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THE BIG INTERVIEW: Watergate Bay’s CEO Will Ashworth on hitting the ‘suite’ spot with the hotel’s new Beach Lofts

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After a transformation project, the former Jamie Oliver restaurant space at Watergate Bay has been reimagined into seven new suites that will define a new room category at the hotel and within the wider portfolio. We caught up with CEO Will Ashworth to discover the feedback so far.

Watergate Bay hotel in Cornwall has taken another step forward in its journey to create the ultimate ski resort on the beach, with the launch of a new luxury offering designed to take accommodation at the hotel to the next level.

This May saw the opening of seven new Beach Loft Suites, after the conversion of a former Jamie Oliver restaurant perched overlooking the sea on the site.

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When the lease on the Fifteen eatery came to an end in 2019 after 14 years, Watergate Bay’s CEO Will Ashworth said he knew ‘exactly what I wanted to do’ with the space, and put the wheels in motion for the new room type. “We wanted to create absolutely brilliant accommodation which was completely in line with the whole ski resort on a beach ethos,” he tells BH.

“We put in for planning (for the suites) almost a year ago; got that in the summer and then started construction on October 1. It was a massive job. We took the roof off the structure and completely rebuilt it, finishing the day before we reopened the hotel on May 17,” Ashworth adds.

Designed by Cornwall-based Dynargh Design, the suites, the largest of which is 63 sq mtrs, are the ‘vest best accommodation’ at Watergate Bay hotel and will pave the way for future projects within the wider Watergate portfolio, which includes Another Place – The Lake and Beach Retreats, the group’s holiday let business.

The seven suites comprise two larger rooms at one end, three in the middle and rounded off with two family rooms.

All the new rooms boast a ‘similar design ethos’ but each one is individual in terms of light fittings or colours, and have unbroken, unspoilt and direct views of the beach, which sells itself. The design scheme includes a blend of reclaimed timber, upcycled or bespoke furniture, recycled bathroom tiles, and a carpet made from recycled plastic bottles in the corridor.

As with the rest of the hotel, electricity comes from 100% renewable suppliers, with LED lighting that switches off automatically as guests leave the room.

Ashworth says: “The contractors did a great job and have delivered a really strong finish. They were hamstrung by the supply chain and the lack of trades available to them however so it was a bit of a challenge to get over the finishing line. But the quality of the finish and what they’ve delivered is fantastic and we are really pleased.”

Supply and demand

Ashworth dislodged the traditional seasonal hotel concept when he took over Watergate Bay from his parents in 2004.

They had been the sole owners of the site since 1968. Breaking the mould of a conventional UK seaside hotel, he transformed the hotel’s fortunes – refurbishing the building, investing in its product and gaining a foothold on the national stage.

Watergate Bay hotel has expanded dramatically since Will’s arrival, and now boasts 69 bedrooms, two restaurants and beach bar, as well as a Swim Club and Extreme Academy dedicated to surf lessons for both locals and visitors. The business turns over £13m a year and the Loft Suites have been designed to drive up revenues once again. The seven new suites are priced at the very top end of the offering at Watergate Bay hotel and have proved exceptionally popular so far.

Within a week of bookings going live in January, the hotel had received hundreds of enquiries and seen a significant increase in traffic to its website, as anticipation began for the lifting of lockdown.

Ashworth says that the price of the new suites ‘doesn’t seem to a barrier’ for guests and has helped validate the demand for this type of accommodation.

“Our next iteration (of rooms) will fall more in line with the loft suites as being our more standard accommodation and I think that’s quite an important lesson for us,” Ashworth explains. “People are very positive about them. They love the location, the views, the interior design and the price doesn’t seem to be a barrier. Therefore we imagine there is the opportunity for us to expand our range of beach loft accommodation more widely through the portfolio.

“With the lofts suites it really gave us the opportunity to consider what type of hospitality we wanted to offer,” he adds.

In addition to the new suites, Emily Scott Food is a new restaurant at Watergate Bay, which opened in April. After hosting a successful pop-up in the old Fifteen space last summer, chef Emily Scott agreed to take on a more permanent residency in the former Watchful Mary eatery at the hotel, allowing the business to target a more local following.

“Emily is a brilliant partner,” Ashworth says. “The food is simple and elegant; it’s a hyper local menu. When Fifteen disappeared the opportunity to work with a seriously talented up and coming Cornish chef was just such a straight forward decision.”

Scott previously built a reputation heading the kitchen at St Tudy Inn together with her partner, Bordeaux winemaker Mark Hellyar. She put the restaurant with rooms on the market in July 2020, just prior to her stint at Watergate Bay hotel.

Ashworth admits that the third nationwide lockdown in January gave the business the chance to ‘really tackle some projects’, including the new restaurant and Beach Loft Suites, meaning the hotel was raring to go when it came to unlocking restrictions in May.

“To some extent this lockdown was better because it was during our quieter months when we were unlikely to have made a profit anyway, so financially it was better,” he says.

And so far, those investments are paying off. Bookings rocketed upon reopening and the hotel is at full capacity until the autumn, with reservations building for next summer already. “We are fully booked until October,” Ashworth says. “It’s been about capping numbers in restaurants too, to make sure staff feel their way back into it and don’t feel too overwhelmed. That has been a good strategy.

With the employment market as it is, the last thing we want to do is overwhelm the team. It’s not a good business decision to go too hard too soon. But we are now turning the reservations up to full capacity for the restaurant and the bedrooms are already full.”

Staffing struggles Like so many hospitality businesses this year, Watergate Bay has had to rethink its employment strategy to plug a gap in staffing brought on by the pandemic.

After reopening on May 17, 80% of staff returned from furlough, with new members recruited to supplement the team. “We made only a few people redundant,” Ashworth says, “and that was due to some fairly systemic structural changes we wanted to make whilst we prepared for this season and what the business was going to look like for the foreseeable future.”

Chalet hosts have replaced the traditional reception team, drawing on the ‘ski resort on the beach’ concept that chimes with the brand. It’s the lack of accommodation for staff that has posed the biggest challenge however.

Rentals previously utilised by team members have been taken back by landlords eager to cash in on the tourism boom for a holiday let by the coast. “Lots of people want to come and work in Cornwall, but there are very few places for them to stay because it’s so busy,” Ashworth explains. “The great challenge this year for everybody is finding staff accommodation and we’ve had to take a dramatic approach. We’ve hired 24 units or cabins, which we have put around our head office and that’s added another 30 / 35 bedrooms. It’s a temporary solution but it has given us the amount of accommodation we need for all those people who are coming out of the cities or universities. Plus the calibre of people we have coming to us is really good.”

The business has also looked into seasonal bonus schemes to reward and retain the team. “We really wanted to understand our place in the employment market more carefully to make sure we are a very desirable place to work,” Ashworth adds.

Tags : Big interviewWatergate BayWill Ashworth
Zoe Monk

The author Zoe Monk

3 Comments

  1. I’ve been lucky enough to stay at watergate bay 3 times now and have loved everyone, their vibe is relaxed and friendly while still feeling luxurious and special. It really is my family’s (including our dog Pepper) favourite place.

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