UK: For over two decades, The Cumberland has been offering specialist lending to the hospitality sector, and ten years ago, became one of the first building societies to operate within the burgeoning holiday let market. Here, Grant Seaton, senior business lending manager at The Cumberland, discusses how the holiday let sector can prepare for a Spring like no other and what owners should expect as it emerges from a third lockdown.
Navigating a third national lockdown at the start of the New Year has presented further challenges for the UK’s holiday let sector. Without dwelling on the obvious negatives here, there are also positives to be drawn from the trials and tribulations experienced during the Covid-19 pandemic and its resultant restrictions and lockdowns. Many holiday let owners have been forced to rethink their businesses and make changes that mean they will be more resilient in the future. Those who can reimagine their mindset, taking a fresh look at their own business offer and how to engage with new customers, may well be able to turn the tough lessons learned during 2020 into positives for the coming season and beyond.
Experts remain hopeful that restrictions can be eased in the Spring as the vaccination rollout programme continues. With the freedom to travel and stay away from home hopefully just around the corner, people are keen to get out and about again and holidays in the UK are going to be in demand once more. What remains of this third lockdown can be used as an opportunity to plan for your reopening and for the longer-term future of your business. There are all sorts of things you can do now to get into the best possible shape for Spring.
Adapting your business to align with an evolving customer mindset
Customers have changed. After almost a year of lockdowns and restrictions to the way they travel; work; are educated; socialise; and are entertained; people are looking at life in a different way. It’s fair to assume that some of those changes in demand and expectation are here to stay.
Review your website and content
With this in mind, now is the perfect time to re-evaluate your website and make any updates or changes to information, particularly in relation to offering a Covid-safe experience that reflects the ‘new normal’. Maybe refresh your photography to give visitors a taste of what they can expect in your property this year. By updating your prices through to 2023 you can maximise the capture of multiple forward bookings.
Update your policies and T&Cs
Terms and conditions will almost certainly need reviewing now, as will Health and Safety policies in relation to Covid measures. If you haven’t already, consider signing up for the UK Government’s ‘We’re Good to Go’ scheme. This is an opportunity to obtain a free of charge industry standard and consumer mark, demonstrating you have read and implemented the Government’s guidance for re-opening your business; understand Public Health guidance; and have a Covid-19 risk assessment in place. Once qualified, you can display the mark on your website and at your properties – a separate online application is required for each property you own – to reassure your visitors about Covid-19 compliance.
Identify new customers and audiences
Even if you’ve had a strong loyal customer base up to now, it might be a good idea to try and identify new customer types to target and look at ways to reach them. Some holiday let operators are now taking a digital-first approach to their business strategy, identifying online influencers or key opinion leaders who they can approach to help access new customers.
Build local partnerships
‘Shop local’ emerged as a popular theme during last year’s lockdown and it’s not difficult to translate this into a new way of working collaboratively with other local businesses. Building new local partnerships can be mutually beneficial, generating additional revenue and connecting you with new customers. You may be able to agree some deals for local attractions or discounts with local services, shops, bars and restaurants, or include locally-sourced products in your welcome packs.
Respond to new and emerging trends and hobbies
Another trend that emerged during lockdown while people have stayed at home has been the adoption of new hobbies and activities – outdoor pursuits like cycling and walking; and indoor pastimes such as crafting, jigsaws and baking. You can gain a competitive edge providing new equipment within your properties or partnering with another local business, such as bicycle hire.
The Covid-19 pandemic has changed people’s mindsets about holidays generally. Researching trends and data might help you to reconsider your business strategy, making sure you are aligned with the new demands that are evolving as people plan to travel again. The Association of Scotland’s Self Caterers [ASSC], the Professional Association of Self Caterers [PASC UK] and other national, regional and local bodies have useful information on their websites that can help with this. Other information that can be found online includes analysis from management consultancy McKinsey, allowing you to follow the trends and where possible, think ahead, using real consumer data to help renew, plan and prepare up to 2025.
Capitalise on available funding and grants
It isn’t too late to apply for grants in order to help keep going. There are a number of ways that the government is offering support, depending on the size and income of the business and it’s worth taking another look at these. If there is no opportunity to take advantage of Covid-19 specific grants there may be other ways to secure funding, such as looking to local business chambers for support with website improvements.
Ensure you’re connected
During lockdown people have become more reliant than ever on digital connection and have been using technology in previously unanticipated ways. Once techno-phobic grandparents have transformed, through necessity, into regular Zoomers. Increasing numbers of visitors will demand connectivity at all times in their holiday lets. This ‘downtime’ is a good opportunity for checking the speed and effectiveness of your wifi and to upgrade or boost it if necessary.
Sustainable Tourism continues to be an important theme and your business might benefit from being aligned with this powerful national movement, so consider ways that you can work with local government to ensure you are supporting this. Promoting the Countryside Code [England and Wales] and the Outdoor Access Code [Scotland] is a good place to start. You could also sign up to other local initiatives around recycling and zero waste. As consumers become increasingly aware of their holiday carbon footprint, features such as low-energy appliances and easy recycling facilities will be welcomed.
Commentators expect that uncertainty around foreign travel will remain for a good while. People are naturally nervous about flying again and travelling to far-off destinations with other Covid-19 risks and the vagaries of different health services. They have concerns around shared use of facilities like swimming pools and dining rooms. This presents new and exciting opportunities to the UK holiday let sector to convert these holidaymakers into staycationers this year. Building loyalty through exceptional experiences will ensure repeat business in future years too.
Holiday lets are in a strong position to bounce back and take full advantage of the ‘new normal.’ People are tired of staying at home and will welcome the possibilities of enjoying a change of scenery that doesn’t involve the risks they may perceive remain around international travel. The UK offers fantastic holiday settings from countryside getaways to town and city mini-breaks. The rich history and tradition of our different nations and regions promises multiple rewarding holiday adventures for visitors. There is exciting potential for UK businesses that have been able to evolve with the times and offer exceptional, customer-centred experiences with their holiday let properties.
One of the positive legacies of the Covid-19 pandemic will be, commentators state, a long-lasting boost to the staycation trend. Responding to these unprecedented times and to changing customer needs now is the best investment for the future for all operators in the UK holiday let sector.