ABTN talks to David Taylor, Q Hotels' sales director, about corporate negotiations, the importance of wifi, and maintaining personality in today's cookie cutter landscape.
Tell us about Q Hotels...
There isn’t a typical Q Hotel. It’s a fundamental philosophy behind the group that we want to maintain the individual personality, not just of the hotel property, but also the team within the hotel. You will encounter regional differences from one hotel to the other and hotel differences, be it traditional, modern or resort-style.
Service is very important - that is, I would say, one of the most important elements to how we run the business. We believe if we invest in the hotel, that’s great, but without a very high standard of service and service values within the hotel, we’re unlikely to attract the type of business that we seek and that business is unlikely to come back to us.
Where are Q Hotels?
As far north as the Westwood, which is just outside of Glasgow, to as far south as Ashford in Kent and across in the Cheltenham Chase but then a broad sweep of availability in a fairly even spread throughout England.
Do you have any expansion plans?
Personally, I would love a hotel in London, if I had a pound for every time somebody said to me “when are you going to get a hotel in London,” I think we could have bought a hotel in London. It is a gap in the portfolio; it is something we obviously would like to have because it raises the profile of the brand, particularly within the business travel market. It would give us more leverage in the buyer community in the business travel sector.
Do you have any plans for a London hotel then?
You can never say never. There is a lot of movement in this industry, particularly at this time. It would be unfair of me to say we’re not looking at anything. We’re always looking at each individual opportunity as it comes up. And that’s a question for our broader board, but it’s a question that keeps the board busy. We’re looking for the right fit.
What percentage of your customers are business travellers?
It is quite high, about 32 per cent of our total business. I can split our business into three sections: the business travel section, conference meetings and events, and leisure travellers. The percentage across each of those segments is roughly between 30 and 33 per cent each. It will vary from one hotel to the next. For instance Chestford Grange has a very high conference meetings and events percentage, in excess of 50 per cent.
Do you offer free wifi?
Wifi is free of charge if you’re in our rewards scheme, if you’re not you get the first two hours free. More and more business travellers tell us they need the ability to dip in and out of email. We are in the process of implementing our own extended wifi service which will allow us to provide completely free wifi across the whole portfolio, with a very high bandwidth. We will have a standard 10MB premium bandwidth but then 90MB capacity to provide additional bandwidth as needed. We’re spending circa £1.7m on this network, so it’s a significant investment on our part.
Will the investment be reflected in room prices?
No. Where this industry has made a slight error is that we were contracted into providing wifi through third parties which meant that we had to make a charge for it. Fundamentally, it’s a basic standard that should be provided as part of hotel accommodation, in my view and the view of our directors. It’s almost like having a kettle or a telephone in the bedroom – it just should be there. We live in the iPad age now, and most people expect it to be there.
What else have you invested in?
We’re constantly investing in our meetings and events product. It has almost anything you would consider as being important for a meetings organiser or conference delegate. We spent almost £100,000 on a product called Q Star bedrooms which is specifically targeted and provided for the corporate traveller. We researched about 3,000 guests and that research showed they wanted unlimited wifi, king-size bed, luxury bedding. We’ve basically created a sweep of these rooms across our hotels. You’ve got anywhere between six and ten in most of our hotels. It involved a consultation process with business travellers over a three-month period [before it was finally launched].
We’ve also spent significant investment at the Queens Hotel [Leeds] by putting in a business floor called Q Club. It’s the first specific business floor in Leeds. We spent almost half a million pounds. Its key access only and we have a private lounge and serve complimentary breakfast and drinks. There’s also a dedicated business lounge. It really is a super facility. It’s been very well received in Leeds and certainly the marketplace has been very excited about it.
Are you planning on building another, perhaps in Manchester?
I think Manchester would almost certainly be one of the next areas for us to look at. It just depends if we have the right part of the hotel to provide it in. At the Queens we took out the smaller bedrooms [on the top floor] and incorporated them into rooms next door, then completely refitted them. I would describe them as being a five-star product in a four-star hotel.
Do you have a loyalty scheme?
We have two different loyalty schemes - ThankQ, which is aimed at our business traveller community [launched last year] and a leisure loyalty card. You can redeem ThankQ points for full or part payment or use them for spa treatments. Room cards will automatically be waiting for you when you arrive and you get regular news from us. It includes a scheme called jump the queue which allows cardholders to get rapid check-in and check-out.
In the four months it’s been running [up to March], our membership is already just over 3,500. So it’s growing quickly and has been very well received. We promote it within the hotels themselves.
Are there any other interesting features to the rewards scheme?
We interlink everything into our property management system so we create individual profiles for each member. That profile gives us the personal preferences of each guest and allows us to give a tailored service. We can record any, so we encourage our front office teams to engage our customers and create relationships with them. From that you find out quite quickly what guests like. Guests recognise the fact that we’re really making an effort to understand their needs and to provide that for them the next time they come back.
Do you have any loyalty scheme partners?
We’re currently in discussion on that exact same point. So we’re not in a position to announce it yet, but don’t be too surprised if and when it happens. I do think it will be fairly soon.
How did the recession affect Q Hotels?
It’s been quite tough. From late September 2008, when the financial crisis really did hit home, it’s been a bit uncertain. Everybody’s had to work quite hard to generate business and also to make sure our business clients continue to come back. It’s put more and more emphasis on service and the quality of the product, so in that sense, we’re in a good place. It seems to be stabilising. It fell quite dramatically in 2009, stabilised in 2010. London has obviously been a powerhouse in its own right, but in the provinces it still has been quite challenging, although there are some encouraging signs at the moment and business on the books is up year on year. I think that confidence in the corporate and the leisure world seems to be a little stronger at the moment.
Were your corporate relationships affected?
I think it’s fair to say that most corporate organisations have reviewed their spending really carefully. Where they felt that they could make savings, they did. There are a number of well-quoted examples of some corporates making significant savings. I think that was then compounded by a reduction in public sector spend, and that came through much quicker than most people would have imagined it to.
I feel as though the corporate sector is coming through the other side of that. They probably choked down on meetings and events at the time, but they’ve realised the benefit of having that regular communication with their teams and customers, and without business travel, then business travellers can’t do deals and can’t drive businesses forward. In order to come through the recession, it’s important that business travel begins to recover, that the corporate road warrior is out seeing customers, doing deals and moving the whole process forward. And that, certainly for us, looks as though it’s on the upward curve and, longer term, our meetings and events services are more robust than they have been for some time.
Did you lose any corporate deals?
No, I don’t think we lost any specific corporate deal, but I do think the deals that we had were under pressure in terms of rate and volume. It’s probably fair to say that most corporate procurement managers did a pretty good job in managing and controlling their business expenses in that period of time. Most companies continued to trade, they just seemed to be more careful with how they did it - more focused than they had been before, more cautious. But as the markets begin to recover, people are a bit less cautious because they know that they need to travel in order to move their businesses forward.
We have a strong sales team, it was important to me that that team was communicating regularly with our corporate clients, that we made sure our relationships with them could be as strong as they could be. That where we felt those deals were under pressure by competitor activity, we were able to be innovative in terms of the deals we were able to do in order to maintain those relationships.
Did you cut prices then?
No. I’ve been in this industry a long time, as have my fellow directors. We’ve always found that when the market gets really tough, there is a tendency by part of the industry to drop rates in order to keep volume. But I don’t think it convinces the customers too much. We were quite keen to go down the route of increasing the value that we offer through our brand. We continued to do the research into the market. It’s important to us to understand what our customers want. We continued to invest in the product. We continued to make sure that where we did make our savings, that absolutely sacrosanct to us was customer service and our frontline ability to work and host and service our customers. Coming through the other side, I do think the quality of the product we have has stood us in very good stead and I think because we were able to invest in it and our teams during that time. It was tough. It’s easy to check people in and out - it’s much more difficult to have relationships with people while they’re staying with you, and to get to know them and what’s important to them.
It’s a core part of our philosophy that we are very focused on making sure we deliver the service that allows our customers to have that relationship with us. It’s the hospitality industry at the end of the day. It can be too easy to forget that, particularly when the market turns tough and everybody is under pressure to make savings because it’s hard to drive top line sales turnover and everybody has to look at the modelling of their business and work out how they can get through tough times. I always believe that as long as we are making sure we’re looking after people as well as we possibly can, it will encourage them to come back.
So would you recommend in times of difficulty, hoteliers don’t make rash decisions?
I think that’s quite well worded – don’t make rash decisions, continue to focus on your service offering, continue to focus on the quality of the product that you have and continue to make sure that you put the effort into communicating and building relationships with the customers that you know, whilst also looking for new – in a nutshell.