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Minute on the clock: Ben Harper

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Written by:
Minute on the clock: Ben Harper

Ben Harper is managing director of Watergate Bay hotel in Cornwall, which has just opened its latest outlet, a seafront bar called Watchful Mary. Katherine Price caught up with him one year into the job to chat about future investment plans for the hotel and the Another Place brand

You joined Watergate Bay last year from the Serviced Apartment Company (SACO) – what was your brief?
Two or three years ago, owner Will Ashworth, commercial director Chris Hugo and brand director Judi Blakeburn realised there was an opportunity to take the hotel’s ethos of ‘active relaxation’ and extend it.

They spun out Another Place, the Lake, a beautiful hotel on Ullswater, and now, after two years, it’s trading very well and we’re ready to do a second Another Place. We’re in good discussions.

With that came the need here at Watergate Bay to bring someone in – me – to add more capacity and focus on what the next 10 years might look like, so that’s been my brief for the last 12 months. It’s a mixture of overseeing the day-to-day operation, how we can make it more efficient, and giving us a coherent plan of what we can do to cement our position here in the Bay.

That involves wholesale investment in our rooms, checking that our back of house is fit for purpose, looking at opportunities to deliver more accommodation, parking facilities, way-finding, how residents and non-residents can co-exist in what is quite a small space, and generally lifting the aesthetic of the public space.

Does investment mean design, extension, bigger rooms?
All of the above. We have the opportunity to build more rooms because we have a site across the road called Tregurrian. There’s a site that used to be a hotel; we’ve owned it for three or four years and now we’ve knocked it down and it’s ready for development. That is a clear opportunity to develop something.

There’s also investment in the existing hotel rooms. At this stage what we’re sensing and what our numbers are showing us is that we don’t necessarily want to push for more keys, but deliver better space. We have the opportunity to extend the top floor of the hotel into the loft space, and if we were hungry for more keys rather than guest experience, we’d put more rooms in, but instead we’re thinking how we can create really innovative spaces that work for families. Our investment in rooms will start as quickly as next year.

How is occupancy at the hotel?
F&B is quite weather-dependent – our rooms are not. We’ve got 50% loyalty. We have significant over-demand in peak periods during the summer holidays and our occupancy is 92% year-round, which, for a 71-bedroom seaside hotel is 
phenomenal. That’s what drives the profitability. Business is really good.

How does Watchful Mary fit into all this?
The building started out from Will’s desire to create a new home for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and the Surf Lifesaving Club, which are our responsibility as custodians of the beach. We wanted to add that element of community for locals.

We got to the stage where it was so clear that the Bay needed a bar, because there wasn’t one, and it was an opportunity to appeal to a younger demographic. It’s not disassociating from our current clientele, it’s just extending the mix and, strategically, it’s the right thing to do as we grow, extending the brand reach to a wider audience.

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