Despite having missed out on computer education at school, Matthew Grose is one of the present generation of family hoteliers ready to embrace new technology as a necessary tool in running his business as the new millennium dawns.
While corporate hotels have for some time now had the infrastructure and finance to turn to new technology in the ever-more-competitive world of selling and marketing bedrooms, family-run hotels are catching up fast. The 38-bedroom Dryburgh Abbey, at St Boswells in the Scottish Borders, run by Grose, is launching its own Web page in the New Year, as well as already being attached to several generic sites.
Having an e-mail address has already proved a major boost to enquiries and bookings. "E-mail is definitely the preferred method of communication from the USA," says Grose. "Around 60% of all enquiries we now get from Americans come via e-mail."
Over and above being simple purveyors of hospitality, being an IT whizz kid is just one of the many new skills required by today's generation of family hotelkeepers. They also have to be sales and marketing people, PR supremos and design experts.
Second and third generations at family-owned hotels are not basking in the glories of their ancestors. Instead, they are taking up the challenge of taking their hotels forward and adapting them in response to the demands of the new century, while at the same time maintaining the unique elements of a family-run establishment.
Many of the family-run hotels that exist today were set up by men and women who were pioneers of the industry. The likes of Nora and Bill Fletcher-Brewer, who opened Port Tocyn at Abersoch in Gwynedd in 1948, and Gerald Milsom, who established Le Talbooth at Dedham in Essex in 1952, followed by the 10-bedroom Maison Talbooth 17 years later, got their businesses off the ground at a time when there was little outside support. Most significantly, though, there was not the competition that there is today. "Customers' expectations now are therefore greater, and we have got to do a much better job than ever before to meet their demands," says Paul Milsom, who has taken over the day-to-day running of Maison Talbooth and Le Talbooth from his father Gerald.
As a result, the approach to hotelkeeping taken by the present generation tends to be more focused than that of their parents and grandparents, primarily because they are more likely to have undergone professional training and had work experience elsewhere. David and Graham Grose were the first members of the family to train as professional hoteliers since their great-grandparents started the Thurlestone hotel, at Kingsbridge in Devon, in 1896. David's son Matthew studied hotel and catering at Plymouth University before working in a number of London hotels. He returned to the family business three years ago and is now general manger of the Thurlestone's sister hotel, the Dryburgh Abbey.
Grose worked at the 64-bedroom Thurlestone hotel from the age of 14, deciding at 16 that he wanted to move into the family business as a long-term career. "At that point," he says, "it became a natural progression that I would become a hotelier."
For Grose it may have been a natural progression, but for Nick Fletcher-Brewer assuming responsibility for Porth Tocyn was something of a shock. At 22, he had just started working as a trainee accountant in London after graduating from Cambridge. But when his father left his mother, he was asked to take up the reins of the business. "I don't expect I would have gone into the hotel business if it hadn't been thrust upon me," he says, "and I pray my eldest son, who is only 15, won't get pushed into the business if it's something he doesn't want."
Initial reluctance did not stop Fletcher-Brewer taking the business in his stride, and now the 17-bedroom hotel caters for families. When his grandparents began one of the first country house hotels in the UK, they could afford to ignore this market, but Fletcher-Brewer has realised that there is a demand for a sophisticated hotel that welcomes children. Porth Tocyn now has a children's room, where high teas are served and which is equipped with TV, videos, Nintendo and board games. The end of the day, though, is kept largely for adults, with children being welcomed at dinner over the age of seven. At the same time, the hotel has a reputation for good food - it holds two AA rosettes - cooked by Fletcher-Brewer's wife, Louise.
The modern philosophy of Porth Tocyn has ensured that it is able to reconcile both markets - the family and the gastronomic connoisseurs.
Catering for niche markets is something family-run hotels are able to handle at comparatively short notice. The 20-bedroom French Horn, run by the Emmanuel family in Sonning-on-Thames, Berkshire, listened to requests from the corporate market, and last year introduced a boardroom, allowing clients to hold meetings for as many as 20 people.
While today's family-run hotels pride themselves on remaining independently owned and operated, marketing consortia are a vital tool for many in the competitive market. Fletcher-Brewer has steadfastly managed to avoid going down this route, content in the knowledge that about 80% of his business is from return or recommended bookings. Open to guests between Easter and November, he does not have the same pressure to fill his hotel for the 12 months of the year that other properties do - a luxury that only family-run hotels can allow themselves in today's economic climate.
One marketing consortium supporting independent hotels is Pride of Britain. Seven of the 30 hotels within Pride of Britain today are owned and run by a second, third or - in the case of the 75-bedroom Goring hotel in London - fourth generation of hoteliers. The consortium itself now has the younger generation in the driving seat, with Richard Ball, managing director of the 27-bedroom Calcot Manor at Tetbury in Gloucestershire - founded by his late father Brian - taking over as chairman at the end of 2000, supported by Paul Milsom as his vice-chairman.
Being a member of a consortium such as Pride of Britain brings the advantage of both traditional and modern marketing methods. A glossy brochure and directory is complemented by the Pride of Britain Web site, set up over the past few months.
Of enormous importance to the capturing of new business is the evolution of the look of a hotel. At the French Horn, for instance, the deep reds of the past have been replaced by a more contemporary and lighter decor with green carpets and yellow walls.
But hotels that have been in existence for many years have to be careful about large-scale change and its potential to alienate a loyal customer base. "We have to be equally responsive to the past as well as the future," says Paul Milsom. "We certainly can't afford to introduce anything fashion-oriented."
In the end, though, the most important marketing tool these hotels have is the very fact that they are family-owned. Today's generation of hotelkeepers are building on this, helped by the tools of the modern world. But being able to offer a deal that includes personalities devoted to their businesses, who may be around the hotel from early childhood through to old age, is a vision even the most astute companies cannot replicate.
Dryburgh Abbey, Scottish Borders
Tel: 01835 822261
Owners: Grose family
Tel: 0118 969 2204
Owners: Emmanuel family
Tel: 01206 322367
Owners: Milsom family
Bwlch Tocyn, Abersoch, Gwynedd
Tel: 01758 713303
Owners: Fletcher-Brewer family
Thurlestone, near Kingsbridge, Devon
Tel: 01548 560382
Owners: Grose family
Pride of Britain hotels
Tel: 01264 324400
Web site: www.prideofbritainhotels.com
Source: Caterer & Hotelkeeper magazine, 16 - 22 December 1999