Above see our new borehole being dug. Once upon a time we were not on a meter. We paid £2,000 a year or so in water rates. Then around 2004 a new water meter was installed. Our water bills went up to £18,000 a year. We could not understand why and I was convinced we had leaks. But tests of the water coming through both the open streams and the underwater streams into the lower garden came back negative, suggesting it was not metered water. So I was repeatedly told the water in our streams was all rainwater.
So we decided on a £20,000 borehole. A 90 year old diviner chap came along and said where to dig it. We also had one done at the farm. But then our diviner chap disappeared, despite being contracted to complete the job. We got in another firm of contractors to finish the borehole at the farm but have not yet got around to connectnig the castle to its borehole. This is because in November 2011, still convinced we must have leaks somewhere, I had all our own water pipes disconnected, and lay new pipes from scratch, from the meter to the various points of the castle.
And once connected tot he new pipes, our water bills dropped from £18,000 a year to £4,000 a year!
So dramatic was the drop, the water company wondered if we might be cheating somehow. This just goes to show how a few leaks can cost you a fortune when you are on a meter. We could have done this work 8 or 9 years earlier and saved probably around £112,000 over the 9 years in water bills. Since our bill is now so low, we are in less of a rush to get the borehole finished.
Our longterm plans include converting the top two floors of the castle into en-suites and apartments. Planning was long ago granted for the conversion of State Rooms One and Two into two en-suites in each stateroom, and conversion of the remaining half dozen or so large rooms into en-suites. We also had vague plans for a new set of cellar kitchens to service the Conservatory which would also require more power than we felt the existing system could support.
A whole new sub-station was built and £20,000 worth of new copper cabling laid from the new sub-station to the rear of the castle. A separate run of copper cable was laid to service the Atrium en-suites, ready for a planned-for extension of the en-suites into a new-build suite of rooms on the plot currently occupied by the former call centre (the old North and South Wards from the Hospital era).
On the day of installation, a reel of copper cabling worth about £12,000 was stolen. It had sat undisturbed under a cover in our rear carpark for some months with no one looking at it. A successful insurance claim was made but it does look as if this was an inside job with someone at the installation firm notifying some criminals they would be doing work on site and to steal the cable. They would probably only have got £500 to £1,000 for it as scrap.
Quite a lot of electrical work was done ready for a massive conversion of the upper derelict floors of the castle. This was completed when we envisaged spending around £300,000 a year on the castle for many years hence. However we are now moving at such a slow pace, probably one quarter of the speed we anticipated, that this work looks to have been premature.
We now plan to tackle one big room at a time, probably from 2016. The en-suites in the main castle will be much grander than our current mix of rooms, and sold at a premium. As there are about 8 large rooms, plus the main roof to repair, this could take another 12-15 years. If I am still here then, I will be nearly 70.
In our lower gardens sits a rather pretty 130 year old wooden summer house. This has no foundations and its boards and walls rest on bare earth. Consequently the base has rotted completely and has had to be removed, while the walls are all rotting from the base, upwards. Someone decided to throw part of the wooden balustrade into the river Tawe and someone else shot out the windows.
The answer will be to jack it up, put in more solid foundations, resting the new joists and timbers on a brick or breeze block base, so it is raised off the bare earth. It is not a big project but one that has rather got put to one side because of all the work that needs doing on the main building. Work was started on it in Summer 2013 so we may make some progress in 2014. It is licensed for weddings, but the licence is subject to it being useable and safe which currently it is not.
As you look at the castle from the front Courtyard, you are struck by its imposing grandeur. However in Adelina Patti's day the top two floors would have been boudoirs, bedrooms and staterooms, with balconies overlooking the front courtyard. I have often wondered what it would be like one day to look up at the castle at night and see all the windows lit, and the rooms restored and occupied. It was certainly good to see the Atrium rooms all lit up and in use once we had restored them.
2010 was a busy year in which we achieved a break-even result on trading income and costs – at least before the telephone debacle. This was despite a reduced B&B business caused by the recession.
Weddings held up well, with 83 weddings in 2010, up from 68 in 2009. Bookings for 2011 were down, at just 51 weddings. 2012 improved slightly to 57 weddings and 2013 recovered to 78 weddings thanks to a new wedding offer. 2014 has 74 weddings booked, though I would prefer around 80.
In 2010 we ran a special 'free wedding' deal where a couple could have their wedding 'free' at the castle if they arranged for 50 guests to stay on a D,B&B basis. This accounted for a third of weddings booked in 2010.
We assumed income from ‘free weddings’ would be well below the normal full tariff weddings. However when we worked out the average income from the lower budget 'free' weddings, we found income overall was just 2% less. This was a surprise.
We found those on a budget deal bought a load of extras they would not normally have been able to afford, and they added more guests. The ‘free wedding’ deal has now been replaced with the ‘Special Wedding Offer Deal’ advertised on our separate weddings website. The Bride and Groom have to get 50 guests staying overnight at £75/head each, B&B, to qualify. As more guests stay overnight, the ‘big day’ does not come to a premature close with people leaving early or finding their own way home.
These budget deals have helped maintain wedding bookings as couples realise Craig y Nos is surprisingly competitive for larger numbers. Since the new dedicated special offer website went live, bookings have increased once again. As each wedding grosses £10k on average, they are an important source of funds for the castle.
B&B bookings we feel are likely to remain low as the recession continues. This is true of tourism generally.
The castle with its large function rooms lends itself to big functions. But we are too reliant on this single income source. Other establishments, even small pubs, are now vying for the same business as us as they try to survive.
Where weddings were once much larger affairs, 120 - 130 guests, which meant they had to choose one of a relatively few large venues, recent weddings are getting smaller. Now 50 - 70 is not uncommon (almost too small for the castle). These smaller weddings can fit into many pubs, which previously would not have been able to host a wedding, so in effect the weddings are getting smaller and the competition is getting larger.
In 2013 we developed our Dog Friendly Wales website and this has brought us a strong niche of dog owners seeking value B&B with their dogs. It can mean we have a lot of dogs around during the week, though as all Special Wedding Offer weddings have to book all the accommodation to qualify for the offer, we do not have dogs and weddings on the same day.
We have also created a Brecon Beacons hotel site which is optimised to the Brecon Beacons area, and attracts holiday makers searching for 'Brecon Beacons'. The dog site is the biggest draw for general B&B, with a high rate of referral and satisfaction from the dog owning clientele. The castle's rustic appeal and rural location suits the 'country type' who owns dogs. We are of less appeal, perhaps, to the sophisticated city dweller in search of a 'smart' hotel.
Ideally we need larger numbers of people staying just to enjoy the area. This is where B&B guests staying once or twice a year for a day or two, and coming back regularly, starts to add up. There are also opportunities for diversification which we are looking into, including group accommodation deals, two night B&B deals, birthday parties, training weeks etc.
It is a constant balancing act trying to trade through the recession with lowish numbers of B&B guests. Many hoteliers are now offering cheap B&B deals on discount websites (Groupon, Wowcher etc). At the same time fuel and electricity costs are increasing, as has VAT, which not long ago was 15% but is now 20%. The essential, repeat B&B business, must operate on different days of the week to the much larger events and weddings side of the business.
Guests are best advised to pick dates when there is no wedding on, if they want a peaceful stay, or at least to choose rooms away from any noise.
As we have most of our weddings on an exclusive use deal, there is now little overlap between B&B guests and wedding guests.
To reduce noise, I have been encouraging weddings to move from the Conservatory by day to the main function room for the evening party. This makes for a quicker ‘turnaround’. The function room can be readied for the evening party even as the wedding guests are having their wedding breakfast in the Conservatory. Emptying the Conservatory by 8 pm enables the room to be set up for the next day’s event, early the same evening.
This is popular with the next day’s wedding party who can then set up their table decorations the day before. It suits guests very well, as the wedding party benefits from having a change of scene; they get the use of two rooms rather than being stuck in one room for the whole day as is common with most other venues.
The Conservatory is ideal for the Wedding Breakfast in the day, with its extensive views over the local mountain scenery. At night, parties in this area will disturb overnight guests in the neighbouring en-suites. This can be avoided by holding the evening function in the main building, well away from the guest rooms. We confine the noise of the disco and general party hubbub within the thick walls of the castle. The only noise that remains, comes from smokers and drinkers congregating outside the front entrance. The regular rainfall we seem to get at night helps discourage this!
We trade as a guest house / B&B rather than as a permanently open full service hotel. Our tourist board grading is consequently 3 star 'guesthouse' rather than 3 star hotel. Basically a guesthouse does not have a full time restaurant whereas a hotel does - a hotel must always offer evening meals, a guesthouse does not have to offer evening meals. In the longer term, the castle deserves to become a fully functioning hotel, with at least 50 en-suite bedrooms, including full conversion of the derelict areas into high standard bedroom / sitting room apartments.
There is a large area of cellars under the main function room, adjacent to the theatre, which once housed the Blue Bar. This area is partly in use as loos, which are in need of modernising. A long term plan (hopefully this decade) involves gutting this entire area, creating a smaller loo area, and a larger restaurant / bar area with its own set of kitchens directly under the existing commercial kitchen. This would become the dedicated restaurant for B&B guests, completely independent of any big function. With this facility in place we could qualify as a 3 or 4 star hotel.
TRADING THROUGH THE RECESSION
I have now been at Craig y Nos for 14 years. The first decade saw huge amounts of largely unseen work being done, and £3m spent, mostly out of income then being generated by a profitable cleaning franchise. The second decade of 2010 – 2020 will see a slow-down in renovation work, mainly because of the recession and there simply not being enough funds.
The Government has managed to avoid the worst of the recession with low interest rates and artificially high housing prices to help create a feeling of wealth. However you sometimes wonder whether it would have been better to have a painful crash and then a proper recovery, rather than this long drawn out period of moderate struggle. Wales has suffered particularly badly, with property prices almost 50% off their peak, though they had gone up far too high up to 2007.
All this means the period of heavy investment in the castle is suspended for the timebeing. It is now time for the castle to provide a return on investment. Instead of spending up to £350k a year, we're reducing this to around £100k a year on relatively minor renovation and maintenance works.
But we're still adding the odd en-suite when there is time (2 added in 2013 and another 2 due to be added in 2014).
£100k may sound a lot but is very conservative for a building on this scale and is barely enough to cover routine maintenance. Indeed getting anything 'new' done now comes at the expense of maintenance tasks which then slip behind.
The current economic climate, and specifically the beleaguered RBS, has demanded we slow down. More focus is now being put on generating a good bank of events business and cutting costs to trade more sensibly.
Our aim now is to build up repeat accommodation business through longer stay deals (Sunday to Thursday) which can run alongside the weekend wedding business. Our discounted B&B deals are popular and good value while weekend dates are at such a premium, on account of wedding bookings, that a much higher B&B rate (£150 a night per room) can be charged.
Our new B&B couple are getting excellent feedback for their home cooked food and for their hospitality, as are our staff generally.
Everyone working for the castle enjoys what they do and wants to see Craig y Nos succeed. Support of the Castle through people coming back for repeat stays, happy guests referring others to the Castle, plus the Members Club, will all help.
Kindly note that the Castle is “A Work In Progress” and if you want to find fault with it, there is plenty to discover. We are continually doing renovation works and this is likely to be a permanent feature of castle life. Though we are aware of loads and loads of things that really should urgently be done, economic factors are a continual constraint on our desire to do more.