Reinventing the Country House Hotel

The British country house hotel is evolving.
How can rural venues keep up?

The UK has hundreds of country house hotels and many are lagging a little way behind the new breed of rural chic: The Pig Group, Heckfield Place, Soho Farmhouse. A new standard has been set, and its time for many custodians of rural properties to rethink their market position with a contemporary and elegant new brand strategy.

The history, architecture and landscapes of these manors, houses and estates are part of the rich fabric of rural Britain, but inside, many have attempted to escape the chintzy trappings and sombre mood of the early 90s country house hotel by gradually introducing striped polyester velvet, chrome accents and formulaic menus of small plates and cocktails (sorry!).

The problem is, brand repositioning involves little more than binning pelmets and waistcoats, and throwing in some generic aesthetic updates. I’ve worked with a number of clients who have spent a significant amount of money bringing their venue up-to-date – on interior design, a new website, wedding brochures (why is everyone obsessed with wedding brochures!?) – and found themselves underwhelmed by the results. Very often, the problem is that the approach and execution of this “modernisation” is gradual and therefore disjointed. It lacks purpose, a clear strategy, and in an attempt to become something brand new, the heritage and character of the building is often obscured. I’m tired of Very Nice hotel interiors which are generically pleasant but have no sense of place nor any real thought or purpose underpinning the design choices.

The Hotel Palette approach has always been led by storytelling and purpose-building: the two anchors of a successful brand. Hoteliers must first develop a deep understanding of their purpose in order to promote a place and its people in an authentic and compelling way. A few basic questions must be asked: why does this hotel exist? Why should it continue to exist? What does it add to the local area and why would people want to travel here? These are simple questions that are deceivingly difficult to answer; in my experience, most owners cannot answer these questions both confidently and concisely.

The consistently high occupancy rates of the Pig Group (high nineties across the portfolio) could be explained by their excellent execution of a simple idea: provincial aesthetic, locally sourced produce, accessible rates. Their brand has become a winning formula with openings across the south of England.

Elsewhere, the elegant design pilgrimage that is Heckfield Place and the exclusive-hideaway nature of Soho Farmhouse are clear value propositions, differentiating the venues from one another and countless others clamouring for bookings in the domestic travel market.

With a clear, singular purpose, a marketing strategy will write itself. Everything from the interior design to service style and menus will become more intentional and focussed.  A strong and compelling brand story will also attract talent. A good team of staff are a hotel’s most precious asset, and it has been proven that staff value a sense of purpose and stay in long-term roles when they feel engaged, supported and appreciated.

So you have a purpose, what next?

Write a brand mission statement and a list of core values. This will inform a sales and marketing strategy that is outwardly meaningful but commercially aggressive. A strategy should take into account that post-pandemic guests of 2021 are different to the guests we welcomed in 2019. Read our paper on this here.

Where your purpose lies is where the most money should be invested. An emphasis on the restaurant and produce should be bolstered by a smart kitchen garden and a star chef who will turn a tired hotel into a destination restaurant. A retreat from the outside world? Renovate your spa treatment rooms, introduce relaxation areas, partner with a dermatologist or invest in a pool. Landscape, hiking or conservation? Invest in branded signage, commission an illustrator to draw walking maps, introduce a picnic offer, purchase 50 pairs of hunter wellies, introduce a dog-friendly policy. The preservation of architecture or historical importance? Make the information accessible. Introduce tours, commission a copywriter or videographer to produce compelling physical or digital literature, respectively. Publish a coffee table book.

The guest experience should then be examined – in both physical and digital realms. The hotel brand and marketing strategies, market positioning, competitors and typical guest profile should all go under a microscope. Not one of these things can be considered in isolation, as a good hotel brand touches everything from the quality of the bed linen to creative direction in hotel photography, and it should all be consistent. And it all should be overhauled and realigned with the new value proposition. 

Need help with this? Get in touch with Hannah. I’ll do a free audit and pitch a roadmap for your bespoke strategy before you commit. 

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