PART 38: How independent hotels can compete with large brands

    GTHD 38
    730 565 Hamish Kilburn
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    The hotel sector may be dominated by global brands, but stylish independents are ‘bouncing back’. Giles Fuchs, owner of the UK’s celebrated Burgh Island Hotel, knows first-hand how boutique hotels can compete with big brands – and win…

    Hotel owner Giles Fuchs gives his tips on how his team delivers the key characteristics that distinguish the best boutique hotels; distinctive customer service, a highly personalised experience and that all important cachet.

    Take advantage of history and heritage

    Fundamental to Burgh Island Hotel’s iconic status is its heritage. While they stay, guests can read about Burgh Island’s spellbinding history, combining high society with swashbuckling yarns when pirates swarmed the surrounding Devon coastline. We celebrate the fact that it is Europe’s only art deco hotel, with a truly glittering past. Part of Burgh Island’s charm is that its location – a small private tidal island off the coast of south Devon – means leaving the car behind and hopping atop a tractor which recently celebrated its 50-year anniversary.

    So, when we decided to implement a multi-million-pound refurbishment, the key to undertaking this was to keep it consistent with the Hotel’s heritage, while delivering new standards of modern contemporary luxury. We used local craftsmen, to ensure the renovation was authentic and focused on key areas such as the Grand Ballroom, the Palm Court Bar as well as the gardens.

    The refurbishment has already been completed on two of the hotel’s key features, The Beach House and the new Nettlefold restaurant which opened in March. True to their history – we ensured they remained named after literary legends who enjoyed Burgh Island’s wild at heart nature, such as Agatha Christie and Noel Coward.

    Exterior shot of the hotel with blue sky and green lawns

    Image credit: Burgh Island Hotel

    Deliver a unique experience

    The quality of the experience is the foundation of setting yourself apart from big brand hotels. At Burgh, we try and make our guests’ experience as memorable as possible. Guests can surround themselves with 20’s glamour – spending their evenings dressed in flapper attire and immersed in the wonderfully mad British eccentricity. The Grand Ballroom hosts the hotel’s formal and iconic fine dining restaurant, where wearing black tie and evening dress is a prerequisite and dancing is encouraged, while the Palm Court Bar allows guests to enjoy both pre and post dinner cocktail and drinks.

    As part of the refurbishment, we also opened a seafood restaurant, and created ‘The Nettlefold’. It’s an homage to the famous theatre producer who built Burgh Island as a retreat for London’s social elite. Locally sourced produce – within 30 miles – is kept seasonal to celebrate Devon’s natural larder. Lobsters are kept wonderfully fresh in the island’s Mermaid Pool, while Chef Tim Hall’s sole Veronique is prepared from fish brought from day boats in Brixham.

    We organise special events to celebrate the Island’s seafaring past, like the popular ‘Tom Crocker Pirate Festival’ a day of family style fun, taking place every August; at The Pilchard Inn. Experiences such as fishing trips have been curated with extreme consideration to the environment. Our new ‘shark tagging’ tours are conservation led, and allow families to experience these wonderful native creatures without causing harm.

    Cocktails on the end of the bar

    Image credit: Burgh Island Hotel

    Celebrate the hotel’s unique cachet

    A ‘wow factor’ is at the heart of every great boutique hotel. For us, our defining feature is our elegant design, which never fails to surprise and delight when guests book via the website and see their suite for the first time.

    All boutique hotels should have cachet, but reinforcing and refreshing the hotel’s X factor involves combination of factors: making the hotel’s interior unique, infusing it with the glamour of the hotel’s past in the furnishings and fittings, room décor, public spaces, giving guests a distinctive stay and ensuring staff are briefed on the hotel’s history and know all the stories that can capture guests’ imagination and give them an appreciation of the Hotel’s charm and appeal.

    Provide distinctive customer service

    A boutique hotel has the advantage of being more agile than larger brands in how it communicates with their guests.Every detail, from the greeting to assisting with concierge requests can be highly personalised and make a real impact. This is true of every good hotel. A number of our staff are sent to the prestigious Michelin star restaurant Moismann’s for one weeks training in fine dining and customer service, which we believe reinforces this philosophy.

    Our efforts have been recognised this year by being nominated for The Times Travel Awardsin ‘Best Hotel’ category. Staff are highly trained in knowing every aspect of the hotel, the 23-acre location and how to anticipate the needs of every guest – on a year-round basis.

    We can take decisions quickly because we are light on our feet and the senior management is easily accessible. This is a contrast to hotel chain groups which are shackled to corporate policies and have far less flexibility. This agility and freedom are refreshing for the team and empowers them. This enhances their confidence and results in a more proactive approach to guests thoroughly enjoying their stay.

    Exterior of hotel and scenic beach

    Image credit: Burgh Island Hotel

    Capitalise on online channels

    In the current ‘age of Facebook and Instagram’ travellers are hunting for new and exciting backdrops. The big brand hotel sector are successfully using digital channels such as Instagram and Facebook to promote their properties and market their destination – which is transforming perceptions of entire countries and cities.

    Social media and lifestyle influencers hold great sway over today’s travellers – especially millennials. That 30 second landing page impact of your website to the mobile savvy audience is paramount. It’s all about ‘turning looks into books.’

    Even though commodity hotels take advantage of social media, this actually plays to the strengths of boutique hotels because they can showcase their unique designs, the great art, standards of luxury and overall wow factor that they possess and deliver.

    This is one area where boutique hotels can really capitalise on engaging with a wider demographic to target new and existing clients. There is enormous competition from global brands, however social media platforms offer a way to personalise the brand cost effectively and create a direct relationship with travellers.

    Stay ahead of consumer attitudes and trends

    The big trend for every hotel is digitisation, meaning travellers and corporates rely on booking platforms such as, so boutique hotels should not shun these sites in an attempt to be discreet, or sought after, as it is the prime way most of today’s travellers book their hotels.

    Everyone knows that private accommodation is on the rise, with sites such as Airbnb dominating headlines. However, unique hotel settings such as Burgh Island stand out and the art deco style is almost impossible to emulate and experience elsewhere.

    Travel consultancies have forecast another main trend for 2020 – ethical and moral concerns. We are increasingly aware of how consumers are choosing to opt for products or services which have strong environmental credentials and being located on an island, we are very sensitive to the fragility of our ecosystems. As a result, Burgh Island has been a pioneer in the Green Tourism movement and we were awarded Gold in 2009 by the Green Apple Organisation for conservation and continue to hold this highest level of recognition. We continue to look for innovative ideas to support conservation and are currently engaged in rewilding part of the Island.

    No one can escape the wellness trend currently sweeping the industry. Every day, we see a new partnership or development to help travellers boost their health and wellbeing. Our new spa is due to open in 2020 and we have a range of wellness activities planned as part of this new feature of the Hotel.  Inspiration for the design, products and treatments will be inspired by local minerals and herbs – an individual touch which a boutique hotel can more easily deliver.

    Independent hotels need not fear the relentless march of the big brands, as in a competition where delivering a unique experience, the highest-standards of customer service and possessing that reputational magic and distinction are the key factors, boutique hotels hold all the aces.

    Main image credit: Burgh Island Hotel

    Hamish Kilburn / 06.12.2019


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    Hamish Kilburn