When Guernsey’s lockdown restrictions lifted, one of its biggest and best known hotels remained closed.
With its kitsch, Alpine-inspired architecture and dated country club feel, La Grande Mare has been a familiar fixture of the island’s west coast for more than four decades. But change is on the horizon for this local landmark.
The hotel is at the centre of a bold new redevelopment plan from billionaire businessman Stephen Lansdown CBE, a project which, if successful, could revitalise Guernsey’s tourism industry and help ensure its future.
“Like most people, we don’t really know how this is going to play out. I hope that by the summer of 2021 there will be some form of normality.”
If ever the industry needed ambition and investment, the time would be now and Stephen isn’t shying away from the challenge ahead. There’s no crystal ball, he said, and no guarantees how, when, or if the travel industry will recover. All he can do is weather the storm.
“Like most people, we don’t really know how this is going to play out. I hope that by the summer of 2021 there will be some form of normality”, said Stephen, co-founder of Hargreaves Lansdown PLC, the UK’s biggest independent private client brokerage.
With a portfolio that includes sport and other hospitality businesses, waiting it out has become a common theme this year. As the owner of Bristol City FC, Stephen saw sporting events shelved for months during lockdown, and his luxury safari business in Botswana was also forced to close.
“But for La Grande Mare, the pandemic has been the catalyst, if you like. It’s brought our plans forward and allowed me to make the decision to close the hotel and focus on the development. We haven’t had to worry about looking after guests, which has allowed us to focus in the new Grande Mare, not the old Grande Mare.”
The ‘Guggenheim’ of Guernsey
The new La Grande Mare will be unrecognisable from what stands on the site today. Should it all go to plan, the 40-year-old original building will be obsolete, replaced by a thoroughly contemporary, multifunctional space housing a high-class golf resort, and events, business and social centre.
The new build, which is scheduled for completion by 2023, will be no higher than the current one, occupying a similar total footprint, with an area for functions, promotions and exhibitions, plus a 100-seat terrace restaurant overlooking Vazon Bay. Gone will be the hotel, replaced by lodges for visiting golfers, and in a separate area will be a new health and spa facility with a gymnasium and 25m swimming pool.
Its fluid design could make it the “Guggenheim of Guernsey,” allowing for art exhibitions and business functions, while its luxury golfing facilities could usher in a new era of tourism for the island. At least, that’s the plan.
“I didn’t come up with the Guggenheim phrase but it did appeal to me,” he said.
“I think that if you look at the tourism marketplace, it’s very difficult to say what Guernsey is offering, without sounding desultory. People coming here will think it’s a lovely place to visit, and it is. We have some fabulous walks, a lovely coastline you can ride your bike around – and we still want people, and families to stay at La Grande Mare to experience all of those things. But is it enough? Is it enough to make people jump on quite an expensive flight to visit the place?”
This is where the idea of golf holidays comes in, said the 68-year-old, who’s been a member of La Grande Mare Golf Club since moving to Guernsey in 2010.
A change of course for Guernsey tourism
Prior to the pandemic, golf tourism was a growing market; other locations that have embraced it have seen lucrative returns. In Scotland, for example, golf tourism was worth almost £300million a year, pre Covid, and overseas golfing visitors spent an average of £338 per night.
“When people come here on a golf holiday, we want them to play golf – and not just at La Grande Mare, but at L’Ancresse and St Pierre Park, too – and spend money in restaurants, bars, shops and tourism business”, explained Stephen.
“The big ask is getting them here. Once people are here, you can put them in a position to buy. People want to have a good time, so present them with services – that’s what we’re trying to encourage, and golf is the facilitator for that”.
A personal investment
La Grande Mare is an unusual project for Stephen. While his portfolio already includes luxury hospitality businesses, this Guernsey project is the first his family office, Pula, has overseen directly. He admits that it’s not something he’d have imagined himself doing 10 years ago.
“From a tourism perspective, it’s an opportunity to provide something different. But more than that, it’s a space that can be used by the community”.
It’s been a decade since Stephen – who is worth £1.72 billion, according to the Sunday Times Rich List – stepped down as chairman of Hargreaves Lansdown, the company he co-founded with Peter Hargreaves in 1981. The business went from trading out of a bedroom to becoming a constituent on the FTSE 100 Index.
Its success was beyond anything he imagined and he still retains a 7% stake. His focus now, however, is firmly on Pula, which he set up after moving to Guernsey.
Pula, which means “rain” in Botswana’s national language, has interests in sport, aviation, land and lodges in southern Africa, and the sustainability-focused private equity firm Earth Capital Holdings.
While La Grande Mare isn’t the first local investment its made, it’s perhaps the most personal.
“I’ve played golf there since I moved to the island, so when it became available I knew there was an opportunity to do something with golf in mind. But what you’ve also got there, quite simply, is location, location, location: 100 acres of beautiful countryside and wildlife, and Vazon beach on its doorstep.
“From a tourism perspective, it’s an opportunity to provide something different”, he said.
“But more than that, it’s a space that can be used by the community. It can be used for business events; international artists can exhibit and auction their work there. It can house events that attract people to the island.
“We want La Grande Mare to be somewhere that Guernsey can be proud of, and if we go about it the right way, I think it really can be that”.