AHC: Boutique hotels promote connection, experiences

The Cranleigh Boutique has 18 guestrooms. Photo credit: Cranleigh Boutique

Stephen Hargreaves, CEO and creator of the Cranleigh Boutique brand, is an entrepreneur and property expert who bought his first hotel in the U.K.'s Lake District 12 years ago and has been credited with bringing the concept of boutique hotels to the District. 

Following his recent participation in The AHC Regional Roundtables in the North West, Hargreaves discussed experience-based hotels, the challenges facing hoteliers and why the hospitality industry should promote human interactions.

You and the Cranleigh Boutique have been a dominant instigator of a lot of change within the industry across the North West, specifically the Lakes. Why this region and what is your driving force?

I grew up visiting the Lake District on family holidays so knew the area and its tourist appeal very well. It benefits from a great tourism industry with a large number of regular visits from those based in Liverpool or Manchester who escape the frenetic, highly digital, constantly connected weekday whirl and come to this beautiful part of the world [on] the weekend to relax and unwind. I bought my first property here in 2006 with a view to renovating it and then selling but decided instead to convert it to a hotel. I met a fascinating gentleman who enlightened me on this emerging thing called “Google” and how it was set to change the world. I knew I needed to understand what this phenomenon was so set about learning all about it over the next four years and, ultimately, it became the backbone to marketing, selling and communicating my hotel offering to guests.

During the Regional Roundtable North West, we discussed staff training, recruitment and motivation at length. What is your approach to this pivotal area of operations and any challenges you face?

This entire area revolves around attitudes. Attitudes of the government and the employment laws they create which, in my view, are way too soft and protect the employee, not the employer. Attitudes of the next generation when it comes to the hospitality industry and how the majority view it as a passing trade, not a meaningful and rewarding career. And attitudes around pay and tipping. Our rate of pay across the Cranleigh Boutique is currently as high as it’s ever been in order to retain staff and reward them. I do think if we had a similar attitude towards tipping as Europe and the U.S. this would help significantly in encouraging great service as would reward individuals for great performance.

Let’s talk about “experience-based hotels” and “smart accommodations.”

If you do everything the same as everyone else, you are boring. People will only share things that are different and exciting. I have never wanted to be like a traditional hotelier and constantly try and push the boundaries of what is unique. Smart accommodations and experience-based hotels [include the ability] to  deliver a truly unique experience to each and every guest based on their preferences. The maintenance is complicated and as it is highly driven by technology, when that goes wrong it is annoying and stressful but the upside always outweighs the downside; the hardest part is keeping up with the innovations.

Where do you get your inspiration for innovation?

My own drive and experiences. I regularly stay in my own suites as well as other hotels to see what is working well elsewhere. I am also totally focused on delivering excellence and treat my team like my family.

What are the main challenges for the industry over the next year?

You’re probably asking the wrong person. I don’t watch the news or pick up a newspaper so have no idea what the latest research piece or future trends article says. I focus on what feels right and what my customers are telling me. I do know that right now, we truly need to work on creating environments where people can have human interactions. We need to get people talking, communicating and listening. We’re raising a generation that are addicted to screens and this isn’t going to end well. The hospitality industry is one of the only places that can facilitate these positive, nourishing and beneficial human interactions. I think the government needs to step up and reduce the level of VAT in the industry. You don’t pay VAT on a can of beans in the supermarket, so why should you when you eat these in a hotel restaurant? In doing this, we’ll be able to offer a hospitality experience that is more affordable and encourage people to go out and be social. We have a duty as a generation and owe it to our children to change this reliance on screens and the default status of staying inside.

The next AHC will take place at the Hilton Manchester, U.K., October 9-10.