Alice Douglas offers 13 tips about running a B&B derived from her 15 years of experience.
13 tips on running a B&B
I was apprehensive at the prospect of welcoming strangers into my house and kept imagining one might be an axe murderer. However, I soon realized the best part of running a B&B is all the wonderful people you get to meet. Guests are rarely savage keyboard warriors out to immortalise you with a damning review, but on the contrary are mostly extremely forgiving of the odd mishap. I’ve had my fair share, like an escaped hamster paying a midnight visit in one of the four poster rooms, and other mundane but unavoidable dramas like boiler issues or hot tub breakdowns, but guests on the whole are very tolerant.
They are also in residence when good and bad life events happen to you, such as your child’s birthday celebrations or that sudden phone call when in the blink of an eye a loved one is lost. When that happened, a guest took over the breakfast service and persuaded me to go to London straightaway while they stayed to run my place for the next three days. I gave them free stays for life! My son actually left a week after his fifteenth birthday with two regulars for a five-month trip to sail the Northwest Passage. I could write a book about my brilliant, wonderful guests and the adventures and opportunities we’ve had as a family knowing them.
#1 – You have to like people
Liking people is essential. I was given some pre-opening advice from another host, which was to “keep them [guests] at arms-length and avoid conversation”. I understand why this was said, as my kitchen is a whirlwind of activity from early mornings when I serve 14 full cooked breakfasts to bleary late-night bottles of wine discussing mountains summited to ingrown toenails and everything in between. However, I have always felt blessed to meet so many fabulous people.
#2 – Your B&B needs to have a wow factor
I stumbled into running a B&B, in an unplanned, slightly chaotic how do I survive as a single mum trajectory, but in hindsight if I’d meticulously researched where to be, I couldn’t have come up with a better area and building. I converted a disused church into a bed-and-breakfast, which was a huge undertaking on not much money. The internet means guests now scrutinize where there will be staying, and there is less demand for a B&B within a conventional house. I have extremely experienced host friends offering a great package, but they have struggled with declining occupancy because they don’t have a wow factor. Guests want something Instagram worthy, so they search for unique places like a barge, pod, treehouse, castle turret, lighthouse, portaledge (suspended platform on a cliff reached by abseiling) or a gypsy caravan.
Having a B&B in a quirky space is a great selling point and I am lucky to have a church with a mosaic apse, stained glass windows, pulpit, font, grand piano, garden zip wire, amphitheatre seating for music events, climbing wall, pizza oven, obligatory hot tub and not to mention Great Dane. It has also helped being situated in the Snowdonia National Park and being one of the closest B&Bs to Snowdon, the highest mountain in England and Wales and a major tourist destination. The view from our garden of the Snowdon Horseshoe is apparently one of the most photographed spots in Wales. If you are setting up a B&B a great location and space really helps.
#3 – Breakfast can be complicated
There is a lot of debate within the hospitality community about whether the second B is necessary. Breakfast is hard work and nowadays needs to be quite a gourmet photo-worthy affair. Cereal and toast won’t do. Guests want overnight baked oats, homemade granola, fresh fruit salad, elaborate vegan feasts, salmon bagels with poached eggs, asparagus and hollandaise sauce, kippers or a traditional organic, locally sourced full cooked breakfast.
Every dietary requirement needs to be catered for which is tricky as you might have to serve gluten free or a vegan equivalent of hollandaise sauce without warning. It is also truly scary when someone has a serious allergy.
There is no doubt that if guests are given the option of booking room only or with breakfast 90 per cent will choose the latter option and don’t mind paying but not over £10 per person. However, most hosts find the early mornings, shopping and cooking a chore, especially after a few years when the novelty of trying to be exceptional has perhaps worn off a little. It is easier to not offer breakfast or to do a simpler continental breakfast or takeaway bags. B&Bs still get the same amount of bookings without including breakfast but obviously guests prefer for it to be included.
#4 – Encourage guests to book direct
Increase direct bookings is the best tip I can give. If the bulk of guests come through Booking.com or Airbnb then 15 per cent to 20 per cent will be going to the online travel agency (OTA). I list the church on all these platforms but mostly as free advertising or to fill last-minute gaps. I entice guests to book direct by offering them perks such as an early check-in or free breakfast if they come through my site. The reason guests usually book through an OTA is ease and therefore owners must have a website where customers can book.
A useful training programme for hosts is Boostly, which charges a monthly fee for a support package that shows hosts how to create a website with a “book now” inbuilt facility, how to increase direct bookings, market on social media and lots more great advice. A free DIY option for learning the ropes is to join a group like the hospitality FaceBook group where other hosts will answer all the what/how questions. To implement direct bookings on a B&B website it needs to be linked to an online booking management solution. This way hosts can show availability and offer rooms on multiple sites at the same time, but as soon as one gets sold the channel manager will automatically close that date off on every OTA platform.
#5 – Be able to take online payments
Online payments means guests can pay for a room there and then so it’s vital to take card payments on your website. This also avoids unnecessary administration or having to send out invoices and means customers can book 24 hours a day without needing to contact you.
#6 – Set up automated replies to emails
Have automated replies set up so enquiries are met with an immediate response and create template emails that can be tweaked to respond to specific questions. When I first opened, I would get in the region of 600 phone calls for a bank holiday weekend and might come home from a two-hour food shop to 70 messages. The wonders of having a website showing availability is that potential guests immediately know you are almost completely full to November.
#7 – Create an online guidebook
Create a detailed digital guide that can be sent to all guests when they book. Ours includes arrival instructions, kit list to climb Snowdon, the best wild swimming spots, scrambles, places to eat, grocery shops, where to eat, how the oven and heating work etc. A welcome guide that is automatically sent on booking is invaluable.
#8 – Stamp your B&B with your style
If guests want a nondescript clinical room, then they can book into a Travelodge. A B&B should be your space and stamped with your style. I find artists and photographers who want to sell their work and so have fabulous pieces hanging on the bedroom walls. I have a four-metre farmhouse table that seats 16 for raucous breakfast discussions and quirky chapel chairs. We have an old record collection and trinkets from my travels like Turkish rugs, vintage William Morris cushions and Indian throws. We have guitars and other instruments for guests to use and plenty of walking guides, a box of climbing shoes, a dressing up box, games, art supplies and toys.
When I started I thought it would be helpful to be graded and arranged an inspection through Visit Wales who suggested I replace my antique furniture with Ikea bedside cabinets and made sure everything matched. I decided a star rating wasn’t compatible with what I wanted to create. When I stay in a French gite, I want to sample the unique character and charm of my host’s home. I think it’s important for B&Bs to be a true reflection of their owners and keep all their British eccentricities and rustic touches! Yes of course it’s nice to include a bedside lamp but not to make rooms a tick list of contents. My guests don’t get a suitcase stand, but they get a drying room for kit, bike and kayak storage, a round window and pulpit in one of the rooms.
#9 – You can rent bedlinen
Bedding can be rented, which saves on washing and ironing. There are companies all around the UK who deliver high quality white linen in neatly ironed bundles and at the same time take the dirty ones away. There are also laundry services that will wash and iron hospitality bedding. I do the washing and ironing myself as I prefer a splash of colour and use Bassetti linen, which is made from a beautifully soft mako-satin cotton and is far too nice for an industrial washing service. I’m also slowly upgrading to Vispring mattresses, which are heavenly to sleep on. I hate the look of zip and link beds so got a joiner to make mine, as this gives me the option of using rooms as either a double or twin for visitors.
#10 – Offer half price in low season
Don’t hibernate in low season but instead look for ways to be busy. In the winter months I offer discounted rates up to half price, as I’d always prefer to have guests rather than be empty. I also contacted local companies and now work with a a training centre who use the church to run swift water rescue courses for the emergency services from October to March. This has been a great way to create a good source of income all year round.
#11 – Offer creative workshops or experiences
We create stays where guests can have workshops in song writing, film, photography, or do a fitness boot camp, go scrambling, climbing, brush up on navigation skills, have a photoshoot in a pop-up studio or in the stunning mountainous landscape. We have live musicians or themed stays like the Mountain Leider that include an intimate classical concert, guided hikes and are fully catered. We also do pizza experiences, have visiting chefs and sell homemade jam and other locally sourced products.
#12 – Tell guests about other activities
Let guests know what there is to do nearby. I offer advice on where to climb, hike, fish, kayak, go wild swimming, horse riding and canyoning. I send links to websites and recommend other local businesses. The National Mountaineering Centre, Plas y Brenin, is only a few hundred meters from the church and they run outdoor courses. I can arrange bike rides through EBike Adventures Snowdonia or a caving adventure with Go Below and we have three ZipWorld sites nearby which includes the fastest zip wire in the world and a Fforest coaster. Another attraction is Adventureparcsnowdonia, which has the world’s first inland surfing lagoon and lots of other great indoor and outdoor activities and I also recommend Bounce Below which has huge trampolines in underground caverns. Make sure guests know where to go and what to do in your area.
#13 – Take one day off each week
Make sure you schedule a day off each week and have holidays or you will burn yourself/selves out. I now alternate between running the church as a B&B and letting it out as a self-catering property to groups. When it’s the latter I’m not needed and so can getaway myself to stay in a B&B where I’m the one being pampered and not doing the looking after myself!
Alice Douglas is a freelance journalist and owner of B&B St Curig’s Church