To secure its future, the Regent in Royal Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, is making the most of its past. A drink in the Phoenix bar sets the scene, its walls painted with reminders of previous guests, such as the Duke of Wellington's boots and Sarah Bernhardt's camellias. Elsewhere black plastic chairs, a legacy of a 1960s facelift, have made way for period furniture. The hotel's modern decor is systematically being undone.
The return to traditional style is not a bid to outmanoeuvre new hotels, but rather a realisation that the Georgian building, which has been in the Cridlan family since 1904, is a unique selling point.
"I have tried to restore it to its former glory - but with modern conveniences," says Mary Cridlan, who inherited the 80-bedroom hotel with her two stepdaughters, Anthea Cridlan and Jeryl Wheeldon, after her husband Frank's death in 1993.
"It's a hard job, though," she adds, "as you must think of the practicalities, such as replacing cornicing and dado rails."
Certainly, the old building is a mixed blessing. The hotel, which opened as the largest in Europe in 1819 with 100 bedrooms and one bathroom, has individuality, but at a price. Despite double-glazing, it is expensive to heat because of high Regency ceilings. Similarly, although the plumbing and rewiring have been updated, Cridlan says upgrading has to be ongoing, with annual maintenance bills alone topping £100,000.
As a result, the refurbishment is slow. "There are no loans at all," says Cridlan. "All the work comes out of the profits." The profits are closely guarded, but turnover stood at £1.5m last year.
None of the Cridlan family has been trained in hospitality. It is mainly up to general manager John Biesok, who previously worked at Grand Metropolitan Hotels, to ensure the hotel exploits the past but still competes in today's market.
Accordingly, the hotel is geared for conferences. In fact, 75% of business is from the corporate and conference sector for most of the year, particularly in winter. This choice of target market is not surprising in a town overshadowed by the tourist haven of Stratford-upon-Avon, but surrounded by national companies such as Calor Gas, the BBC and Ford.
The eight conference suites, the largest of which seats 100, have been refurbished in the past 12-18 months to ensure facilities are up to date. Also, small sitting rooms have been refitted so they can be used as boardrooms as demand dictates.
Conference rates are listed at £76 plus VAT for 24 hours and a daily rate of £21. But to fill the hotel at weekends, Biesok sometimes agrees discounts of up to 10%.
Such flexibility is what keeps business at the Regent flowing all year round. In a switch from winter, June, July and August see 75% of the hotel's business come from coach parties and holidaymakers. This is where the traditional style of the Regent comes into its own, according to Biesok, in its capacity to attract foreign tourists.
Regular business has been garnered from, among others, three German coach tour operators, Studiosus Reisen, Kleeman Irland and TUI. Biesok says the trio liaise directly with the hotel, thus cutting out the 8-10% commission charged by agents and leading to a more competitive deal. Rack rates range from £65 for a single room to £120 for a deluxe room.
The hotel's ability to switch between conference and tourism markets means it can compensate for slack periods, says Biesok. Last year, this flexibility produced an average room occupancy of 60%.
The spread of facilities includes banqueting - a by-product of the hotel being an old building with large public rooms. Local functions such as masonic ladies' nights, rotary club evenings and weddings fully use the ballroom, which can seat up to 200 guests.
Typifying the hotel's versatility, the ballroom's sprung dance-floor can be covered and half the room screened off to become a 120-seat restaurant. This is useful when coach tours book. They are too large to be accommodated in the 50-seat Vaults restaurant with other customers.
However, there is a problem in having a dual-purpose ballroom; banquets cannot be booked when the hotel expects to be full because the noise disturbs guests in bedrooms directly above.
Biesok claims the elaborate planning is a "necessary evil" and reiterates: "We have to be multiflexible." This ability to adapt is partly why modern hotel chains hold no fear for Cridlan. But the main reason for her confidence is that the Regent has been a member of the Best Western consortium since 1978.
"This is a big hotel to be privately owned," she says. Cridlan appreciates that for an annual fee of £17,000 plus commission on bookings, she gets membership of a 200-strong consortium that gives the Regent as much weight as a large hotel chain in terms of purchasing power and marketing.
Marketing support is invaluable. In particular, Best Western's Getaway Breaks brochure helps combat the dip in business after Christmas. This year, to shift rooms at weekends between November and February, a deal of £39.50 per person for dinner, bed and breakfast is being offered based on twin occupancy. This is 20% off the hotel's £49.50 spring package.
Another marketing outlet is through the local tourism office. The Regent's town centre location means it is well placed to take advantage of local events. This summer ended on a high note with the arrival of 17 teams competing in the Ladies' World Bowling Championship. In all, 80 rooms were booked from 1-19 August at £80 per twin room.
It's not all discounts, however. Regular events in the region guarantee Biesok full rack rates at certain times of year. In July, for instance, there is the Royal Show at the National Agriculture Centre, Kenilworth, while at other times exhibitions at Birmingham's NEC, a short trip up the M40 and M42, mean the hotel can rely on repeat business. Biesok is so sure of some guests returning every year that he reserves rooms for them before they get around to booking.
Intimacy and consistency
Cridlan believes guests come back because they appreciate the personal touch. She acknowledges that many chains also have traditional-style hotels, but she argues they can't offer the same intimacy as a family-owned hotel: "The guests have become friends to me," she says.
Similarly, consistency is maintained because most of the 50 core staff are longstanding. Biesok has been with the hotel for nearly 10 years and company secretary John Liggins, who has a nominal stake in the hotel, has been on board for 20.
One of the longest-serving members of staff is chef Roland Clark, who joined 26 years ago. He has been head chef for the past 10 years. About five years ago, he secured the Vaults' AA rosette.
Cridlan is proud of this accolade and draws attention to the overall success of the upgrading programme, which has brought the hotel a long way. "At the end of the 1970s it was as low as a three-star hotel could be. But it has now been given a 76% rating from the AA."
This is partly why Cridlan is not tempted to sell, though property agents drool over the property. "Everyone knows we are not looking to sell," she says.
But there are also opportunities. "There is a huge development site behind here, which we own. Before the recession, developers were interested in improving the hotel as part of the deal. We are still hoping this might happen."
Despite the hotel having been in the family for 92 years, there is no guarantee Cridlan's step-daughters will want to take it on, but she is hopeful. "The hotel is a living thing," she says.
Next week: Scottish hotel Crieff Hydro