While the UK is lapping up one of its best years ever for tourist numbers, one company that has found the sweet spot on the British and Irish holiday front is Natural Retreats. Fiona Klonarides meets founder Matthew Spence, the man behind a brand that is going places – from “best of British” to global in the not too distant future.
More than a few vacation club members have been breathing collective sighs of relief this year. Having paid for their holidays upfront in better times, they haven’t had to dig deep to escape to far-off shores or sneak in a week close to home.
Last year visitor numbers to Britain rocketed; ditto this year, as figures remain high. The isle we are falling in love with again isn’t a taverna-dotted gem somewhere in the Mediterranean– no, it’s our very own big, very green Britain, dramatic cliffs and all. One company that has hit the sweet spot on the UK holiday front is Natural Retreats, whose almost uncanny knack for identifying what consumers want, and where, stems from its founder Matthew Spence, who came up with the idea during a major light bulb moment during a holiday in the U.S.
While visiting Yellowstone National Park, he was struck by its natural beauty but also by the sore lack of good quality self-catering accommodation; the concept for Natural Retreats was born.
With a handpicked portfolio of eight resorts already in operation in the UK and Ireland, Natural Retreats will have twenty locations by the end of next year – and forty by the end of 2013. Guests can stay, let or exchange, the choice is theirs, and one of the standouts of the Natural Retreats experience is the concierge service. Couple that with hasslefree, low cost ownership (weeks purchased can be sold, gifted or willed, and the original investment pays for itself in a few years), you have a recipe for success.
A core part of the Natural Retreats experience is savouring the flavour of the location. The main ingredient is the resorts. Beautiful stone barn conversions in the Llyn Peninsula… glass-fronted eco homes in the Yorkshire Dales, warm, stylish and woody…Cornish beach cottages by Fistral’s salty surf…and castles with character in Ireland’s beauty spots. The icing on the cake is the attention to detail: a welcome hamper of local organic goodies including wine, juice and milk, bread, eggs, Wensleydale cheeses, muesli, fruit, Taylor’s of Harrogate tea and fresh coffee, and of course the signature service, courtesy of the company’s Concierge Team.
With details of a new resort in Lanzarote about to be announced, Matthew Spence speaks to Fiona Klonarides about how it all started, the potential for global branding, and what’s in store next.
Q: What is your background and how did the Natural Retreats story begin? What was the spark that ignited the concept and the company?
I’d spent many years working in international leisure property, which had given me the opportunity to experience some of the worlds most beautiful and luxurious destinations and it had always been in my mind that the UK really lacked outstanding accommodation in some of our most stunning natural treasures. [member]
On a trip to Yellowstone national park it struck me that even in one of the most beautiful places on earth there was still a dearth of really good quality accommodation, especially for those with families or those who prefer the independence of self-catering to the hotel experience. It really was a “eureka” moment for me and I resolved then to start my own company that would offer high quality selfcatering residences in beautiful locations, not just in the UK but eventually globally. At the same time although we started with a holiday rental business it was always my intention to expand into shared ownership, because for me that was a natural progression for someone. Once you have holidayed in a place you love the next step is find something more permanent. Hence I decided to have a residence club product as part of this new company.
Q: You have a handpicked, exclusive selection of locations, but how do you pick them in the first place…what are you looking for when planning the next resort?
Firstly the areas we intend to operate in must offer wonderful outdoor experiences for our guests and owners, with access to the natural beauty.
Secondly the locations themselves must reflect the area, offer a real taste of the region and an authentic experience. We want people to come away from a stay with us having fallen in love again with the region as much as Natural Retreats. We are looking for areas of outstanding natural beauty that are well visited but don’t have quality accommodation. I walk every site before we agree to operate or be part of the development team. It just has to feel right. I just picture whether or not a typical family would feel amazing waking up there – if I think they would then the site will work.
Q: What would you say is essentially the core difference between Natural Retreats and, say, the destination clubs or fractional ownership programmes that are fast becoming part of the vacation landscape?
Although we began as a rental business the development of our shared ownership programme in the shape of the Natural Retreats Residence Club is a key differentiator for the business. Unlike other destination clubs and fractional ownership programmes our owners are people who have, more often than not, moved from rental guests initially. It give them a chance to experience Natural Retreats intimately first before they become owners.
For us it’s a natural progression for the market and reflects real life. In real life people holiday somewhere a few times, fall in love with the place and decide they want something more permanent. We give them that solution in house and they get the comfort of already trusting the brand and what we stand for.
Our product essentially reflects that journey and offers the most natural progression from guest to owner in the marketplace. We believe we are the first company to offer that full service for rental and ownership and the first to take people through that journey.
Q: How do you reach consumers?
Our rental business essentially reaches customers through the normal marketing mix with the internet playing a hugely important part in that. With a clear majority of the self-catering market citing the internet as one of the main sources of information and choice it’s clear this will be ever more important to the future.
We also engage with a large number of national and international brands for co-promotional opportunities and it’s clear they view us as a quality brand. With a fairly unique position in the marketplace we also find PR offers us a great many opportunities.
Q: I can see why you’re striking a chord with consumers – once upon a time the self-catering market was about ordinary places to stay in extraordinary locations, but yours is a company that stands out because of, as you put it, the “Natural Retreats Difference”. Stellar service, stellar locations and contemporary designed interiors are pivotal to the overall experience at a Natural Retreats resort – do you see this formula carrying over into overseas locations any time soon?
Absolutely. And we’re keen to emphasise the fact that the same model we have in the UK applies to other countries. We already have four great locations in Ireland and are opening up in Lanzarote early next year. There are at least another two international destinations we are in advanced talks with as well.
We believe that Natural Retreats is a global product and would sit well in any national park in the world. We will be at 20 locations by the end of 2011 and we will be in over 40 locations by the end of 2013.
Q: Is there a demographically definable Natural Retreats client? Who are your main guests?
It would be easy to pigeon hole our client base as being typically families and there’s no doubt our product resonates strongly there. But equally domestic travel has crossed all demographic boundaries traditionally and the disaffection with the quality of service and accommodation on offer hasn’t been restricted to those with greater disposable income. Self-catering is not about economics, it’s about choice and flexibility.
Self-catering is more relevant for large parts of the travelling market because it offers the best of both worlds and offers many things hotels can’t, especially space!! We are now relevant to all sectors of the market – families, couples, groups of friends and the retired. We believe that there is a huge shift in leisure travel about to happen – many travellers and owners want space and service. It is easier for us to offer space and our concierge service ensures we can deliver anything a hotel can. Hotels on the other hand can offer service but it is very difficult to offer space. Demographically we appeal to a healthy mix and it’s great to see that happening too.
Q: There’s a much-awaited Natural Retreats resort opening soon in Lanzarote. Can we get a verbal
sneak peek from you about this new destination?
We’re tremendously excited about this new opening at Playa Blanca in Lanzarote which will happen early in 2011. This development of 19 luxury 4-bedroom villas is in one of the most exclusive parts of the island.
The villas themselves are large and spacious, have stunning views over the sea to Fuerteventura and each has its own pool. They are only a five minute walk from the beach and with the year round sun on offer we believe this development will be hugely popular with guests and Natural Retreats Residence Club owners alike.
Q: Last year was one of the best ever for UK tourism, with more Britons holidaying on their very own island than in the past. Do you see the staycation trend strengthening, and why?
We can see it already this year with our repeat guest statistics and increase in holidays bookings at all locations. I think this is a sign of people rediscovering the beauty of their own country and in particular this was very evident to us in Ireland, where traditionally they are great international travellers when it comes to holidaying.
I also like to think that people were surprised at the quality of holiday, accommodation and, in particular, the
concierge service we offer. We strongly believe this is not a one-off but the start of a long term trend.
People will now holiday more for shorter periods – the traditional two week holiday will start to be split – getaways will become more common – that is also why whole ownership will become less relevant. Owning something for 12 months that you will use for a few weeks just doesn’t cut it anymore.
Q: Do you acquire, build and develop or lease your resorts, or does it depend on each scenario?
We are primarily an operator. But an operator with a difference. We have a very experienced Technical Services department which works with landowners, developers of resort schemes and owners of existing properties to deliver a Natural Retreats location. We are extremely flexible in our approach and all sites are different.
If anyone has a fantastic piece of land, is already planning a resort or has built property without any plan and needs a use, in an area of outstanding natural beauty, then we will always find a way to open it as a Natural Retreats site.
Q: If you could open a new Natural Retreats resort anywhere in the world, money no object, where would it be and why?
This is a tough one and to be honest there are two answers. We started in the UK and so I would have to say that Wastwater in the shadow of Scafell Pike and Great Gable in the Lake District has always seemed to me to be the perfect location for Natural Retreats. It is a place of stunningly wild beauty and majesty with the deepest lake and highest mountain in England.
Internationally it would have to be in Yosemite National Park in the USA. Again at the foot of one of the most stunning places there, Half Dome, a magnificent location that just sums up what Natural Retreats is all about. I’d have to say in both cases, it would be less a case of money being no object and more a case of planning being no object!
For more information about Natural Retreats, visit www.naturalretreats.com
Cornwall, Nr St Austell
A selection of three and four bedroom residences built to exceptional standards of design and quality, nestled in an attractive country setting close to St Austell and its shops and restaurants, as well as Cornwall’s most renowned tourist attractions including the Eden Project, Lost Gardens of Helligan and numerous beaches and picturesque fishing villages.
Fistral Beach, Newquay, Cornwall
Spacious, contemporary one to four bedroom apartments on the Pentire Peninsula overlook the sought after Fistral Beach. Famous for its championship surfing, acres of sand and rock pools, gourmet restaurants and a packed calendar of events, guests can enjoy an authentic experience of the very best of Cornwall.
Llyn Peninsula, North Wales
Built to breathtaking standards of design and quality, the one to three bedroom residences in the Llyn Peninsula offer a level of furnishings and luxury not found in many such residences. Located on the edge of Nefyn Bay, the site boasts a stunning coastal setting and is close to many local attractions, such as Whistling Sands Beach and the Snowdonia National Park.
In an area of truly magnificent natural beauty with a range of wildlife habitats and a rich cultural heritage, and set within 54 acres of un-spoilt countryside, Natural Retreats Yorkshire Dales offers guests a chance to relax in tranquil surroundings whilst enjoying a host of leisure pursuits to suit every taste. Sustainable design has been fundamental to the development of Natural Retreats Yorkshire Dales, which skillfully combines award winning design and luxury with ‘green technology. Highlights include, sustainable timber used in the building frames, recycled insulation, Evergreen sedum roofs’, passive solar glazing, biomass heating and use of natural spring water (from Natural Retreats own spring) for drinking and showers.
Adare Manor, Co. Limerick
As rich in beauty as it is in history, Adare Manor is an architectural masterpiece of towers, turrets, and stonework surrounded by breathtaking gardens, majestic trees and fascinating ruins. The Villas at Adare Manor offer guests the five-star resort experience with the freedom of independent living on a private 840- acre estate.
Castlemartyr, Co. Cork
The five-star Castlemartyr Resort is nestled amid Cork’s most charming woodlands, a breathtaking destination that is richly steeped in Emerald Isle history and tradition. Natural Retreats offers guests stylish and unique Lodge accommodation, located within the sanctuary of the historic walled gardens of the Castlemartyr estate, in which to enjoy the peaceful and tranquil surroundings.
Kilronan Castle, Co. Roscommon
Sleeping up to five people, Natural Retreats’ brand new holiday homes are just a short stroll from Kilronan Castle. An atmospheric destination, the region is imbued with the spirit of the artists, poets and musicians for which it is famous, including Kavanagh, Yeats, O’Carolan and Percy French. Fully fitted and equipped with comfort in mind, these homes
are absolutely ideal for a family holiday or a break away with friends.
Parknasilla, Co. Kerry
New self-catering villas in the grounds of the world-famous Parknasilla Resort, nestled in the woodland beside the hotel and flanked by the Kerry Mountains. The three bed villas are set in their own private cluster surrounded by woodland in a wonderful scenic setting. [/member]