Discover the luxury Self-catering holiday let business providing free respite for those suffering from domestic abuse during the COVID-19 lockdowns
After moving their family to the rural village of Cottered in Hertfordshire, Vicky Saynor and her husband Chris took their first steps into the hospitality industry.
Previously, Vicky lived in Tooting Bec and Chris in Bethnal Green, so upon their relocation and subsequent renovation of two dilapidated stables, Bethnal & Bec was born.
“We found this property and attached to the house were two very run down stables, a barn and various other outbuildings. It’s right on the edge of the village and it’s beautiful,” said Vicky.
“We demolished the stables because they were so run down, and we wanted to create something that was sort of ‘Soho House-esque’ and urban chic.
“We didn’t want to do something really tweed, so we went for a slightly edgier, luxury look.”
Both the Bethnal and Bec hideaways aim to bridge the gap between self-catering properties and mainstream, five-star hotels.
“The retreats each have a food pantry, in-room larders, and all the added extras that are there for guests to use exclusively,” said Vicky.
“They have wood burning stoves, private hot tubs, luxury bathrooms and so much more.”
2020 was a hard year for the hospitality industry and Bethnal & Bec is just one of many businesses that have had to find ways to work around the pandemic.
“This last year has been very difficult,” explained Vicky, “What we’ve done is move everyone’s booking for free into a two year window so they can move their bookings around. Some guests are on their third or fourth move!”
Luckily, people are still making bookings to stay at Bethnal & Bec and next year looks very busy. Vicky explained that she’s still taking “about 5 to 16 bookings a week” depending on what announcements the government is making.
Despite a hard year, Vicky and her husband Chris have found a way to put their luxury retreats to good use during the ongoing lockdown.
In November 2018, Vicky was diagnosed with breast cancer. Due to her experiences, she regularly donates nights away to cancer charities and permanently offers discounts for those who work for the NHS, in care homes or at hospices.
“When I was in treatment we were exposed to a lot of charities and we really saw the true kindness of grassroots charities and that really changed our perspective on what we could be doing as a family and as a business,” said Vicky.
“In the first lockdown, we were hosting key workers because the two hospitals near us were drafting in doctors and nurses and other key workers. But we couldn’t do anything else to help.”
After spending the rest of the year hosting guests when they could open and closing when subsequent lockdowns demanded it, Vicky and Chris received a message on New Years Eve that gave them an idea.
“We were doing our first ‘live’ and a guest who had stayed with us in the past contacted us privately. She explained she was in a situation at home that she desperately needed to get away from and asked if she could come and stay,” said Vicky.
“Sadly, when she arrived, she was in a state. An absolute mess. We realised that there are people in awful relationships and have nowhere to go during lockdowns and it’s awful. So we decided that we would use our retreats to help those people.”
During the first lockdown, hospitality businesses could only host key workers, however the government changed this rule for the lockdown that began in late December. This meant that Vicky could host key workers and/or anyone fleeing domestic abuse.
“When we started talking to charities about this, they said they’d love to use our accommodation but they couldn’t because we haven’t been vetted and couldn’t send staff to vet us,” explained Vicky, “there was lots of red tape.”
But after contacting and liaising with grassroots charities, they were given the idea for providing a respite escape.
Vicky said: “There’s a big difference between being a refuge and being a respite escape. We need to move people on.
“So we came up with the idea of doing four days at a time whilst we have empty properties and that’s allowing people and families – who aren’t necessarily ready to leave for all sorts of reasons – a chance to get away and figure everything out.”
Vicky and Chris welcomed their first respite escape guest in early January and have been providing this respite for people ever since.
“It’s all done through social media and people sharing the message,” said Vicky.
“We then get contacted by those looking for help and organise it so they can stay here. We’ve also been lucky enough to have financial donations which go towards food, water, heating, transport and things like that. We’ve even had food donations and clothing donations.”
Anyone can contact Vicky to enquire about the respite offered at Bethnal & Bec.
“Normally they write to us to tell us about their situation and we will do our best to help, but we have to be very clear that it’s only for four days. We’re not a refuge and they do have to move on after those four days.
“When they arrive, we go through where things are, what to do in case of emergencies, where the food is and things like that. Some people tell us their stories, others don’t.”
One lady who shared her story was a hairdresser who’d had two of her fingers broken during lockdown, but hadn’t been allowed to go to hospital.
Vicky said: “She was very normal, very humble and very embarrassed.”
The hairdresser’s stay at Bethnal & Bec was the first time she had slept without a knife under her pillow in six months and Vicky explained she felt humbled by the lady’s story and was so glad she was staying at Bethnal & Bec for a few nights.
“It’s important that they don’t tell anybody that they are coming here, to protect themselves, us and anyone else staying here,” said Vicky.
She added: “We ask what they need and what’s really helpful is the free support we’ve been given by other people. So we can offer counselling and advice and so on.
“For those suffering domestic abuse, it’s hard not to lose yourself. You might not be able to think clearly, let alone know what your rights are. So we put together a support list essentially, with the help of lots of very generous offers from other people.
“They can use their time here to phone people who can give them some advice, and decide what options they’ve got. They can use this respite to decide what their next steps are moving forward.
“We provide the accommodation, somewhere safe to stay. I’ve then compiled this list which I send to them when they arrive and we leave them to make their decisions.”
Vicky has also received free logins for different platforms that offer online yoga and meditation sessions that she can give to her guests.
“They’re ongoing as well,” said Vicky, “it’s just whilst they’re here. If they’ve stayed with us they can continue using those services. More and more people have been offering free counselling for those who are staying here.
“We can’t do much more, but hopefully it gives them a respite to get some clarity and time to decide what they need to do.”
Lockdown has been hard for everyone in different ways and Vicky explained how lockdown has made it hard for people to escape domestic abuse.
“Nobody knows what’s going on behind closed doors,” she said.
“I think people are terrified that if they do this, they might get stuck with people that are what society considers to be ‘unsavoury’. But they’re just like you and me. There’s no reason why we couldn’t find ourselves in a similar situation.”
She added: “They are normal, everyday people. We’ve had a Muslim girl come here after she was ostracised by her family for having a child with someone who isn’t a Muslim, and he’s now not being nice to her.
“We’ve had young people and women older than me come with their children. One young girl came here and used the time to get advice and find out what she could do, like the legal stuff, and what she has access to.”
Vicky strongly believes in helping people through these difficult situations and encourages other people in the hospitality industry to consider how they could use their business to help.
She said that if anyone wanted to do something similar, they are more than welcome to approach her for advice.
“They can come and talk to us. I mean, we came up with it ourselves with grassroots charities,” she said.
Should anyone wish to follow in the footsteps of Bethnal & Bec, there are important factors to consider.
For example, Vicky and Chris stripped their properties right back to basics. They are also allowing children into their normally adult only retreats due to how many people are fleeing domestic abuse with their kids.
Vicky said: “We have friends in the police and we’ve spoken to them about what we’re doing and they think it’s a great idea.
“They also gave us some really helpful advice which we’ve taken on board, such as making sure they don’t tell people they are coming here and making sure they don’t have trackers on their phones.
“We’ve had no problems. There is nothing to be scared of and I really wish that more people were doing it because we’re making a difference for these people.”
Vicky believes that grassroot charities will be supportive of anyone wanting to get involved in similar campaigns because they want to help as many people as possible.
She said: “These smaller charities think it’s brilliant. For example, we had someone come to stay who was waiting for her flat that she was moving into, but it wasn’t ready yet. She couldn’t stay at home any longer and staying here for four days meant she wasn’t sofa surfing with an 18-month-old baby.”
She added: “The police said they think what we’re doing is incredible. We’ve had some people online saying we shouldn’t be putting this out there, but I think not putting it out there that we’re providing this respite, hurts more people than if we didn’t.
“We’ve been doing this a while now and we’ve had no problems. None of the local social workers that we’ve spoken to have said ‘No don’t do it, it’s really dangerous’. They just said to make sure we’re being clear that they can only stay for four days and that they aren’t telling the person they are fleeing from where they are going.”
Typically, the response to Vicky and Chris offering these four day respite escapes for those fleeing domestic abuse has been unbelievably positive.
Vicky is certain that should we have more lockdowns in the future, she will provide this respite service again.
“Why not?” said Vicky, “We’re helping people and it’s not really costing us.”
Vicky admitted that if she wanted to be frank and quite selfish, providing this respite service has done their brand the “world of good”.
She said: “Our [social media] following has shot up. Our website hits have gone up by 350%!
“We didn’t do this to make ourselves look good. We never had that intention, but a positive side effect is how so many people are saying what we’re doing is incredible and when it’s possible, they will book to stay with us.”
Other local businesses are also showing their support for Bethnal & Bec.
“You’ll be amazed at how many people want to support you, be it food, clothes or whatever else they can offer,” said Vicky.
“We’ve even had locals offering to pick people up from the station. There’s a real sense of community and that’s really lovely to tap into because it’s really helped our business.”
In the future, when they can reopen, Vicky will be unable to continue this respite service, but she will continue to donate nights away to charities and those going through, or recovering from, cancer treatment.
She explained they may do something once a year or run an auction in the future where they will offer their adult-only accommodation to a family with children should they need a safe space for a weekend.
But nothing is set in stone apart from the fact that Vicky is certain they will offer this respite from domestic abuse service in any future lockdowns.
Vicky really hopes that other hospitality businesses will start running similar campaigns.
She said: “Just be prepared to be quite humbled, but also be hugely rewarded by it.
“Be clear on your rules such as how long people can stay and things like that.”
She also said it’s important not to jump to conclusions about those you are helping.
“We’re not dealing with drug users and dangerous people. They are normal people like us who have desperate situations in their home life,” she said.
“They’re not criminals or people with no morals. We’re talking about everyday families who are genuinely grateful for having this safe space to come to and are absolutely more than willing to work within your set of rules.”
The support has been so incredible that Vicky said she wakes up to over 100 messages each morning and receives an average of 20 to 30 new followers on social media each day.
Vicky also explained that she sends each new follower a standard message saying thank you for following their business and briefly explains their respite from domestic abuse campaigns.
“I also say, ‘By the way, in normal life we are also a luxury holiday retreat and if you ever want to go away in the UK, don’t forget about us’. So I’m still trying to get business,” she said.
“I’m very conscious of what we do on social media. I’m in no way providing this respite from domestic abuse to generate awareness and profit for the business. It just so happens that that’s been a positive by-product of what we’re doing.”
She added: “If other businesses did this, they’d be amazed at the support and goodwill.”
For those wanting to do something similar with their own hospitality business during lockdown, Vicky’s final piece of advice was that it’s got to “come from the heart”.
She said: “You’ve got to believe in what you’re doing”.
PEOPLE TO CONSIDER WORKING WITH IF YOU WANT TO RUN A SIMILAR CAMPAIGN
1. Local Police
2. Grass roots charities
3. Local Social Workers
4. Local Counsellors and Therapists
5. Local Businesses (donations)
6. Vicky and Chris at Bethnal & Bec
5 PIECES OF ADVICE FROM VICKY
1. Put a strict limit how many days and nights that they can stay with you. Remember you are a respite. Not a refuge.
2. Make sure they don’t have trackers on any mobile devices they are bringing with them
3. Make sure they don’t tell the person they are fleeing where they are going
4. Remove any valuable and fragile items from your property
5. Don’t make assumptions about the characters of those staying with you. They are normal people. This can happen to anyone
URL: Bethnal and Bec