life balance, she revealed to Boutique Hotelier.
“I am a single mother with children aged seven, ten and fourteen. Running the hotel and raising the family is a juggling act, you never switch off, but my aim is to concentrate on the children right now,” she adds.
When the time is right, Haskins hopes to expand the Alexandra with the addition of a spa, and will also consider acquiring an additional hotel.
“The Alexandra is doing really well. We are certainly able to expand and take on other properties. The banks are certainly keen to work with me to expand,” she explains. “A friend of mine sent me a picture of a hotel in Cornwall that she said had my name on it. I had to stop myself jumping straight into the car to take a look at it,” she jokes.
An additional hotel will probably not be too many years in the future for this hospitality entrepreneur who cannot imagine working any other way.
“It is in my blood. I tried a 9-5 job once, but it was too quiet. I couldn’t do it. This is a fantastic industry full of amazing people with the ability to travel to amazing places for free. It is like a never-ending gap year,” she ends.