In the face of rising operational costs, The Old Stocks Inn has created its own gin in an attempt to diversify its revenue streams. Owner Jim Cockell talks to Eamonn Crowe about the project and the importance of creating added value for hotel guests.
“When people visit hotels, they are absolutely looking for an experience now,” says Jim Cockell, owner of The Old Stocks Inn. “It is not a transactional relationship anymore.”
The 17th century coaching inn, which is found in the Cotswolds, is home to a restaurant, bar and 16 bedrooms and is enjoying a strong trading year despite facing what Cockell describes as a “generally difficult market.”
His point about the desire for experiences is a timely one, as we see hotels across the UK invest in the guest experience – from offering horse riding lessons and kayaking, to adding shepherd huts and treehouses. When you don’t have the space for glamping pods though, there are other ways to build a story around your brand and attract new business.
At The Old Stocks Inn, the team has recently launched its very own gin, in partnership with Cheltenham-based distillery Brennen & Brown. The tipple has become the hotel’s standard gin and is used as a base spirit in house cocktails, while guests can also purchase it to take home or arrange to have bottles delivered direct to their doorstep.
The entire process took less than a year, with Cockell telling me that the idea came from Pete Simpson, the hotel’s assistant general manager. “Probably about six to eight months ago, Pete asked me if I would be interested in him mixing a gin up for us,” explains Cockell. “We previously published a cocktail book [The Old Stocks Little Book of Cocktails, released in 2019]
and so he established with Brennen & Brown that we could do a partnership, where we would be able to go in and flavour the gin with various things, to make it the kind of gin we wanted.”
The gin, which is spicy and aromatic, can be served with traditional tonics, but can also be mixed with fruits such as mango or paired with Champagne. Cockell adds: “What we’ll try and do through next year is develop unique recipes that we can send out with bottles to help people drink the gin in different ways.”
The gin is brewed in batches of about 40 bottles and the response from guests has been positive; 25% of the latest batch (created for pre-Christmas delivery) had been sold within a few days. “I think we will quite easily get through those before we get to the start of Christmas and be able to send those out to our regular clients,” says Cockell.
A different approach
In a hyper-competitive market, it is important for hotels to diversify their revenue streams, but Cockell says the logic behind these activations is about more than just sales. “We are not doing this as a huge revenue generator,” he explains. “For us, it is about brand alliance with products and brands that we really like. It means we can leverage the scale of certain suppliers’ social media when we are partnering with them and selling their products, or we might be able to leverage the relationship to produce unique events.”Cockell references a local cheese supplier as an example – the brand has shops in several Cotswolds villages and is popular with locals, so Cockell invited them to host a series of wine and cheese evenings at The Old Stocks Inn.
This all comes back to Cockell’s earlier point about guests wanting experiences and building a sense of community. He explains: “Certainly within the boutique hotel market, guests don’t just want to check in, have some food and go to bed. They want to live a bit of a story and explore the local area, see some hidden things that maybe other people wouldn’t have and just generally remember it as an experience. That has been a real change for us – how we can create those experiences that are unique for them.”
Cockell also says that in a post-pandemic world, guests have higher expectations and want to know that if they are giving up their time and money to go somewhere, it will be worth it. “That can’t always be done in terms of product and physical value propositions in the room,” he explains, “but it can be created through increasing the experience. You need to think about what a customer might want to do and personalise that stay in every way you can, so that the customer feels like their value proposition is being met by somebody really thinking about what they want.”
From a business perspective, there is also the fact that additional experiences and products allow for upselling opportunities. Direct bookings account for around 70% of The Old Stocks Inn’s trade, which enables the hotel to have an effective booking experience on its website, complete with three distinct avenues for upselling.
The first is at the initial booking stage, where guests can add packages to their online basket including ‘canapes and a cocktail book’ or ‘the big night in’ , where Netflix and food are delivered to your room.
The hotel also uses an upselling partner called Oaky, which Cockell says “provides us with the opportunity to upsell at the sweet spot, which is about seven days prior to arrival. We give the guest some information and ask them to personalise their stay a bit – choosing their pillows and things like that. As part of this, they can also choose to upgrade their room or add experiences such as booking a vintage bike.”
Once the guests arrive on site, Cockell and team try to “harness the power of what we have got” by introducing guests to additional products and experiences, such as the gin. “It is not pressured upselling, it is subtle upselling but it paves the way to an additional revenue stream for us.”
Combatting rising costs
Hotels getting more creative with their revenue streams is a particularly pertinent topic, considering the ongoing problem of rising operational costs. Cockell is all too aware of this, telling me that The Old Stocks Inn luckily locked in its energy and gas prices at the beginning of 2019 for three years, but will now face steep increases in 2023.
He explains: “We really benefited this year, because we bore none of the increases that the rest of the industry have seen. However, the quotes we have had back for next year are five times the price of what we are currently paying. To put that into context, if we were to pass the cost on to the customer, we would need to add £50 a night to every room rate.”
He knows some of these price increases will inevitably be passed onto guests, but says the hotel is looking at a number of initiatives to reduce costs: “The overarching thing is we have to take a view that for the next one or two years, unless the government steps in and provides some level of support, we will have to operate as a lower volume model that runs perhaps slightly differently in winter months.
“We also need to accept the price will go up for the customer staying with us. As a result, the occupancy will reduce because of the natural law of economics, and we have to staff and run the business according to those levers, unfortunately.”
With costs set to rise, providing a sense of added value to guests becomes increasingly important. Cockell knows that The Old Stocks Inn, which is a smaller property, cannot rely on sprawling grounds or hi-tech spa and gym facilities. “The value proposition really needs to be absolutely clear to the customer as to why you are paying the price that you are,” he says. “I think the art here is having the ability to convince a customer that the value proposition is not just a price increase with no change in the product and you are paying £50 more for a room than you would have paid three months ago. We have got to build in value – that value could be an experience or it could be low-cost products that have high perceived value. It is that art of finding those things that underpin the price increase.”
As for the future, Cockell is keen to take advantage of the growing trend for alternative, off-site accommodation. Over the last couple of years, the hotel has built out a holiday cottages business partnership and now operates three self-catering holiday cottages all located within five or six miles of Stowe, which “a lot of customers use as their families expand or their friendship groups get bigger and the hotel can no longer accommodate them.”
Overall though, Cockell’s big focus for 2023 is a complete re-evaluation of the hotel’s operations, which seems like a shrewd move considering the uncertain period the industry finds itself in. “The overarching message going into next year,” says Cockell, “is that we have got to almost take a step back and really check and balance everything we are doing. We need to ask the question of ‘is it the right thing for the customer?’ If it is not, then we need to change and enhance that experience with the customer going forward.”