Introducing Diane and Andrew Howarth, owners and operators of Cottage in the Dales - three Grade II listed luxury holiday cottages located in the scenic Yorkshire Dales National Park, offering a ‘Distinctly Dales’ experience to visitors.
Diane and her husband Andrew have been growing their business since 2003. Having started with their own bolthole, Craggley Cottage which they rented out around 40 weeks of the year using a local agency for the first two years to help with bookings and their own local housekeeper for changeovers, they would spend their own holidays working on larger maintenance projects.
In 2006, still based in Hampshire, they invested in Inglenook Cottage, which quickly became one of the first 5 star gold cottages in the Yorkshire Dales. From then, they marketed both cottages directly using their own website, without any agencies, so guests can only book directly with them as owners. They then moved back north to live at Eastburn Farmhouse and having sold Craggley Cottage, have since developed two converted properties adjacent to their own farmhouse, The Byre and The Dairy. Each of the three multi-award-winning cottages has its own character and features, and The Dairy specifically includes 5 star luxury accessible and inclusive support.
Diane’s background in corporate marketing and an intuitive sense for building good relationships with clients has been invaluable in building up their business and especially during the Covid-19 pandemic. The uncertainties of running a self-catering business during this period have caused massive disruption within the sector, but Diane and Andrew are facing the new season with optimism and a fully-booked calendar.
Diane’s background in marketing has helped her to create a persuasive and engaging website. “People must be able to see lots of images of the properties and the Yorkshire Dales to appeal to their emotions and create a desire to visit. We are selling the holiday experience, not just the cottage.” Diane says. The content is very detailed allowing customers to make a fully informed decision when booking and regular updates help engage the audience.
“They can be confident there is a real person at the other end, who cares about the properties and the guest holiday experience. Lots of people want to deal directly with the owner, and one who is prepared to spend time and effort helping them to experience the cottages and what they could expect from the whole holiday experience.” Diane explains that experiencing this level of care and attention to detail online follows through to the level of service visitors will receive on arrival, giving them the confidence to make the booking.
All three cottages are luxury VisitEngland 5 star gold, with the business receiving many regional and national awards for quality and The Dairy, specifically for accessibility and inclusivity.
“Being accessible should not mean a compromise on quality or design. Every guest has different needs, as individual as each guest. If they need the accessibility it is there, and if not, the vast majority of it simply disappears. Anyone staying in The Dairy would appreciate the same luxury, attention to detail and the memorable holiday experience, regardless of physical ability. That’s why they term it ‘Accessible Luxury’.
“Simple things like decorating with contrasts makes the properties accessible for visitors with dementia or poor eyesight. Other fittings in the bathrooms can be added or removed as required and it’s easy for us to discover what is needed in advance because we handle all our bookings directly. In the kitchen, little things like cupboard doors that allow for labels to be easily attached and peeled off after the guests leave, are really useful for visitors with dementia or autism to aid recognition in these unfamiliar surroundings.”
Over 90% of Diane’s guests are couples, aged from their 40s to 80s. “These people want quality and at least what they have at home to make it feel like a treat. They notice the attention to detail and are the least risky group for causing damage, while some may also have age-related needs.”
Over the past year, Diane has been focusing her marketing on the returning guest, which represents the bulk of their customer base – 50-55% in 2018. When they were able to accept customers again from July-October 2020, 98% were returning customers. “We build loyalty with regular, personal communications, even Christmas cards just to keep in touch. We don’t include an overt ‘book now’ message but they serve as a gentle reminder to come again.”
Throughout the pandemic Diane has been constantly juggling bookings, moving them forward through 2020 and now into 2021 and 2022. Some moved more than three or four times. By keeping the channels of communication open the couple held onto 98% of their bookings. As Diane says, “Cash flow is king for any business,” and without moving the bookings they would have faced having to return deposits and balances and faced bankrupting the business. 2020 also saw the highest number of overseas bookings, and by directly communicating with those guests, Diane was able to retain the bookings and reschedule the visits.
Diane says it has been very important to communicate the lengths that the business has gone to in complying with Covid-safe provision to customers. They have earned and display VisitEngland ‘We’re Good To Go’ and AA ‘Covid Confident’ accreditations at the properties, on the website and in direct communications to customers. “That way guests know why their own compliance is important too, for example having to strip their own beds and put bedlinen and towels into bin bags before leaving.” Each changeover involves a deep clean and disinfecting. “All items, washable and non-washable, are first left for a three-day quarantine. We already had multiples of bedding, pillows and duvets as part of our standard ‘menu’ and we’ve invested in another washing machine and dryer, with three of each now in our laundry space in the garage.”
Changeovers also require a swap-in, swap-out strategy, with entire new sets of crockery, glassware and cutlery brought in, while the rest is taken away to be washed. All of this extra work impacted on the usual changeover days. “It wasn’t possible to do all three cottages in the same day. So we changed bookings to ensure a maximum of two changeovers in one day. This was a juggling act as we only have housekeeper support on a Monday and Friday each week.” This demonstrates the couple’s huge commitment to cleanliness and comfort generally, and specifically creating a Covid-safe environment for everyone.
Cottage in the Dales uses a local self-employed housekeeper and a gardener as well as other local contractors for a variety of services. Diane says, “There is a real domino effect with other local businesses that rely on our success. We use local suppliers for our welcome packs - cheese, chocolates, toiletries - and recommendations about places in the area to eat and drink. Being closed due to lockdown has impacted on the other local businesses as we’re not in a position to support them at the moment.
“Self-catering is perceived as safe and secure which helps build confidence with guests. Confidence only comes with certainty and time, building slowly. Encouraging guests to holiday in the UK helps us, our local economy and the wider UK economy. It really is a very important domino effect that needs to continue for 2021 and future years.”
In January 2021, at the start of the third national lockdown, the couple were able to use the time constructively. “VisitEngland were still doing inspections, so our housekeeper did a deep clean of all three properties and we caught upon a number of small jobs, including interior painting. Now all the interior and exterior decoration and deep cleans are done, we’ve had the chimneys and boilers serviced, and portable appliance (PAT) testing has been carried out on all electrical equipment. The properties are ready to go just as soon as guests can be welcomed again. Similarly, our website had the first stage of a spring clean too. ”
Diane is keen to share what she and Andrew have learned along the way. “Find the right property for you – ideally near your home so you can manage it yourself, but most importantly, it has to be in a desirable area to visit for the market you want to attract. So ensure the property serves that market well. I’d say, don’t buy on a busy road at all - look for a secure garden with private parking, especially if you’re marketing as dog or child-friendly.
“Remember people want at least as good as they have at home, so make sure you’re offering a quality experience. Consider what facilities and amenities your potential guests will look for, such as the size of the indoor and the outdoor space, parking, views, noise and privacy.
“We’ve gone for the high-quality end of the market and as such, people don’t tend to ask for discounts. We also find the best yield is on smaller properties with a higher propensity for guests to return. This has made such a difference during the pandemic as we have not been hit by the various rules governing larger properties & no household mixing.”
The couple believe strongly that they are maintaining the best profit-margins and the best control over their properties by operating directly with customers. “If you use an agency to make your bookings you will probably only find out your customer’s name on the day they arrive. Those agencies (Online Travel Agencies – OTAs) don’t know your property and are not necessarily interested in any problems that may arise. They also can’t react as quickly as an owner can. Your reputation is vital and I’d say, if you hand it over to a third party you are at their mercy. This has been crucial during Covid, the ability to react quickly and make our own decisions about what to do. We contacted everyone and explained if we had to make refunds to everyone we would simply close our doors. Because we already had a good relationship, and the desire to return to the Yorkshire Dales was there, people were almost all happy to reschedule their visit and allowed us to keep their deposits and maintain our cash flow. That trust meant so much to us.”
Diane met Grant Seaton, The Cumberland’s Senior Business Lending Manager at the Welcome to Yorkshire White Rose Awards 2017. “I wish we’d known about The Cumberland when we were looking for mortgages to develop The Byre in 2012 and The Dairy in 2016. When developing each of the cottages, we found it was impossible to get a standard lender to provide a mortgage or loan to help our cash flow through the developments because we owned the cottages personally and operated the business through our limited company. Neither the personal finance teams nor the small business teams were interested.”
“Later, when we needed to mortgage against one of our cottages in order to raise some finance for a totally separate personal investment, we were able to do that with The Cumberland. As mentioned, given our unusual situation of owning the cottages personally but operating the self-catering business at the cottages through our limited company, the standard banks were not interested in offering us either a personal mortgage or a business mortgage for personal use. The Cumberland helped us bridge that gap. Although we didn’t fit into the standard square peg for a mortgage, (as we’re now officially retired), The Cumberland looked at the strength of our business and were able to help us with a holiday let mortgage.”
Cottage in the Dales is a member of Premier Cottages, the only other website the couple use to market the properties. “We use it because we pay a membership fee based on the number of beds and cottages we have. Premier Cottages then uses the membership fees to market all of the cottages collectively. Most importantly, guests book directly with the owners. We have recommended The Cumberland to other Premier Cottages members, inviting them to present to our regular gathering in the Yorkshire and Lancashire regions.”
Diane and Andrew have been relieved and excited in equal measures to welcome back guests this April after the third & hopefully final lockdown. The guests are all delighted to be back too! “We enjoy it enormously. It’s a great way to earn a living, putting our personal touch on everything provides a lot of job satisfaction and we’ve made friends with so many of our returning guests.”