Friday 29 August 2014

ATD Superstar #2 - Breck Apartments

Our second and much anticipated Attention To Detail Superstar is Breck Apartments. Formed in 2012, with an official opening in March 2013, this collection of 12 luxury self-catering apartments is a breath of fresh accommodation air a short distance from the heart of Blackpool.

From shell to swell

General Manager Gavin Stuttard explains that Fleetwood Town FC owner and local entrepreneur Andy Pilley wanted to "bring something new to the area." With an obvious scarcity of high-end accommodation in and around Blackpool, he can consider his hospitality venture far more than mission accomplished. 

Considering the initial capital expenditure of around £1.5 million, the enterprise is hardly something that was just cobbled together. A real team effort, with "a lot of people involved in absolutely everything." The full design lowdown can be seen in a superb article from May 2013's edition of The Lancashire & North West Magazine. Designers including Stephen Dunne and Gail Hunt have worked wonders on transforming a former insurance office into the hospitality powerhouse it is today.   

Outskirt opulence

Located in the picture postcard market town of Poulton-le-Fylde , with the local train station directly opposite, it is unsurprising that many Guests arrive from the Manchester and Liverpool conurbations. 16 restaurants provide a wealth of eating out options, all said to be equally worthy of endorsement: 
"We always ask people their preference, what's your palette, what would you like to eat tonight. We're so spoilt for choice with that many international cuisines, it's just so nice for them to have that choice."
Apartments themselves are named after the local areas: The Fylde Suite, The Wyre Suite and The Lockwood Suite, to name but three. Stunning apartments justifiably using stunning area names.   

Retaining excellence

The task of maintaining Breck's reputation for exquisite hospitality is clearly a labour intensive affair. When questioned on the initial Guest feedback, Gavin explains: 
"The feedback from the beginning, it kind of is what it is now...we've not lost it...because we work so hard maintaining the apartments, we have a full time maintenance man, a gardener, we've got two housekeepers that are full time and a third one."

Perhaps the most telling remark though is that the sum of his team equals "apartments that are pristine." Indeed, the General Manager goes on to inform me of early Breck supporters from March 2013 who recently returned declaring "the apartments are exactly the same as when we first walked through the door." This reminded me - dare I say it - of the timeless nature of Disney hospitality operations.  Year after year people return to find elements that are new, but all the old favourites remain. 

Despite crystal clear, high resolution website and social media photography, another regular Guest comment is that "they look ten times better when in the actual apartments." The camera may never lie, but even the cockiest of Canons and sharpest of Sonys can't do Breck's physical setting full justice. 

DNA of the collection of 12

"It's the sort of money you'd spend on a kitchen for your own house, not for tourists" was the remark when probed for the DNA of the brand. In brief, "nothing has been left unthought of." Tony Blair's mantra might have been "education, education, education" , however Breck's is clearly "quality, quality, quality" whether wading through the luxury carpets or making a brew with a designer kettle. 

Unashamedly putting it to the Breck boss that some Guests are inevitably living out Footballers Wives style fantasies, he gently agrees:
"You do get a lot of people that do,they come and they have never seen anything like it before, they've not experienced it. It sort of gives you a feel of being a millionaire, how the other half lives."
A round of bubbles and an episode of Corrie ? 

The jacuzzi baths fit two people, with their own dedicated televisions, summarised by Gavin as "added extra touches you wouldn't have at home, so it's nice to experience these things for a night or two." It is always reassuring to hear other hospitality professionals using the "touches" collection of words and phrases to describe attention to detail excellence. When pushed for a definition of what the phrase Little Touches means to him personally, I trigger another "Q" word from him:
"It's the quality, things that you wouldn't find. You go to places and things don't stand out. But when you come to the Breck Apartments, all the little's like the keypads, when you walk in - the minute you walk in the building you've got electronic keypads, you haven't got a key so straight away you've got a nice simple touch." 
Buzzwords like "quality" and "touches" slip easily off the tongue, and as the head of our second ATD Superstar, we would not want him to be any other way. 

A tale of tailoring

Self-catering is made even easier with staples such as a pint of milk and bread of choice being present on arrival. This leads to discussion sprinkled with the word "tailored." The journey starts the instance the Guest makes contact with Breck. 12 individual apartments, with distinctive classifications such as luxury suite, superior luxury suite and superior luxury spa suite necessitates an even more microscopic level of service. 

The emphasis on special packages relating to - amongst others - birthday and pampering, is explained as being a sensible way to achieving the zenith of personalised service: 
"I go so many places where it's just a break. But you want more than just a hotel room or an apartment. You want to have an experience whilst your there." 

Rich feedback has followed and Gavin is certainly not unfounded stating "they rave about it," as Breck has maxed out its TripAdvisor rating with 5 out of 5. This leads the conversation back to going the extra mile with the entire Guest experience cycle. 48 hour courtesy calls before arrival day and regular possibility of early check-in, just two of the sensational service signifiers.

When asked if they ever use the medium of text message to make pre-arrival contact with Guests, the answer is firm: "We prefer to do everything one-to-one and actually speak to a person." Furthermore, even though check-in is a "speedy keycode" affair, Breck staff still go and meet them in the car park, assist with luggage, ensure they understand the access technology and do a short local area spiel. An hour into their stay another courtesy call seeking Guest welfare reassurance is carried out, closing the loop on a tight signed, sealed, delivered arrivals process. 

Perfect configuration

12 would appear to be the magic number, as offering it to the General Manager that would a mix of six apartments and six (or more) hotel rooms have refined better occupancy, I am met with: 
"No, nothing like that at all. We've got ten one bedroom apartments and then a three bedroom apartment and a two bedroom apartment. We offer something really unique, in that the two bedroom and three bedroom apartment, they're huge - like little houses - on two floors." 
Using the term "occasion specialist" to describe Breck's overarching purpose leads to strong agreement. However, going a step further and probing if celebration Guests are the bulk of their customer base, the term is quickly diluted with "to be honest, it's just a complete mix of everything." 

Blackpool's neighbouring gem

Blackpool may be back, as a recent marketing campaign has declared, but you cannot get away from the quality struggle of many of the town's operators. The phrase "crying out" is used when highlighting the deficit in quality places to stay. Of course, Little Touches is working hard to change this and Breck Apartments is a supreme benchmark for developers looking to purchase vacant units in Blackpool itself for new accommodation. 

Nonetheless, the reception from Blackpool businesses has been overwhelmingly supportive. People who have run hospitality establishments for several decades, rushing to congratulate an industry wave maker. Breck is an unmistakable lynchpin contributing to the business community, rather than being perceived as a disruptive nemesis.     

As to a missing leisure link in the Fylde favourite, Gavin was disappointed the casino plans did not get the green light. However, with global entertainment brands such as Madame Tussauds and Nickelodeon now present in the resort, the future looks very bright for more household name support. 

Showcase showdown

Attempting to single out The Lockwood Suite as Breck's pièce de résistance, I am quickly told that there is actually a trio of "showcase apartments." The remaining two are The Breck Suite and The Holmefield Suite. I had got carried away by a visual effect in The Lockwood Suite, which looks like a shower curtain, but is actually a "chrome tiled radius wall." Try saying that without your teeth in ! 

Another apartment that had originally caught my eye on the website's image collection was The Primrose Suite, with four pink cups neatly arranged on the kitchen worktop in a very linear, OCD manner. Probing as to whether cups standing to attenTION was a standard throughout all units, I am informed "they're all different." Amenities such as iPod dock and large televisions may prevail across the board, yet Touches change according to the look and feel of the individual escapism havens. 

Setting the standard

Less written instruction has been needed to guide staff to execute five-star service. From the outset, the bar was set so high that slipping even a millimetre beneath the standards is out of the question. Indeed, when asked for an example of a piece of advice from Visit England that they have acted on for continuous improvement, the lesson pot is empty. In Gavin's words, "We're on top of it." 

Having spotted two kissing towel origami swans on Breck's TripAdvisor user-generated images, an enquiry as to what we call LT Classics was only logical. A resume to the touches/things/extras/ATD vocabulary portfolio followed:
"It's little things like that - when you walk into places, and then straight away you're like 'Oh wow - look at the towels'. These little touches that just stand out from anywhere else. 
Towel swans do not just appear unannounced on the bedsheets of course, and the process behind it has to be learned. In this instance, YouTube-informed practice made perfect, with the result being "it doesn't take long once you know what you're doing."  

Gavin agrees when put to him the viability of a market for tutorials for attention to detail elements, harking back to unsatisfactory accommodation experiences when younger: 
"All they do is - you turn up, they throw a key at you, want your 15 or 20 quid for the night and then there's no customer service or touches or anything. You go in the bedrooms and the towels have got tears in them, the bed has and you just think 'Oh my word'." 
Talking of towels, Breck's signature embossed ones are placed diagonally on the bed throughout all 12 apartments. Praising his housekeepers for creativity with their resources to delight Guests, they are said to "change things about." Returning Guests notice the incremental changes to Touches each return visit: horizontal, vertical or diagonal; pleat, neat or treat. The word "refresher" is used to encapsulate the occurrence: something new each time, with the backdrop of the familiar. 

A degree of monopoly

Out of approximately 1,000 places to stay in Blackpool, there are just a handful rated 5 stars by the major accreditation schemes. At North Shore, The Beach House and Langtrys , The Redstone half way between Central and South piers, followed by the definitively South Number One South Beach and its sister property Number One St Luke's

Closed and up for sale is FouRooms, which as can be seen from their still active homepage had done the Visit England hat-trick: Gold and Breakfast awards to make their stars twinkle even more. Like Breck, the four rooms at FouRooms were all individually geared to different tastes, albeit seasonal ones: spring, summer, autumn and winter. No rolling out the same design concept across all room inventory and most certainly no televisions that require a couple of pats on the top to operate. Yet still, it is up for sale. Gavin points to "phenomenal competition" and risk fears as to why vacant properties are not being snapped up fast and explains how Breck maintains a competitive edge in a volatile marketplace:
"We're more special treat, high-end market, or the people that have got a bit more money to spend. We want every single kind of customer to come and experience the Breck so we do have a lot of special offers as well." 
Despite the transparency of Late Rooms and clearly signposting accommodation providers listed by star ratings, the key Breck price points are - comparatively - still less than many plush city-centre hotels in the likes of Manchester and London. 

Integrated engine and top social

Breck's own integrated booking engine is very much in keeping with the service proposition of the establishment. Clicking on "book now" leads to visitors being greeted with a card reassuring Guests that booking direct is best: both money and service wise. I would not say this lightly, believe me, but the next screen is a genuine triumph for user-interface design. A tasteful calendar, with red for unavailable and blue for available, backed up to the right by an information display that the Starship Enterprise would be proud of. 

With over 30,000 likes on Facebook, Breck is king of the Facebook hospitality scene in the North West of England. Furthermore, the tally of fans is still growing by around 1,000 per month. To put things into perspective, the most liked independent UK accommodation has 95,000 and they have been going a lot longer than Breck has. 

ATD Superstars short and sweet succint summary

Breck Apartments are everything everyone else should be or aspire to be. Rupturing stereotypes about self-catering apartments and providing an immaculate template for those looking to develop new accommodation concepts, we give our second ATD Superstar a very warm welcome into our Hall of Fame.  

It can be done. It has been done. Right here, right now in the North West of England, we have an esteemed champion of doing things differently that has got first-rate, first-hand seals of approvals regionally, nationally and internationally. Look at the pictures and read all about it on social media, but Breck Apartments has to be seen to be believed.

 Written by Tom Metcalf

Founder and Lead Consultant

 Little Touches ®
        Hospitality consultancy and accreditation


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