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HOSPACE Hub interview with Mark Hird, Managing Director of Tavistock Hospitality

HOSPACE Hub interview with Mark Hird, Managing Director of Tavistock Hospitality

By HOSPA Chief Executive Carl Weldon

“I don’t feel like I’ve ever worked a day in my life, because I love what I do”, was Mark Hird’s opening remark to me. His infectious enthusiasm for the hospitality industry is obvious to all around him and you can’t help but feel a twinge of jealousy when he announces that not only does he operate a thriving hotel and pub business, but he has also created a microbrewery and is in the process of setting up a distillery!

Managing Director of Tavistock Hospitality – owner and operator of hotels and pub restaurants in the North East – Mark Hird is living his dream. A hospitality graduate of Newcastle College, Mark and his wife Nicola set up Tavistock Hospitality in 2000 and the company’s first venue was at 11 Tavistock Place in Sunderland. He told the Hospitality Show’s HOSPACE hub audience that from the moment they opened 11 Tavistock Place, “we planned that every one of our venues would be of the highest standards. With the recession, however, we had to scale back slightly and be more mindful of our pricing and costs but now, with the upturn in the economy, we are able to return to the company’s traditional values. These are exciting times for the business”.

In 2014, Tavistock Hospitality added the Roker Hotel in Sunderland, the Grand Hotel in Hartlepool, and two restaurants in South Shields and Birtley – to its 10-venue-strong portfolio. The hotels were purchased from Durham Estates – a property business owned by Mark’s father-in-law, Russell Foster – and both now operate under the Best Western banner.  Mark said he recognised the value and effectiveness of the Best Western brand and the need for a centralised, nationwide hotel booking system. 

Currently, Tavistock is investing heavily in the Roker Hotel – totally refurbishing it to become a high-end boutique venue. The first stage has been the creation of a ‘cakery’ and tea room imaginatively called ‘Let There Be Crumbs’, for visitors to Sunderland’s sea-front.

How did Tavistock Hospitality meet the challenges of the recession? “When we felt the recession coming, we decided to downscale, drop any businesses that were unprofitable and concentrate on the core hotel business,” he said.

Three years into the recession, in 2011, Mark showed his entrepreneurship skills when CAMRA revealed that one pub was closing every week in the North East. In response, Tavistock Hospitality announced it was on the hunt for failed pubs at the right price, in the hope of turning them from traditional drink-led pubs into gastro establishments focusing on food. Supporting them in this quest was, and is, Durham Estates – through buying the freeholds of many of its sites for subsequent development, including several that have since been sold.

In line with this expansion, Tavistock launched a pub-partnership scheme to give new tenants a better chance of survival with lower beer, food and rent costs. Under the partnership arrangement, Tavistock takes full responsibility for finding, refurbishing, branding and setting-up the venue (including the recruitment) before the tenant takes over. The proto-types for the scheme were The Plough at Burnopfield and the Tavistock Italia Retro at South Shields – both of which proved the business models worked well.  Amongst the company’s current successes under the partnership, are the Mumbai restaurant – specialising in exemplary Indian cuisine – at Haswell Plough in County Durham, and The Tavistock Italia Retro at the Board Inn, Birtley, in Tyne and Wear.

Alongside this development, Mark pursued another of his passions – beer, and the creation of the company’s Sonnet 43 microbrewery, adjoining Tavistock’s brew-tap venue: The Clarence Villa at Coxhoe, County Durham. It was named after the sonnet, written by the esteemed local writer Elizabeth Barrett-Browning, born at Coxhoe Hall in 1806. “We spend a lot of time on developing our cask beers as we want to give our customers something they can’t get at home,” explained Mark.  

This has certainly paid off as recognition has come quickly for the Sonnet 43 Brewery and its beers (ranging from Blonde Beer to Bourbon Milk Stout) , which are now sold as far afield as London thanks to an agreement with Mitchells and Butlers. Indeed, Sonnet 43 presently is selling 60 barrels of beer per week! Testament to the microbrewery’s success are the awards garnered for its beers and pubs. Recent honours include two ‘Great Taste Awards’, being runner-up in The Publican ‘Best Microbrewery Owned Pub Company’ and the recipient of a Best Cask Pub Award for Yorkshire, the North East and Scotland.

In response to their popularity, Mark is currently involved in growing the company’s existing three ‘brew tap’ venues at Coxhoe, Hebburn and Chester-Le-Street, to 12 across the North East; and if that wasn’t enough, he has established a distillery so watch this space for further developments! 

I asked Mark about the benefits of technology and social media to the success of his business. He said that financial and control systems, such as EPOS, have become very advanced and were giving him a lot of centralised control at head office with everything from payroll to stock control which, in turn, was helping to improve Tavistock Hospitality’s margins. By the same token, Mark takes the gathering of ‘big data’ very seriously and said the company analyses all its relevant ‘data insights’ to gain insights into customer buying behaviour and improve profitability.

He added that social media plays a huge and important part in promoting the business and that he was a great believer in “telling everyone about yourself”. During the recession and even now, the company finds text marketing to be a great tool as it works particularly well with short lead-time offers, with the caveat that it is dependent on the availability of a comprehensive customer database of mobile numbers.  He found Facebook especially good for attracting restaurant customers with special offers; and I know myself, from talking to restaurateurs, that customers taking photos of their food and posting them on Facebook is also a very effective form of marketing, though chefs naturally aren’t keen on photos of half-eaten dishes being made public!  

It was a real privilege to interview such an enthusiastic entrepreneur as Mark, who so clearly loves every aspect of his work and deserves every success.


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