The United Kingdom’s seaside destinations have suffered in the face of mass tourism to warmer locales, but hoteliers are adapting with boutique jewels, clever marketing and working with their neighbors.
REPORT FROM THE U.K.—Even in tourism destinations that have one or two demand drivers, new independent seaside hotels are helping to further interest, regeneration and bookings.
In some markets that have struggled since domestic tourism to the United Kingdom seaside has declined in favor of overseas trips to Spain and other destinations, boutique independent hotels have become a major force is reinterpreting visitors’ reactions to places that had become easily dismissed.
New independent hotels have reshaped markets in depressed coastal towns that are now on the rise, as well as in remote, countryside locations and in markets generally known for other facilities such as ports.
Each property is helping to counteract the idea that U.K. seaside destinations have outlived their purpose, a belief put into lyrics by singer Morrissey, of “…the coastal town … That they forgot to close down,” in his 1988 song “Everyday Is Like Sunday.”
Some seaside towns have bounced back in spectacular manner, such as Whitstable, Kent; Weston-super-Mare, Somerset; and Hastings, Sussex, to name three, according to sources.
Not all has been smooth sailing, but artists and professionals seeking an escape from rising rents in London and an increase in staycations following the U.K.’s 2016 Brexit referendum on leaving the European Union have helped fuel the recovery of the country’s seaside towns.
The Pier at Harwich, Harwich, Essex, England
Located 65 miles northeast of London, Harwich is known for its cargo port and departure point to Belgium and The Netherlands, and not usually for its hotels and tourism appeal. But one hotel, The Pier, has done much to have people stay in town, said Paul Milsom, chairman and managing director of owner Milsom Hotels.
“Hardworking coastal ports are seen in a particular way. There are honeypot areas on the coast, but Harwich is not one of them,” Milsom said. “In our own little way, The Pier has been a beacon, firstly for its restaurant. People are now coming from all over—Essex, Suffolk, also from London. Harwich is a historic port, but a very small one, (with) 20,000 people.
“Hotels and restaurants can have a massive effect on people’s views on any particular place,” Milsom added, who pointed to the Cornish destination of Padstow that he said was put back on the map by one chef, Rick Stein, to a degree where people have nicknamed the place “Padstein.”
There are obstacles in helping a struggling destination overcome history and prejudice, Milsom said.
“Continually invest and always be best in class,” he said. “We bought the next-door pub, closed it and built on the back and front to make the most of the views, but challenges come when you put a business right by the sea, namely that there are 180 degrees of water where you have no customers arrive. For us, that is actually 260 degrees. There is one road in, one road out, so we have to make Harwich and the hotel the destination, and that is not always so easy.
“Business can be seasonal, especially when the clocks go back, so marketing has to be spot on, and you have to search farther afield.”
Milsom is excited for 2020, which marks the 400th anniversary of the sailing of The Mayflower to the United States and celebrates the places the sailing touched in an initiative called Mayflower 400.
“Its captain, Christopher Jones, was a Harwich man, and the ship likely was built here,” Milsom said. “We’re expecting to see a lot of Americans as 30 million can trace their ancestry to The Mayflower.”
Albion House, Ramsgate, Kent, England
Ramsgate, 70 miles east of London and on the English Channel, has a ferry port, too, but unlike Harwich it was a thriving vacation destination in the 19th and early to mid-20th centuries.
Albion House, which has a celebrated restaurant called Townley’s, has done much to attract visitors and holidaymakers back today. Locals are also an important part of the mix.
Co-owner Emma Irvine said one of her biggest decisions was to separate the restaurant and hotel in terms of how they were marketed. The entire property was not described as a “restaurant with rooms” or a “hotel with a must-eat restaurant,” as many hotels are.
“I think (that approach) brings another set of challenges as you are treating it as two marketing strategies, but no regrets,” she said. “We probably didn’t realize just how ambitious (the hotel) was, but over time the business has found its feet.”
Irvine said it’s important to always remain authentic with guests.
“I think a lot of our regulars like it the way it is and rely on us being true to our origins and values, so we try to improve but not necessarily reinvent,” she said. “Bigger hotels probably need to be on the cutting edge. Content is everyone’s challenge, but I think being true to what you are all about will last the test of time.”
Irvine said the hotel’s success has benefited from the change in Ramsgate itself, although there was some risk when the hotel first opened. She added the destination might be a long way from catching up.
“Newbies to the area are attracted by its diversity and unpretentious and stunning environment. … London has perhaps changed more in the last 10 to 15 years and continues to be an amazing thriving city but one that many young families are exhausted by,” she said. “We meet an increasingly large number of people in search of an escape.”
Machrie Hotel & Golf Links
The 47-room Machrie Hotel & Golf Links lies close to Port Ellen on the Scottish island of Islay. The property has a 30-seat screening room and a celebrated golf course modernized by designer and former professional player D.J. Russell.
Islay is remote, a 100-mile road trip west of Glasgow followed by a 30-mile ferry trip, although it is celebrated for its whisky distilleries.
“I personally think it is fair to say that the opening of The Machrie has put additional positive spotlight on Islay, and naturally it assists in raising the profile of another great destination in Scotland,” said Daniel Johansson, development director of the hotel’s management firm Campbell Gray Hotels. “I believe it was a genius move by the new owners to acquire and put a plan in place to renovate the (hotel), and we are delighted to be involved with it.”
Relatively remote locations often have issues that put up barriers to development, which can stifle well-meaning plans to resurrect destinations. In The Machrie’s case, Johansson said, the barrier was water.
“An important part of the renovation was to secure the right water connections,” he said. “Essentially, it was peaty from a loch and became brown over time. We first starting talking with the owners in 2012 and waited for a long time for the water connection to be resolved. Then we started in earnest again in 2015.”
Although there are things to do all year, Islay is predominantly a summer destination, Johansson said, when it is hard to find a room on the island.
“The distilleries bring in both leisure and corporate travel,” he said.