South-west leisure sector

The Southwest Leisure Sector…

As a practice we are responding to local client enquiries that relate to the leisure sector on a much more regular basis. Last year’s long, dry, predictable summer, uncertainty over Brexit and exchange rates appear to have boosted the UK ‘staycation’ market. There also seems to be increased demand for short stays, and long weekends, catering for busy young families who need to regularly ‘recharge and unwind’.

Traditionally we have worked on hotel projects, typically refurbs or extensions too. This is expanding out to other specific leisure sectors such as holiday villages, smaller boutique lodge-type developments and conversions for the specific purpose of Airbnb letting, a sector not even imagined a handful of years ago.

The Southwest UK seems perfectly positioned to be able to take advantage of these new leisure sub-sectors, with a long-established tradition of tourism and plenty of destinations on the doorstep. However, the customer expectation of their experience seems to be much increased in recent years, with well-appointed accommodation in the right location letting for surprisingly high premiums. This means that established holiday villages are looking to upgrade their accommodation offer by refurbishing or building new, and to improve their site facilities in order to compete with similar destinations and widen their appeal. This often means the inclusion of a pool / leisure facility, site café / restaurant and sports facilities and with an emphasis on being family friendly.

Even with a couple of generally good summers, operators will need to extend their premium letting season beyond the peak summer months to boost their occupancy and smooth-out the cash-flow. A good indoor pool / spa / gym will often do this. Our clients say that personal hot tubs are proving to be a potentially very cost-effective way of extending this season into Spring and Autumn, and even Winter. 

Visitors are also becoming increasingly aware of their carbon footprint, another reason not to fly and instead keep it local. But further to this, the site and accommodation itself can provide the opportunity to live in a more sustainable fashion and feel closer to nature. A short break can provide that taster of ‘the good life’ without having to actually sign-up to a significant lifestyle change. Back in 2006 we were working on a project for the Watergate Bay Hotel which was very clearly directed by a client brief that called for it to be as sustainable and energy efficient as possible, and this was the clear selling point at the time. We see this as being of continued and increasing significance in the accommodation that we design for our clients, with comparison sites often having a clearly designated ‘Eco-friendly’ section of their business. 

Moving further left-field, we have seen some unusual and imaginative accommodation recently, as well as the repurposing of existing structures. From treehouses, glamping pods and shepherd huts, to repurposed farm silos, barns, huts and shipping containers. And size doesn’t really seem to matter, as long as these are well appointed, with general quirkiness appearing to be of greater significance than overall dimensions.

Talking to local operators, the hotel sector continues to increase in terms of its competitive nature, with new brands arriving in the UK to fill sub-sectors of the market that we didn’t even realise existed a few years ago. Operating costs continue to increase whilst competition from a crowded market and Airbnb are keeping room rates relatively low. The smaller scale hoteliers that we work with, to a degree, operate outside of this highly competitive bubble, trading on reputation and the quality of their offer, but they are not completely immune to the likes of Airbnb. We are seeing local hotels adding lodge accommodation to their portfolios, as well as providing spa facilities to extend their letting season well into the winter. A signature chef and attached, or nearby, high-quality restaurant will also help to draw more custom. Wellness and recharging are the new buzzwords. The proposals underway for Bodmin Jail and its attached hotel show just how inventively leisure developers are thinking, with rooms integrated into the previous cells, on-site interpretation and the odd ghost thrown in for good measure.

So, what will the future hold for the local leisure sector? In the shorter term this might be influenced by the outcome of the current Brexit negotiations, the strength of the pound and future UK weather patterns. Longer term, with the phasing-out of fossil fuels and increased public awareness of personal carbon footprints, surely we will see a reduction in flights? Research suggests that this might be a long way off as it is affluent, frequent fliers who contribute most to the issue, not annual family holiday makers. Future legislation will no doubt dictate where this goes. As a region we do attract visitors from further afield of course, such as Germany, and they also will be partly influenced by future exchange rates.

Whatever the future holds, we will no doubt see more and more inventive solutions to attracting visitors and extending the vacation season.

Dale's experience spans a wide range of project sectors, sizes and stages and has particular interests in environmental design and earth-sheltered construction. His favourite projects reuse and breathe new life into under-loved existing buildings.