Beach Retreats is one of the leading holiday letting agencies in the UK’s South West with the enviable position of having properties an average of 260 metres from a beach. Having seen occupancy go from 0% – 100% overnight once lockdown ended, and experiencing booking trends that include 2021 stays being 250% up year on year – we spoke with managing director Andrew Easton to find out how the company has handled the disruption, the current uncertainty and the challenges of running a property management company in 2020.
PillowTalk Media: Beach Retreats is one of the leading local holiday letting agencies in the South West, originally set up in 2008 with the niche to deliver “high-quality properties near stunning beaches with great après-surf” in Cornwall. Please can you give us an overview of the Beach Retreats journey since inception and what (if anything) has changed since that original objective?
Andrew Easton: The original brand values remain to this day, based around three promises of walking distance of a good beach, good local amenities (restaurants, beach bars and sports) and a high standard of décor inside each holiday let.
We were founded as part of the Watergate Bay Hotel group, so share their values of delivering high standards of customer service with a personal touch, backed up by hotel standards of cleaning, rigorous checks and robust health & safety policies.
We have followed a strategy of organic growth, at around 15% every year, which has allowed us to preserve those values. We now cover the whole of Cornwall with over 180 holiday lets and an average distance to the beach of 260 metres.
PTM: 2020 has been a year unlike any other. Back in early July, you were quoted as saying that you were experiencing record numbers of bookings through this year and into 2021. Please can you talk further on what the ‘COVID effect’ has had on the business? What trends have you seen and what’s been unique to this particular year?
AE: The recovery started around the May Day bank holiday when the pathway to July 4th was laid out by the government. We saw a significant upturn in reservations, initially for the summer, then for Autumn and 2021. By the end of May, we had our best ever week in terms of sales; 50% up on our peak weeks in early January, traditionally our busiest time.
At the time our social media presence was still very much focussed on the sensitivities of local communities, concerned about the possible influx of summer visitors, with messages around #beherelater. We had to pause and rethink our entire marketing strategy and messaging to respond with trust and re-assurance as our focus.
As a business, the challenges around July 4th were sizable. Bringing the team back from furlough and going from 0% to 100% occupancy overnight was daunting with a portfolio which had stood empty for over three months. But the team rose to the challenge and our post-stay guest survey indicated that 98% of July guests would recommend us to friends and family.
In terms of trends, guests are as demanding as ever and our culture with the hotel parentage has helped us through the past few months. Guests needed re-assurance, patience and support and there is a quite understandable increase in concerns all round.
Looking forward, demand is at record levels. We’re full until the end of October, while occupancy for November will be double 2019 levels. What’s more significant are the patterns for 2021 stays, where reservations are 250% up year on year, from both our return guests and first time bookers.
And they are staying for longer. Our average stay has increased from 6.8 nights to 7.6 for 2021.
The notion of working from home creates huge opportunities for the sector where the line between work and leisure will blur further in 2021. We’re not fans of the phrase ‘workation’ but it’s one of next year’s key opportunities to extend the season. What’s better than a coastal run across a sweeping beach and breakfast in a beach café before starting on emails and zoom calls in inspirational surroundings?
PTM: Recently, (Sept 14th) the UK government implemented the ‘rule of 6’ with social gatherings being limited to six people. This will clearly impact larger bookings. How are you and your team dealing with this new rule and how do you anticipate responding to the uncertainty around future government changes?
AE: Fortunately, we’re now well versed in responding to new government restrictions!
For us, most of our affected stays in September and October have chosen still to travel with a smaller party, while we are working with owners of our larger houses to amend pricing in the short term and review. Demand is such that those cancelled stays are rebooking quickly through our last-minute page on the website. We’re hopeful the damage will be minimal.
But it looks like the rule of six will be here until next spring, which is frustrating as a stay in a holiday let remains one of the lowest risk activities the public can undertake.
PTM: As a leader, how have you managed the COVID crisis in terms of preparing and leading your team through the uncertainty and challenges of this year? What have you personally found the most difficult decisions to make and what skills have you had to develop in order to manage effectively?
AE: It’s fair to say we were all on the back foot in March, dealing with a fast-moving situation, then high volumes of calls and emails from guests and owners.
But communication has been key, internally and externally. Taking control of the conversation with affected guests, telling them what will happen and when it will happen has alleviated concerns and given everyone clarity and reassurance.
And the same for our owners who have been fantastic and have supported our approach. For them clarity around refunds, government support packages and educating them and their property manager on what needs to happen around new cleaning protocols and how we will move forward has strengthened our relationships.
In terms of difficult decisions, I don’t think we had to make any. We had legal advice and spoke to trading standards early on around our cancellation policy so were able to roll this out quickly and effectively.
A pragmatic, realistic approach to the situation we were in, taking a long-term view, and being hands on has helped. Supporting the teams and their workloads as they experience peaks around government updates, has given me the necessary insight to help us through the past six months. But the team have responded so well to the pandemic that you become a support for their plans and actions in response to new challenges. We have a culture of genuinely caring about what we do and looking after our guests, which has shone through in the past six months.
PTM: Many businesses have had unexpected benefits during the last six months in terms of being forced to review strategy, review cost structures and make changes to operations that have in some cases led to new and more fruitful directions. Have the last few months had a lasting impact on Beach Retreats and the way you run the business?
AE: The pandemic has really brought some of our key values to fore. The warmth towards our brand from guest and owner, hotel standards of cleaning and commitment from the team spring to mind. So the future is more of the same in many respects.
Of course our marketing strategy has significantly changed. We will have an increased focus on acquisition as our current portfolio fills at an accelerated rates. And with that growth, we will invest more on delivering the personal service our guests demand, both in technology and local expertise and support.
Secondly, we will invest in expanding our property management service for owners into new areas with new technology. It’s hugely important for owners and, done properly, is a key driver for repeat business where standards of cleanliness and consistency are at the forefront of guest’s decision-making.
PTM: Owner acquisition can often be a challenge in the best of times. Has the COVID crisis had an impact on your relationship with owners, the way you work with them and your ambitions to grow inventory?
AE: Our owners have been very supportive. We surveyed them in March and 92% agreed an immediate refund for a stay, or moving dates was the right approach when guests were not allowed to travel. We’ve had lots of positive comments about our approach to the pandemic and our response rates to their emails and calls.
And while we are now looking to grow the inventory, it’s important we take existing owners with us and retain our current standards and service to them.
In terms of growth, competition in the sector will increase, and owner customer service has become as important as % commission rates and delivering revenue and occupancy. Running a holiday let often requires a personal, supportive service from the agency to ensure hassle-free success.
We have seen lots of success around new-build holiday lets by the sea, and we will see more developers and investors move into the leisure space, away from office space and residential as the returns are so attractive with the additional benefits of low risk and hands off management.
PTM: Technology adoption has increased in the short-term rental space at a significant pace over the last few years. What part does technology play in the success of Beach Retreats?
AE: I’m a big fan of technology where it is of genuine benefit to our guests, or our operations and the service we provide. Sometimes we can feel a bit detached from the latest innovations down in Cornwall, but we are excited to further enhance our current integrations to provide customised experiences for guests and better management tools for the team to share information and streamline processes.
The challenge will come in personalisation for us, as 180+ properties equates to 180+ different guest directories, local area guides and walks to the beach. Delivering hyper-local content to guests in a pain-free and engaging ways is a challenging yet exciting opportunity.
PTM: And finally, if you were not managing a holiday letting agency – what would you be doing….?
AE: I guess it has to be something coastal, on the water. Organising kayak tours, or top-end yacht charters would be fun, or something in-between…
About Andrew Easton
Andrew Easton is the Managing Director of Beach Retreats. With a Degree in Product Marketing and CIM Diploma in Marketing, he moved into digital marketing and web development in the late 1990’s in the field of academic and genealogical publishing in the north of England, before relocating to south west where he has worked in the holiday letting sector for the past 15 years.