Sarah Brewster, Director at Stonehouse Court
In today’s financial climate, opportunities for innovation can feel few and far between. As a result, the hospitality industry finds itself in the crux of an economic crisis and the need to offer guests truly incredible experiences that are supported by ever-evolving best practices has never been more essential.
Indeed, the future of the hospitality sector is constantly changing and there is currently a lot of uncertainty for hoteliers given the current cost-of-living crisis and exorbitant energy costs. It’s an incredibly testing time and one where managing consumers’ expectations are vital. It’s our mission, as hoteliers, to absorb as much of the extra costs as we can while reinventing the sector’s appeal as a dynamic and exciting place to work and preserving the bottom line.
In my 18 years as director of Stonehouse Court, innovation has been vast. Changing the culture throughout the hotel has been a key priority and we have spent a great deal of time over the years working on the business’s values, brand and strategy; building on our passionate people, excellent service, innovation and sustainability. From a business that was seen as a cash cow to one that values its team, the loyalty and dedication showcased in delivering an excellent product for our guests has been incredibly rewarding.
Through meticulous innovation, the business has grown from a turnover of £1.1million to £2million and now employs 30-60 members of staff both full-time and casual. From a tired mid-market corporate and wedding hotel, we have managed to transform the business to create a leisure retreat for a perfect escape in the Cotswolds, whilst still providing a five-star wedding experience. In 2016, we made the decision to invest £250k in refurbishing the 1980s conference room into a 5-star wedding venue, which saw tremendous success, having increased and then doubled our average wedding spend.
Last year, we opened the Bar and Terrace 2021, capturing a new local market that worked alongside the wedding business. This was particularly challenging; both markets are unique and equally important. In the same year, we successfully acquired a Scale Up 4 Growth grant that enabled us to transform the beautiful terrace space overlooking the Stroud Valley into an outdoor dining space, and enhance a separate wedding terrace dedicated to our weddings and events. The plan was for the two markets to exist harmoniously together, which proved a great success – with food and beverage spending doubling over the summer period.
Reducing our carbon emissions and impact on the environment to promote long-term sustainability has also become a key part of our strategy. Energy costs and adopting more sustainable buildings is a huge challenge for the industry. Capital costs for solar panels and heat pumps are cost prohibitive, so we are caught in this limbo of wanting to act on our climate obligations as business owners but not being able to realistically finance it. Alongside this, high energy costs are preventing growth and investment in the properties, which is why suitable innovation is key.
Inevitably, we must move towards a greener economy, both in terms of steering remaining profit into longer-term sustainability and advising consumers on their credentials wherever possible. Government policy and strategy must change to represent climate change as both a climate and humanitarian crisis, but also as an economic crisis.
Furthermore, businesses must also be able to innovate and adapt at the implementation end, too – not just the back end. Currently, there is a huge lack of business grant funding available for front-end implementation of green technology. Grants are steered towards new technologies, which of course are essential, but if businesses can’t afford to implement them, then we can’t move forward towards a sustainable economy.
Despite these limitations, at Stonehouse Court, we recently gained Silver accreditation from Green Tourism in 2019 and are aiming to achieve Gold in 2023. Back in 2018, we were one of the first hotels to implement refillable toiletry bottles, reducing our plastic waste from 47,304 individual bottles per year to 200, which has had a major impact on our business’s bottom line. We also successfully gained planning permission for 14 new eco bedrooms, a spa, and a restaurant. Amongst many other successes, we have installed light sensors in all corridors and storage areas and are currently implementing an app to control individual room temperatures with the aim of saving, on average, 25% on our energy consumption. Of course, we still have a long way to go to become fully sustainable, but innovating in this area is key to our strategy.
Additionally, gaining planning permission for the 14 new eco bedrooms, restaurant and spa after a 10-year process represents another significant triumph for the hotel. Planners were initially against any development on the site, so to win planning for such a fantastic scheme is a real achievement. Our next challenge is to persuade Historic England that Grade II listed buildings also need to be permitted to adapt for the future; without some flexibility on implementing energy-saving technologies, buildings within the top 2% of historic buildings, such as Stonehouse Court, could become stranded assets.
For the hospitality industry, staffing has always remained an ongoing challenge – and with the current cost-of-living crisis, having an effective team you can rely on has never been more important. During COVID, many people left the sector to guarantee an income and the simple economics of supply and demand has sent wage costs up significantly. With other industries being able to offer greater remuneration packages during the cost-of-living crisis, hoteliers have to reinvest their appeal as a dynamic and exciting place to work. From an innovation standpoint, it’s important to support one another; striving to give more purpose to the place of work rather than just being a job.
Moreover, one of the most effective examples of innovation any hotelier should look to implement is building a dependable team you can rely on. There is nothing more gratifying than when the team comes together to achieve the objectives collectively set. When you get into that flow, it feels that the world is your oyster and there are no limits to what can be achieved. Celebrating that team success spurs you on to that next project – that next idea.
On a wider level, when analysing the future of hospitality, we must continue to adapt and evolve to minimise our impact on the environment; moving towards net zero and striving to support sustainable communities with where lives can flourish and prosper. We as hospitality businesses, need to collaborate to support communities through jobs, training, shared knowledge and connectivity whilst at the same time taking care of our environment and protecting our wildlife. Of course, I hope we can continue to enjoy the wealth of culture, diversity and nature that the world has to offer through sustainable travel, so it only makes sense that, as hoteliers, we strive towards a similar goal.
Sarah Brewster is the Director at Stonehouse Court, a hotel nestled in the heart of Gloucestershire, close to Stroud. It was named The Sunday Times’ best place to live in the UK for 2021.