The peaceful Kent seaside town of Deal is filled with hidden historical gems, among them The Royal Hotel, an inn with breath-taking sea views and luxury hospitality to match.
Predominantly a leisure hotel, The Royal Hotel is the luxury end of the local market in a quiet town with winding alleys of Georgian houses and one that boasts a Castle built by Henry VIII as part of as chain of coastal defences. Deal became a limb port of the Cinque Ports in 1278, and it is very close to Walmer, believed to be the location of Julius Caesar’s first arrival in Britain. Mentioned in The Doomsday Book as Addelam in 1086, as Dela in 1158 and Dale in 1275, today Deal is a former mining, fishing and garrison town.
There is much else historical about the town, the place where Lord Nelson conducted his affair with Lady Hamilton and where Churchill stayed ahead of the Battle at Dunkirk in 1940. Such is the abundance of history, much of this centred on The Royal Hotel itself, that the rooms are named after the historical figures who stayed there.
ROOMS WITH A SEA VIEW
It’s very much a far cry from a chain hotel
The Royal Hotel, which leads directly onto the beach, offers a variety of guest rooms, all of a high standard and all in keeping with the age of the building, with their own quirks and twists. “It’s very much a far cry from a chain hotel,” says manager Alex Dunne. Indeed, every room has its own name and its own history and is personally designed, based around the seaside theme.
“We have three feature rooms, the feature being a private balcony and sea-view,” says Alex. From the beach you can catch the sight of guests sitting in their robes enjoying a bottle of champagne. “The services we provide match the setting and range from outside heaters, enabling guests to enjoy the sea air when the air turns cool, to having breakfast served on their balcony in the morning for them to enjoy the view and the sunshine.”
The location and the build of the hotel means this proposition works all year round. “Even when it is raining, we still deliver breakfast to guests’ balconies. We are right in front of the pier which is where the sun rises. It is a truly awesome place to sit and enjoy a meal, kept comfortably warm by heaters behind you if you need them,” says Alex.
The level of attention paid to guest comfort at the Royal Hotel is high. Its superior rooms have roll-top baths and a number of the rooms feature the bath in the room itself as well as bath robes, and while the superior and standard rooms don’t come with robes, their towels and the luxury products in the rooms are all of a luxury standard.
The hotel has 18 rooms, but its dining room can serve up to 550 meals a day, which means the bias for diners from outside is always greater. “On an average day we would have 40-45 residents, so we are certainly a larger restaurant and bar than we are a hotel,” he says.
The restaurant helps to keep the hotel’s turnover up out of season. “Although Deal is not short of restaurants the Royal Hotel being the type of business and hotel it is, we stand on our own by our reputation. We have a lot of great competitors and a lot of other great restaurants, but there’s nothing quite like the Royal. When you are going to treat someone or go out for a nice night out, you say let’s go to the Royal.”
We cater for everyone now, with everything vegan in the hotel
“We cater for everyone now, with everything vegan in the hotel,” Alex says. “We don’t just buy soap from the local supplier for instance: it’s really carefully sourced to ensure it suits the needs of all of our guests, and it’s a really high quality down to the toothbrush.”
The hotel previously used Gilchrist & Soames of London. Now, he says, there is more calling to be universal with all our products with regard to accommodating vegans. “This very much took the lead for this change. We use it in the guest bedrooms and also in the public toilets, the and soap and the moisturiser.”
All food is locally sourced and fresh, and the hotel has deliveries every day
Every product used in the Royal Hotel is sourced from within the county of Kent, which means all food is locally sourced and fresh, and the hotel has deliveries every day. “We use a local butcher, Chapmans in Sevenoaks and Canterbury for our fishmonger, and we use our local greengrocer. Anything guests eat here is fresh and created on site – it’s not pre-packed and brought in and microwaved,” he says. The hotel has won an award from VisitEngland for our breakfast, he adds.
There are challenges to overcome to ensure everything is locally sourced by the royal hotel is part of Shepheard Neame brewery, which has a chef development team that works very closely alongside Alex and his head chef. “They go out and actively find suppliers,” he says. “It’s really important to us as a company that we keep our suppliers on our own doorstep. That’s really important to our guests as well. We can land something on the table and tell the guest that was delivered this morning from a supplier in the county.” Meanwhile the hotel’s beers come from the Shepherd Neame brewery just 30 miles up the road.
Success is all about coaching and development
Alex took over at the Royal Hotel in August 2018 after having worked in regional roles for most of the key UK breweries. He began his hospitality career as a pot washer at his father’s pub, worked at sea on a cruise line and worked abroad with Thomson First Choice. He has held the post of general manager for hotel chains and before that had been a new openings manager for Marsden, taking hotels from building site to operational.
The Royal Hotel had always had a successful past by the time Alex joined, he says. “I have a very good management team that surrounds me. The success is all about coaching and development.”
In a nutshell, he says: “My managers know what they know and what to do because I show them how I want it done. It’s very much as case that people believe in your values and your passion – they naturally follow that. My managers all look after different departments and are very focused and passionate and their team naturally step up for them.”
PLANNING AND MORE PLANNNG
A key focus the Royal Hotel is getting the every day right, he says. “When functions come in, we are very focused on our guest service. You can serve the freshest meal on the planet but if it is not delivered correctly it is a complete unacceptable.”
His head chef Omar Ashayer has been with the hotel now for just over a year and Alex refers to him as “first-rate”, and he says: “The company can set menus for the pubs and inns in its chain. Our aim was to be somewhat free from that, operating our own very personalised menu. The brewery told us that could be achieved in two years and we have actually just achieved it in the space of just a year with Omar.”
He adds: “The current menu we are serving is our own – you won’t find it at any other Shepherd Neame site, and my chef has a number of his own dishes on it too. It has very much been designed around our customer profile, and who better to choose that than the people who operate the site? It’s very personal.”
The Royal Hotel’s Reading Room can seat up to 16 people in an intimate setting, while for larger parties, it recommends the Map Room, which can comfortably accommodate around 40 guests for a sit-down meal.
For a simple drinks’ reception or buffet, both rooms can be hired together, resulting in the maximum amount of space for a full-scale soiree.
The Royal Hotel also represents one of the best business function venues in Deal, offering a range of facilities for meetings and conferences, including wi-fi connectivity.
The table is yours for the day – you are not going to have to move on after two hours to make way for another family
Heading into Christmas this year, the Royal Hotel is trying something that has not been tried there before and is introducing party nights, which Alex says are proving to be highly popular with the local community. They comprise a three-course meal and a live act. “That will be really good fun for Christmas this year,” he says. I am very much of the view that if we don’t believe we will do it right then we won’t do it.”
The hotel is about to head into its busiest Christmas ever, measured by bookings. The restaurant will be serving 72 guests booked on Christmas Day, and was booked up around two months in advance. “I could easily serve 180, but I am not going to because I want those 72 people to have a fantastic Christmas,” he explains.
He has a Christmas Day waiting list of 55, he adds. “For someone to trust you with something as special as their festive Christmas get together gives me some really good raw feedback that we are getting something right,” he says, admitting: “Don’t get me wrong – we don’t get it right every day, but we listen, we learn, and we respond.”
Alex’s style of management is centred around constant planning. “We have just had our big meeting about our new menu launch, with the wine range enabling the experience of the waiter to suggest particular wines that will go really well with a certain choice on the menu. We are focused very much on personal service, and our biggest flag we fly is that we plan very well here,” he says.
He explains the hotel offers an edge against its local competition. “If you were to go to one of the chain pubs in Deal, their Christmas Day price bracket is around the £45-55 mark. Ours is £75, but it is a premium six course offer,” he says. “The table is yours for the day – you are not going to have to move on after two hours to make way for another family, and it is a real personal service. It is an old building with nooks and crannies, and every area in the dining room has its own personal waiter.
“We know what those guests are having before they arrive – again, very much about the planning. We also make it clear if there is anything guests want us to know concerning diet or personal preferences then they should let us know. If we can make the day more special for people, it really is our pleasure to do so.”
The Royal serves mulled wine, and Shepherd Neame Christmas Ale is popular with the locals and on sale throughout the festive season. “We have a very talented and passionate bar manager who takes personal pride in what he serves and insists on making mulled wine to a high standard rather than just buying in standard mulled wine that is not always of the highest quality,” says Alex. “I am lucky to have the right people with the right passion to make sure it is the right standard.”
Our focus is very much having the right people in the right place
It is a well-known fact that the hospitality has a high staff turnover rate. According to a YouGov survey last year, the three highest reasons given for staff leaving the sector were anti-social working hours, low pay and benefits and a lack of career prospects. The Royal bucks that trend. Alex says: “Staff naturally come and go. But we have our core team which has been with me quite some time now and includes quite a few of the original team from when I took over, and our turnover is lower than average.”
Staffing is also very seasonally driven, he says, and the hotel takes on 25 extra staff just for the summer weeks. “If you looked at my numbers, it’d seem as though I drop off 25 people in September, but those 25 will all come back for the Christmas season and for Easter,” he says.
He adds: “We have a very focused team here. There are certain times of the day when our office does not operate, and the managers are all on the floor.” The hotel always has two managers on duty during the days and the evenings. “If we have big functions, one of the managers takes care of that, leaving the other managers to oversee the usual day to day things and focus on having a member on the floor at key times. That manager can then see if there are any problems, whether a staff member or a waiter has missed something for instance, and that way we can guide the team. We have a team doing their best, but often they may not notice something – it is human nature. Our focus is very much having the right people in the right place,” Alex stresses.
He says management leads by example. “With the best will in the world you can have the best team and you can have a lot of sickness on, but if you have the management on duty and they are on the floor where they should be, leading their teams then it should all flow very well.”
Every guest room has a name with a reason such as Churchill, for instance, who used to stay at the hotel when the rescue plans for Dunkerque were underway at Dover Castle. Above Alex’s fireplace is a photo of him when he resided there, with the registration card he signed on arrival. Lord Nelson also stayed at the hotel at the time of Waterloo, and it is where he conducted his affair with Lady Hamilton.\
“We are a beach front hotel. so there is nothing obstructing your view. You can’t beat our view, our sunrise or our sunset. You can enjoy a pint that’s been brewed down the road by our own brewery from your own passionate people, and if you do decided to dine with us, we serve award-winning food which is locally sourced, fresh and well-prepared by a first rate chef, and delivered by a friendly, passionate team,” he concludes.
Search Engine Optimisation (SEO)
Booking.com is probably always going to be the first result on any hotel search, Alex concedes, but the Royal Hotel is relatively high up on the first page of a Google search. “We are part of a group with an exceptionally strong marketing team, in charge of 12 hotels out of 375 Shepherd Neame sites. Investing in search engine optimisation is very much part of your lead marketing.
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“All the online travel agents including booking.com play a big part in marketing a hospitality business like ours, but I always think it is results in a better experience for the guest when they book directly with us because this enables them to ask particular questions in the process. This enables us in turn to provide a more personalised service.”
By contrast there is only so much information anyone can put into a generic website, he says. “If a guest books direct, they can talk to or somebody directly, we can offer a personal service and when we know what they are looking for, and often we can offer them something even more suitable for them – for example saying to them when they book, ‘In fact we’ve got this room available. This will make your weekend stay so much better, if you’d prefer.’”
The hotel deals with every booking as they come in, he says. “We offer seasonal deals, and it’s always worthwhile a guest asking what deals are available when they book. It very much depends on the time of the year,” he adds.