Great Yarmouth, from frenzy to quality

Great Yarmouth, from frenzy to quality

The phrases

I was inspired to write this article in response to the following phrases, which are the first things that certain people say when they happen to see, or do something they don’t enjoy about Great Yarmouth, and the probable reason why they feel that way:

** “Great Yarmouth isn’t what it used to be”.   ** “Great Yarmouth is no longer great”. ** “There just isn’t the atmosphere in Great Yarmouth any longer”. **There’s nothing to do. **Great Yarmouth has gone downhill

These are some of the things I hear on a regular basis, not just in person, but also see on various social media sites, so just where is this coming from? I can’t talk about the current residents of Great Yarmouth, nor can I talk about housing, benefits or landlords, but I can talk about tourism which is what I see or hear these statements referring to:

Part one: Frenzy

So, as I was born in the 1960s, lets’ start there. Thousands of people would flock to Great Yarmouth via public transport (unless they had the luxury of owning their own vehicle), during their annual paid holiday times and each area of the UK had differing holiday times to other areas. Combined, these differing holiday times would create what’s called a season within which everybody who was coming to stay, or visit would come during this season, and this would probably be the only visit that year. (Outside of this season would see Great Yarmouth had very little entertainment to see other than the arcades, and of course, the beach).All accommodation businesses, attractions and eateries would be open and ready for passing visitors, the waterways and boating lake were both popular, as were the beach, market, the Hippodrome Circus and Gorleston Pavilion. A choice of more theatres would have big names appearing on stage during that season which was a big draw for the frenzy of people buzzing around. You could bump into Mike & Bernie Winters on Britannia Pier, or Morcambe & Wise on Wellington Pier, or spot Freddie and the Dreamers wandering up Regent Road, or you could stop and say hello to Peter Noone near the ABC Theatre, a whole host of stars of the time to tell your friends about the time you met them or saw them. This all created a fantastic atmosphere throughout the town with many an awesome tale to be told. Every eatery would be packed out through the day & night and boards were displayed outside to advertise their menus which mostly seemed standardised to anything with chips, a roast dinner of some sort, or an all- day breakfast, and they wanted it on the plate before they had a chance to sit down but that’s what people knew and all they expected back then. B&B accommodation was mostly basic and offered a full English breakfast or a variation of it along with a choice of concentrated fruit juice OR cereals, all of which had to be pre ordered. Small rooms which were a division of a once larger room and shared facilities, limited health & safety, and some allowed groups of people to ‘bunk up’ together in a crowded room, sleeping on the floor or in an empty bath. People didn’t mind, at least they had somewhere to stay the night. This also added to the excitement of having masses of people buzzing around the town & seafront. The quality of where they stayed or what they ate wasn’t a priority. John Sullivan summed it up in one of his classic sitcoms, in which groups of people walked up and down streets of a seaside town looking for somewhere to stay on a bank holiday, volunteering to sleep in the airing cupboard or on the landing because they had no vacancies. I remember booking into a place on Sandown Road for a couple of nights and when going to use the facilities, the toilet hadn’t been flushed or cleaned. Oh dear! Another recollection is my parents staying in a place called ‘Elstow’ which was above one of the seafront restaurants. The walls moved when you touched them, and the roof was leaking the overnight rain in. My parents slept in their rain macs. Shocking! People weren’t all that bothered about issues like these, they were just thankful they had somewhere to sleep, in fact they would often laugh and joke about things that weren’t right such as leaking roofs, inedible food, noisy neighbours, fierce land ladies etc. (Nowadays these places would be crucified by online reviews)

Part two: Drastic.

By the mid 1970s things started to change. More and more people owned cars which led to a greater freedom of where they could travel, often opting for a camping holiday or to stay somewhere on the outskirts, but the biggest change, thanks to Thomas Cook, came the rise in popularity of package holidays abroad. This led to many, many people deserting their traditional UK seaside resorts, including Great Yarmouth.  These package holidays were advertised on tv programmes such as ‘wish you were here’ and enticed the viewer with promises of sunshine, cheap drinks and great food. For £50 you could have these things, spend a week in Majorca in hotels with balconies and en-suites to the rooms. A totally new, luxurious holiday. In fact, by 1979, Britons spent more money on overseas holidays than on holidays in the UK. The holiday camps here started to compete with the package holidays by offering more in the way of onsite facilities and entertainment to try and win people back. Obviously, with so many people now travelling abroad, and having the freedom to travel where they wanted by car, the demand for the traditional seaside holiday was drastically reduced and during the 1980’s many of the theatres in Great Yarmouth that once starred the much loved big names had closed their doors with some of the buildings being used for other things or just left to decline. The once popular waterways and boating lake were also showing signs of decline as less people would walk through or use the boats. The boats were eventually taken away. The beach wasn’t so busy, and the market & town also saw a sharp decline in custom. This led to more people shying away from a holiday in Great Yarmouth. The UK was also going through a nationwide recession at the time which didn’t help.

Accommodation in Great Yarmouth was also going through turmoil through this time as new fire regulations with certain types of alarms were required along with regular servicing and tests, health and safety laws no longer allowed certain practices, licenses for this, licenses for that, food hygiene requirements became stricter and inspections more regular. It goes on. All these things cost a lot of money. Some businesses who were already struggling to keep things afloat now the visitors had dropped were close to being pushed over the edge.

Having said that, on one side of the coin, people who had been on a package holiday would still return to Great Yarmouth for a break from time to time, or for day trips but having experienced the luxuries of the overseas hotels, their expectations had gone up. No longer satisfied with shared facilities, they wanted somewhere NICE to stay rather than just somewhere to stay. Somewhere better than they remembered. On the other side of the coin, there were the people who always remained loyal to Great Yarmouth, never wanted to take part in the package holiday revolution and therefore hadn’t experienced the luxuries that others had. They wanted the comfort of what they always had which created a dilemma: Do accommodation owners spend money to update the rooms to include en-suites which would require larger rooms, resulting in dividing walls that split rooms in half having to come down therefore giving less rooms but of a better standard to sell, and room prices to rise which could deter these loyal guests, or do accommodations just stay as they are which could deter the guest with higher expectations? The truth is, both these options were taken up by the remainder of Great Yarmouth B&Bs so there was accommodation to suit everyone, there was just the unknown for the person looking to book a room. Back then, most people would knock on doors to ask for availability and some would ask to be shown the room before they decided to book it. If they stayed and didn’t enjoy it, they just wouldn’t return and if they did enjoy it, they would return and recommend. Sadly, as a result, many accommodations also closed their doors for the last time, especially the smaller B&B, selling to whoever wanted to take on the challenge on reconstructing all the rooms to make way for en-suites, or to develop the building into another type of accommodation (flats, apartments, hostels etc). This led to a loss of many bed spaces for visitors to Great Yarmouth.

Part three: Lost sheep

I’ve called this part ‘Lost sheep’ because Great Yarmouth is currently going through a transition period which includes a mix of visitors a.) Those who remember and enjoyed Great Yarmouth in the 1960s/1970s and b.) those who haven’t experienced the euphoria of that time but instead enjoy Great Yarmouth as it is now.

The phrases I started this article with obviously come from people in category a. who see noticeably less people walking around than there used to be, possibly none of the big names or shows on the theatres that they remember from that period, once popular buildings in decline, and just not the atmosphere they remember. I’ll start part three with this category.

Many visitors in this category still return to Great Yarmouth from time to time and, if they were old enough to see a big name show in the 1960’s, are possibly now retired or getting towards it. Some still stay for a week or 2, and numbers of late seem to be picking up again. Trouble is, many of the people who return after a while come to reminisce and walk up and down the seafront looking for a spark of what they remember only to return to their accommodation soon after with one or more of the phrases. It’s part of the accommodation’s role to recommend other areas to visit as well as the seafront but often we are met with blank faces. I have personally talked about museums etc to guests from this category who didn’t know Great Yarmouth even had a museum. They didn’t even know Great Yarmouth had a river, nor were interested! So, you see, it’s these visitors that the phrasescome from and this part I’ve called ‘Lost Sheep’ because of the way they don’t seem to know what to do with themselves when there isn’t a big name in town. They often don’t want to hear about other things to do in the area or other places to see, they want to spend the day enjoying the seafront, do some shopping then see a show just like they used to do, and no other theatre in their mind will be as good as the ones they used to visit. There are also people in the category who have always stayed in Great Yarmouth for the annual holiday since being a child themselves and introduce their families, who then introduce their own families and so on, so we sometimes see 3 or 4 generations of family members staying at the same time making the most of the seafront and beach. This is interesting to see because the older family members remember 1960’s Great Yarmouth, and the younger members know the current Great Yarmouth which creates a situation where every member of the family enjoys their time at the seaside with no time for the elders to reminisce.

Now I’ll move on to the people in category b:

The people in this category who visit and stay in Great Yarmouth have probably never experienced the excitement of seeing big names walking the streets, or them posing on the piers, and many wonder why there are so many empty iconic looking buildings which appear to be a ‘museum of an era gone by’, but undeterred by this, they are determined to enjoy the precious time they have away from the everyday routine back home. These people are more receptive to recommendations of what there is to do in the area, alternative theatres, entertainment, places to go, and are not held back by memories of what used to be. Also, they have never known a time when holidays from work were restricted to certain weeks (unless they have children), so visit (sometimes according to weather) at any time of year. They arrive with an already planned break in mind, what they want to do, want to see, where to go including places or attractions outside of Great Yarmouth etc, possibly influenced by social media and internet or want to return to carry on their previous agenda.

We also see an increasing number of people in this category who have never visited Great Yarmouth before, who, with some guidance on the abundance of things to see and do, return 2, 3 or 4 times a year.

Part four: Dilemma

Because of this transition, Great Yarmouth is right now, facing a dilemma, a sort of ‘catch 22’:

  1.  Many attractions, eateries and accommodations remain faithful to the seasons where visitors only came during set times of the year, and as a result, they only open at these times. The problem is, people now have flexibility in when they can take a break from work, or, if they are retired, will very often visit at any time throughout the year. They arrive to find a limited selection on offer in Great Yarmouth itself which may possibly deter further visits.
  2. On the flip side of this, some attractions and eateries see less footfall and consider that it’s not worth opening. This goes a long way towards deterring people to return out of season. (Obviously, some of the attractions such as the Pleasure Beach and Joyland are very much determined by weather conditions). ‘By reacting to less footfall today, they are creating less footfall tomorrow’

If people visited and found an abundance of things to do and places to eat all year round, they are more likely to return at that time of year and tell others too. Something has to give: Either things stay as they are with less choice out of season which could deter all year visitors, or more eateries and attractions open for longer, and at times between festivals, which will eventually attract more and more people to visit all through the year. This is the dilemma.

Part five: What today’s visitors enjoy

Many people that stay in Great Yarmouth today, don’t do so with the intention of spending all their time here. They actually ‘visit Norfolk and use Great Yarmouth as their base’. Maybe this is the way forward. The fact that most people nowadays have their own transport and the public transport is greatly improved, access to fantastic attractions and places to see around the surrounding areas are very easily accessible to all from Great Yarmouth, and using Great Yarmouth as their base is a great idea as we are spoilt for choice with amazing restaurants of different cuisines from at least 10 parts of the world which don’t all come with chips, the Hippodrome now has five spectacular shows per year as opposed to one, St. George’s Theatre has shows or events on throughout the year, Britannia Theatre still has some of today’s big names appearing through the season, Gorleston Pavilion has shows on throughout the year, the freshly refurbished waterways & boating lake look fantastic, we are host to some awe inspiring festivals at varying times of the year such as the Out There Festival, the Maritime Festival, the Wheels Festival, the Arts Festival, we also have the Festival of Bowls, Festival of Racing, Greyhound Derby, spectacular Stock Car shows, Gorleston Cliff Top Festival, Beer Festivals, Scarecrow Festival, our rich history is showcased through guided heritage walks, and heritage open days which allow free access to museums and other historical sites, Sealife Centre, fantastic beach plus lots more. Accommodation in Great Yarmouth is vastly improved with modern facilities, attentive service, clean rooms and great quality, freshly cooked breakfasts. Approachable owners always at hand to offer advice & guidance to suit your every desire. A massive step up from earlier times.

The county of Norfolk has a vast array of attractions and places to see that are all very easy to get to when using Great Yarmouth as a base. The roads are very easy to navigate, and the public transport has access to most areas. You can find fantastic zoos, splendid gardens, steam trains & railways, the awesome Norfolk Broads, stately homes, animal sanctuaries, museums, wineries & distillery, superb villages with traditional shops, other quaint seaside towns, the city of Norwich which is Norfolk’s capital plus an abundance of other things I could list. I know some of you will say these things have always been there, and you would be right, but people staying in Great Yarmouth 50+ years ago wouldn’t have even considered them because of transport problems possibly not having their own vehicle or public transport was restricted or their agenda just didn’t include them.

To sum up

So, in answer to the phrases I started this article with, you are partly correct. Great Yarmouth indeed isn’t what it used to be, in fact, it’s far better in terms of being able to fill your days with the delights of not only Great Yarmouth, but of all the surrounding areas too. You now have better transport. You now have an amazing choice of places to eat some fabulous food and you now have somewhere to stay that meets or goes beyond your expectations. All in all, Great Yarmouth has so much to offer and more will be discovered by visitors if they stop thinking about the ‘good old days’ as they sit there in a comfortable chair in a clean, well facilitated hotel/ Guest House or B&B En-Suite room after eating a delicious, freshly cooked meal in a friendly, well run eatery after a thoroughly enjoyable day, I doubt they would really like things the way they were. What do you think?

Agreed, there needs to be something done with the empty buildings that are on the tourist routes but on the whole you can’t help but love Great Yarmouth and surrounding areas for everything they offer all visitors. You never know, with the rise of these ‘business machines’ in the form of chain hotels, the bed spaces in Great Yarmouth may increase to previous levels which in turn may see more people stay and the likes of Ant & Dec getting ready to rumble in the market place, Romesh Rangnathan telling jokes in the Tombstone Brewery & Saloon Bar or Ellie Goulding chatting to the public outside St. George’s Theatre.

Loved writing this one, stay tuned for my next.

Thank you, Gary Smith

www.kilbrannanguesthouse.co.uk

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Online accommodation reviews, the truth uncovered.

Online accommodation reviews: The truth uncovered.

A question I posed in my last article (Great Yarmouth, a decade of evolution) regarding reviews was ‘are any of them beneficial to anyone’. My reply suggested that because of online reviews the overall standards in Great Yarmouth were taken to a new height and this is true but it’s not as clear cut as that.

Most of us like to read reviews about an accommodation we plan to stay in and quite a few of us use the reviews to decide on where to stay but not everybody knows how it all works or what pitfalls they could fall into. In this article I plan to explain where the reviews that you see come from, the implications of using them to decide where to stay and the impact a review has on the accommodation. Any reference to review content is a factual account of some of the reviews received by Great Yarmouth accommodations.

Part one, where do the reviews come from?

As an accommodation owner, it’s fantastic to receive an excellent online review as it reflects the great lengths’ we go to ensure everyone has as good a stay as possible. There are several ways in which a review can be written about accommodation and each way has more than one online site to do it on, so how does it all work? I will narrow it down and talk about some of the more prominent sites: 1. Booking.com (online booking site), 2. Tripadvisor (dedicated review site) and 3. Trivago (Third party reviews). These 3 sites display reviews, and I’ve broken them up into different categories as they work differently to each other. Each of the categories, as well as the site referred to contain several other sites which work along the same lines but with different wording.

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Online booking site reviews (Booking.com eg.)

When a booking is made online, the online site will send the booker an email after their stay asking them to give unvetted feedback about their experience of the accommodation during their stay. The booker doesn’t have to do this, but the booking site will keep resending the request until either the booker gives up and leaves feedback or a certain amount of time elapses then the requests do eventually stop. The requests are asked in words and the answers are translated by the site into numbered scores for example on this site you are asked to mark 6 individual areas (Staff, Comfort, Facilities, Location, Cleanliness & Value for Money) of the stay as bad, average, good or excellent. These are scored as 2.5, 5.0, 7.5 or 10. After you have judged each of the areas and the site translates the answers into numbered scores, the average of the numbered scores becomes the ‘review score’. So, if you thought 3 of the areas of your stay were excellent, 2 of the areas were good and one area was average, this would give a review score of 8.3. Extra judgements can be made to other areas of the stay but aren’t contributed to the accommodation’s displayed review scores. You are then given the opportunity to write your comments to accompany the review. (As I said earlier, the other booking sites vary slightly in the wordings but they all pretty much follow the same path). These review scores are combined with all the other review scores an accommodation has on that booking site and that, when divided by the amount of reviews, gives an overall average review score which is the score that is displayed against an accommodation’s listing, so if an accommodation has 10 reviews for example, 3 of which have an review score of 8.3, 4 have an review score of 9.2, 1 has an review score of 9.6 and the other 2 have an review score of 10, then the displayed overall average review score would be 9.1. After (usually) 2 years the oldest review is wiped off so you will only see the review scores for the last 2 years. With this system of reviews, a person looking at an accommodation can see the review scores for each of the 6 areas judged and any comments that are made by the reviewer. The accommodation owner, manager or representative is usually given the option to respond to these reviews, but these responses are subject to approval by the site before being displayed.

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Dedicated review sites (Tripadvisor eg.)

I am calling these sites such as Trip Advisor dedicated review sites as they allow anybody who has registered with the site to write a review about anywhere without having had stayed there. (There are some of these sites that have also taken on the role of a booking site, but you don’t have to use this facility to leave a review and as it’s not connected to reviews I won’t talk about how this works in this article).

Sounds dangerous I know but there are measures in place to deal with fraudulent reviewers!

Whilst reviewing an accommodation through these sites you are asked to provide a rating (usually from 1 to 5) for your overall stay. You are then asked to leave your comments about your experience during your stay. This rating goes towards the accommodation’s ranking on the site and all reviews, no matter how old they are, remain visible for anyone to read. The ranking on the site is worked out using an algorithm which is based on quality, quantity, consistency & recency. Older reviews don’t carry as much weight as newer reviews, higher scoring reviews rank higher than lower scoring reviews, more reviews count more than less reviews and consistency is what binds it all together. So, you can see as far as ranking on the site (how close to the top of the site’s listing an accommodation appears) is concerned, it will constantly change.

Example 1: If an accommodation (accommodation 1) is at the top of the ranking list and is receiving one 5 star review every week and the accommodation in position 2 (accommodation 2) receives two 5 star reviews every week then the ranking positions will swap because although both are receiving 5 star reviews, accommodation 2 is receiving more.

Example 2: If accommodation 1 and accommodation 2 both have 100 reviews, all the same age and all 5 star rated and the next day they both receive another review but accommodation 1 receives a 4 star review and accommodation 2 receives a 5 star review then the positions will swap because a 4 star review is worth less than a 5 star review in the algorithm.

Example 3: You may observe 2 accommodations that both have the same number of equally rated reviews but one of them is near the top of the ranking list and the other may be 20 positions below. This will be because the accommodation nearer to the top of the ranking list has more recent reviews than the other one.

There are probably hundreds of examples I could give, and I could go deeper into the details, but I think these 3 examples sum up how it works nicely.

After a review has been received, the accommodation owner, manager or representative has the opportunity to respond to the review and although not vetted, the response has guidelines within which to adhere to otherwise it could be removed. The accommodation also has access to tools to obtain more reviews such as an email request form that can be sent to the departed customer which when replied to with a review, the words: “Review collected in partnership with this hotel” will appear under it. Anybody can also click on the profile of the reviewer to discover any other reviews they have done for elsewhere which can prove useful.

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Third Party reviews. (Trivago eg.)

The review scores you see on these sites are an accumulation of overall average review scores obtained from various booking sites and so can’t be directly added to by anyone wanting to write a review. There isn’t much more I can tell you about reviews on these sites other than, I’ve explained how the booking site reviews work in part 1, and I’ve said there are other booking sites that follow the same path, now add all the overall average review scores up across all the booking sites that are affiliated with this site, divide the answer by the amount of reviews in total and you’ll get the overall average review score that is displayed on this site. If you click on the review score, the site will direct you to which other booking sites the reviews have come from.

Part two

Now you know where the review scores come from, I’ll move onto the implications of using reviews as your main research tool when looking for somewhere to stay.

It’s very easy for anyone with access to the internet to research the area they want to visit, and for where they want to stay. Many people are swayed by what they see in accommodation reviews but what isn’t always taken into account, are some vital things which are taken from my experience and knowledge:

  1. Not the full picture: Not everyone who has stayed in a particular accommodation writes feedback via an online review, so the full picture isn’t available.
  2. Read the reviews: Many people are guilty of looking at reviews and their scores rather than reading them possibly resulting in their expectations not being met. (eg: a browser might see an accommodation with the best review scores across all platforms and assume it will have all facilities that could possibly be required by them only to arrive to find the accommodation doesn’t have a swimming pool or jacuzzi eg.)
  3. Don’t Pre judge: People read about amazing breakfasts only to find at breakfast their favourite sausages aren’t the norm.
  4. It’s clean for a reason: Some people are attracted to reviews that state how clean the accommodation is but are then bemused as to why their room is cleaned when they go out.
  5. Facilities for different types of accommodation: A big misunderstanding is after reading some great reviews about the fantastic service received, some readers occasionally assume the accommodation is a big hotel with all facilities including a car park, reception or massage parlour but on arrival realise a different story.
  6. Friendly and personal Bed & Breakfast service: If there are reviews that talk about how welcoming and lovely the hosts or owners are, be prepared for them to be nice to you, to say good morning, good night and ask whether you’ve had a good day. There are some people who don’t like this level of attention.
  7. Do your research: If reviewers talk about the location being very close to the attractions, don’t assume they would be the attractions you would want to see.
  8. Read the accommodation’s replies to determine this: There can be reviews written for accommodations by representatives of other accommodations which won’t always reflect the true story. And I don’t just mean on dedicated review sites!
  9. Crafty: Then there are ‘paid for’ reviews. Believe or not, there are people who charge for writing a series of positive ‘dedicated site’ reviews for any accommodation that wants to pay to climb up the ranking positions. This is illegal and action is taken by the sites to stop it happening, but it exists.

Part Three

I’ve talked about where the online reviews that you see come from and I’ve covered most of the areas why you shouldn’t use reviews as your main source of research when looking for somewhere to stay, so now I’ll move onto the impact that reviews can have on the accommodation.

As previously stated, over the years reviews have pushed up the standards of accommodation by highlighting areas that could be improved on such as cleanliness, food, facilities, service etc and this is all fantastic for the reputation of the accommodation business but sadly there are some people that write reviews but don’t follow the rules of fairness. This is not so beneficial, for instance,

  1. Only negative reviewers: Lots of people only like to write a ‘dedicated review’ if they have something negative to say. They might have stayed in the same accommodation numerous times before and obviously enjoyed it or else they wouldn’t have returned but on this one occasion there was something they didn’t like so a decision is made to write a negative review with no thought of ever writing a positive review on any of the previous times.
  2. A negative review for the accommodation could be a positive review for you: I’ve seen several reviews for hotels that state the accommodation is full of older people, there is no karaoke or party dances and just a piano bar in the corner. These reviews were scored terribly, and the hotel would have suffered in the ranking, but the areas stated as terrible could be exactly what you look for. (This can be connected to part two, b)
  3. I’ve got the power: Occasionally people will use the power of writing reviews as a weapon against the accommodation by arriving and almost immediately indicating they will be writing a review.
  4. Sorry, can’t control the weather: If the weather isn’t perfect for some reviewers then the review platform can be used against the accommodation by scoring everything low. There isn’t anywhere they can review the weather, so it gets taken out on the accommodation which reflects negatively against the hard work that goes into helping make their stay as good as possible. This will lower the accommodation’s ranking for no fault of their own.
  5.  Predetermined expectations: When people arrive with predetermined expectations that don‘t match the reality because they perhaps haven’t read the reviews properly (Part two, section b) or possibly haven’t read the accommodation policies then they are likely to write or score negative results in a review which in turn will lower the accommodation’s ranking. Again, through no fault of their own.

Accommodation standards have definitely been driven to higher levels as a result of reviews but whilst accommodation owners (or most of them) have been keeping up with the changing requirements of their customers, there are some customers that still want to retain the standards that they enjoyed in past times. For instance, I’ve seen other accommodation’s reviews that are marked down in all areas just because the default coffee on offer in the morning was fresh, ground coffee rather than the instant they wanted. Another review marked down all areas because the sausages were butcher’s sausages rather than a well known Irish brand. Another review stated the owners of the accommodation were “over the top” because they cleaned their room every day and scored all areas low in the review. I could go into loads of examples here, but I think you see the predicament of accommodation providers. None of these examples were ever discussed in person at the time and the issues only came to light through an online review.

Part Four

So, this leads to my sum up of whether online reviews are good for the accommodation business.

The answer is yes, they are definitely good for improving standards across the accommodation business but, as you’ve read, there are issues with what you may read or see in an online review in terms of accuracy, source and intent so when you’re looking for somewhere to stay, please don’t just head for the reviews and decide to book a room on that basis alone. Instead use the reviews alongside any other research you might want to do and make sure you actually read the content of the reviews to clarify if that particular accommodation is for you, and also read the reply from the accommodation as you may can find more information and you can also see what kind of people own or run it. Sounds obvious I know, but you’d be surprised how many don’t.

I hope you find this as interesting as I did in writing it. My next article is coming soon.

Thank you

Gary Smith, Kilbrannan Guest House, Great Yarmouth.

http://www.kilbrannanguesthouse.co.uk

Great Yarmouth Bed and Breakfast, a decade of evolution (an owner’s experience)

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.

Thank you

Gary Smith

An insight into booking UK accommodation and how to save money doing it.

Why is it best for me to book a UK holiday or break directly? It’s much easier to book online!

As an accommodation provider I am often asked why we encourage our customers to book direct. The question derives from the ease of using online booking sites and the impression that it must be easier all round with neither side having to do much to reserve a room and receive reservations.

Accommodations can (without question) upload any photos they want to onto an online booking site to advertise their rooms, add prices to them and create deals to entice people to book. Simple!

Customers can browse any accommodations online that they want to, look at the pictures, read the reviews, look at the advertised facilities & policies and then just click to book the one they decide on. Simple!

What can go wrong? Nothing, in a perfect world. But this isn’t a perfect world:

1

  • How does someone browsing an online booking site know that the pictures they see are correct and don’t belong to somewhere else or have not been stretched or enhanced?
  • Even if the pictures are correct, how does anyone know the pictures they are looking at, actually belong to the room they would like to stay in?
  • Many bookers assume that a suitable room can be allocated to them on arrival for example, easy access rooms, larger rooms, better views etc but when booking most accommodations (unless they have other available rooms) the room that is booked online is the actual room and the only one that is available to them. If this booker is the last one to arrive that day there is no possibility of the room being swapped for another! a.) This can be a problem if a person requires a walking stick to walk and then has 2 or 3 flights of stairs to climb to get to their room. Accommodations are not obliged, nor have the capacity to indicate through an online booking site how many stairs lead to the room. b.) You could be looking forward to a glorious sea view but unknowingly book a room in the basement instead. The list could go on…
  • Accommodation providers who advertise through online sites are usually restricted to advertising generic policies due to having to have worldwide uniformity which may not necessarily reflect their own policies exactly such as children’s age limits, check in/out times, deposit details, single sex parties etc. This can lead to situations where customers could be turned away after a long journey and still be required to pay for the room.
  • The accommodations that appear at the top of the online site’s browsing page aren’t usually the best ones. They’re generally in that position because of other reasons I will highlight in a bit.
  • You can regularly see TV advertisements from online booking sites claiming they will search for the best price by comparing all other accommodation prices for you. You simply have to enter your dates and the place you would like to visit, and it’ll filter the results by either their recommendations, the price or review scores. This isn’t entirely correct information as none of these sites actually search all accommodations! They only search for accommodations that are affiliated with them and the searches for **their recommendations are determined by extra financial commitment from the accommodation provider. ***There are more online sites that are not affiliated with the big players so don’t be misled by these claims.
  • If, within a review posted on a generic online review site such as TripAdvisor, you read about a particular facility such as homemade welcome cakes in the room, well stocked hospitality trays, top quality toiletries etc, don’t assume they will be available to you if you have booked through an online booking site! Some accommodation providers will provide these things and some will remove them or replace them with lower quality versions.

I can tell you about these very common issues through my own experience over the years as an accommodation provider and through my knowledge of some other people’s experiences in the same profession. There are many more issues I could cover. (maybe in my next article)

2

So, this doesn’t explain why I encourage our customers to book directly so here goes:

When we tell our customers who ask us this question, they are generally shocked to hear that when we receive a booking online we are subject to paying the online agent a fee (often called commission or compensation). This fee is usually a minimum of 15% of the room price. This may be higher for some if they have opted to financially enhance their ranking on the online sites to be more visible than their competitors. It is for this reason that accommodations appear in the order they do when you are looking for somewhere to stay (**their recommendations). Customers don’t even imagine that there would be a fee to pay and think that the money they have paid is for the accommodation provider alone. ***There are some other online sites that work differently which I’ll talk about later.

  1. When a person books directly they have the opportunity to talk about any requirements they have regarding mobility or diets etc, or ask any questions they are unsure about regarding what’s on offer, such as which room would be best suited for what they want, or about what’s happening when they want to visit. A whole host of things they can get off their chest.
  2. Not only does this benefit the person who is booking a room, it benefits the accommodation owner as they also know what to expect, how to address the customer, what facilities to have in place, what sort of vehicle we can look out for at time the customer intends to arrive so that parking up is a smooth procedure, we can obtain any particular ingredients beforehand in case you arrive during the evening and it’s too late to buy them before breakfast. Again, a whole host of things that can be done to enhance a customer’s stay.
  3. If a customer books directly, accommodations obviously then don’t have the minimum 15% fee to pay. This can be used in any way the accommodation provider wishes such as: A lower room price could be offered by splitting the otherwise 15% fee between the provider and the customer, or more can be spent on better quality items such as locally sourced breakfast ingredients, luxurious toiletries etc, or more facilities can be added to rooms such as the homemade welcome cakes in the room or all of these things and more.

The internet is a fantastic platform to advertise and attract new customers and most accommodation owners still encourage potential new customers to browse the online sites to narrow down where they want to stay but rather than pressing that button, they look for the phone number or email address instead and contact directly for all the reasons mentioned above.

3

*** I mentioned some online sites work differently to the main sites you would come across whilst browsing Google, Yahoo or whichever browser you use, and these are usually the online sites that are affiliated with the local tourist authority. They work independently to the usual big budget sites and are equally as easy to use, if not better as because of their affiliation with the tourist authorities they also contain information as to what’s happening in the area. The way the online booking works on these sites is:

  • The accommodation providers that advertise on these sites have paid an annual one off fee to be able to use the site to advertise. This fee also enables the accommodation provider to appear in the holiday guide (formerly called a ‘brochure’) and the availability of rooms is accessible to the tourist authority office to see should anyone call them to ask who has rooms available. (Believe it or not, some people don’t like to use the internet.) There is no other fee for the accommodation provider to pay should someone book a room through this site.
  • This is why many websites use a link to these sites for people to book online.

Contradictory to this, if an accommodation is annually assessed by ‘Visit England’ or the ‘AA’, depending on the grade, there is a requirement to have a booking facility on their websites as part of the grading scheme but if the accommodation provider doesn’t participate in this particular scheme then they would have to use one of the big budget online sites instead so you may indeed, whilst looking at a particular accommodation’s website, click on the ‘book now’ button and find yourself redirected to a big budget online booking site which although does the job, will cost the accommodation provider more in fees which again could lead to the issues mentioned in section 1.

Having got all this information off of my chest, I have to say I have nothing against any of the online booking sites as they all do a fantastic job in advertising, generating business and usually making life easier for all those who use them, but all of this convenience also comes at a premium to all that use them.

So, to recap:

If you want to be sure about exactly what you are booking in terms of UK accommodations, you don’t want any nasty surprises when you arrive and also want the true best price then 1.) browse online 2.) locate the contact details of the accommodation you like, then 3.) take the extra couple of minutes to contact them directly.

I hope you have found this useful. I have more articles to come.

Thank you

Gary Smith,

Kilbrannan Guest House, Great Yarmouth

http://www.kilbrannanguesthouse.co.uk