While a growing number of hotels and B&Bs have been marketing themselves as vegan-friendly, a select few are going even further to create luxurious fully vegan hotels or suites, right down to animal-free furnishings.
Most savvy operators offer restaurant guests dairy- and meat-free options on their menus nowadays – you risk losing the meat-eating companions of those who are plant-based if you don't. But there is also a relatively untapped market of ethically conscious travellers out there looking for more than a few token dishes on the menu.
It isn't just about food and drink; veganism is a way of life that includes opting for non-leather or wool options when it comes to clothes and shoes and buying toiletries, make-up, cleaning products and furnishings that contain zero animal products.
"That's why there's a market for fully vegan vacations," says Francine Jordan, spokesperson at the Vegan Society. "Vegans, just like everyone else, want to be able to enjoy a relaxing, stress-free holiday, and if that means booking into a fully vegan suite or hotel, knowing that everything from the bedding to the menu is going to be free from animal ingredients, then many will."
And they want luxury, too, with a number of boutique vegan-friendly hotels springing up around the world, including Mother Earth in Costa Rica, Finca Victoria in Puerto Rica and Watamu Treehouse in Kenya. While there are many vegan-friendly B&Bs and hotels in the UK, in 2019 one of the country's first fully vegan hotels opened in Pitlochry, Perthshire – the family-run, 11-bedroom Saorsa 1875.
Far from the austere stereotype of veganism, this stylish hotel offers chic, bohemian décor and a cool vibe that attracts non-vegans, too.
"Sometimes people are a little surprised when they visit us because it's not immediately obvious that we're vegan," says owner Jack McLaren-Stewart. "There aren't any posters up or a bouncer on the door checking if you're vegan. Instead, it's a sophisticated, stylish place with great food and drink."
There are no animal products on-site. Food, drink, toiletries and cleaning products are vegan, and you won't find leather, wool or silk in the furnishings, many of which are upcycled. In addition, suppliers' human rights records are vetted; electricity is 100% renewable via Ecotricity; and staff are protected through living wages and rolling contracts.
Running a fully vegan hotel might sound like hard work – let's face it, even that innocent-looking wooden chair might be glued together using adhesives made from animal hide and bones – but there are vegan alternatives out there if you know where to look.
Interest around veganism is at an all-time high, according to the Vegan Society. In the UK alone the numbers of vegans quadrupled from 150,000 in 2014 to 600,000 in 2019. In May, its survey revealed one in four Brits had reduced the amount of animal products they were consuming since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
"With chain restaurants and fast-food joints such as Wagamama, Burger King, Costa Coffee and Subway updating their menus to include vegan options – or in the case of Wagamama, making 50% of their menu plant-based – it's clear that vegans are a huge market for the hospitality industry," says Jordan. "In fact, as of this year, the UK buys a third of all the plant-based alternatives sold in Europe."
But for operators such as McLaren-Stewart, who opened Saorsa with his parents, it is more about lifestyle than finding an untapped revenue stream. "For us, it was simply an extension of the way we live and a desire to showcase that veganism doesn't involve sacrifice or missing out on anything. Instead, it's a vibrant, compassionate, exciting way of life with an unbelievable amount of innovation and growth taking place."
The family found it easy enough to source everything without using a consultant. "We're all vegan, so we already had a good knowledge of what was and wasn't suitable," says McLaren-Stewart. The hotel, which attracts room rates of £150 to £250 a night B&B, has a broad customer base that includes non-vegans. What guests all have in common, however, is that they're adventurous.
"They don't want the usual cookie-cutter hotel, but instead a place that offers them an experience," says McLaren-Stewart. "We obviously have a significant number of vegans and vegetarians who visit us – Pitlochry is a beautiful part of the world – but traditionally it isn't very vegan-friendly, so this is a safe haven. However, what's really interesting and exciting is the number of non-vegans who visit us.
Sometimes this is because they're considering moving towards a more vegan lifestyle, but often it's because they've seen reviews and want to see what it's all about."
The 26-seat restaurant is also a draw. Former Noma chef Debborah Fleck offers a five-course tasting menu at £55, which changes every night and uses local, seasonal and foraged vegan produce.
Despite its broad appeal, in the early days there were a few issues when non-vegans checked in without having seen the marketing, but this was solved when the team removed Soarsa from the online travel agents. Now, all bookings come through the website and through enviable coverage in publications such as Condé Nast Traveler, CNN and The Times, as well as publicity from awards, such as the ‘Good Egg' in National Geographic's Big Sleep 2020 awards for "style, sustainability, and exemplary community spirit".
While fully vegan hotels are still niche, at least one big player has entered the arena, albeit in a small way. The 292-room, design-led Hilton London Bankside, which is franchised, launched a fully vegan suite during Veganuary in 2019.
"Veganism and sustainability are on everyone's minds," says commercial director Lisbeth Gernow. "During a sales trip in 2018, our general manager James B Clarke spoke to a regular client, who remarked that as a vegan there was nowhere he could stay that had vegan rooms."
It resonated with Clarke, who persuaded the hotel's owners to give him the go-ahead to transform a regular suite into a purely plant-based suite. The project took eight months. "It took a long time because we needed it to be 100% authentic, but we aren't specialists," says Gernow.
As a starting point, the team sought guidance from the Vegan Society and design firm Bompas & Parr. The result is a luxury suite that is free from animal products and reflects a stylish contemporary vegan lifestyle.
Instead of leather, for example, a product called Piñatex made from the pineapple's cellulose fibres, has been used to make the headboard, couch and other furniture in the room. Everything is plant-based, from the lamps, bedside tables, pens, dressing gowns, toiletries, bedding, cushions and eco-cotton carpets to the glue used in the menus and the cleaning products used by the housekeepers. It also meant replacing the non-vegan items in the complimentary mini fridge with those with the Vegan Trademark (see accreditation and help panel).
Although the five-star hotel is not fully vegan, it does have a sustainably sourced vegan front desk and room keycards made from Piñatex. As well as the option of the in-room vegan menu, guests can eat in the Oxbo restaurant on chairs covered in Piñatex.
Some of materials in the suite were already plant-based and so didn't need to be replaced, but everything was checked by the Vegan Society because, as Gernow points out: "The worst thing is to advertise that you are vegan and then someone passionate about veganism finds fault and thus defeats what we are trying to do."
As it turned out, sourcing products was not an issue and the director of rooms worked with the head housekeeper to find items. "It is not challenging to source vegan products. In the past few years veganism has become very popular and access to vegan products is easy. If we have to switch products there's lots of choice out there," says Gernow.
While there are no plans to roll out more vegan suites, it has proved popular. Pre-pandemic, the hotel was seeing 98% occupancy, so the vegan suite was sometimes used by non-vegan customers. At that time, the suite's average room rate was £450 and occupancy was 40%.
At the moment, there are no specific vegan accreditations for hotels, although the Vegan Society, PETA, Happy Cow and others do offer product certification. That said, Jordan at the Vegan Society says the Vegan Trademark Team are working on the concept of registering services, including hotel stays.
"We're still working this out, but stay tuned for when we'll have some potentially exciting leisure options fully verified," she says.
As for the business benefits, that depends on what you want to achieve. McLaren-Stewart at Soarsa 1875, says: "Any business has to be clear on its target customer. If you don't, you're dead in the water because you're trying to cater to too broad a range of people and therefore not providing anything interesting or special.
"[The human] relationship with animal agriculture is unsustainable – it's the leading cause of rainforest deforestation, the largest driver of habitat loss and is responsible for more emissions than all transport globally – and we're seeing more people move towards a vegan lifestyle. What we offer is special. It's unique and personable and an experience that people want to talk about with their friends, and that's a powerful place to be as a business," he says.
James Clarke, general manager at Hilton London Bankside, will be speaking at The Caterer's Plant-Based Summit on 27 January. Go to www.thecaterersummits.com for details
You need to create an account to read this article. It's free and only requires a few basic details.
Already subscribed? Log In