THE BIG INTERVIEW: The Bejerano family on the launch of Sopwell House’s new £14m luxury spa

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November saw the red tape cut on the sparkling new Cottonmill spa at Sopwell House, bringing a four-year, £14m project to a head. The Bejerano family, owners of the hotel, have big ambitions for the new three-storey, private members spa, bidding for the new addition to bring a ‘dramatic increase’ to revenue over the next few years. After a year of restructure for AB Hotels, we caught up with Rafi, Alon and Abraham Bejerano to get the inside scoop.

Over the last two years, Sopwell House in Hertfordshire has seldom been out of the headlines. Since 2017, the boutique hotel, owned and operated by family brand AB Hotels, has secured 2 AA Rosettes for its restaurant, appointed new general manager Angelina Chua from Stapleford Park and joined luxury hotel consortium Pride of Britain Hotels.

It was at this time that plans for an epic new spa within the hotel began to take shape. In August, the new Cottonmill spa opened at Sopwell House, bringing an extensive £14m project to fruition.

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The new three-storey, private members spa and 430 sq mtr spa garden includes two vitality pools, a sauna, steam room and relaxation areas, as well as a gym, studio, relaxation room, dining space, The Pantry and treatment rooms.

Designed by Sparcstudio, the new addition is expected to bring a ‘dramatic increase’ to the hotel’s revenue, which already turns over £15m per year.

It has been created to operate alongside the hotel’s already-popular spa and offers two tiers of memberships to both hotel guests and non-residents. While access to Cottonmill will be included for overnight guests, access to the more premium, The Club at Cottonmill, will be on offer to hotel residents for an extra charge.

Features within The Club at Cottonmill comprise a thermal suite with four new steam rooms and saunas, a deep relaxation room, whisper room and garden room.

Sopwell House is run by the Bejerano family, headed up by brothers Rafi and Alon, and was first opened in 1986 by their father Abraham. The trio work well together thanks to ‘different skill sets and talents’ and have built up the reputation of Sopwell House over the past three decades thanks to their drive to stay innovative and relevant.

Aside from the developments at Sopwell House, this year has marked a restructure for AB Hotels as a group.

The Arch in London was opened in 2010 by the Bejerano family and ran by the AB Hotels group until November 2018, when the hotel was acquired by StayWell Holdings, a subsidiary of Prince Hotels Inc. a hotel and leisure company in Japan.

The 82-bedroom hotel was rebranded into The Prince Akatoki following its acquisition and at the time, Abraham Bejerano said the decision to sell was ‘very difficult’.

The portfolio also comprises Five Lakes Resort in Colchester, which operated as part of the Crowne Plaza brand, with the family moving the Essex hotel back into independent status in February after seven years.

It’s been quite the 12 months for AB Hotels, with the jewel in the crown undoubtedly the new Cottonmill spa and its dazzling new features. We caught up with brothers Rafi and Alon and their father Abraham at the launch of the new facility to get an exclusive insight into how Cottonmill will impact business and the inspiration behind the masterpiece.

What were some of the major challenges during the construction phase?

Our biggest challenges were minimising the impact on our customers as we continued to operate throughout the redevelopment, but we also had a major problem with one of the main building contractors who faced their own financial difficulties in the middle of the project. At one stage, we were on the brink of having to close the site but happily it all worked out it in the end and the job was interpreted and finished to the high quality we were demanding exactly as we envisioned. In addition, a lot of thought went into the design and there are an incredible amount of intricate details. These details take time and specialist tradesmen to execute properly so sourcing those was not an easy task. 

How much has been invested altogether?

We have invested over £14m to build our three-storey, state-of-the-art spa as the UK’s first private members’ spa, combining the serenity of a spa with the exclusivity of a club.

How do the three of you work together?

Luckily, the reason this family business work so well is because the three directors have very different skill sets and talents.

Abraham has being been involved in spas for over 30 years since 1988 when he decided to build the first spa to open in Hertfordshire which opened at Sopwell House in 1991 following a £3m investment. There is not a lot Abraham does not know about the industry and it was his vision that first catapulted the project into a reality.

Alon was responsible for leading the project overall, all the way through from the concept design, through the planning process, and managing the contractors and the design team from the start on site (which coincidentally began two years ago this week) to the snagging! Alon also oversaw the finances and budget controls.

Rafi has a hotel operational background, having spent all his working career in hotels and catering. He moved into a revenue generating role for a while with The Arch which put him in good stead and he now finds himself overseeing operations, people and strategy at Sopwell House. He also handles the sales, marketing and PR and now has the responsibility of driving revenue and delivering five star standards throughout Cottonmill and the hotel.

As with any family we all have our own views on how things should be done and they are not always the same! However we shared the same goal and worked together to achieve it despite the ups and downs! What always galvanised our successful inter-personal relationships is our passion to deliver something unique and special and our enthusiasm to continue growing as a business. There’s never a dull moment at AB Hotels and never a day without Abraham’s inspiration, Alon’s creativity or mine silly sense of humour – the perfect team.

We have each played a huge pivotal part in the project which is only successful due to daily consultation and communication to maintain the same vision and overcome challenges together.

What was the initial aim behind the development?

The demand for increased space in the spa was the main catalyst for expansion initially. On the back of running a very successful and popular spa for almost the last 30 years, the spa’s popularity couldn’t be fully satisfied in the existing space so we knew we needed to expand. What was originally going to be a humble expansion turned into a fully blown super-luxury spa with the overall aim being to propel Sopwell House to one of the leading spa destinations in the country. We guess we couldn’t curb our enthusiasm!

What has proved the most expensive element?

The most expensive elements were probably the basement construction. Due to the nature of the ground conditions and working alongside the existing building, we had to install 268 piles into the ground and excavate 5m down, 3m of which was below the groundwater table. Consequently for 12 weeks the water had to be pumped out of the ground whilst we were excavating and piped around the hotel into the nearby river, not to mention the 30 lorry loads of soil excavated daily for a month that had to be negotiated through the car park.

Was it easy to get planning consent?

Easy probably isn’t a word that describes any planning permission process, particularly for a listed building in a conservation area within the green belt, however we are lucky enough to have an excellent relationship with the local council planning department who we involved and consulted throughout the project. It was important we could work together to create something that was really special and unique for the city of St Albans so whilst it was a long process, taking over four years, we worked hard to ensure both parties were happy with the outcome.  

How much research into the sector did you do prior to finalising the design?

This was the best bit!

We travelled all over the world over a period of about five years, including to the Far East, United Arab Emirates and all over Europe searching for the best of the best on concepts and products whilst also learning about what definitely wouldn’t work. We also visited Spas from every corner of the UK from Cornwall to Darlington to see what the competition had to offer and what successful spas did well. With each spa visited we grew more and more confident that what we had in mind was at a totally different level and this made the journey to completion even more exciting.

We believe, and it’s already being affirmed to us by the industry, that we have created something incredible.

What was the inspiration behind the design?

At Sopwell House we are lucky enough to be nestled in 12 acres of beautiful grounds. Our inspiration was to build something unique that was a blend of cutting edge technology inside a nature inspired haven – we wanted to bring the beauty of the outdoors inside.

We knew it was rare to find spas in the UK with the luxury of being lined with glass walls and with fantastic views over the countryside as so often you find spas in basements or in a corner of the hotel that doesn’t really give you the serenity that the outdoors can help provide.  

Not many spas can boast a glass walled sauna overlooking gardens, but we have two, and our 1st floor three tiered panoramic sauna has glass on two sides which is a real “wow” factor, particularly when guests see it for the first time.

We added an amazing spa garden designed by RHS Chelsea gold medal winner Ann-Marie Powell and the result is like no other spa garden anywhere in the country. Sparcstudio were the masterminds behind the design details and the concept of barefoot luxury with rooms flooded with natural light, complemented with the warm palette of natural tones with some beautiful accent details and bespoke joinery and light fittings. 

Can you talk me through how the membership structure will work?

We offer two main types of membership. A very exclusive and limited Club at Cottonmill membership and a general Cottonmill membership. The Club option works like a private member’s club application process would and it entitles the member to access all our new indoor and outdoor relaxation areas. Cottonmill members cannot access much of the new part of the spa but still have a fabulous pool area with terrace, thermals, refurbished relaxation space, gym, studio and new lounge, The Sitting Room.

Why introduce the membership?

We’ve always had a thriving membership and many ambassadors of our spa. With our size and space available we are able to accommodate members as well as day guests and hotel residents. Now with even extra capacity we hope to increase what was our existing membership size.

How much revenue does your spa bring you now compared to before the new addition?

Our revenues are expected to increase substantially and our objective is to more than double our revenue however we understand that this will take some time and so have given ourselves two years to reach maturity to achieve this.  

Early signs however have exceeded all expectation and we have been overwhelmed with the feedback from both the industry and guests, both locally and afar on what an exceptional experience we have created.

When do you expect to start paying back the investment into the new development?

We expect to start paying back our investment sometime during year two. It’s hard to say exactly but we are in it for the long term.

Are you hoping to attract a new type of customer or encourage the long-stay guest?

We are definitely looking to attract a new type of customer for our venue as a whole but also to make Cottonmill a spa destination in its own right.

We hope our guests may lengthen their stay to be able to have the time to take full advantage of the fantastic facilities we have. Most certainly the new spa lends itself to the more discerning and affluent educated spa traveller so yes, we believe we will attract an even more premium customer through our doors.

What marketing methods are you using and how well are they working?

Again it is early days but we can tell you that we’ve been working hard on the PR front with both the Mango agency and various Instagram influencers.  In addition we’ve focused hard on our local area though traditional advertising and social media.  We’ve also been drip feeding the market with Cottonmill teaser brand awareness campaigns and we’ve braved digital billboards at key destinations for the first time. Certainly awareness is growing daily and it seems that what we’ve done so far is working.

What has been the feedback so far?

Now that we are fully open we can only say that the feedback has been incredible.  In particular, besides the design and facilities guests are blown away by our treatment selection and quality and also our fabulous food options. We are aware that our service is what we are judged on essentially and we will continue to evolve and make little tweaks based on feedback in order to ensure the guest journey is something truly remarkable.

What are the future plans for the spa and the hotel?

We’d love to see the spa get busier and busier and we’re sure that it will. In the longer term we have lots of further ideas and plans to improve, renovate and innovate in the hotel but for the immediate future we just want to focus on our daily operation and rest a little! For our little family business with the sale of the Arch just before Christmas and now our new spa opening it has been a really hectic time. We wish to look forward to 2020 with no major plans other than to appreciate what we have and what we have achieved.

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Zoe Monk

The author Zoe Monk

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