Why good taste is not a million miles away

Could a revolution in British hotels mean that our 'Fawlty Towers' days are over? Mark Rowe on the rise of parquet floors, herb saunas, and Egyptian cotton

Some, or all, of the following may sound familiar. You collect vouchers for a discount break in Cumbria, only to learn on arrival that your room is an annexe that resembles a potting shed rather than the advertised 19th-century stately pile. You pay £100 for a room at what is supposed to be one of Cheltenham's best hotels. It hasn't been cleaned; it provides a lukewarm shower; the decor dates back to the 1970s; and a plastic radio has been left by another guest. Your letter of mild complaint is returned by a furious owner, who signs off by writing: "How dare you accuse us of looking to see what we can get away with?".

Some, or all, of the following may sound familiar. You collect vouchers for a discount break in Cumbria, only to learn on arrival that your room is an annexe that resembles a potting shed rather than the advertised 19th-century stately pile. You pay £100 for a room at what is supposed to be one of Cheltenham's best hotels. It hasn't been cleaned; it provides a lukewarm shower; the decor dates back to the 1970s; and a plastic radio has been left by another guest. Your letter of mild complaint is returned by a furious owner, who signs off by writing: "How dare you accuse us of looking to see what we can get away with?".

There are, alas, still plenty of UK hotels like that, where prices, quality and service shock in equal measure. But their days may be numbered. Thanks to the rise of the boutique hotel or townhouse, it doesn't have to be like this any more.

It is more than 10 years since the first Hotel du Vin opened in Winchester, an occasion that lovers of contemporary hotels regard with the reverence others reserve for the dawn of creation. Today, any hotel seeking to be merely hip or über-groovy must offer polished parquet floors, leather seats in tones of dark chocolate, monsoon showers, Egyptian cotton, a herb sauna and a Mediterranean bistro where the food will always be bold and imaginative. All chintz has been exterminated. And it's not just London, Birmingham or Manchester; these hotels are cropping up in, among other places, Bristol, Brighton, Newcastle, Exeter, Liverpool and Belfast. New hotels and brands are opening regularly. The latest is Dakota, created by Ken McCulloch, who founded Malmaison, and backed by David Coulthard, the Formula One driver, which has opened in Nottingham, with plans for a further 20 hotels.

"I was aware that the middle market for hotels was quite staid and tired and it was difficult getting good food or service," recalled Robin Hutson, the founder of Hotel du Vin. "Places were decorated with swirly carpets and smelt of bacon and eggs, yet they still did pretentious things such as fan napkins. There was just no alternative, and I thought, it doesn't have to be that bad. The key is to be simple, tasteful and offer good service. You need well-located buildings and I personally favour older buildings - in some respects, the quirkier the better. We let the idiosyncrasies become attributes. We bought good wine but didn't mark it up too high. Items such as Egyptian cotton sheets and down pillows aren't that expensive but they are things that guests really notice. And it really isn't difficult to provide people with a good shower."

The market niche was quickly established, according to Nigel Massey, who was involved in the launch and expansion of the Hotel du Vin and Malmaison chains. "There's been a sea-change in the hotel industry since the 1990s," he said. "The UK had grand hotels like the Dorchester and Claridge's, or hotel chains. People got fed up with chintz, but things went too far with designer hotels where the staff wore Armani.

"Then the townhouse hotel arrived. People like Ken McCulloch pitched themselves brilliantly in terms of style and value. You can stay at a Hotel du Vin for £100. You can't get that value in a grand hotel and it's proving hard for the big boys to fight back.

"We're seeing classic contemporary hotels that offer good service. You're not just the number of a hotel room. There's a certain smell. They are usually off the main drag. You don't need to be on Park Lane to have style. Design is an element. Many of the buildings have personality, real history and colour - Hotel du Vin in Bristol was a sugar house and the Glasgow Malmaison is in an old church. Browns townhouse in Tavistock in Devon serves whisky-flavoured porridge for breakfast. These hotels have also benefited from the realisation that it isn't the case that you can only have taste if you live in London. There are great hotels all over the country."

One might expect the Chester Grosvenor Hotel, a Grade II-listed building with a half-timbered façade, which is owned by the Duke of Westminster, to be the epitome of the county hotel. Yet a recent overhaul has upgraded several rooms, introduced a spa and redeveloped the restaurants. "You have to be ahead of the game with the quality of the facilities you offer," said spokesman Martin Evans. "We have to strike a balance between the heritage and tradition of a grand hotel and the contemporary and design-led style that is in demand these days. We're aware that some guests would like us to remain 100 per cent traditional, while others say a five-star hotel in the centre of Chester should be contemporary. We look to strike the balance in each room."

Mike Bedingfield, the marketing manager at Visit Britain, believes the success of the townhouse hotel is down to more than a formula of "modern equals good, old equals bad". "These hotels were long overdue in terms of the quality they offered for the price," he said. "And it's true that as a nation we are more style-conscious than ever. We can't open a magazine without being told how we should be living our lives and we want to go to bed in an acre of white duvet.

"But the boutique hotels cleverly priced themselves at a level where you are prepared to put your hand in your pocket. They've hit the nail on the head by providing additional services such as spas. These hotels usually have good restaurants where the house wine is not too expensive and you don't end up feeling fleeced."

The Alias group, which launched in Cheltenham five years ago and plans to open up to 15 hotels, offers another dimension to the contemporary hotel. Its approach of claiming to be "funkier than average" and posting photographs on the hotel website of a house manager playing the guitar could work either way, but Rupert Kenyon, a spokesman for Alias, says the company is careful not to take itself too seriously. "It's just a bit of fun," he said. "We live in design-conscious times and people are interested in more than a bland bedroom. Our Cheltenham hotel was described as 'visiting the house of a great aunt you always suspected led a racier life than she let on', and we make it clear that staff enjoy working in the hotels. In many ways, we're not contemporary; we're eclectic and hope to prove to be durable as tastes change."

Fashion does change. "There is a bit of a trend towards opulence again," Mr Hutson says. "There's nothing wrong with chintz per se but hopefully it won't be teamed up again with cheap brass. Whatever happens, boutique and townhouse hotels will survive if they deliver on the traditional yardsticks of care, good service and hospitality."

Mr Massey reckons British and foreign can work well together: "Modified chintz is part of the English persona and, let's face it, if you come to England as a foreign tourist you don't want to sit in a English hotel with sushi all over the wall."

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