On Track- Racecourses & Hotels

COMING to a racecourse near you, hotel accommodation. The combination is a growing feature, and next on the list is Doncaster, which will open its new Hilton Garden Inn facility in time for the William Hill St Leger meeting.

The Doncaster Executive team cut the ribbon to open the new Hilton Garden Inn

The benefits of bringing an all-year-round hotel facility on to a racecourse site are enormous, says Mark Spincer, group operations director for Doncaster’s owner, Arena Racing Company, which already has similar operations at Lingfield Park and Wolverhampton and this year obtained planning permission to expand at Windsor.

He explains: “Particularly at Lingfield Park and Wolverhampton, which in 2019 will have 161 fixtures between them, it provides the opportunity for owners, trainers and the general public to stay on site before or after racing.

“But looking at non-racing events, racecourses generally host conferences, weddings, exhibitions and parties, so having everything under one roof makes you an attractive proposition.

“Then there are other tangible benefits, at Lingfield Park, for instance, which is a resort and has a golfing and spa facility. It operates as a brand, Marriott, which means we feature on their website, bringing in a lot of leisure guests.”

Lingfield Park Resort is host to a Marriott Hotel & Spa

Independent racecourses have been at the forefront of the move to add a hotel facility. Ayr set the pace and moved upmarket when Western House was renovated in 2005; the Goodwood Group’s four star hotel offers luxurious rooms in Goodwood’s unique style; Newton Abbot is in its seventh year teaming up with Premier Inn, and Chester offers 97 rooms in its arrangement with Holiday Inn.

More recently, making greater use of superior stable-staff accommodation on non-racedays has featured in developments at Newbury and Perth , both of which have adopted The Lodge as their title, with 36 and 26 en-suite rooms respectively. They follow the older examples of Cheltenham and Sandown Park in the Jockey Club Racecourses portfolio, which also includes ventures with Holiday Inn at Epsom Downs and Huntingdon.

Other examples of racecourses entering the accommodation sector include Aintree, Hexham and York who let onsite rooms on non-racedays.

Foundation work on a 118-bed hotel was started at Hamilton Park in June, and with a one-year build in place, the opening is set for next summer under the Hilton Hampton brand.

Hamilton Park’s new hotel was given planning permission this year

The Hilton name is also attached to the Doncaster development, although its addition to the list has come later than originally intended, a decade later, in fact.

Planning permission for a 100-bed hotel and 32 apartments was granted in March 2007 by the local council, which at the time owned the racecourse in a joint venture with Arena Leisure. Then came the financial crash, whereupon the sister project at Lingfield Park was given preference, on the grounds its location in the south and near Gatwick meant it was likely to be less impacted than Doncaster, and it opened in 2010.

That same year Mark Spincer left Northern-owned Newcastle racecourse to become Doncaster managing director and in 2011, with the business “moving in the right direction,” he started to talk to the Arena Leisure board about dusting off the hotel and residential plans.

He says: “We merged with Northern in 2012, and the following year carried out an economy study of the need for hotel accommodation in the local region, which showed that Doncaster had about 700 hotel bedrooms, but there weren’t enough bed nights to meet the demand from the conferencing business and other venues such as the Wildlife Park, Robin Hood Airport and the new high-speed rail college.

“As a result, the project was worked on but with a different scheme. We obtained planning permission for a hotel and apartments but separated them, so it’s two projects in one. We took the option to build the hotel as the first stage, and decided on 150 bedrooms, which has ended up at 154 because of design factors.

“We’ve taken a pragmatic view about the apartments for the moment, because we want to get the hotel opened and operational, and then see how it affects the area immediately around it.”

Taking on the Hilton brand “was very important,” Spincer says. “We felt Hilton Garden Inn was the right fit for the business and the local area. While the ground floor is a bar and restaurant, we worked very well with Hilton to put in a first-floor space that is a restaurant with balcony and a conference facility, above which there are six floors of bedrooms, 60% of which look on to the racecourse.

“We believe we have created a four-star product, designed for leisure and business people, and supporting the needs of the racecourse and the local area. It’s a great asset for the town, as well as for our business.

“On big racing days, when Doncaster fills up, there will be another 154 beds in the area, and it gives us 400 extra hospitality spaces. It will also enable us to increase our exhibition and conference business, which at the moment takes place on the ground floor of the grandstand. Now we will be able to take two major bookings at the same time – an important part of the return on the investment – and we can also accommodate a non-racing event in the hotel on a raceday for, say, a wedding reception.

“Racing is our core business, but we manage everything as a business and the hotel links into the growth in our non-racing activities. The better the hotel does, the better the whole business does.”

With Wolverhampton, which re-opened in December 1993 with a hotel on site, having been refurbished from floor to ceiling in 2016 and rebranded as Holiday Inn, and Lingfield Park continuing to do good business as a Marriott, Spincer and the ARC team will shortly turn their attention to deciding on a partner for Windsor’s 150-bed hotel, which is being built on the edge of the silver ring. Work is planned to start next year for opening in late-2020.

“The Windsor hotel will be on stilts, because the site is on a potential flood plain,” Spincer explains, “and will be a longer build than Doncaster, 70 weeks, based on the fact we race on more Mondays, which causes greater disruption.

“We wanted to get Doncaster opened before we settled on a brand partner at Windsor. It may be one of the three we work with already; it may not.

“Similar to Doncaster, there aren’t a huge amount of branded properties in the local area, but the tourist element around Windsor is very significant and it should support strong non-racing business and give us flexibility to tap into that market better.”