Warkworth Old Post Office

Anna and Jon Willey run the three roomed B&B Warkworth Old Post Office. They have been using freetobook as their online room booking software since the beginning of November 2019.

Tell us a little about the ‘backstory’ of your lovely B&B, we are assuming it was indeed an old post office?

“Yes, our house was indeed the village post office and general store until 2008. Funnily enough, the house we lived in before was also an 18th century former post office. A very strange coincidence. We had been living in Northamptonshire as Jon works for Mercedes Formula 1 and had a dream to move to Northumberland where we have family and friends. We had no plan to buy a B&B but when we saw the house for sale and realised that the income from a B&B would be sufficient to sustain us, we took the risk and bought it. Little did we know that the pandemic would arrive and our plans would be thrown up in the air. Two years on from our first viewing and we absolutely love living here and sharing this special place with our guests. Jon has continued to work for Mercedes and plans to do so for another year which will insulate us from any future lockdowns. We are very fortunate indeed.”

How long have you been running the B&B?

“We bought the property in November 2019 and it was a very successful B&B, mostly catering for walkers and cyclists visiting the Northumberland coast. We started welcoming guests just five days after getting the keys and were pretty busy until lockdown began in March 2020. We haven’t yet experienced a full summer season as B&B’ers. Needless to say, we’ve redecorated the guest rooms and made some changes to the look and feel of the property. The guest lounge is new, and we swapped the café tables and chairs for a big communal breakfast table as our pitch is that guests are staying in our home not a mini hotel.”

Tell us more about your guests?

“The previous owners had 65% of their business from walking and cycling holiday companies. They offered generous discounts and mostly one-night stays. We have taken a totally different approach. Two night stays minimum, discount on stays of 3 or 4 nights. Fewer muddy boots, wet jackets and packed lunches. Greater profitability.

We have a good level of bookings for May, June and July and a modest amount in August. We are taking things gently to start with as we are not sure what the Covid regulations are going to be with regard to distancing and cleaning regimes. It’s important to us that people feel relaxed and at home with us, so we’d like their stay to feel as normal as possible. We’d rather sacrifice income so that we don’t have to schedule people coming through the front door or up and down the staircase. Our building is an 18th century listed town house so social distancing is not that straightforward indoors.”

Guest reviews are glowing and in particularly highlight you as fabulous hosts. What makes a great B&B host in your opinion?

“Well, that’s easy – just treat all your guests as if they are already your friends. Make people feel genuinely welcome by taking a genuine interest in them whilst being sensitive as to how chatty they want to be. We’re friendly and not pretentious or aloof.”

Your partnership with Earthrhize, how did that come about? Tell us more about this initiative and why it could be followed suit by other B&B owners?

“Last summer it became really apparent what impact domestic and local tourism has on our immediate environment. Discarded masks, plastic bottles, full up litter bins, lots of cars parked on verges once the beach car parks were full. It got us thinking about how we’ve behaved when we’ve been on holiday in the UK and how we have impacted the places we’ve stayed in ourselves.

It’s no-one’s fault that there is a shortage of opportunities to go on holiday abroad and days out are limited with pre-booking and limited capacity, so it’s great to see so many people enjoying our countryside. But it does come at a cost. We wanted to counterbalance the impact our business has on the environment and partnering with Earthrhize seemed like a very easy and ethical way to achieve that. Our guests’ minimum spend with us is £220 so a £2 donation for a carbon offset is a very small additional cost but can make a real difference to preventing ocean-bound plastic for example. We became aware of Earthrhize through a friend who is a founding partner of the scheme. It’s so easy to set up – we just have it as an add-on on our freetobook booking page, alongside the options to add a packed lunch or flowers and chocolates in the room. It takes two minutes to set up. We can then send the funds to Earthrhize either as a monthly subscription or as a lump sum once or twice a year.”

How do you promote your property? For your B&B website it’s clear you used a professional web designer and photographer.

“My professional background is in marketing communications, so the website is very important to me to convey the right look and feel so people know what to expect. We are members of the B&B Association which has been invaluable during the pandemic as they are a great source of information and support. We are listed on Visit Northumberland and we use Facebook and Instagram. For me, it’s important to do a few things really well rather than over stretch ourselves.”

You are also using the online payment system Stripe – how do you find this?

“We are very happy with Stripe. When we took over the B&B we also had a credit card terminal as the previous owners recommended it. It didn’t take long to realise that it was not necessary, and we like the security that Stripe offers and the option to save card details for final payment and to bill any extras or accidental damage should that occur.”

How have you coped through the various lockdowns over the last year?

“We realised back in March 2020 that the pandemic would impact everyone for more than just a few weeks. I used to work at Lloyd’s of London and was part of the crisis communications team and we had modelled what would happen in the event of a pandemic. Jon quickly took the decision to continue working for Mercedes for another year which has given us financial security. We are so fortunate. When we bought the property, we knew that it needed a new roof, masonry repairs and rotten windows replacing. So, we hired a builder as quickly as we could and had all those external works carried out. Inside Jon and our brother-in-law have fitted a new kitchen which we are very happy with. New steam ovens are great, especially for bread. I am still learning how to use the induction hob which is a change from gas; I’m happy to have switched to something that’s kinder to the environment.

I also spent time during lockdown teaching myself vegan cookery to improve our breakfast menu. It seemed to me that finding really tasty savoury plant-based options would be really appealing and it has been a real eye-opener. Whilst we love serving locally produced meat and locally caught fish, we are still mindful of trying to live in a more sustainable way.”

What are your hopes for the future of the business?

“We have plenty of work up until October. We don’t have any bookings after September, and we think people are waiting to book autumn holidays abroad. We are confident though that the bookings will come in – every week there’s another feature on Northumberland in the Sunday newspaper supplements and we know that once people have visited, they want to keep coming back.

My main hope for the future is that we can dispense with indoor mask wearing which I absolutely hate as our B&B is our own home. And secondly that the Covid cleaning regulations will be relaxed because the additional burden on hospitality businesses is significant and not proven to make a difference in preventing transmission. We have reduced the number of different individuals coming through our building simply by switching from one-night to two-night minimum stays. We’d also like to get rid of the QR code in the entrance porch – our freetobook system has already enabled us to request guest contact details so whilst we are legally obliged to display the code, it’s not actually needed.

Finally, our hope is that people will come here and feel genuinely relaxed and comfortable staying with us. We’d love other B&B’s and hotels to take up the opportunity to partner with Earthrhize too – it’s domestic as well as international travel that contributes to climate change and it’s just so easy to give something back to make a positive difference. To find out more and to start your own carbon offsetting visit www.earthrhize.org