Phill and Carmen moved to Fort William from near Southampton five years ago, specifically to buy the 17 bedroomed Guisachan Guesthouse. They’ve been using freetobook’s online booking system since they took over the business and additionally use FabPay, Messaging and Google Zero.
Phill, is the guesthouse your first venture in the hospitality industry?
I’ve been in IT and various other businesses over the years and Carmen has been in the NHS, has owned a restaurant furniture business in London, and latterly been in food retail before we moved to Scotland. We had previously set up and run a delicatessen together near Southampton so had worked together already. No hospitality experience as such but both were very used to dealing with the general public in various settings.
With 17 bedrooms you must have some help to run the guesthouse?
We have a LOT of help! In a normal year we would have five housekeepers each day, doing the rooms and laundry, and one or two helping to serve breakfast. If either of us need time off or a lie-in, then additional morning staff are needed to make up the numbers but essentially we are both there 7 days a week from 6.30am until 11pm. Carmen oversees the housekeeping, making sure that everything gets done and we have all the supplies needed. I generally do the paperwork and IT (invoicing, paying bills, VAT returns, staff rostering and payroll, website). We both are usually on the go in the evenings with our bar as well as in the mornings doing breakfast.
Where are your guests coming from?
In a normal year we usually have guests from all over the world. We deal with over thirty different travel agents who organise walking holidays (West Highland Way mostly). Probably 80% of a normal years’ booking will be through agents. This year trade is down about 40% but over half our bookings are direct from the guest through our website, TripAdvisor Trip Connect, Google Zero, Visit Scotland, FWAMG, and other portals. We don’t deal with any of the big OTA’s like Booking.com. We have a small number of returning guests, but in a normal year our average stay is about 1.2 nights. This year we may have picked up a few more guests that will want to come back as the feedback has been generally very positive. They will just need to get more organised as usually we book up about 10 months in advance. Our guest profile includes a lot of Europeans (mainly Germans and Dutch) as well as the US and Canada, but that is more to do with the agents we work with than anything.
Tell us how using freetobook has helped your business?
We really like Freetobook. It’s easy to use and pretty flexible. The Messaging feature is great to use and we’ve most recently signed up for Google Zero. In just a few days we immediately got bookings so it was a “no brainer”. In fact we’ve had about £3.5k worth of bookings already. Definitely worth the subscription!
Up until a couple of years ago we only really used FabPay to store card info as we took payments on arrival with our terminal but having had a no show costing us £240 a couple of years ago, we changed our policy for direct bookings so we now take payment two weeks before using FabPay.
2020 has thrown up so many challenges to accommodation providers, how have you weathered the storm?
We’ve had to adapt as the situation has changed. Up until Covid we really didn’t worry too much about getting direct bookings as we get more than enough business through the various agents. During lockdown I realised that we were going to have to work harder to get business, so looked at ways of improving our visibility, hence using TripAdvisor Trip Connect and now Google Zero; as well as improving our website visibility and performance. I find that many of our friends in the business haven’t necessarily been as flexible in their approach as we have. They’ve been slowly trying to move away from the big OTA’s, only to jump right back into bed with them as Covid hit as they are seen as a safe haven for bookings.
I’m a great innovator and am always looking at ways to improve. It’s about marginal gains. We’ve had to adapt the way we deliver our hospitality; from changing back to table service at breakfast, so creating a covered area on our patio to allow outside eating/drinking, to uing different equipment to clean and sanitise (UVC lights, fogging equipment etc). We’ve all had to adapt our ways of doing business while all the time being conscious of making guests feel safe and welcome, even though we all have to wear masks!
Are you members of any industry associations?
We are accredited through Visit Scotland and are members of FWAMG (Fort William Accommodation Marketing Group, one of freetobook's growing number of Together groups where availability is visible across all of the properties) and are members of the local Chamber of Commerce and the B&B Association but that’s all.
Any advice you’d like to offer up to other guesthouse or B&B business owners?
The only thing I would say to other accommodation providers is “don’t be afraid to try new things” and don’t assume that doing things the same way will always get the same result.