On the A287 outside Farnham in Hampshire, there’s a black binliner taped over a road sign. Underneath is one of those brown heritage signs pointing the way to Dogmersfield Park. There has been a house at Dogmersfield Park since 1086; but the people who run the house these days don’t want you to visit, not yet. “We had to put the binliner on because people kept dropping in looking for a cream tea,” says Claire White.
By the end of January, though, the binliner will come off and White, the public relations person, and her colleagues will be hoping that people drop by for something more substantial than a cream tea: such as a couple of nights in Dogmersfield Park’s £1,950-a-night royal suite.
Not that it will be still known as Dogmersfield Park by then. The name might be picturesque and impeccably old English (it means “the field where waterlilies grow”) but it will be changed to The Four Seasons Hotel, Hampshire, England. Less picturesque, true: but Dogmersfield is not an international brand name; the Four Seasons Hotel is.
The driveway is awaiting the final layer of gravel to give it the five-star crunchiness all luxury properties must have. There’s a cluster of building huts in front of a pleasant red brick Georgian mansion and black Range Rover containing White and Michael Newcombe, the general manager.
We drive round some of the 600 acres of what Newcombe calls the “resort”. He executes a tactful three-point turn to avoid an amorous bull enjoying the company of the hotel owners’ prize herd. “They’ll be moved when we open,” he says, a touch nervously, and we get talking about why the Four Seasons has come to Hampshire.
It’s a fair question. Each year, the group gets about 3,000 offers to manage properties, and may accept five. Its heartland is in North America, though lately it has taken on some high-profile European properties. Even so, the list reads a little oddly: Paris (the Georges V, indeed), Provence, Budapest, Dublin, Istanbul, Milan, Prague... and Farnham.
“It is true that we’re the first of the big groups to enter this market, apart from the Westin at Turnberry, perhaps,” says Newcombe. He then outlines a pretty thorough business case. The hotel is 45 minutes from London, so they can offer a “hub and spoke” package to visiting North Americans – one night in Hyde Park, a couple of nights here, then off to Paris. Maybe half of the guests will be from the US and Canada.
But there’s a huge and wealthy local market too. Michael has unearthed a killer stat that must give him comfort every time a new consignment of marble is delivered: “There are more chief executives within a 20-minute radius of here than anywhere in the UK.” And if you are a chief executive, or just a rich Londoner at a loose end, they want your money not just for beds but for conferences, weddings and, inevitably, the spa which they claim will, with 15 treatment rooms, be “one of the biggest in Europe”.
And the signs are they will get it. For alongside the killer stat, there is a killer graph – charting the steep rise in the internal British market. “It’s the growth in short breaks in particular that makes this all viable,” says Newcombe.
This is the biggest week in the year if you’re a travel professional in the UK. The World Travel Market opens on Monday at the ExCeL centre: 190 countries, 5,000 exhibitors, all marketing their socks off. For three days, 40,000 square feet of Docklands will be teeming with dreams:
paradise islands, pristine wildernesses, once-in-a-lifetime adventures and lots of people in national costume unsuited to November in London. There’s a greater optimism surrounding the event this year, now Sars has been contained and global terrorism, apparently, is In Perspective. Yet the most bullish exhibitors of all may well be the UK and Ireland delegates. They too have suffered from Sars and the fears of US travellers. However, they have the immense comfort of knowing that the strategy their industry has been pursuing for the past two decades is suddenly showing spectacular results.
Put crudely, the strategy was this. Forget the annual British two-week holiday by the seaside: that’s gone forever. Instead, get more affluent people to combine their foreign travels with short holidays in Britain.
A Mintel study into trends in domestic tourism published earlier this year made very cheering reading for the Michael Newcombes of this world, or anyone looking to put in a marble bathroom soon. The UK short break market has an upmarket bias. In contrast to the fish ‘n’ chips ‘n’ smutty postcard image, the Great British Holidaymaker is likely to be a broadsheet reader – a staggering 79 per cent of them. They also shop at Marks and Spencer, are light watchers of TV – and boy, are they spending. The domestic holiday market reached a “value peak” of £18.1bn in 2003. That’s predicted to be £20.9bn by 2007.
We all know what social trends support that growth; but seeing them in black and white reminds you what a huge social and demographic shift we’ve undergone. Professional couples are having children later, hence they have more money to spend both before and after they start a family (a sub-trend of the country hotel boom is the luxury hotel that markets itself to families). And they need to get away. The market is being driven by the south-east of England, where ABs are most likely to agree with the statement, “I need to get away from the rat race”.
I don’t need to go far to put some flesh and blood on those dry Mintel bones. Stuart and Clare Purcell are two fellow directors at the publishing company where I work. They’re in their late 30s, have three children, the youngest of whom is just three. The Stuart and Clares of previous years would have been pretty well confined to barracks for much of the time, apart from, say, a two-week jaunt to the Dordogne or Devon. In the past couple of years, they’ve been to the Hotel Tresanton, Olga Polizzi’s designer hotel in Cornwall; twice to Cowley Manor, the stylish bolthole in Oxfordshire; to The Victoria at Holkham, Norfolk (known to friends and detractors alike as “Notting Hill-in-the-Sea”); to a couple of Hotel du Vins; and to Ickworth in Suffolk, a place they found on their favourite website (www.luxury-family-hotels.co.uk).
Now, it may be we’re paying them too much. But Stuart claims (hurriedly) that it’s just a way of redeploying the family spending money. “The thing is, you just don’t get to go out on Friday nights any more. So I suppose we put the money aside for a really good experience every few months. And that’s the thing about these hotels – you feel you’ve bought an experience, not just somewhere to sleep the night. Flying is great, but you can be at these places in two hours.
“And what I like about somewhere like Cowley is that they want their customers to have a good time. It’s like having a weekend with your mates.”
Stuart and Clare won’t be going to the Four Seasons, Hampshire – “looks amazing, but a bit too Chinos and Ralph Lauren”, he says. Michael Newcombe hopes he may be able to tempt them to his “slightly more contemporary” bar, 1086, and to the suite of treatment rooms. He knows his main market backwards, and it isn’t saving up its beer money from those lost Friday nights.
Sitting in the room his team has mocked up, we could be in Paris, or Milan, or Chicago or Austin, were it not for the view of the Downs quietly receding into the distance. It’s impeccable and, for the Four Seasons regular, as comforting as the hotels’ celebrated mattresses.
Trad vs Funky is a debate that’s been going on pretty fiercely in hotel circles in recent years. Here we have our feet planted firmly on a swirly carpet of a discreet and internationally approved design. Michael agrees that “doing a Babington” wouldn’t be right.
Babington. In 1998, I wrote a piece in High Life magazine called “Soho goes to the country”. Quite a few glossy magazines wrote quite a few pieces in a similar vein. The owner of Soho House members’ club had bought a Queen Anne building in Somerset, stuffed it full of funky furniture and invited his London media mates to go down there and have a real rock ’n’ roll weekend. It was an irresistible story. We got to crack lots of jokes at the expense of the traditional country house hotel; and laugh, too, at our self-centred metropolitan selves for having the gall to think we could do very much to change it.
“It was selfish,” says Nick Jones. “I just wanted somewhere to go in the country at weekends.”
That statement is to be taken with a catering pack of Maldon sea salt. Before landing the Soho House gig, Nick had spent 10 years learning the business at Trusthouse Forte. He’d been responsible for marketing country house weekends: he knew there was a widening gap in the market as big as the hole in the ozone layer.
“Why didn’t people go to the country? They were terrified. You had to put on time-warp glasses: the little colour TV that might get one Sky channel, the bath that took half an hour to fill up, hotels that expected you to finish breakfast at 9.30. You could not relax because of the stuffiness of the whole thing. And yet things in London had progressed so quickly, in design, in food, in the whole way of doing things.”
The spectacles you needed for a visit to Babington were more in the Dolce and Gabbana line, something that went with the cowhide rugs and purple walls. You had state-of-the art TVs and very big beds. Trouser presses were absent.
Babington was a huge hit from the start. Today, it runs at 95 per cent occupancy, week nights included, even at this grey time of year. Nick Jones reckons his most reliable clients are people from other hotels checking the place out. The Babington effect soon spread along the M4 corridor: Cowley, Barnsley House, Whatley Manor and thence across these islands to the point where it seems you are never more than half an hour’s drive away from an imitation Eames chair and a leopardskin print rug on a polished floorboard.
Few places went the whole Soho hog, however. One of Babington’s directors, Robin Hutson, quit his job at the original Hampshire posh spot, Chewton Glen, took his star sommelier with him and opened the first Hotel du Vin in Winchester. The formula – historic town centre buildings, lively bistros, small rooms, huge shower heads – was rolled out across the country, proving a particular success in the most conservative of towns: Harrogate, Tunbridge Wells, Henley-on-Thames. Nowhere was immune to the charms of a movement christened “cosy-contemporary”. Last month Robin Hutson sold the Hotel du Vin group to Malmaison for £66.4m.
If this piece suggests that the new breed of British hotelier is engaged in an ideological catfight over curtains and canapés, think again. You won’t get them to say a bad word about each other, for the simple reason that they are all merrily increasing the market – several markets – together. Mintel concludes that accommodation providers have stimulated the demand for short breaks: supply is indeed increasing demand. Wherever you look, ageing city whizkids and career-veering media mavericks are cashing in their chips and getting into the hotel game.
So the country hotel market is going bananas in Britain. But are the suppliers meeting the demands of their guests? FT Weekend intends to find out, in the shape of a new weekly column – the first review, of Peter de Savary’s new venture, Bovey Castle in Devon, is on page W6 – in which reviewers, travelling incognito, will put country house hotels all over Britain, and occasionally even further afield, to the test. A night or two in one of these places does not come cheap, after all, and there are few things more galling than winding up somewhere disappointing.
Over at Babington, meanwhile, Nick Jones is plotting what to do next. “I would love to do something by the seaside something more basic – Babington basic – and rediscover the B&B.” While he eyes up the great British landlady, however, he is sinking another £1.5m into Babington. The results may prove a severe shock to those original 1998 weekenders.
“We’re putting in wallpaper! I wouldn’t say we’re making it more English but more real, definitely. There’s huge soul about it. It’s not just about buying a Queen Anne House and filling it with Italian furniture.
It gets more outrageous: doilies. “Do you know,” he says, “I think the doily might be making a comeback.” But revisionism, it seems, can only go so far. “Trouser presses? Now there I’m not so sure.”
Mark Jones is editorial director of British Airways’ High Life magazine. Additional research by Lynda Wilson