In November I asked my dad what he wanted for Christmas and, as he’s 89, there isn’t much left for him to ask for to be honest. He has too many socks for someone who can only wear one pair at a time, he falls asleep if he drinks more than one glass of wine, COOK could open one of its shops offering what he has in his freezer, and he can’t do watercolours fast enough to use all the paint I buy him. Tricky. After some prompting, however, he finally announced he would like to have a weekend with us in a Warner hotel in the new year.
It’s not what I expected (or wanted) if I’m perfectly honest but off we went to Bodelwyddan in North Wales for our Warner stay during May bank holiday weekend. I don’t suppose I approached it in the right frame of mind, expecting a mix of Butlins (been there with the children), Center Parcs (visited many times) and a cruise liner for 10,000 retired holidaymakers (not quite ready yet). Initial impressions only served to reinforce my preconceptions.
In normal hotels receptionists at the front desk greet you with a smile the moment you escape those revolving doors in which you and/or your luggage have got trapped – but not here. No warm welcome or genial chat, no recognisable hospitality. This was no-nonsense. “Here’s your virtually unreadable map, here’s your activity guide (don’t even think about booking online) and here’s your key card. Next.”
We wandered aimlessly around trying to find our room and by the time we opened the door and dumped our bags I was very grumpy, with little in the way of a positive emotional bank balance towards the hotel. Dinner finished at 8pm so we had to get a move on. We were asked to pay for drinks as we went through the meal and then on to the cabaret – the sounds of Abba from the entertainments team.
After a challenging sleep because the room was so cold, I was prepared to give up the ghost on the whole Warner experience and book into an Airbnb for the rest of the weekend. However, my dad was enjoying himself and that’s why, I kept reminding myself, we were all here in the first place.
Then a strange thing happened. During the day other guests began to recognise, smile and speak to us. Our waitress (we had the same table with the same waitress every night) had a lovely sense of humour. The food was good, with lots of choice. The entertainments team put their heart and soul into their performance. There was a blanket for our bed.
My grumpiness subsided and it dawned on me most guests weren’t Warner virgins, they were regular return visitors who loved everything about the concept, from the buffet to the (tribute) band. They liked the routine of when, where and what to eat but also the flexibility of being able to join in activities (line-dancing, quizzes, shooting, walks) if they wanted. They didn’t need explanations about the charge card or map or drop-off place, they knew it all off by heart, making us the odd ones out.
I’ve thought about it a lot since. In 1991 there were nine million over-65s in the UK (16% of the population), in 2016 there were almost 12 million (18%) and by 2066 there will be 20 million (26%). That’s a lot of over-65s with the time, money and inclination to go away for a weekend surrounded by like-minded people (and no young children).
Warner, cleverly, has the market to itself – and does it very well. The weekend could have done with a bit more personality and hospitality but the concept works – and now I understand why its regular guests love it.