Multi award-winning five-star Eighteen97 Bed & Breakfast was in nothing like today’s condition when owners Fiona and Tim bought the property after three long years looking for the right B&B to buy. Bill Lumley pays a visit
Fiona and Tim have been running Eighteen97 for X years now, providing award-winning breakfast comprised of premium, locally sourced foods. The couple had previously owned a B&B, Dillons of Whitby, a five-star property just a stone’s throw from the town centre that they had set up from scratch.
“We didn’t really feel comfortable in quite such an urban environment,” Fiona tells Luxury Bed & Breakfast. “We started to look for somewhere in either the York moors or the Yorkshire dales, and it took a long time to find the right place. Over that time there were occasions when we thought we had found the right kind of property and it wasn’t in the right spot, and vice versa.
“Then after three years looking this one popped up. It was in rather a sorry state, but it appealed to us, so we bought it,” Fiona says.
Neither her professional background nor that of her husband was in hospitality, she says. “Tim had been a commercial photographer and I was a senior manager for a big distribution company in account and contract management.” Of Tim’s photographic expertise she adds: “It’s useful to have an inhouse photographer when you need to make some changes in the literature for the B&B business.”
Reflecting on her own decision to quit her former career, she says: “I really just wanted no longer to drive 30k miles a year to all parts of the country and sit around board tables negotiating large contracts. I fancied doing something different.”
The property the couple eventually bought had not been lived in as such for over 40 years. Instead it had served as a private holiday home, but only for two to four weeks each year. In that time, it fell into quite an alarming level of disrepair. “As we fondly say to guests now, if they couldn’t fix it with a 6-inch nail or masking, tape they didn’t bother,” Fiona says.
The property was originally built, as its name suggests, in 1897. It was made from the original remains of an old Goathland church for a German classic al pianist, Christian Gottlieb Padel, whose initials are inscribed above the door. With a nod to the initial Arts and Crafts style, it has a stunning centrepiece fireplace, and a parquet floor in the sitting room On the wall of the breakfast dining room is a map. “One of guests most popular passtimes is looking for old place names believe it or not. It seems there is genuine fascination for it in people for some reason,” says Fiona.
And in the guests’ sitting room there is a moose’s head, a nod to Fawlty Towers.
The renovation process they embarked upon to raise the property from wreck to five-star B&B took the couple longer than envisaged, and Fiona says they picked up some tips along the way. “The biggest tip I’d give people is to find good tradespeople,” she says. “We were very lucky in that we had already carried out a renovation in the same area before some 10 miles away and we had access to a very good electrician, a very good plumber and a very good builder, all on standby, and they were invaluable. That said, we carry out all the interior things such as decoration ourselves – Tim is very good at that sort of thing,” she says. “He also used to do a lot of photography for a tile company, which is very handy for finding the best tiles on the market,” she adds.
Another tip she has for B&B owners undergoing renovation is to expect the unexpected and to make sure you have a good contingency plan, a lesson she says that could have been of great use to them when the initial pre-opening stage renovations took longer than planned.
“It was just a house that looked sorry for itself,” she recalls. “Obviously we focused on the guest areas to begin with. The project started with fitting new double-glazed windows that were in keeping with the style of the property – like-for-like replacement, as the house had the original windows in it.
“We then reconfigured some rooms, essentially to make them more suitable for modern day living such as guests expect. This included creating the guests’ en suites,” she says. “We also had to look at the safety side of things: we installed an up-to-date fire alarm system and emergency lighting and things like that, so it’s not just the aesthetics that you focus on but the things you do really need to comply with as well.”
The rest of the work they did to get the house up to scratch involved general building work and redecoration and modernisation including a thorough rewiring.
She recalls: “One memorable event was discovering you can actually kill a Dyson vacuum cleaner. The original insulation was sawdust between the cavities, and obviously from a fire risk point-of-view we had to get rid of that. You’ve never seen so much saw dust in your life!” she says.
Sometimes the simplest jobs can take an awful lot longer than they should because of unexpected challenges you confront, Fiona recalls. “When we were redoing the kitchen, a relatively simple job appeared to be that of fitting an extraction in the kitchen and running it through the boiler house. We started the job only to discover some previous owners had for some unknown reason poured reinforce concrete down the chimney. So rather than taking half an hour to sort out, it took a whole day,” she says.
But after all the dirty jobs the fun part starts – the soft furnishing side of things, she says.
The suite and two bedrooms are all named after composers – Elgar, Vivaldi and Ravel – because the house and its history are enchanting. It was built for a German classical pianist who had it built as his holiday home when he played for the (which) symphony orchestra 9.45.
“We could have picked some more interesting composers’ names but we tried to pick ones people recognise and pronounce.” She explains: “It can stop people booking if they don’t know how to pronounce something and if they are not comfortable with it. We had come across that with our previous B&B, so I guess you learn by experience.”
The couple had a very clear view of the kind of market they were aiming for, so they tried to put that across in the rooms as well, she says. “We knew the market here would be slightly different and probably more mature compared to what we had in Whitby, where the rooms were a little more daring. It was very much a case of pitching it to what we believed the market to be here and what people would expect,” she says.
Making the most of the view
Each room has a great view, she says, yet surprisingly the biggest and most expensive room in the property is the one that books up first. Named the Elgar suite, it is L-shaped and presented in the manner of a mini suite, with a bedroom area, a bathroom and its own private sitting room, but with a TV in both the bedroom and the sitting room.
“That suite was originally a combination of several different rooms,” she says. “We could have gone for two very standard double rooms or one larger show-off room. I think it was definitely the right decision to go with what we chose as we are very much targeting the luxury end of the market.”
The garden is just over an acre in size, around the size of one and a half football pitches. Most of it was originally simply a big orchard, and it still retains some of the very of original apple trees at the paddock end of the garden. “More than anything what we tried to do was to try to create some nice little spaces where people could just sit and read a book or have a glass of wine in scenic surrounds, with a beautiful view,” says Fiona.
“We did not want to over-formalise the garden – it is there for people to enjoy. We have croquet and various other garden games that guests can use.”
These also help to get guests get to know each other, she says. “It was such a lovely summer last year we set up the croquet hoops on the lawn. It is not completely flat by any means it is quite a challenge to play, so we had guests who didn’t know each other, but who were going out and playing croquet together, and it is such a hoot because they are simply having such a relaxing time. That’s very much the theme of our B&B: we might be five-star, but we don’t want to impose that stuffy, white-gloved approach. It’s very much the relaxed, homely feel.”
Fiona says they have never had to refuse service to a guest. “We’ve been very lucky in that regard,” she reflects. “We have had some challenging and difficult guests. While you can’t please all the people all the time, our approach to it is that they are not here forever – they are just passing through, so it can be almost a case of getting your head down and getting through it.
The stranger guests as she puts it were ones the encountered in Whitby, she says. But she says: “Most of them that are challenging are because they don’t actually understand what is actually involved in what we do, and they don’t understand how much work it involves.”
She says she recognises that she and her husband are lucky in that a lot of their guests followed them to their new B&B. She says: “Even though we had had a three-year gap between closing our last B&B and opening this one, the first people to knock on the door were people who had stayed with us previously: obviously we had built up a mailing list. And guests talk about other guests when they get to know you.,” she says
She recalls one guest at their Whitby B&B who came to stay for five or six days. “Every day I cook and Tim does the front of house, and every day when Tim would go to take the breakfast order and this particular guest would simply say, “Surprise me”, rather than giving a breakfast order. On each occasion Tim would say he needed to give a breakfast order or he wouldn’t get anything. He was something of a challenge,” she recalls, adding: “That same guest on his last morning asked as the rain poured in rivers down the road asked what the weather was going to do that day!”
There are no periods of the year when they don’t expect any guests, Fiona says. “If we completely close, it would be the first two to three weeks in January. But even then, at weekends you still get guests as people still have birthdays and anniversaries and other special occasions, and a massive chunk of people who stay with us do so for such reasons. Because they are treating themselves,” she says.
They are able to take practical measures to bolster their income between seasons. Tim for example does the occasional photography shoot for people he used to do work for.
Fiona says: “Here we don’t have an issue with cashflow in the off season because we always take first night stay as a deposit from guests. I send out newsletters monthly for regular and returning guests, and I always peak that for January so they get a great incentive in January to book for the rest of the year. This means January is by far always the biggest month of the year for forward bookings. Therefore if cashflow is a little depleted in the middle of the winter then we get a good boost in January that takes us through until trade picks up a bit later in the year. That would be my biggest tip to – it is all about forward bookings. It certainly works.”
Indeed, in the first year they tried that they were rewarded with an upturn of 19%, she says.
Online travel agents
Fiona says she views the likes of booking.com as a necessary evil. “I’d obviously much rather people booked direct, but as a small business I a realistic enough to know the OTAs are not going to go away, so it’s about using them to your own long term advantage. By that, I mean that if I am featured on them then I have web visibility, which is a massive plus.”
Eighteen97 is lucky in that only about 5% of its bookings come through OTAs, helped y the fact that almost 70% is repeat business. Fiona says: “My aim is always to convert the guest who has booked on the OTA to come back to book direct, and that is relatively easy if you just chat to them. You don’t have to say to them, ‘don’t book through an OTA because they charge me 15%’, and give them a sob story, but instead actually incentivise them to book direct. They aren’t necessarily things that cost you any money – for example they can get an earlier check in or a later check out or a loyalty discount, or they can be the first to know the offers we do, or they can get to know about things that are happening in the area,” she says.
“It’s not a question of whacking them in the face and telling them not to use OTAs, but instead about making sure they have had the best possible experience so they will want to come back.
“So far I have never had a guest book a second time by OTA, and I have converted quite a number of direct booking guests that originally booked on booking.com. That to me is a success because I’ve got their revenue going forward.
Action against OTAs
Reflecting on the news this year that OTAs are on notice to amend their ways she says: “It is absolutely fantastic, because their pressurising tactics are not very nice.
“We tend to find our booking.com guests fall into two categories. They will either be the cash rich time poor person who sees it as the easiest option, couple of buttons and they are booked or perhaps the more mature less savvy internet type person – someone who is more likely to believe what they read on the internet and take everything at face value. So where booking.com are saying it is the last room available and is the cheapest rate you will ever find and those are the ones that you feel most sorry for really when they turn up as they could have got a better deal by ringing you.
“There’s really no substitute to someone picking the phone up and talking to you,” she concludes.