Features: Sector spotlight: Hotels
Aphra Evans, July 13, 2017
Colliers International ranks Bristol fourth in the UK for hotel investment, making it more attractive to prospective hoteliers than London and Edinburgh. A spate of new openings in the city, fuelled by cheaper rents and building costs than in the capitals, substantiates this finding.
But lower overheads are not necessarily the only reason behind the boom. The Hampton by Hilton at Bristol Airport opened in February, not coincidentally in the same year that the airport is calling its most successful in terms of passenger numbers, new routes, and inbound tourism.
The 2016 International Passenger Survey shows Bristol has seen an 8 per cent increase in visitation, and is the eighth most visited city in the UK by international tourists.
“Bristol’s international visits in 2016 grew to 570,000, our highest ever figure,” notes Kathryn Davis, head of tourism at VisitBristol.
“Four hotels, maybe more, and a youth hostel are scheduled to open in the next two years, together with new attractions including Aerospace Bristol and Being Brunel.”
The city, she concludes, is making a name for itself on an international scale as a short breaks destination with a strong foodie and culture scene.
Bristol Harbour Hotel opened last autumn and therefore has the perhaps unenviable job of establishing itself in a busy market.
But Grant Callaghan, general manager, remains unfazed by competition because he sees the boutique leisure hotel as unique within Bristol. It certainly boasts an enviable location opposite St Nick’s with original features from the 1852 West of England bank, including vault doors a foot thick in its underground spa.
The Grade II and Grade II* listed buildings that comprise just 42 rooms, a restaurant and a spa took nearly a year to renovate, and plans for the future include expansions such as a rooftop bar overlooking a cluster of city centre church spires.
“Bristol is fast becoming a destination city,” says Grant with characteristic confidence. “In the last twelve years, it’s grown rapidly, which means more opportunities for hoteliers. The university is expanding, the airport is considering a second runway, and there could be an arena on the cards.”
In fact, the only dent in Grant’s optimism is the familiar stumbling block of Bristol’s infrastructure: the slow construction of the MetroBus network, traffic, and the lack of parking in the city centre.
“And there are too many bedrooms in Bristol,” he adds, after more consideration. “But we’re occupying a niche space. And Bristol’s a great, vibrant place to be.”
To keep up the pace with which Bristol is developing, however, he goes back to question mark which hovers over the potential new arena. “The arena has to happen for the city to carry on growing,” he says. “They have to deliver on that.”
Around the corner is the Mercure Grand, Bristol’s oldest hotel, which underwent a comprehensive refurbishment that finished four months ago. It’s larger than the Harbour Hotel with 186 rooms, and has a revamped kitchen and bar, Keepers, that uses honey from its bees kept on the roof.
Josh Watts, general manager, puts the increase in hotels in Bristol down to the ever-rising number of events and festivals which in turn attracts more international tourists, especially from Japan and Germany.
But while this might mean more competition, it’s something he is using to his advantage. “We work closely with Upfest – the artists stay here during the event and we have a street art theme in the rooms and corridors,” he says.
Significant upcoming anniversaries in 2018 and 2019, like St Paul’s Carnival and Bristol International Balloon Fiesta, mean there are many events for hotels to capitalise on, like the IBIS in Cardiff did by increasing its rates fivefold during the Champions League Final.
With international hoteliers and independent chains (if that isn’t an oxymoron) feeling so confident, it begs the question: does the city have room for smaller, quirkier accommodation?
Artist Sadie Spikes is the person to ask. For something a little out of the ordinary, you can choose to lay your head at her boutique guest house, the Curious Cabinet, or in one of a collection of show vans in a field in a secret location, all of them furnished with vintage flourish and complete with a dressing up box. Candlelit and gas-powered, they are unsuitable for anyone unable to survive without social media for a weekend.
Sadie, formerly a fine art lecturer, is an installation artist, which shows in her constantly-evolving, concept-driven guest house.
She is no lover of online marketing, preferring to personalise the experience by taking bookings over the phone, and by relying on word of mouth to reach new guests – a tactic that most big hotels wouldn’t dare try, but one that brings her customers from the continent and resulted in her inclusion in the Guardian’s top ten places to stay in Bristol.
That said, it hardly brings in the big bucks, she assures me, especially in such a competitive market.
“Bristol has changed drastically. Every week there’s something new, especially with Airbnb and all the hotel openings around the harbour,” she says.
“I love Airbnb’s ethos and the fact that people can make money and build trust. I was toying with the idea of it from the outset. But I wanted this place to be an independent thing in its own right.”
Although she is listed on Sawdays and VisitBristol, her business has been impacted by the decision to stay away from Airbnb. “Airbnb is driving down prices for small guesthouses. The big hotels always says it affects them but I don’t know how. Airbnb users are typically women aged around 35 to 55. That’s not the main target audience of big hotels.”
Despite the meteoric rise of the online booking platform, Sadie remains undeterred. She lets her business evolve as ideas occur to her and new concepts excite her.
“I love Bristol. It’s got a spirit to it,” she says. “It’s a good place to be doing something fresh and vibrant. You can create something with a resonance in this city.”
Ennywevvers (say it and you’ll get it) has that resonance too, alongside personality and a hard-to-beat USP. Billing itself as a green haven for weary cyclists and ramblers, Bristol’s only inner-city campsite is hidden in leafy St Werburghs, next door to everyone’s favourite city farm.
Pete Chapman built it from the ground up, although it was initially nothing more than a plot to put the £400 shed he planned to live in twenty years ago.
Today, the space is complete with a pizza oven, a solar shower, an outdoor kitchen, sawdust heaters, a conservatory and an events space – all crafted by hand and brimming with personality.
“He bought the plot to live on. Then he found himself in need of company, so he built a bar. Then people wanted to stay over – so he built a campsite!” laughs Ann White, who now runs it on his behalf.
She says business is booming this year after she joined the operation last year, when things weren’t quite so busy, but steadily consolidating. Ann has embraced social media, Airbnb, and sites like VisitBristol and Beds for Cyclists as a way to spread the word, but she suspects that’s not why so many bookings are coming in.
“Every weekend is booked out from May to September and I’m turning away more people than I’m saying yes to. Foot passengers passing by come in and then book later. We have groups of Bristolians stay too, who just want to do something different for an evening.”
“But really, what’s happening is that we are seeing loads of repeat business. People love it. There’s no personality in a hotel. Here you’re a twenty minute walk from the centre, but you wake up with the birds singing, and it feels like a festival.”