Why historic buildings make great hotels

Historic buildings offer the potential to create special hotels in spectacular locations with a mix of amenities but what gives them the edge for guests?

July 02, 2019

The UK’s rich history is a major draw for visitors – and the chance to stay in castles where former kings resided, or country homes fit for a Jane Austen novel, is the type of experience that resonates with many.

Growing numbers of historic buildings in the UK are now enjoying a second life as high-end and mid-range hotels. Former mansion Cliveden House, near Windsor, was once home to royalty while Roch Castle, in Wales, has been given a boutique-style makeover and Solent Forts, near Portsmouth, offers an off-shore stay with a difference at former sea-based defences.

For visitors, it’s all about the prestige of staying at a destination that tells a story of the past and offers a unique experience – with some great photos to post on social media.

“Today’s guests increasingly value experiences,” says Jessica Jahns, Head of EMEA Hotels & Hospitality Research at JLL. “The opportunity to stay in an atmospheric coaching inn or an aristocratic country house appeals to people precisely because it is different to the major branded hotel offering.  Just for a night or two, guests can share the building’s history and it becomes part of the story they tell friends and family about their holiday.”

The bricks-and-mortar

Yet just because a building is old doesn’t mean it’ll make a quality historic hotel.

Rob Lewis, Director in JLL UK’s Project Development Services team says: “There’s a lot of demand for historic buildings, because developers know they can create unique developments, but they have to consider the suitability of the building and whether it can be converted into the hotel they want.”

Today’s guests paying high prices expect luxury accommodation, yet modern design doesn’t always sit well in a centuries-old building which may have, for example, smaller-than desired rooms or windows.

The majority of the UK’s historic properties are listed – and the character and features of the building must therefore be preserved even when adding in amenities guests have come to expect like spas.

“One of the biggest issues with historic buildings is often the layout, which can often be integral to the building, but which can pose conversion problems. With a listed building, just making openings in walls can be problematic; you may also need to apply for a change of use and understand in detail what can and can’t be done,” says Blythe Dunk, JLL UK director planning, development & heritage. “However, a lot of buildings do seem to convert very well into hotels.”

It’s not just about meeting guest expectations but ensuring the behind-the-scenes operations to ensure the smooth running of the hotel can be put in place easily.

“A building that was a former court house, for example, might convert very well because you might not have to change the layout as much and they may already have a grand entrance or former staff entrances that would work well for the services,” says Dunk.

Renovating and converting an historic property to fit the high-specification needs of the target guests is an expensive process especially if new additions like lifts are added, as well as ensuring all buildings meet modern health and safety standards.

Done well, the converted hotel can achieve a 4-or-5-star rating, enabling operators to charge higher room rates while maintaining good occupancy rates – and delivering investors a reliable income stream. 

Creating the right feel

Amid rising competition in the hotels industry, the building itself is a definite selling point but the services on offer are also key. “It needs to be a place where people want to spend time, rather than somewhere that offers a bed for the night,” says Lewis.

“These types of historic hotels appeal because they offer the chance to get away from everyday life, relax and make the most of the location, whether that’s through a great on-site restaurant serving local produce or outdoor space,” adds Jahns. Guests at Yorkshire’s Bagden Hall, for example, can bring their dog and enjoy the countryside, while Tylney Hall, in Hampshire, offers the chance to wander in its 66-acre grounds.

While the traditional image may work for some properties, there’s a risk of appearing outdated if places only pull in an older crowd. Creating a buzz around facilities such as spas and restaurants can help to keep them relevant to visitors of all ages. Hotels like London's St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, for example, offer a rooftop terrace which attracts locals and visitors for summer drinks, while The Arch, in London’s Marylebone offers private dining for business and leisure guests.

However, there’s no one-size-fits-all formula. “What makes historic hotels great is that each has its own character and all amenities and offerings should tie in with that,” says Jahns. “Of course, they still need to meet modern guest needs through quality interior design and good service – but combined it’s a powerful combination to draw in a steady stream of guests.”