‘Our readers expect a different quality’: How Hearst began renovating hotels

Last summer, Country Living, the Hearst UK title for affluent countryside fans, opened the doors to its first hotel, the Lansdown Grove in Bath, U.K. Details from the landscaping to the menu and interior design had been decided by the Country Living editorial team, led by Susy Smith, group editorial director. Shortly after, a second Country Living Hotel opened in Harrogate, North Yorkshire.

According to James Wildman, Hearst UK CEO, these are the first of more to come, as increasingly, licensing Hearst’s magazine brands is becoming a more commonplace conversation with advertisers who are looking to think more laterally and tap into audiences, leaning on the cachet of a long-standing publisher brand.

“We have to become less reliant on ads, we have to be a B2C business,” said Wildman. “That’s not to say we’re giving up on ads. We still have headroom to grow, but in an increasingly fragmented market, these brands are rubies in the dust. They allow us to be more creative in the solutions we offer.”

Coast & Country Hotels, part of Shearings Leisure Group, first started working with Hearst over a year ago on display advertising campaigns for its range of 22 hotels across the U.K. Several sites needing renovation sparked the idea to redesign them under the Country Living brand, Hearst’s most-often licensed title, which has a range of sofas, a wedding service, a TV show and dating app, among others, under the Country Living umbrella. The title has an affluent cohort of readers both rural and urban, aspiring to buy their own country pile.

According to Hearst, 50 percent of the hotel staff were retained, old and new staff went through two-day intensive retraining on the hotel’s ethos and values, including sessions with Smith.

“We brought the brand into an experiential event; it was root and branch,” said Wildman. “Our readers expect a different quality.”

According to Wildman, 90 percent of customers to Lansdown Grove in Bath are new, the hotel has been upgraded from three to four-star status, the price of the rooms have increased and the number of bookings have increased 40 percent year over year.

That’s good news for Hearst, which earns royalties on sales, but Wildman wouldn’t share how much revenue Country Living has brought in for the company. In 2017, Duncan Chater, now global vp of Hearst Digital Media, said licensing brought in 5 percent of revenue for the company, and Wildman said this is growing “significantly.” The hotels have only been promoted on Hearst’s titles so the company gets revenue from media too.

Of course, with any of Hearst’s brand extensions, the company has to be mindful it doesn’t undermine the integrity of the brands it’s spent years growing, according to Wildman, but this becomes self-selecting. Hearst has a central licensing team of four people who are able to handle operations and work closely with the brand teams on licensing deals. That doesn’t mean renovating hotels was easy.

“It wasn’t straightforward, it was a labor of love, both parties would say that,” he said. “There were creative tensions in during the process, but that’s a testament to how seriously we take the protection of the brand equity.”

Case in point: the editorial team felt there should be fresh milk available in the rooms, a premium experience that felt more on-brand for Country Living audiences. They quickly realized, through working with the Shearings team, how expensive and impractical this would be. As a compromise, fresh milk is available at reception.

According to Digiday research from November 2018, only 24 percent of European publishers make revenue from brand licensing. But the demand for licensing is growing as agencies recognize the need to add value and differentiate, showing how a brand can translate into real life captures the imagination of marketers.

As part of Hearst’s wider licensing operation, Country Living Hotels are relatively nascent. The company’s sofa range with Country Living and House Beautiful, for instance, has been running for seven years, so it has generated greater returns. Hearst’s most lucrative licensing deal is the dating TV show “Farmer Wants a Wife,” showing in 24 territories, and spin-off dating app Country Loving.

“The show has been so popular in Holland they’ve now run out of farmers,” said Wildman. “We’re leveraging the brand into more lateral opportunities, creating partnerships in different and more sophisticated ways.”

Image: courtesy of Hearst.


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