Husband and wife team Toby and Kathryn took over the 10 bedroomed guest house Rye Windmill in 2016, upgrading the existing manual bookings diary to freetobook’s online booking system on the recommendation of another B&B owner. Toby was brought up in Oxfordshire and Kathryn is from East Sussex.
Toby - I understand that initially it took some persistence to get this business venture off the ground?
We took over the Windmill after a year of pleading with every bank under the sun for a business loan or mortgage (eventually RBS came through will the help of a financial advisor). Before this we had worked together running a private ski chalet in Val d'Isere for four seasons, a salmon fishing lodge on the River Tay, Scotland and then in two private houses as Personal Chef (Kathryn) and Butler/Estate Manager (Toby).
The property, a stunning Grade II listed building, is a sizeable one with eight rooms and two suites, how do you divide and conquer the various tasks or bring in extra help?
We realised when we were planning to buy our own B&B that we needed a minimum of eight rooms to support us both without needing another income. Eight was also the size we felt we could cope with ourselves so we would not require staff. Now having the 10 rooms is wonderful and probably more realistic to provide for the two incomes but does require some staff; we have a team of four who look after the room changeovers for us and we do the rest. Our team is great and love working here, so we were able to keep everyone from pre-lockdown. Kathryn cooks all the breakfasts and organises the housekeeping and laundry and I’m in charge of the front-of-house jobs. All the customer facing aspects of the business are handled by ourselves and the behind-the-scenes cleaning is kept to our high standards by our team of four.
Tell us more about your guests?
We are lucky enough that over 70% of our business is repeat or by recommendation. It does take time and effort to make sure every guest has a great experience whether they are in our top suite or one of our cheaper rooms but everybody gets the same service, breakfasts and attention to detail during their stay.
There has been a shift in bookings this year to slightly longer stays; our average was two days but now three days stays and longer are increasing. We have also seen an increase in younger guests since the pandemic started.
Do you work with any other local businesses to help cross promote?
Every guest gets a hand-drawn map of Rye when they arrive and personal tips on where to visit for the best experiences during their stay with us. We recommend the restaurants that are consistently good (and also Covid Secure). Part of our role is to make sure the guests enjoy their time outside of the B&B and the advice that we give will hopefully entice them back to see more on another visit.
How does freetobook help your business?
Freetobook was recommend to us by a fellow B&Ber and we set up our account as soon as we took over Rye Windmill as there was no online diary in the past. We have moved away from using Booking.com as we found that the customer service given to accommodation providers is not good and with demand as it is, we do not need to be paying commission to have full occupancy. We were using Google Hotel Ads and paying 7% last year which is much better than with the OTA (which we predominantly used to fill last-minute spaces) but were delighted when freetobook offered Google Zero which provides the same service at no cost, fantastic! People have gotten too used to using pre-signed up apps on their phones (b.com etc) but having a presence on Google gives great visibility to the B&B and an easy way to book direct.
This past year has been a year like no other for the tourism and hospitality sector, is there anything you have done or rethought as a result?
We spent a lot of time reading over lockdown (when not home-schooling), gathering together guidance on how to make the business Covid Secure and also seeing what the ‘big boys’ at the luxury end of the market were doing. This gave us a very clear idea of what would work within our own business and how we could make sure we did everything to make sure our guests felt safe and therefore could relax when they first ventured out after lockdown. The feedback we have received was wonderful and gave us the motivation to keep going.
We have always said that we would never stand still and always try to improve the business wherever we could, during lockdown we stayed in every room of the B&B and took notes of any niggles we found.
Having survived the uncertainty of lockdown it is amazing to be open again and also so busy.