1: This is a personal account of how things have evolved but offers a brief account of changes in running a Great Yarmouth B&B over a decade from 2008 to 2018. I haven’t talked about ‘Airbnb’ as my knowledge about this is limited
I can’t talk in depth about how things were pre 2008 as my articles are about my experiences and knowledge, but I can happily and comfortably talk about how running a Great Yarmouth Bed and Breakfast has evolved over the last 10 years. I will however mention how some things have changed through the evolution up until 10 years ago throughout this article.
Today, the Great Yarmouth ‘Bed and Breakfast’ has changed from the days of providing evening meals, limited breakfast options, having to go out after breakfast without being able to return until your meal is ready at 6pm and having H&C in rooms (Hot & Cold water) to only a few owners providing evening meals, having a much larger breakfast range of a better quality, having en-suites to most rooms and a heightened attitude towards customer service.
2: In July 2008 we bought and took over what was already a bed and breakfast ran by an elderly gentleman and his daughters, so the material requirements of what we needed to carry on the business were there in place such as beds etc.
We had no staff or help and certainly no clue as to what was in store for us other than our research so thought it safe to continue the work of the previous owner and adapt the working day in time as we saw fit. Before we moved in we had already been working on creating a website to try to bring the business up to date and that was now live and available for people to look at. (Observation was the only function of a website back then.) A folder on a desk was being used as a calendar to show the bookings that had been taken for that year. It showed roughly 30% of the rooms for the rest of July and August were reserved by returning guests or people who had telephoned after obtaining the number from the brochure. The remaining 70% were vacant at present and we had our window signs turned to display ‘Vacancies’ in the hope of attracting some passers by. There were no ‘out of season’ bookings logged in the folder.
As we were unpacking our things on that first day, we pondered on how we would now fill at least some of this vacant 70% but we didn’t have to ponder for long as an hour or so later there was a knock at the door. It was 4 men dressed in suits looking for a room each for the night. We gave them a price which they accepted and they immediately payed up. There we had it, our first on speckers.
The next day, after breakfast (for which we used ingredients we’d paid the previous owner), the men checking out and cleaning the 4 rooms we observed our neighbours all sitting on the front of their houses talking to passers by and deduced from this they must be touting for customers, so we did the same. Lo and behold it worked. So that was the answer to filling our rooms in 2008. 1.) Encourage guests to return, 2.) Be in the brochure (around half of other accommodations didn’t use this option) & 3.) **convince passers by to stay (**subject to you wanting them to stay). The standards that on-speckers looked for in a place to stay varied between them with some wanting just a room for the night, no frills, some wanted quiet and clean, some wanted a big greasy fry up etc. Whether or not we wanted to accommodate them was a choice we made on the doorstep and we all had different views.
This practice went on until the end of 2009 with success and guests would go away happy most of the time. The next you would hear from some of them was a phone call to book the following year and even Christmas cards which was lovely.
3: Then came the internet booking sites!
Booking sites did already exist but were reasonably new. Nobody we spoke to used them, maybe some of the bigger hotels did but certainly this was fairly new to B&Bs.
Most computer literate B&B owners started to sign up and list themselves onto the prominent site of the time, including us. Lots of other owners had no knowledge of using computers having come from a time when computers weren’t available and therefore had no interest in signing up to these sites. Instead they carried on business as usual.
Using the few photos we had taken for our website and some policies we wanted in place we were live online in the hope of filling our vacant rooms through the booking site without having to rely so much on good weather to bring the passers by. The booking site was great, almost immediately receiving bookings along with bank details, names & addresses. We could also control our ranking position on the site by tweaking the commission rate we had to pay for each booking, or adjusting our prices. We suddenly had (or thought we had) total control of how busy we were. This flexibility of control immediately created a situation which already existed in a very similar way for years before we arrived on the scene, and that was when each accommodation had a sign in the window with a price for a room for the night and other accommodation owners would observe these signs and display their own sign with a lower price on it. A kind of price war to attract people to their door. Well, now, at this stage of the evolution and with the flexibility of control using the online booking site, not only did a price war continue but also a ranking war with the accommodation owner paying a little extra in commission to rise above their competitors to appear nearer to the top of the site’s listings and therefore be seen by more people. OK, everyone who was using this internet booking revolution was receiving bookings and filling rooms and you would think this was fantastic, and you’d be correct in a room filling way, but it did have it’s drawbacks:
1.) The accommodation’s commission bills were spiralling up in order to get more people booking with them instead of their competitors.
2.) We couldn’t physically see who was going to arrive, so you didn’t know what to expect or whether the person arriving would be able to climb stairs for example, or what time they will be arriving which causes a problem if we wanted to pop out. At least in the on speck times an accommodation owner could filter out whoever they didn’t like the look of or who wouldn’t be suitable for the available rooms.
On speck customers would still come to the door and ask for a room but there were noticeably less and less as time went on. More and more people were owning computers and didn’t need to spend time walking up and down looking for somewhere to stay.
4: 2010 saw more booking sites becoming popular and B&Bs listed themselves on these new sites also, with the hope of attracting even more people. It didn’t really make much difference to occupancy levels but as the booking sites were competing with each other, one of them might appeal to a certain type of customer where another could appeal to someone completely different through the way they advertised themselves. Some would give points to people who book through them which if a booker collected enough points they would receive some kind of reward, or a free night or something from the booking site and other sites might do something else, so we had to keep up by being listed on as many sites as we wanted to. All sounds confusing, I know, but as far as someone wanting to book a room is concerned, they could just type in the area they wanted to stay in and a whole abundance of B&Bs would appear across different booking sites along with prices, pictures, potential rewards, some policies, and of course *** reviews. (People booking through these sites have absolutely no idea that the accommodation they are booking, has to pay the booking site a commission for each room night sold, to be listed on the site).
5: *** Reviews immediately changed the way any accommodation owner runs his/her business because now, suddenly, people have been given the power to report back any thoughts about their stay and are also enabled with the ability to score certain areas of the accommodation on an ‘available for everyone to see’ platform.
(In days past, if a person enjoyed their stay, they would return another time and tell family and friends all about it. If they didn’t enjoy their stay they just wouldn’t return or recommend to anyone.)
These reviews weren’t just placed through the booking sites. There were also dedicated review sites on which a random person could share their thoughts on any place they wanted. (A lot of work has been put into this by the review sites to put a stop to false reviews) The question is, were any of these reviews beneficial to anyone?
In brief, the reviews along with the scores an accommodation received were publically displayed for all to see. People could make a judgement on where to book based on these reviews, so it was important for most owners to want to receive a good review. A business that regularly received negative feedback and/or low scores could see where they could improve what they are offering and adapt to meet the needs of the customers of that time or else they could lose business. This in general drove the customer experience to a new level. For example, if cleanliness wasn’t a priority for the owner then potential customers could read about It and decide they wanted somewhere cleaner to stay so the reviews were great for highlighting what could be improved as a business. The same goes for all aspects of accommodation such as what kind of breakfast was on offer, what other services were provided, what make of toilet roll was used etc.
(I have another article in process which will delve into the benefits and pitfalls of reviews)
6: As time carried on things stayed much the same and the internet presence grew stronger resulting in people looking for rooms on speck almost disappearing altogether. After a couple of uncomfortable encounters at the door we decided not to bother using the vacancy signs in the window and so our own on speck business disappeared. It seemed the only on speck people had some sort of issue such as being drunk, or being thrown out of somewhere else, or was obviously high on something, or had an attitude of some sort. Some owners still use the vacancy signs to this day and we regularly hear of some of the horrible issues that have been encountered.
7: After a couple of years we’d had enough of paying so much money in commission to the booking sites (around 8% of our income) so in 2012 we hatched plans to encourage more guests that had previously booked online to book direct and advertised through our website the financial benefits of booking direct as we would offer a room for a lesser price than that on the booking sites. This is difficult because most people who book a property online think they ARE booking direct. Our endeavours in this act saw our commission payments cut by 75% whilst retaining a similar occupancy rate. Other B&B owners have also adopted this practice, but it also pays to keep advertising through the booking sites to meet new customers, especially ‘out of season’.
8: So, we’ve started in July 2008 where we would rely on 70% on speck customers during busy periods with the remaining 30% being made up from return guests or people that called directly, and less busy times of the year being hit or miss depending on weather or if there were people working in the area that needed accommodation, to Winter 2009 where roughly 66% of B&Bs were now selling rooms through an online booking site causing occupancy rates to rise during the less busy times of year as well as filling rooms at busier times.
2009 to 2014 sees the dominance of internet booking sites as more and more B&Bs (around 90%) list themselves on them which in turn improved occupancy rates for more owners and the overall quality of customer experience in Great Yarmouth. Our on speck customers were down to 6% through this period.
2015 to 2018 sees the internet sites still dominant but with many accommodation owners encouraging direct bookings resulting in less commission being payed to the sites whilst still being listed in the hope of encouraging new customers to stay. Our on speck customers had now disappeared.
Of course, even now, 10 years after we arrived there are still some accommodations that refuse to use the online booking sites. They are usually the ones that prefer traditional values, don’t want to pay commission, rely heavily on returning guests, advertise only in the brochure and only open through the busy times of year so don’t need to fill rooms through less busy times of year.
I hope you found this interesting. My next article will be coming soon.