Premier Inn(ovation)

4 Sep 2009 by Sara Turner

You might know Premier Inn as just another budget hotel chain, but for managing director Patrick Dempsey, it’s all about innovation.

Even if you’ve never stayed in a Premier Inn, you’ll have noticed its rapid expansion. Last year alone, its operating company Whitbread opened more than 50 hotels in the UK. With a flagship green hotel, one-minute check-in and international expansion plans, Premier Inn is looking to transform the budget hotel sector.

As Whitbread’s only hotel brand, Premier Inn has expanded rapidly since its days as Premier Travel Inn, which came to an end in 2007. Future expansion plans include the Middle East, where Whitbread has partnered with Emirates. There are two properties in Dubai already open, with Abu Dhabi set to open in early 2011. Qatar, Oman and Saudi Arabia are other possible locations for future openings.

Meanwhile, in India, the first Premier Inn will open in October in Bangalore. Delhi is set to follow in October 2010, with other cities also in the pipeline. Dempsey said: “India is an exciting market.” Current figures are for around 80 hotels in the subcontinent by 2017.

Premier Inn’s growth has not been left unaffected by the recession, however. Speaking exclusively to Business Traveller, Dempsey said: “We have scaled back on our investment this year. We’ll see how we fare and once we feel confident again that the market is going to grow, we will go back into our growth strategy.”

But Dempsey also sees it as an opportunity. “People who would not normally have stayed in a budget hotel are going to come and experience it – we want more people to experience the brand and hopefully they’ll come again. We are very competitive on price – in the current economy we need to offer outstanding value for money,” he said. To encourage newcomers to the brand, Premier Inn recently launched the Premier Offers sale, with a million room nights at £29.

One of the major plans for Premier Inn’s future, however, is its food offering – as Whitbread also owns Costa Coffee and four restaurant brands, it’s hardly surprising.

Any Whitbread restaurant without a Premier Inn nearby, or the possibility to build a Premier Inn nearby, will be sold off. It means that along with the standardised hotel stay, guests can rely on a Whitbread eatery being nearby, if there is not a restaurant on site.

Beefeater, a well-known brand of the seventies, has seen a huge revamp, with a new menu featuring its signature steaks as well as, surprisingly, lobster. Some 25 Beefeater restaurants have been refurbished, with more to follow. The lower-priced Brewers Fayre has also been given some attention, with refurbishments and a refreshed menu.  Whitbread has also launched two new restaurant brands in the past three years – Table Table and Taybarns.

Dempsey is also keen to point out the quality assessment process within Premier Inn – as a company that owns the vast majority of its hotels, Whitbread enforces strict brand standards. “We build a standard build, we refurbish every two to three years, we have a regular brand standards audit and we have a good night guarantee. If a customer doesn’t enjoy his or her stay, we’ll give them their money back.”

Good news for business travellers, which make up 60 per cent of Premier Inn’s guests each year. While Premier Inn doesn’t offer corporate rates, business travellers can make use of the Business Account card, which means they can opt to charge rooms and meals back to their company, who can then monitor what their staff are spending on travel, with payment taken 30 days after the stay.

Another innovation is the one-minute check-in, using automatic kiosks (see online news January 1 for more information). The facility is now available at more than 30 hotels and has proved so popular that new and refurbished hotels will scrap the traditional reception desk altogether.

“Airlines are doing the same thing,” said Dempsey. “I fly a lot and I like to be able to check in on my computer at home. I don’t want to have a conversation with somebody. I think when you come to a hotel it’s the same thing. You’re not coming here [to a Premier Inn] for a big celebration, you’re coming here functionally. You’ve got to be somewhere the next day, or you’re going out that night, and you want to get to your room as quickly as possible.”

Looking to the future, according to Dempsey, even the check-in kiosks could become defunct. “In years to come, I’m sure we will send you a barcode on your phone, and we’ll tell you what room you’re in. You’ll put the barcode to your room door and it’ll open. That’s the way it could go.”

Premier Inn’s green agenda is also proving innovative. Tamworth Premier Inn near Birmingham opened in January as the brand’s flagship green property. It uses 80 per cent less energy than a standard hotel, due to greener heating, cooling, lighting and ventilation.

Key features include ground-source heating pumps that use the earth’s natural energy to cool and heat rooms, and provide hot water throughout the hotel, as well as solar panels to heat bath water, and walls that are insulated using British sheep’s wool – a sustainable and efficient source of thermal and acoustic insulation. The sheep’s wool is not here to stay, however, as Dempsey said that as the walls are softer than conventional ones, they are easily marked.

With plenty more eco-friendly designs for the future, Dempsey said: “It’s not a passing fad, green is here to stay, and I think we can do a lot at Premier Inn. Our customers tell us they want us to do it, as do our team members.”

Dempsey is sure that the budget hotel sector is not going anywhere but is convinced quality is key. He said: “I think you will see budget continue to expand in the UK. But a budget hotel that has substandard accommodation, with chintzy wallpaper and broken beds – businesses that have not invested in their products and have charged higher prices in better times – I think we will see a lot of those businesses get in trouble. Perhaps that’s a good thing. Perhaps that washes out some of the rubbish on the market place.

“Our job is about giving our customers a really good night’s sleep, serving great food and drink, in a clean, comfortable well looked-after environment, served by people who really care. I absolutely believe in that.”

But what about the colour purple – is it too much for the frequent traveller? “I love it,” said Dempsey. “It’s relaxing, it’s very trendy and people associate it with the brand, but we’re not too overtly purple. The only things purple in the room are the headboard and the bed cover.”


Report by Sara Turner

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