When Inn on the Green failed, Mark Fuller knew he had to change tack to make its reincarnation work. He tells Tom Vaughan how he identified the elements that would change the hotel's fortunes and ensure Sanctum on the Green is a success.
Sex sells. Or at the very least, that's what Mark Fuller has realised since relaunching his hotel, Sanctum on the Green: "Why do people go to a hotel? Perhaps for a business stay, with or without the wife - in either case, there's probably some sort of shenanigans going on. Or they go for a long weekend, and they'll probably be sex involved somewhere. Or they go to have an affair."
The talkative, peroxide-haired, suit-shy director of Concept Venues, which last year launched the £10m, 30-bedroom hotel Sanctum Soho in London, seems to have the naughty thing on his mind. Asked to describe his new rural Berkshire hotel, which has been relaunched from its previous incarnation as Inn on the Green after a six-month, £1m refurbishment, Fuller doesn't hesitate to contextualise it in terms of its power as an aphrodisiac. "The Inn on the Green was somewhere not very glamorous - somewhere functional you might go for a quick shag. Now it's a glamorous, impressive place that I'd say would pretty much guarantee you a good shag."
While he is happy to admit he enjoyed sexing the property up, he confesses that the first step - admitting that the Inn on the Green was failing - was the most difficult. When he opened the hotel seven years ago with three-time Michelin-starred chef Gary Hollihead, the pair were aiming for a market of foodie-destination seekers. But it is a market that, very quickly, has diminished, Fuller says.
"We designed Inn on the Green as a restaurant with rooms rather than a hotel," he adds. "The rooms were very functional and just there as somewhere to sleep or shag or whatever. It was opened at a time when Michelin-style food and the named chef was everything. We were in the mindset that the food was the most important thing. I think we can agree that those times are gone."
The unspectacular rooms were supposed to be just a backdrop - a serviceable mattress, shower and TV, if you will - to the main attraction that was the restaurant. But, when Hollihead parted ways with Fuller 18 months ago, the hotel's foodie-destination bubble burst, and the rooms had nothing to hide behind. "It was hard to admit how quickly time had caught up with it," Fuller says. "You can realise very quickly in hospitality that what you thought looked beautiful, is in fact a shit-hole."
After Hollihead's departure, the property had fallen so badly between the foodie and the short-break markets that it became little more than a wedding venue, attracting parties that were looking for a rural location, decent-enough food and somewhere to stay afterwards. The money was all right, Fuller says, but it just served to alienate locals who might visit the restaurant, as well as punters coming from afar.
"People were confused as to whether it was a wedding venue or a hotel first," he says. "They would phone up and try and book for a Saturday and we'd have to tell them that there was another wedding on. After a while, they'd stop phoning and midweek would become quiet."
While occupancy was still tolerable, the property simply didn't live up to the expectations that the glamorous Sanctum Soho would set for another Concept Venues site. Recognising that something drastically needed to change, Fuller was soon left with the dilemma of what to do with the nine-bedroom property, which no longer had the standard of chef to pull in the foodie crowd, or the quality of accommodation to attract romantic short-break guests. "I was at a bit of a loss at first," he says. "Do we sell it? Do we leave it is at is? We certainly didn't want to do either of those. But once you've gone up a market and created a five-star standard hotel like [Sanctum Soho], everything looks poor in relation."
So he knuckled down and targeted a specific market. The new idea was to turn the hotel into somewhere that pulled people out from London with a touch of glamour, rather than culinary fireworks. So the first thing Fuller asked himself was what factors attract guests to hotels these days (aside from sex, presumably), if no longer solely the food. "Then I thought that, when I go away with the missus, I look for a gym and a pool," he explains. "I never use them - or it might be the fourth day before I end up doing some lengths - but the option is there."
So he looked at the plans for the hotel, and set aside a section of the car park at the back of the hotel to redesign as a pool, moving the entrance to the back of the hotel so guests would park then walk past the glamorous new pool area to reach reception. Jet-black and rubberised, to stop drunk guests braining themselves when diving in, the pool was crucial to the new concept. "Say it's a sunny Saturday and you're staying in Sanctum Soho," he explains. "You could get in a car and within an hour you're in the middle of rural Berkshire, hanging out beside a pool."
Carrying on the value-added perks that became central to the new concept, Fuller added a hot tub for chillier months (even though he intends to heat the pool to 40˚C all year round), and has turned the bedrooms into potential havens for restless guests, with a huge variety of TV channels and even Wii consoles. "I'm fed up of sitting in hotel rooms flicking through a few TV channels," he says. "I want my rooms to be as fun and entertaining as going out." The nine bedrooms have also been brought in line with the glamorous standards of Sanctum Soho, with air-conditioning, pimped-out bathrooms and noughties-chic decor.
The new restaurant relies on luxurious British classics - think ham hock and foie gras terrine, lobster with butter sauce, rib of beef for two or waygu beefburger. And while Fuller claims that paired-down British food is what punters want, its real remit seems to be to pitch itself in bold contrast to local competition; which, strangely for somewhere outside London, is competitive to an international-standard.
With the hotel a mere 20-minute car journey from foodie towns Bray and Marlow, and their conurbation of top-end restaurants, guests are a hop and a skip away from such culinary powerhouses as the Waterside Inn and the Fat Duck, as well as a raft of other great sites such as Tom Kerridge's the Hand and Flowers, Danesfield House and Aubergine at the Compleat Angler. There's no point in pitching a site against such competition. However, often what you want the day after a rich Michelin-starred meal is simple comfort food, Fuller says. And that's where Sanctum's new powers lie: being able to swim, enjoy the countryside, and travel to a nearby foodie destination, or alternatively stay in and scoff down a quality burger and chips.
As for the wedding trade, Fuller intends to scale it down drastically so not to alienate the new market. The hotel still has a marquee up and intends to honour the weddings booked in for this summer, but afterwards will only do a "very few a year", Fuller says.
Despite the £1m cost of refurbishment - it was originally supposed to be £300,000 but things spiralled, admits Fuller with a palpable sense of glee - the room and restaurant rates have not been hiked. Luckily for Concept Venues, it owns the freehold of the property, so there are no rent or lease demands to be met. Original plans put rates in line with Sanctum Soho but they were quickly brought down to match local competition. While the short-break market is different from the travelling foodies of before, they are no more moneyed, and the hotel wanted to acknowledge this. A stay and a meal would cost around £200 per person.
Most notably, Sanctum on the Green has been brought in line with the standards expected at Sanctum Soho, and Fuller is aiming to attract the same young market that is fond of his London hotel. One of the most valuable lessons gleaned from the new Sanctum has been the experience of growing a brand. Fuller readily admits that when his schedule eases up, he'd like to open more hotels, and relaunching Inn on the Green as a Sanctum, soon after opening the Soho flagship, has galvanised the brand in preparation for later additions, intended to exploit this same market across the country. What is the secret to pulling in this crowd? The question's barely out of my mouth before Fuller answers with signature candour. "I want people to walk into hotel rooms that they have never walked into before, because I am asking them to part with their hard-earned money to sleep with me, so to speak."
MARK FULLER AND CONCEPT VENUES
Since Concept Venues was formed in 2003, the 18-month period since the credit crunch first hit has been a landmark time for the company, which is owned jointly by Mark Fuller and Iron Maiden manager Andy Taylor.
Fuller began his career managing bands and organising club nights in London, before firmly establishing himself on the nightclub scene with the Boardwalk on Soho's Greek Street, Little Havana on Leicester Square and then the hugely popular Sugar Reef in Piccadilly and Red Cube in Leicester Square. After selling Red Cube and Sugar Reef in the summer of 2001, Fuller opened Embassy London on Old Burlington Street.
Currently, Concept Venues consists of Sanctum Soho, Sanctum on the Green, Notting Hill fish and chip restaurant Geales and an Embassy Club in London, as well as franchises in Abu Dhabi and Turkey. However, the next six months will see a new Embassy launch in Dubai, with further ones planned for Portugal and Africa (the exact is yet to be decided), as well as a second Geales restaurant on the former site of Tom Aikens's fish restaurant Tom's Place in Chelsea. The company doesn't intend to stop there, though. Fuller would like at least four more Geales in London ("I want them in neighbourhood places, such as Fulham or Marylebone," he says"), as well as more Sanctums across the UK, with potential locations including Chelsea and Brighton, and even an Embassy opening across the pond, with Miami a very likely destination for the nightclub franchise.
20 Warwick Street, London W18 5NF
Opened: 24 April 2009
Facilities: A 45-seat private cinema in the basement, plus a rooftop lounge and garden with a hydro spa jacuzzi. Rooms include iPod docking stations, DVD players, Wii consoles and free Wi-Fi access
Price: Bedrooms from £175
SANCTUM ON THE GREEN
The Old Cricket Common, Cookham Dean, Berkshire SL6 9NZ
Opened: 24 May 2010
Facilities: swimming pool, hot tub, wedding space. Rooms include iPod docking stations, DVD players, Wii consoles and free Wi-Fi access.
Price: Bedrooms from £120
HOW TO RELAUNCH A HOTEL
• Identify who the hotel's previous market was
•Try to find out why they no longer use it
•Identify what the local competition offers
•Find out how to set your hotel apart from the crowd
•Identify an exploitable market and redesign the new hotel to appeal to it
•Be prepared to spend some money