• Shearings hears the Country music

Shearings Leisure Group has announced plans to reflag two of its hotels under the Country Living brand, after signing a deal with publisher Hearst UK.

The hotels, currently under part of Shearings’ Coast & Country Hotels, will continue to be operated by the group, which will also pay for the refurbishments.

The new partnership will see The Lansdown Grove in Bath and The St George in Harrogate, undergo an extensive refurbishment before being rebranded as ‘Country Living Hotels, exclusively by Coast & Country’.

Richard Calvert, Shearings Leisure Group CEO told Hotel Analyst that the agreement came from “a brain storming session with Hearst and Shearings Leisure Group. The Country Living brand gives us an opportunity to reach new customers through the well-respected and much loved brand of Country Living.”

Calvert said that the group had a licence from Hearst to use the Country Living brand name, with the hotels fully managed and operated by Coast & Country Hotels. He added: “However the Country Living team have been involved in all the decisions on everything from décor and duvets to menu choices and much more, using their expertise and knowledge to bring the brand to life.

“The hotels will sell direct through Country Living magazine and the other Hearst brands, through the existing Shearings Leisure Group databases of customers and through the travel trade and OTAs.”

Hearst will be using the properties to host events with the first one booked for June named “Country Living Build A Business”. James Wildman, Hearst UK’s CEO, said: “The magazine has a loyal following of readers who enjoy the unique country themed content and we strive to bring that content to life through our events.

“This is a very ambitious project and is the first time a publisher has put its stamp on a hotel – so we’re thrilled to be working with Shearings Leisure Group, who are very much the experts in running a hugely successful travel business. Together we plan to create something new, that will surprise and delight Country Living loyal fans as well as introducing many more to the brand.”

Shearings Leisure Group was acquired by Lone Star Funds for an undisclosed fee in 2016. Lone Star had previously held a minority stake in the operating business of Shearings and in February 2016 bought 46 Shearings hotels as part of a GBP1bn portfolio acquisition from Moorfield.

Grant Hearn, chairman of Amaris Hospitality – also backed by Lone Star – was appointed chairman of the group, having previously been a non-executive director. Hearn told this publication that there would be no relationship between the two groups other than having a shared chairman.

He added: “There is already some vertical integration within Shearings between its travel company operations and its hotels and this will continue.”

The group also acquired specialist holiday operator Equalmatch, which operates the Travelstyle and UK Breakaways brands, consolidating its position as one of Europe’s largest specialist holiday operators. Shearings said the acquisition would complement its National Holidays business by expanding its regional presence in the UK.

The acquisitions would, Hearn said, help the company reach new audiences, commenting: “Whilst Shearings is one of the leading specialist short break and holiday providers for the over 55 market, its operations also enjoy business from a younger family demographic as well. The recent acquisition of the Equalmatch brands will further grow our opportunities in these markets.”

Calvert was appointed as CEO last year, joining from US-based global holiday group Celebration Travel Group. Calvert said: “The kind of short breaks and holidays that today’s over 50s want has changed beyond recognition. We’re healthier and more adventurous than ever, and as interested in walking holidays in Austria and river cruises on the Rhine as hotel breaks on the Cornish coast.

“We’re continuing to listen to our million customers and evolve our offering to reflect the over 50s market in the broadest sense, providing a wider range of exciting locations and activities across each of our brands, underpinned by a common commitment to great quality, value and service.”

The group’s most-recent results, for the full year 2016, saw it post a 3% increase in revenues to GBP207.2m. Adjusted Ebitda increased by 13% to GBP10.3m and passenger numbers climbed by 4% to 1.1 million.

HA Perspective [by Katherine Doggrell]: Relatively little is made of who a brand is actually for – owner or consumer, with the assumption in this world of brand proliferation that the owner is the only consumer worth noting. So new launches are driven by the need to bring something new into saturated markets and avoid territorial disputes.

Shearings has a healthy pool of loyal customers to market to and, when looking to offer something new, has gone with something which will resonate with its guests, rather than one of the global operators’ brands. No-one can deny that Country Living is a household name. According to Hearst’s most-recent US circulation figures, it had a circulation of over 1.3 million. In the UK this was over 180,000 for January to June 2016, climbing by 7.1% on the year.

It’s no secret that the older end of the market is where the cash is and it is as vulnerable to the lure of lifestyle as any Kardashian watcher. The proliferation of owners bolting on brand-lite flags merely to access distribution illustrates that they are becoming ever-more savvy in getting what they want without paying for extras. This deal is more of the same, with Shearings buying in only what it needs.

Additional comment [by Andrew Sangster]: It is absolutely the case that hotel brands get confused as to whether they are there for the property owner or for the consumer. Most hotel brand owners glibly claim that they do both.

What in reality this means is that the consumer offer is there for the benefit of the property owner and that the brand owner is focused on its owner-relations just as much as its guest relations.

But hotel brands are confused entities even when just looking at the consumer offer. They are simultaneously a business-to-business offer and a business-to-consumer offer. Bookings are made by businesses and consumers sometimes directly and sometimes via intermediaries. It is case of being all things to all people.

Shearings is not the first to try to tap into a more directly consumer-focused offer. Most previous efforts have had somewhat mixed results. Radisson’s efforts with both Missoni and Cerruti are examples of failures. But perhaps now, with more and more awareness about direct booking, is the time to launch such direct consumer offers.

Another notable newcomer is Laura Ashley which is looking to diversify away from its retail offer. The first property was launched in Elstree, North London, back in 2013 and this was followed up with a Lake District unit. But now Nick Turner, formerly MD for international at Bespoke, has been hired to speed up the roll out.

Success will depend on the ability to blend hotel expertise with brand allure. Hard Rock and Bulgari are examples of brands transferring to the hotel space successfully. Country Living and Laura Ashley come from different spaces to the afore mentioned brands and have a more mid-market appeal. If they succeed, hotel branding will be heading into another interesting direction.

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