Although Champneys has been in operation for the best part of a century, its time as an actual brand is relatively young by comparison.
The first health farm of its kind when it launched, Champneys was bought and sold several times, until it found stability and a new lease of life in the 21st century when the business was bought in 2001 by Stephen Purdew and his mother Dorothy.
The duo got the ball rolling on their hospitality crusade some 20 years before that, however, with the purchase of a country house called Henlow Grange in Bedfordshire. Reflecting on that launch with Real Business, Stephen Purdew recalled that it had 22 rooms, but only four had bathrooms – since then, he has been a firm fixture in the spa industry we know today.
After the Henlow Grange acquisition, more sites were bought with Springs in the Midlands in 1994 and Forest Mere from the Savoy Group in 1995. The big moment came six years later though, when the Champneys resort in Tring, Hertfordshire was secured.
Real Business visited the grand historic Tring venue on a rare hot summer’s day, where we met with Purdew in person, seated in a private meeting room overlooking just one section of the sprawling 170 acres of land on which it’s situated.
Asked whether he knew the potential he had in front of him back in 1981, he answered honestly – no.
“No, I was 21 years of age. There was no business plan or ambition of such – they didn’t really exist then,” Purdew explained. “There weren’t spas around, there was no brand of such, no business plan, things just evolved.
“[At Henlow Grange] we put in extra bedrooms after four years, started to make more money, invested a bit more and then we had an opportunity to buy another one. Then I think we realised we could buy more properties, so we bought Springs and made that work and then Forest Mere.
“When this opportunity [Champneys] came up, that’s when we realised we could put this brand over the door and do products, day spas, go on cruise ships, and we’d extend the brand. We had this brand with a phenomenal heritage since 1925 and at that point we knew what we could do.”
Although the brand expansion had begun to pay off, trouble stuck in 2006, when Purdew explained that “banks started being awkward”. That awkwardness led to a legal wrangle with Lloyds, which he believes bottlenecked the business for several years, that resulted in an out of court settlement.
Still, despite the difficult times that hit in 2008, optimist Purdew said it allowed the business to reassess its costs, which ultimately made the business more efficient and streamlined as cuts were made.
Now working alongside Santander, Champneys is on the move again and capital is readily available to keep the heritage spa brand looking and feeling its best, much like the customers it caters to.
“We’re investing about £10m a year – these are massive buildings and you’ve got to keep investing or people don’t come,” he said.
That £10m goes towards general refurbishments as well as complete renovations, whether that’s revamping the guest rooms or seemingly endless facilities where guests can entertain themselves and unwind. Henlow Grange alone will receive £5m of investment this year.
“Now we’re reinvesting, people are flooding back in, so it’s hard work, but that’s how it is. It’s a great business – we employ a 1,000 people, turn over £35m on resorts, have £25m turnover with Boots on the [Champneys] products, and we have the day spas. It’s all good.
“You’ve got to invest, you’ve got to put a lot of money back into these businesses, but they have a longevity.”
With almost 100 years under its belt, longevity is certainly something Champneys has demonstrated. With the business particularly popular among women aged 35 to 55, reinvestment and refurbishment is the secret to retention, Purdew detailed, saying that a renovation can bring in an influx of new blood that will stay with them for decades.
“At Henlow, we did a big refurb 20-25 years ago, so those who came in who were 40-45 are now 65-70,” he said. “They stay with you for a long while.”
And explaining that the brand is very popular with guests from the Middle East, Purdew has launched a Champneys spa at a hotel In Qatar to capitalise on the trend.
What is so special about Champneys though? Why has it been around so long? According to Purdew, it’s the be all and end all.
“We’ve run health resorts since 1981 and this was always the champion, the king, the daddy. We thought well we’re never ever going to emulate them or get close, so to buy it for us was the pinnacle of an ambition, something we never realised could happen,” he said.
“We also had to buy because in our particular [spa and wellness]industry, we had to protect Champneys, which is promoting all of us, to protect the other businesses we had. We couldn’t let it fall into dilapidation or be sold off and done something else with.”
With a significant amount of time between the Champneys takeover, rebrand and the purchase of a new property, Eastwell Manor was secured to join the wellness family in late 2016.
“We’ve doubled profitability in the last three years, getting double digit growth all the time and that’s maintaining cost.”
Aside from the financial crisis, Brexit is something else that’s been on Purdew’s mind.
“Brexit [made me think]what is this all about? I think diversity and ethnic integration; different cultures and religions make this country. It’s part of our modern Great Britain, which is a lot better than it ever was before,” he said.
Indeed, the business can be found hiring from local areas like Luton, but also in Eastern Europe, running recruitment campaigns in areas such as Hungary, while opportunities were also offered in Greece to support those struggling in the economic climate there.
Looking ahead, Purdew said: “Now we’ve got five resort spas, six day spas, we’re opening in Qatar with spa in a hotel, have a partnership with a very exciting cruise line in discussion and the partnership with Boots is going from strength to strength.
“We’re trying to buy another hotel in the UK with a spa attached, but you’ve got to find the right properties. Eastwell is out of this world and trying to find one of those isn’t easy, you’ve got to get the right geographical location and building, but we’ve got five really lovely properties and we’re heavily investing into them.”