Busman’s Holiday

Busman’s holiday by Ann Elliott

We have been travelling around France for the past ten days staying in a variety of B&Bs and visiting a range of wonderful gardens including Versailles, Giverny, Chaumont and, best of all, Prieure d’Orsan, which was the inspiration for the best garden in the world, in my humble opinion, Babylonstoren in South Africa.

The holiday has served a number of purposes. Firstly, we wanted to take my 89-year-old father to visit his favourite country while he is still reasonably mobile, although his brother died while we were out there, which wasn’t great. Secondly, we are opening our house as a B&B for garden-lovers in January and wanted to learn how to do it well from the off. One key lesson has probably been not to open in January but, hey ho, the house looks nice in snow.

Any marketing skills I may possess have been learned at the desks of those who, on the whole, have run multi-site businesses. Running a four-bedroom B&B, no matter how I try to upsell it, can’t be defined as a multi-site business. I’m going to have to learn how to market a business on a different sort of scale and it should be a lovely challenge. Working with my husband (any hints and tips on that are most welcome) and leaving him to it while I’m chief executive of Elliotts will be another.

Lessons on this holiday have included: 

We have to love people: They will be living in our house, walking around our garden, reading our books and generally behaving, well, like real guests. They will all have their own wants, needs and expectations so we have to find out what those are and personalise what we do for them. This whole thing won’t work if we want them out of our house and on their travels as quickly as possible – once they’ve paid, of course.

It’s time-consuming: Everyone has told us it will be a case of get up early, get breakfast, clean rooms, make beds – I don’t think I will be doing much of that, although I have a feeling the marketing might be slightly more time-consuming than I’m currently allowing for.

Use as many aggregators as possible but be aware of how much they cost: All owners have told us they use Airbnb and/or Booking.com alongside other relevant or local options. They don’t like the charges but recognise the benefits and work hard to ensure their “brand” looks as lovely as possible on the websites. It appears inaccurate photographs really irritate guests so getting this right is a priority.

Get the basics right: Clean sheets and towels, a wonderful bed, Wi-Fi, a hairdryer. I have an unhealthy obsession with television show Three In A Bed, where it seems doing this alone isn’t as easy as it sounds. We’ll need to live by operational standards. Each host has at least one story of guests complaining on social media about something relatively minor rather than face to face. They found just one negative comment amid a mass of positive ones really upsetting. It can ruin their year and, once it’s on social, it’s there forever.

Add value: We enjoyed homemade bread and jam, daily changing breakfast specials, free cold beer served in shaded gardens, “help yourself” wine coolers, fridges stocked with fruit, yogurt and cheese, local guides and magazines, and hosts who booked restaurants and called cabs for us. Our hosts told us the thoughtfulness of adding value means a lot to guests and ensures they return and recommend you to others.

Make a difference and make your ‘brand’ different: We bought thank you gifts for all our hosts because they cared about our experience and whether we had a good time or not. They were thoughtful, kind, considerate and generous to a fault. It’s the reason we use Airbnb and we have to make it the reason why guests stay with us.

It has been a bit of busman’s holiday but a really good reminder of what hospitality means at grass-roots level. I don’t suppose it’s much different to everything we try to do in our everyday working lives, is it?