The owners of Keynedon Mill, awarded Best Romantic Getaway and Best Wow! Factor in our inaugural Excellence in Luxury Service Awards, find themselves fully booked every season yet they have never even toyed with online travel agents. Bill Lumley pays a visit to find out how they achieve it.
“If it is a lovely day some people don’t bother to go to the beach – they just spend the whole day in the garden relaxing.”
Jennifer and Stuart Jebb are living the dream with their award-winning property in rural South Devon. The couple established Keynedon Mill in 2011, in a region great for outdoor activities including sailing, walking, golf, surfing, fishing and paddle-boarding. As I catch up with them as they are preparing to get away for a break in London before they take their first guests in March.
Jeni says they only came into hospitality by accident after having helped out a friend with their B&B. “We lived in an old farmhouse in Guildford with a barn conversion attached. When our children left home, a friend of mine who owned a B&B suggested the barn could be used as overspill for their own business. I tried it and it worked very well, largely owing to the arrangement of the barn, separate but attached, meaning that everyone had their own privacy, and it grew from there.”
A couple of years later they decided to up sticks and move to Devon, where they already owned a holiday house. Not ready for retirement, they went on the lookout for a house that they could run as a business as well as their home, with a separate base for them, just as they had in Guildford.
“An agent helped us find this, which was perfect,” she says. “The miller’s house has four guest bedrooms and a sitting room and its own entrance, leaving us the whole mill,” she says.
They spent about six months refurbishing the property. It helped that Jeni worked as a designer and stylist in interior design and Stuart as a structural engineer, she says. “He did the building work and I out all the bits and pieces together.”
One of the factors behind the subsequent success of Keynedon Mill comes from enacting the hospitality model they’d begun with in Guildford. “It had worked so well, and we had enjoyed it so much we decided that we would do this down in Devon, but we needed a particular kind of property, where people can come and go as they please. They have their own entrance, they can stay here all day, and they have their own sitting room,” she says.
Advertising without the Online OTAs
“Right from the start we had decided we did not want to use any online booking websites, preferring to do our own thing and make it personal,” she adds.
The couple had never advertised when they offered B&B accommodation in Guildford, but when they opened Keynedon Mill they broke that rule just once, contacting Alastair Sawday’s Special Places to Stay.
“They came to visit us and immediately recognised this to be special and presented really well, and they agreed to take us on.
“People are looking on Sawday can expect a particular standard. It is worth the marketing spent just to have their logo on our website.”
The couple created their own website, which they update every year. They began by offering special weekend retreats for Pilates, nutrition, cookery and the like.
The booking started coming in, and soon they were spotted by The Guardian and then by The Daily Telegraph. “The Guardian asked to take a look at the property and subsequently put us in their top 10 places to stay in Devon, then the same happened with the Telegraph. We weren’t featured in either, but we do appear on their websites,” she adds.
The property has also been featured in Country Homes & Interiors, a link to which they have on their website and which brought in quite a few bookings.
“We want to be remain a personal business and have contact with each booking via phone or email”
Repeat bookings – the mark of a Resounding success
The success their property has achieved has been astounding and a large proportion of their bookings today are repeat business. “Our books are overfull as we are always having to turn people down. It is unbelievable that we have managed to run our business successfully without resorting to OTAs, but somehow we have.”
The website is simply a window onto the property and does not have a booking facility. “Guests email us and say they’d like to come on a certain date, or they telephone. This means we can be in control of the bookings. If you enable online booking on your website, or through an OTA, you aren’t in control of it. You may suddenly think the whole of May is booked up and you haven’t got a day off. We are able to control it, so we have a little bit of time for ourselves.”
The kind of people that stay at Keynedon Mill have looked properly at the website, which they will have found generally through looking for the kind of experience that the property offers, Jeni says. “People who just want a cheap weekend away are not the kind of people that would come here – it’s not for them, it’s a bit far out needing a car and so on,” she says.
Guest profile varies greatly she says. “We have young couples, some of them on honeymoon, and we have quite a few young guests from Europe travelling around England who have simply found us through googling. We have middle aged guests who come to stay in Devon having found us online, and we have some quite elderly guests, so it is a real mixture of people.”
She adds: “We do have quite a lot of steps here as it is such an old building, so if people are terribly old I do point that out to them, and I explain that one of the rooms has a restricted ceiling height and the bath is a roll top and quite difficult to get into. I have to be quite diplomatic.”
“Thankfully we seem to attract very lovely guests. I think they look at what we do and straight away it’s clearly either for them or it’s not,” she says.
When some guests first arrive, they can be quite surprised at the property’s unconventional nature, she has observed. “They can look a bit worried, but by the time they’ve had breakfast the next morning they have kind of got it,” she says.
Aside from the fee they pay to Sawdays, the couple never spend a penny on advertising. “We don’t need to as we are busy all the time,” she says. “It is difficult to know why we manage this.
“When we ask people how they found us it is a mixture of things, but a lot of people have simply googled ‘boutique retreat in Devon’ or ‘stylish small B&B in Devon’ and they have found our website, and that is how we have got many of our bookings.”
Jeni’s personal touch
Crucially, guests at Keynedon Mill are treated all kinds of unexpected added extras, prompting them to promote it to friends and family. Jeni says: “When people arrive, we give them afternoon teas and homemade cake served on vintage china and elegant napkins.
“Then in the evenings we always offer them early evening drinks. They have their own chiller in the back hall of the guest accommodation so they can bring their own drinks in if they wish. And the breakfast is of the standard of the Wolsey.
Guests have a massive choice of 10 main courses, and I really make an effort to make poached fruits and homemade yoghurts so they get an amazing breakfast, the equivalent of which in London would cost perhaps £35 or more.
She adds: “We are also very flexible: if they want to have a meal at home in the evening then we will provide them with plates, wine glasses and everything they need.”
There is a decanter of port in their bedroom with vintage port glasses.
The couple grow all their own vegetables, and Jeni has her own flower-cutting garden. “I am passionate about flowers,” she says. “I always put fresh flowers from the garden in the bedrooms as well as on the dining table and guest sitting room.”
Guests have access to a huge garden area with garden lounges all to themselves along with the rest of the grounds. “We have furnished the garden with the guest in mind. We just keep a small section for ourselves just to sit in,” she says. “It’s therefore not really like a conventional B&B. It’s very much a peaceful place and a retreat.”
She and Stuart have their own terrace outside our conservatory with a special area for guests in the garden. “I call it a relaxation area, for which we have bought beautiful sun loungers, umbrellas, barbecue, a dining table, an outdoor sofa and arm chairs with lovely cushions – things we would not have bought if it were just the two of us living here. We also have mainly vintage garden furniture all around the grounds so if they want to sit by the stream and have a glass of wine they will find when they walk down there a little vintage table and chairs. There is always somewhere in the garden where guests can go and sit alone and have a glass of wine or a coffee.”
She adds: “If it is a lovely day some people don’t bother to go to the beach – they just spend the whole day in the garden relaxing, and if I am going out to the washing line I will periodically bring them coffee or pour them a glass of wine – and I don’t charge for any of the extra things. I just try to look after them as if they are family in a way.”
Pricing for the four rooms varies from £80 to £95 for single occupancy and £100 to £130 for a double room. Jeni says: “We hadn’t put our prices up for six years but with food costing so much more we just put the price up by a fiver this year.
“Guests get very good value – perhaps they don’t realise it when they are making the booking, but as they go on to discover, they do get all sorts of extras. Personally, I think it is really good value. I know it is a very competitive market, but then we aren’t paying 15% or more to an agency so we can keep our pricing down.
And the secret of their success: “We just base ours on how we would like to be treated if we went to stay somewhere ourselves,” she says.
The Keynedon Mill Breakfast Menu:
- Fresh berries, poached organic apricots, cereals and homemade yogurts with compote. Organic juices.
- The Keynedon full English breakfast
- Smoked salmon with scrambled eggs
- Eggs Benedict/Florentine/Royale
- Avocado on sourdough with crispy bacon and poached egg
- Bacon or sausage sandwiches
- Waffles with banana and maple syrup
- Organic porridge oats (gluten free available)
- Toast with homemade jams and marmalade and local honey
- All our ingredients are sourced locally wherever possible and our bread is home baked.
We cater for all special dietary requirements.