Forget buzzwords, educated guests want a stay that’s authentic and personal

With expectations over stays in rural and city hotels in the UK now far higher than the pre-pandemic period, hotel groups increasingly need to find ways of offering authentic experiences that match their hotel and make use of their local areas.

Peter Disdale, CEO of THAT Group says that these higher expectations have “gone to another level since Covid” and cautions that this change in consumer mindset is unlikely to alter in the future, which means hotels need to adapt their offers.

“You need to be nimble,” he says. “You also have to be authentic with local partners, and you need to ensure that those partners are able to see it through and will be reliable. We want local heroes, because if something has no underlying authenticity, customers will see through it. The customer is more informed than ever, they will check it on social media and if it’s not real it can very quickly become a negative.”

Disdale says that this does come with challenges, especially in terms of finding effective ways of partnering with small businesses.

“There can be a culture clash between a company with a large number of hotels and a small company in terms of the way they approach things, and how you smooth a collaboration to make it work. One of the things we look for is an idea that is multi-use, so for example our gym partner drives local memberships and classes which means we get more bites of the cherry financially."

Many of the same challenges face the luxury sector and Andrew Stembridge, executive director, Iconic Luxury Hotels, adds that regardless of the positioning of the hotels, the same issues need to be overcome.

“We’ve seen that pre-pandemic we were definitely more creative with ideas and perhaps hotels took their eye off the ball because of the huge demand [after Covid]. As we own spa hotels, the obvious thing is to think about spa packages. But rural locations can, for example, use their connections with nature, which has opened up things wider. At the moment we’re looking at ideas around gut health and sleep retreats and then working with partners on those,” he says.

Costing packages

But he also says that hospitality operators need to look carefully at the cost and how they present packages, especially if they are discounting room rates to attract customers for the additional spend once they are there.

“It’s very easy to create packages that cost the earth and ultimately the only reason we’re doing it is to drive incremental spend during the days, so working with local specialists is often much more affordable,” he says. “It’s getting the team to be creative and get your staff involved and packaging up the offers in a way that the guest can’t see the hotel rate, so people can’t see the discounting if it is deeper than you would normally go, in order to protect your reputation.”

David Anderson, divisional president, Aimbridge Hospitality, also believes that the hospitality industry needs to understand that the reasons people come to stay are complex and believes the industry should get away from buzzwords such as staycations and bleisure.

“We are still seeing a lot of change, with the reality that the customer is incredibly well informed but also wants a bit more information,” he says. “Guests are quite rightly demanding, including on the hotel’s approach to ESG. Also it’s about really understanding your local area and what’s happening and what’s relevant. Really, we are a facilitator of all the wonderful things around our [city centre] hotels, rather than a wonderful thing in itself. The cities we are in are constantly evolving.”

Rural challenges

In contrast, Veryan Palmer, director at famous Cornwall destination The Headland Hotel, says that the company has had to work hard to address the sharp peaks and troughs of the annual holiday season.

“Being down in the far south west rural UK, there is no doubt we have a challenge about seasonality. In the summer, pretty much everyone comes to Cornwall but the winter months are very much more challenging, and no-one wants to come in January,” Palmer reflects.

“So we have had to be innovative. For example, 20 years ago we introduced storm watching, really embracing what makes it different to visit us at different times of year is really important,” she adds.

For hotels such as The Headland, being able to offer a personal service is also vital she says, which requires a lot of staff education as there are only two five-star hotels in Cornwall and many of the staff who join have never been to a five-star hotel before.

“Local knowledge is so important, when you stay somewhere you often don’t want to eat at the hotel restaurant, you want to hear from staff about a favourite restaurant or beach, something that’s really personal,” she says.