Cosmo Fry may be saddled with an unusual name, but there is nothing strange about his business attitude. He has never run a hotel before, but his experience of staying in hotels around the world and a feeling that there was a niche in the market for "a hotel that was different, yet stylish" was enough to persuade six partners to back his and partner Lulu Anderson's vision.
Investors, who include Hollywood actor John Malkovich, have ploughed roughly £750,000 into creating Fry's 82-bedroom, 10-storey Formica palace. Fry - a descendent of the chocolate family - has owned a Formica factory for the past 25 years, and a lot of the hotel's furniture is fashioned out of the laminated plastic. These elements, including the 35-seat Turf bar, are all contained in a cube-shaped building - formerly British Gas offices - that is only few hundred metres from Cardiff's city centre.
Called the Big Sleep - not, assures Fry, after the 1946 Humphrey Bogart film - the hotel opened on 1 October last year with a few key features that set it apart from the city's other hotels. There is no restaurant or room service; and the modern, bright and airy bedrooms, which have great views over the city centre, are inexpensive. Standard, family, twin and disabled rooms start from £58 during the week, while the large Penthouse is only £85. There are also no chocolates on the pillows - which is ironic, given Fry's family background.
Although the first guests were admitted last year, the Big Sleep's official launch was in April. The publicity for the hotel sums up Fry's philosophy for his business: "Smart, cheerful and long-overdue. A design hotel at affordable prices".
There's no denying that the hotel is inexpensive, but whatever words you use to describe the Big Sleep, don't use "budget", and definitely don't call it "wacky" - at least not to Fry's face. "I hate the word budget, it can be misinterpeted. We may be cheap in certain areas, but we are not budget." And why the offence at being called wacky, as a journalist from the Telegraph Magazine labelled the hotel? "Wacky, to my mind, is offbeat. We are serious," insists Fry.
The word wacky has also been applied to the hotel's decor. When he took over the building last September, it already been converted into a hotel by a previous operator, but the design wasn't quite to Fry's taste - he describes it as "a 1970s Mott the Hoople haven". That all changed in March this year when Fry started to redecorate the Big Sleep, introducing his "millennium retro" style at a cost of £2,000 per room.
The bedrooms on the ninth floor, complete with white walls, Ikea bits and pieces, and teddy-bear curtain material, are the first to be transformed. Fry waited five months to start changing the decor, because he says he wanted first to find his feet in the hotel industry.
He was also in a rush to start trading while the Rugby World Cup was in the city. However, this meant that until February this year the Big Sleep was still called the Good Night Inn - a name chosen by the former hotelier who, because of lack of money, had to close his business on the day it opened last September. But his misfortune turned out to be Fry's good luck. "It was a chance for me to save 18 months of construction time to convert an office building into a hotel." (Fry estimates the actual conversion costs to be £3.5m.) "My concept was a really new idea and 18 months was too long to wait." Fry now rents it for £250,000 a year, because the owner of the building didn't want to sell. The rent is also related to turnover, which Fry projects will be £1m in the first year.
Opening when he did gave Fry a head start on those he considers to be his competitors - the likes of Travel Inn and Ibis - both of which opened in Cardiff's city centre in the past few months. "We are in the lodge market," he says, adding that he is also pitching at the bed and breakfast sector, which is one reason why the hotel doesn't have a restaurant. "As far as I'm concerned, I'm not interested in food; I'm interested in supplying bed and breakfast," says Fry.
There's no restaurant or room service, but patrons aren't left to starve. A breakfast room serves a Continental breakfast, which is included in the room's cost. It's a system that helps keep staffing to a minimum: there are just 17, including general manager Stephen Godber, five receptionists, housekeeping and one breakfast waiter.
All the hotel's ingredients may be in place, but Fry isn't out of the woods yet. He knows that, as his is a new venture, he has a lot of problems to overcome. The first is getting people through the door, which will not be easy, he admits, "because we're not a brand name". This is where Fry's celebrity connections have been invaluable. Malkovich was more than happy to take part in a stunt for last April's opening. It was a publicity dream, with Channel 4's The Big Breakfast TV show and the Telegraph Magazine, among others, covering it. "I would have been a fool not to play that card and, yes, I am lucky to have those connections," concedes Fry.
Connections aside, he still needs to get the bodies in the beds. This is proving slightly more difficult than drumming up publicity. The Big Sleep has less-than-healthy occupancy rates. From opening with 100% occupancy last October - helped by the Rugby World Cup - the hotel averaged just 59% for August.
There is a general feeling in the city that hotels are facing a potential slump as the number of beds, which have grown by 66% since 1997, rises faster than the number of guests (Caterer, 10 August, page 5). Several big hotels have been opened since last year, including the five-star St David's hotel, Sir Rocco Forte's flagship, and the already mentioned Ibis and Travelodge.
Geoff Stickler, commercial director for Cardiff Marketing, confirms that permission has been granted for another 200 bedrooms, and he admits that "rooms have grown too rapidly" and the extra beds would make the problem worse. On a positive note, Stickler says that while occupancy figures in the city are down 4%on last August, actual rooms sold rose by 12.6%.
However, Fry can be assured that his appearance on Cardiff's hotel scene has caused ripples, if not waves. Architects from rival hotels have come in for a look; while one long-established place, the Cedars hotel, cited the Big Sleep as one of the reasons it closed down last month after operating for 40 years. Owner Phil Davidson says: "The rapid growth of new, low-cost hotels in Cardiff, like the Big Sleep, for instance, has made it very difficult for business."
Other towns and cities should prepare themselves for similar competition. Like all fledgling hoteliers, Fry has plans to expand. Oxford, Newbury and Bath are on his immediate shopping list. But opening in London is his ultimate goal. "I would love to be in London. We did think of it in the beginning, but it was too expensive. But if we found the right site that would be different." The Big Sleep is clearly set to wake up the competition.
The Big Sleep
Bute Terrace, Cardiff CF10 2FE
Tel: 029 2063 6363
Fax: 029 2063 6364
Web site: http://www.thebigsleephotel.com
Owner: Cosmo Fry
General manager: Stephen Godber
Projected annual turnover: £1m
Occupancy rate for August: 59%
Source: Caterer & Hotelkeeper magazine, 21-27 September 2000