Genesis of a Boutique Hotel
A definitively boutique hotel opened in the Lake District four years ago to appeal to the evolving tastes of an affluent younger demographic keen on exploring luxury destinations. Bill Lumley pays a visit to Brimstone Spa at the Langdale Estate in Ambleside, Cumbria
If one thinks of visitors to the Lake District it is likely to conjure up images of older people in Wellington boots, woolly hats and sensible weatherproof coats, looking forward to a traditional pint or a nice cup of tea when they get back to their guest house at the end of a day’s hiking.
A decade ago, as the first nucleus formed for the ideas that led to the development of the 16-suite Brimstone Spa, an unmistakably boutique hotel, its owners identified an emerging divergence in visitor to the region.
At the time they needed to do something with the standalone hotel situated within a larger complex that was under increasing pressure with a limited amount of timeshare to sell. At the same time, the boutique hotel business on the site that the Brimstone Spa would eventually replace was not making a profit. Langdale Hotels sales & marketing director Dan Visser says: “It was a bit of a lightbulb moment for the board, collectively realising they needed to do something.”
At this point Dan became involved in the new management team and they set to work changing the marketing plan, refurbishing the product and taking it up to a very high-quality four-star boutique hotel, but owing to the timeshare element, and because of the way the resort was set up, it was never going to be hugely profitable, he says.
“We had to decide what to do in order to secure long-term commercial sustainability of the new operation. We all knew it was the rooms that would make money; we had space; and we had planning permission.”
They initially considered putting in 30 traditional-style bedrooms and carrying on competing with all their four-star competitors with premium spa facilities, of which there are many in that part of Cumbria, but the gap in the market was at the very top end, he says. So instead, they built 16 suites where once there would have been 30 guest rooms, and they decided to brand them differently from the rest of the business, resulting in the luxury boutique hotel Brimstone Spa.
Each of the suites at Brimstone is very large, most have wood-buring stoves, and rather than having an en suite they all, in Dan’s words, feature signature bathing experiences.
The suites are set over two floors, all featuring super king size beds, and the minibars are stocked, wherever possible, with produce from local suppliers.
“One of the aims of the rooms is to give guests an experience that they don’t get at home. Informal luxury was the route we decided to follow. Think of a very high-end ski lodge: that’s where we are going,” he explains.
Giving it an edge over five-star hotels the world over, Brimstone Spa does not have a reception desk. Instead, guests are welcomed at the door, from where they are shown the facilities before being taken straight to their suite, all of which feature open fires – often useful, as the Lake District is not always gloriously sunny. The fires also help expand the use of the suites across all seasons, doubly useful given the hotel aims to attract a wider guest target to the traditional outdoor types and to serve as a destination itself.
Every guest room has a balcony. The staff uniform meanwhile comprises smart jeans, tweed waistcoats, white shirts, – “very different to what at the time was uniform in this area,” says Dan. “That more modern less formal but still very high-quality level took off very well indeed and resonated with the guests really well.”
The hotel is defined by its informality, he says. “We definitely deliver top quality, but it is not done so in a stuffy or formal manner. The guests are here to relax, it is a leisure hotel, and people don’t generally come here for business. Guests don’t want to have to think about anything while there are here or do anything if they don’t want to. And if for example they say they want to go for a walk, we will give them a map of the route and the kit they need.”
Although the Brimstone actively distinguishes itself from the attractive but traditional hill-walking Lake District guest traditionally associated with this region, it does welcome plenty of such guests despite not setting out with a specific demographic in mind.
“We set out to go to market in the same way as we do with all our businesses, where our key approach is essentially to attract direct business through our web PR. Because it is so different to the lake district, the PR success has been immense, and has built up its own head of steam very quickly: online is online, and anyone with an internet connection can find us.”
Such PR was integral to helping to drive some of that attention to the Brimstone, he says, and they have learned that their clientèle is much younger than the typical profile of Lake District visitor, who is of retirement age or coming up to retirement and likes hiking. “We have attracted a much younger demographic with Brimstone,” he says. “It comprises a much larger proportion of visitors from London than you would normally find in the region. Most Lake District visitors live within two hours’ drive, yet around 40% of our guests are from London.”
The priorities of quite a few of them are to come to Brimstone Hotel first, and the lake District second, he says. “Rather than, ‘I’m going to go to the Lake District, where shall I stay?’ it’s more a case of, ‘We found out about Brimstone hotel – let’s go and stay there!’ followed by exclamations of, ‘Oh! this is nice bit of countryside!’”
Brimstone Spa has eight thermal experiences and a spa pool both indoors and outdoors, 34 degrees all the time, and it offers 10 spa therapy treatments, with 10 corresponding rooms plus one private spa that can be hired by the half-day that is highly popular with Brimstone guests. This includes a private spa, two treatments, and guests get to relax in their own private spa for half a day.
Although spa therapy is charged extra, use of the spa itself is included in the price for guests at Brinmstone. Any other guests staying on the Langdale estate have to pay to get in, and it is not available to the general public, adding to its boutique exclusivity, Dan says.
Guests at Brimstone also have extensive leisure facilities including hot-tubs, a steam room and access to a 20-metre pool, which they may share with timeshare guests and their families.
In recognition of the fact that visitors to the spa can build up both thirst and hunger, integrated in the area is the Brimstone Spa Deli, which offers a selection of premium drinks and snacks such as sandwiches or a chicken or salmon salad, tea, coffee, soft drinks or wines from the old and new world.
Unusually for a luxury hotel, there is no dedicated onsite restaurant. If guests wish to eat on site they can go to a restaurant a couple of minutes’ walk from the hotel itself. Stove Bar and Restaurant offers modern British cooking styles encompassing contemporary dishes and established classics. It also embodies the overall theme of Brimstone Spa itself.
Dan explains: “Stove followed the development of Brimstone in line with the theme of informal luxury. The restaurant serves fantastic food, and although we are not chasing rosettes, we do have them. What we want to offer is really good quality food, served in a relaxed environment. You’ll find a two-rosette dish on a table next to a pizza: it’s about choice.”
In the surrounding area there are a higher-than-average number of Michelin-star restaurants per capita, he says. “We are not out there to compete with that market. We say to our guests if you are after exclusive fine dining, we will take you to the very best local restaurant, of which there are quite a few to choose from. Although it is not what we are about, for those people who do want to dine out at such a place, we will book them a table, put them in the Land Rover and drive them there and then pick them up,” he says.
Alternatively, if they want to chill out, relax, get over their walk to the pub or whatever they are seeking, that is an experience the hotel will excel at providing, he says.
He adds: “When we first announced that we weren’t having any traditional fine dining on the premises of a very high-quality hotel, there were a few raised eyebrows, but it has worked out really well.”
Ongoing changes in boutique hotels
The hotel constantly tweaks what it does, Dan says. “We have not done anything significantly different, because what we are doing had been working well. But we do constantly tweak the way we do things.”
For example, he says, within Brimstone is The Library, a very large room that has tea, coffee, snacks, beer, wine fruit juice and water available all day, with as much as guests like to consume during their stay included in the rates. “We are constantly looking at that offer to keep it fresh and to make sure it is up-to-date, seasonal, and sourced locally wherever possible. When there is a locally manufactured gin or beer made down the road like there is in so many towns or villages these days, we’ll order in some of the product in and give them a chance. We just keep on tweaking detail all the time,” says Dan.
Even though the boutique hotel itself is only four years old, it attracts a very high level of repeat guests, he says. “We are constantly looking at what we do and how we do it, in order to keep those repeat guests interested.”
High end brands
The Brimstone partners with a Canadian brand of high-end outdoor wear that is now branching into fashion. The hotel has a room full of the brand’s waterproof jackets, trousers, backpacks and shoes for people who want to go out and explore the outdoors for the first time and have not brought them with them because they are not used to that kind of thing. That has proved really popular as well.
In the bathrooms and spa the bathing products are from Aramis, but Brimstone has also partnered with a local company that manufactures toiletries and cosmetics. Dan says: “They use environmentally friendly mainly organic ingredients manufactured locally, which is a big tick for us. We have worked in partnership with them to help create our own brand of spa treatments with our own Pure Alchemy, and 80% of our treatments use that brand.”
It is widely believed that whatever the quality rating of a guest house or hotel, one of the most lasting impressions of the place is the quality of sleep a guest had. Dan says: “We had a mattress made for us by Sealy, a Cumbria-based company, so again we are supporting a local company. It is vitally important that we get the best quality mattress we can have. Where we can get it from a local manufacturer is another huge tick for us.”
In the process of the creation of Brimstone Spa the board took a number of gambles as it shaped into a luxury boutique hotel that are now paying dividends as the luxury guest market evolves.