Written by: Stephen Hargreaves | Founder & CEO

Today I’m going to share with you the biggest business mistake I’ve made, and it wasn’t an easy one to come to terms with. Bear with me while I set the scene…

Technology. We’re relying upon it today more than ever. In fact, it’s hard to imagine getting through the Coronavirus crisis without it. It’s something I’ve invested massively into in all my businesses, no more so than the Church Suites and the Hideout (you’ll find more about that one in particular in a  moment) but I wasn’t prepared for just how quickly technology would move. Five years ago I invested £30,000 into an incredible movie library system so our guests at our award-winning Church Suites could watch whatever they wanted, wherever they wanted. It was genuinely ground-breaking and guests loved it. Back then it gave us an edge, but today we have Netflix, Amazon Prime and others. The £30,000 movie system is obsolete and you might be wondering if investing thousands of pounds into now dead-tech was my biggest business mistake? It wasn’t.  I feel it did its job at the time and whilst we’ve had to adapt and re-invest, it’s easily ‘put right’ even if it’s expensive to do so. Sadly the lesson I learned proves how much easier machines are to fix than people.

You might remember from Chapter One that when I bought The Cranleigh in 2007 I was already involved in property? Well eight years ago I was selling one of them and had just accepted an offer. It was a small house, about 300 yards away from the Lake, right in the centre of town. It had only been on the market a couple of weeks and that morning the estate agent rang me to tell me the good news that it was sold. I walked down to the property for one last look around and as I walked up to the front door, feeling relaxed and ready for the next chapter I suddenly found myself looking at it as if for the first time. Instead of being a one bedroomed property I was happy to see go, before my eyes it transformed into the perfect space for a couple to get away from it all. A hotel just for two. It would need work, but I knew the team and I were more than capable of creating something completely unique here, we’d done it before with The Cranleigh. My dad was always the first person I’d speak to about stuff and when I told him the idea he thought it was a good one, and for me that was all the encouragement I needed. Sadly Dad died in *September 2019; I still miss him. I trusted his opinion, but whilst he’s not around to ask anymore I am grateful to him for all the advice, love and support he gave me when he was here. I know things would look very different for me now had it no been for him, so I’m taking a moment to Thank you for the millionth time, Dad. 

Having chatted it through with Dad, almost as quickly as I had accepted the offer, I had to ring my estate agents to apologise and explain that I’d decided to keep 14 Quarry Brow after all.  By the time I made the call I’d even secretly re-named it…it had already become The Hideout. Maybe my heart was ruling my head again as it had with The Cranleigh but it was one of those gut feelings you can’t shake and I knew if I sold it, I would regret it.

Again, as with The Cranleigh and Church Suites, quality and luxury would be key. My love for design and technology could really be let loose here to make the ultimate romantic escape. We created a special kind of opulence that most people would never be able to experience at home. As well as a luxurious bedroom and living space I worked with Phil Armstrong of Aqua-Jade Bathrooms. We installed a huge bath which comfortably fitted two people, here they could watch movies on a huge cinema screen whilst being able to reach out and grab complimentary cocktails. The space was now gorgeous. But I also thought that as well as the sumptuousness and seclusion it offered, that couples might need a little extra flexibility too. We all know it’s not easy getting a full weekend away from the kids, but one night? That’s an easier sell to the grandparents! 

So the Hideout became the Lake District’s first accommodation to be targeted at one-night stays. Naturally, people could and do still come for more, but there was no obligation to do so and it was this, combined with the no expense spared fittings and service that made The Hideout a runaway success. Today we are all familiar with a more relaxed and frankly more customer focussed approach to accommodation, largely thanks to sites such as AirBnB. But back then I remember contemporaries telling me I was mad. That the cost of cleaning, marketing and investing just for a night might be ok for the odd one-off, but certainly shouldn’t form the basis for the business. It did worry me a little, these people knew their onions, but that niggle that we were onto something was stronger and I’m glad to say the risk paid off. Today The Hideaway is still extremely popular, we have a huge number of return visits and people come from all over the world to experience it.  

Things were going well with business, but in my personal life, not so much. Eighteen months later I finalised my divorce. Anyone who has experienced this knows how difficult this period of your life is, it felt like I’d failed. And in some ways I had, if I’m honest with myself I think it was that realisation that drove me. Everything felt different and strange and I needed something to do. Another new project. 

I had hired a new Managing Director, Kay Harrison-Mann and together we set about creating new ideas. It was the perfect way to distract me from myself. Over the course of nine months we bought The Old Postillion. It was a complicated purchase and as it completed, the neighbouring business, a jewellers on the corner of Ash Street simply disappeared overnight. I don’t know what happened but one day they were there, and the next they weren’t. The building and location was beautiful, a cute little space in the heart of one of Bowness’ busiest streets. I found out who owned the building, a great guy called Jeremy Haigh contacted him and arranged to rent the property. 

We knew the luxury end of Lake District holiday-makers market, perhaps better than anyone at the time and even though we’ve always been blessed with brilliant pubs in Bowness there weren’t many high-end drinking establishments, and I had a fully booked hotel including the Church Suites with people looking for exactly that kind of experience. This new space was the perfect size for a small cocktail bar and in fact it was whilst sitting in a different bar in town, The Country Hut and drinking Rum Punch with my branding guy Adam Thorpe, good friend Sam Sykes and my MD Kay that we came up with the name The Fizzy Tarte

Looking back we did a huge amount of things right; hiring experienced mixologists, an amazing drinks menu, flair bartending, table service and a real focus on making a night there feel special were all spot on. But we made mistakes too. In our excitement to create a ‘city-vibe’ we established a dress-code. Who would have thought that something so seemingly trivial would turn out to be the biggest mistake I’ve ever made in business. 

The dress-code and its enforcement caused some really bad feeling, in particular with locals who frankly felt they weren’t welcome at The Fizzy Tarte. It was divisive and I argued with Kay about it a lot. We’d fight but then I’d allow her to keep it in place. I’d ignore what my internal team were saying, what local people were saying, and even what some visitors were saying. That was a big mistake and one I look back on with regret. I’d forgotten the first rule of building a business. LISTEN TO YOUR CUSTOMERS. It took too long and for some the damage was done, but we did change our policy in the end and thankfully local people who are the heart and soul of a business began to return. 

It’s no excuse but I think that after 9 years running the hotel and only looking after and catering for visitors I was so focussed on their experience that I became guilty of overlooking local people and the strength of local feeling. The mistakes I made at The Fizzy Tarte showed me this. I learned the hard way how important local people are, not only from a business perspective but from a community stand-point too. Local people don’t only support you in winter when the visitors go home but they recommend you to their friends, family, guests and even passers-by. Beyond that, they are your neighbours, friends and the same people you see when you’re out yourself. I hold my hands up to the mistakes I made then, I was wrong. 

Thankfully I realised this and things changed. Whilst The Fizzy Tarte remains a chic, stylish and high-quality establishment, we are now a lot more relaxed. The vibe is much more welcoming and inclusive and The Fizzy Tarte has become an extremely popular spot. 

So that was the birth of The Fizzy Tarte. A baptism of fire as I opened my first bar. Despite the mistakes, or perhaps even because of what I learned from them, it is now one of my favourite businesses. The experience there is genuinely special, the team are phenomenal and I have complete faith in how they make people feel and the quality of drinks they serve. Today, the future of The Fizzy Tarte is exciting, the brand and customer experience is now so strong that I’d like to see these in other locations and have had huge numbers of customers beg for one to be opened where they are. Who knows? 


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