• Laura Ashley draws back the curtain

The Laura Ashley brand promises to finally make its way into the international hotel space. A new partnership with Preferred Hotels & Resorts will see the pair taking forward a hotel and a tearoom offer, under a licencing model.
The group aims to build on the global goodwill of the British fabric and furnishings brand, with a five year target to grow to 40 hotels and resorts, and 100 tearooms.
“This relationship marks an exciting development in our brand’s history not least for our expanding hospitality business, which has proven to help drive substantial increases in guest room revenue premium due to the distinctive Laura Ashley design, branding model, and global fanbase,” said KC Ng, CEO of Laura Ashley.
While Jonathan Newbury, senior VP of strategic development for Preferred Hotels & Resorts said the move would “expand the Preferred brand footprint while complementing our existing portfolio through innovative alliances. We are pleased to represent Laura Ashley Hotels as the brand gears up for global expansion, and look forward to a fruitful relationship.”
Currently there are two hotels under the Laura Ashley brand, the Iliffe in Coventry and The Belsfield in Bowness-on-Windermere. Nick Turner, formerly MD for international at Bespoke, was hired in 2018 to lead the roll out. The tearoom business has grown to ten sites around the UK.
The company aims to sign five-year licencing agreements with partners who take up the hotel or tearoom opportunity. Design services will be provided, along with products that ensure the brand is correctly represented. “It’s never been a noisier market than it is today,” said Turner of the hotel brand landscape. “I think one of the things we are very cautious about, is the hotels have got to fit.”
Turner said that the hospitality business is considered core to Laura Ashley strategically, alongside development of the retail business, currently in 32 countries, and growing online product sales – it has just launched online in China. “This is way bigger as a strategic initiative,” with the physical presence of branded premises driving product sales: “For the retail to grow, it has to be more experiential.” He told Hotel Analyst that a typical tearoom spend might be GBP22.50 per person, but often created retail product sales at the same visit; the aim is to ensure that online purchases can be generated, too, off the back of that visit.
The brand launched into hotels in 2013 with the opening of a hotel in Elstree, Hertfordshire. This was sold at the end of 2018 to Countrywide Hotels, in a GBP6m deal; with the management company opting to operate the 49-room property as the Manor Hotel Elstree.
In January 2020, Corus Hotels, which shares a Malaysian owner with the Laura Ashley business, announced a deal to place its UK portfolio with Best Western. Turner said the two UK Laura Ashley properties were not included. “We have not entered into any agreement with Best Western – it wasn’t a good fit for the brand.”
The Laura Ashley group grew to prominence based on its fabric and furnishing designs. Once a UK listed company with an international retail presence, it manufactured its own fabrics, offered home styling and had a substantial retail presence. The group was effectively taken over by Malaysian group MUI in 1998, when it was rescued from receivership. The company has since wrestled with the changing retail landscape, having to rightsize its operations across various international markets. The UK listed business reported sales of GBP232.5m in the year to 2019, split 35% home accessories, 28% home furnishing, 19% fashion and 18% decorating, from 155 stores.

HA Perspective [by Chris Bown]: Licencing is a different route to that taken by many in the hotel space, but it could prove to be just the thing for Laura Ashley to get itself a presence on a larger international stage. What could be more appealing to those who love the best of British, than a cuppa in a Laura Ashley tearoom, or a night in a draped room?
The much-loved brand is still providing curtains and wallpaper to discerning homeowners the world over, keen for a traditional British style to their interiors. The link with Preferred has the potential to give hoteliers a fresh brand option that is free of the restrictions of the big brands, while Preferred’s distribution platform will provide the operational and marketing support. And, with Preferred having a broad spread of hotels around the world, surely some of them will take the opportunity to try something quintessentially English.

Additional comment [by Andrew Sangster]: Is Laura Ashley the future for hotel branding? While most brand companies obsess about controlling distribution, Laura Ashley has handed this part over to a representation company (Preferred). A cynic might say that all this leaves for Laura Ashley is the curtains and cushions.
It might be easy to mock but creating the right ambiance inside hotels, particularly ones located outside of big urban areas, is challenging. Go to any provincial hotel’s dining room and you will usually find one of the least profitable part of its operation.
By focusing on where it can do most to create value, Laura Ashley could well be onto to something.

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