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

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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