Running any restaurant is a challenge, but doing so in an independent hotel requires a shared vision between restaurateur and hotelier in order to create successful authenticity.
LONDON—It’s all about authenticity and local appeal for independent hotels, and their restaurants are no exception. The most successful restaurants in independent hotels act not as an add-on, but offer unique selling points that can drive occupancy and average daily rate, sources said.
In a lively panel titled “Eat, drink, destination” at London’s recent Independent Hotel Show, panelists said restaurants give guests a reason to visit hotels, and more and more hoteliers are understanding that restaurants must be run as restaurants, not as accessories to the hotel.
“Hotels have realized the independent market has moved on in a fast-moving world,” said Des McDonald, managing director, Des McDonald Restaurant Consultant.
Guest experience and profit are the drivers, panelists said.
“Hotels realize that there’s money to be made, and if you are bad, people have options. Hotels have upped their game,” said Tom Ross, operations director of two independent hotels, The Pig near Bath and The Pig at Combe, both in England’s West Country.
Competition is fraught, though, panelists said, and hoteliers need to get everything right—from menu to lighting, from staff flow to design.
Trained as an architect, Emma Irvine, co-owner of hotel Albion House in Ramsgate, Kent, said her learning curve has been challenging.
“Design and atmosphere are easier to make local, but the food initially was an afterthought. We had to change. People cook really well at home now, whereas 10 years ago that was not the case. You can learn now from your customers,” she said.
“We saw we had to break the restaurant away from the hotel and not to be a ‘restaurant with rooms.’ That helped it become full of locals. The challenge is to keep it busy all the time, when you operate in a seasonal market.”
A consideration, panelists added, was whether to outsource restaurant operations or to go for it in-house.
“If you build your own, you have to have the right culture and the right vision. That does attract people,” said Jan-Paul Kroese, GM, Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, in Oxfordshire, who added guests and locals do genuinely like to see successful visions come to fruition and be part of that.
“Hoteliers and restaurateurs have different skill sets,” Ross said.
What guests want
Much of the excitement surrounding independent hotel restaurants across England these days is due to a resurgence in popularity of the classic British country-house hotel, Ross said.
“They’ve been made attractive again. They were in the 1980s, but after a couple of sales, many lost their edge,” he said.
Developing restaurants that have the community at heart often is more important now than having a celebrity chef, which for a long time was the required unique selling point.
“A sense of community creates our biggest fan base. Hotels can be seen as exclusive, ruthless places, and that is not something we want to be,” Ross said.
“If you have a great experience as a guest but cannot put your finger on it, then it is probably because (all the) issues have been addressed,” he added.
Kroese emphasized that consistency also is critical.
Culinary themes do not change that often in hotels, panelists agreed, as what will be a fad today will not be in five years.
“Do what you do well,” Ross said.
The dreaded “B” word was brought up, and panelists cited a few examples of impact.
Food prices are already rising following British voters’ decision to start the process of leaving the European Union.
“Our wine prices went up immediately,” Ross said.
Kroese said F&B imports had risen in price, but more guests from abroad were visiting his hotel perhaps due to recent exchange rate changes.
He added that the challenge now is to stabilize prices.
“We’ve always been driven by the British market. … We have to remain attractive in terms of staff, 55% of which come from abroad. The pound is worth less, so you have to have other ways of attracting them,” Kroese said.
Irvine said British travelers increasingly used to taking European breaks might not be doing so freely now.
“The exchange rate might be pushing them toward us, but it is too early to say,” she said.