Embarking on a new holiday let business, or developing and growing an existing business might seem like a risky endeavour in recent months. Even as the government’s roadmap for re-opening the country after the Covid-19 pandemic continues, small business owners will be naturally cautious. However, some existing UK holiday let owners are experiencing record levels of interest and bookings, largely due to an increased desire among the public for staycations and self-contained, self-catering accommodation. There are key considerations for ensuring that you can make the most of this trend, explore new demographics and visitor concerns, to help to build a sustainable and successful holiday lets business, now and into the future.
In a three-part series, designed to explore some of these considerations, we speak with Diane Howarth from Cottage in the Dales sharing her experience around accessibility, sustainability and choosing routes to market. With 18 years’ experience in the sector, Diane hopes that some of the lessons learned and feedback received by Cottage in the Dales will inspire and inform your next business steps. The first in the series will explore accessibility, something Diane suggests more holiday let owners should include in their planning for future success.
Diane and her husband, Andrew, own and operate three luxury Grade II-listed holiday cottages - Cottage in the Dales. They have won multiple awards for quality and accessibility and, lockdowns aside, the three cottages have occupancy rates over 90%, with more than 50% from returning visitors pre-pandemic, rising now to over 80%.
“Accessibility has been the best ever business decision for us,” Diane says. “Every accommodation provider can provide some level of accessibility without compromising quality at little additional cost and effort.” Research by VisitEngland shows that this is a huge market with very little provision, right across the UK. When guests with accessibility requirements find somewhere that meets their requirements and offers a real holiday experience with at least as good as they have at home, they will return again and again. There is so little competition in this market and customers are very loyal. Facilities that support accessibility and inclusion are important for an ageing population too. This demographic often has the disposable income for short breaks, with the flexibility to visit at any time of the year so they are a valuable market for achieving year-round occupancy.
The success of The Dairy, Cottage in the Dales’ most accessible property, has exceeded all expectations. Diane says, “We’ve had 95-99% occupancy since it opened in late 2017. As of April 2021, The Dairy is fully booked for 2021, 74% booked for 2022, 44% for 2023 and we’ve just received our first reservation for 2024! Almost all of our future bookings are returning guests.”
“There are a number of myths around installing accessible features into a property, for example, that it’s too expensive, or clinical, or unattractive. Also, that certain buildings aren’t suitable because they have stairs or steps, or it’s listed, or it can never be ‘wheelchair friendly’.”
Cottage in the Dales made use of help and advice from experts in accessibility, and from friends with mobility and other accessibility needs. Diane says, “Less than 10% of those with accessibility and mobility needs use a wheelchair. The Dairy is perfect for wheelchair users and those with other needs. Our other two cottages have stairs but are welcoming and suitable for people with other accessibility needs, and all three properties are Grade II-listed. These things are not the barrier to accessibility that people think.
“Cost isn’t an issue either. The development costs of The Byre, our one-bedroom cottage, and The Dairy, also one bedroom, were almost identical, even though The Dairy has numerous accessibility features. Inglenook Cottage and The Byre provide the basic level of accessibility for guests requiring mobility, hearing and visual support, which is ideal for elderly people and those with reduced hearing or vision.”
Diane believes firmly that guests with additional requirements want and deserve the same level of quality and luxury when they are on holiday as anyone else. “We have followed a universal design approach. The Dairy has not been ‘adapted’ for accessibility, but has been designed beautifully with accessibility as an equal priority. All three of our cottages are luxurious, inviting and appealing. Certainly, none of them could be described as clinical – just take a look on our website.”
“We had previously used a local kitchen design and manufacturing firm for our other cottages and we worked with them, learning as we went, to design additional features for The Dairy, so that it would be our most-accessible accommodation. This included features like a drawer that pulls out to become a worktop at a suitable height for a person using a wheelchair. It can also be used as an ironing board and while these features aren’t needed often, they are seamlessly integrated and available.
“The bathroom in The Diary is very spacious, allowing easy access for everyone, irrespective of their physical ability. We have the same products, suppliers and facilities in The Byre, so the two look very similar. The Dairy has a wet room shower instead of a cubicle-type one, and two sinks at different levels with space underneath to enable a wheelchair user up close to the lower sink. The mirrors are sited at the optimum heights for all users too.
“When we were first looking at the wardrobes in the bedroom we approached a well-known national company that builds bespoke storage solutions. They quoted us more than £7,000 for something made from MDF. Our local kitchen company helped us to design a beautiful wardrobe with sliding doors and pull-down hanging rails for just over half of that, built from oak. It really goes to show you don’t have to spend the earth to get a better solution.”
The Dairy has wider doorways, fire exit and overall space in each of the rooms than the minimum requirements for wheelchair users. It makes it a really easy space to be in, with or without a wheelchair. In fact, the cottage is popular with visitors who don’t have accessibility needs, just because it is spacious and well-laid out with neat design solutions for easy living.
Having established the requirements and facilities they wanted to provide for accessibility, Diane and Andrew realised that they were already providing for the hidden needs of guests with dementia and autism. For example, people with short-term memory issues are supported with familiarisation before arrival, using the online virtual tours. The cottages can immediately be transformed into a home from home with specific familiar music playing on arrival, and the clever use of a thin black line around the Karndean flooring in each room – an existing design-led choice – helps with spatial awareness. Dimmable light switches, low-level lighting and even removable sticky labels on cupboard doors are among the numerous simple and small details that aid inclusivity.
“We originally bought and moved into Eastburn Farmhouse with the expectation that we could convert the outbuildings, The Byre and The Dairy, into self-catering cottages and we always wanted the single-storey Dairy to offer accessible accommodation. Our initial planning application was turned down because there is plenty of self-catering provision within the Yorkshire Dales National Park. However, we knew there was a massive shortage of accessible accommodation and after attending a Purple Pound conference run by VisitEngland in 2015, we learned a lot about the gulf between expectation and reality in provision for people with accessibility needs. Having eventually got planning permission in 2016 we planned and costed The Dairy alongside The Byre and launched it the following year with three months of bookings upfront. Aside from Covid-19 lockdowns we have had 96-97% occupancy ever since.”
Diane created the Cottage in the Dales website to provide very detailed descriptions and images of all three cottages, with two virtual tours for The Dairy – one showing the standard tour and the second, showcasing many of the accessible integrated facilities. Diane says, “We have an array of equipment available with our compliments that can be booked in advance and made ready for arrival, including an electric profiling bed, automatic bath lift and a riser/recliner armchair. It’s really important that this is clear on the website because people aren’t used to being given these options and don’t usually ask for them. People have been known to try our equipment because they are researching it to buy for their homes.” Being able to view the facilities and equipment available, this ensures prospective guests can make a fully informed decision about suitability, as everybody’s needs are different.
Diane says, “We have to remember people aren’t just coming here for the cottage, even though that’s the reason they choose us. They’re coming to explore the Dales and are looking for attractions, eateries, toilets and walks that all support their accessibility needs.” She recommends the online VisitEngland Accessibility Guide as a useful tool and together with friends, guests and people they have met on their accessibility journey, the couple have put together a file of accessible things to do locally.
• Accessibility is a sensible business investment and doesn’t need to cost more, or compromise on quality or beauty if its well-planned and designed. Any property can incorporate some features that improve accessibility and inclusivity.
• Small details can make a massive difference and ensure you are meeting accessibility needs. Think creatively and take advice from friends, family and visitors to understand their experiences and the limitations of other properties they have stayed in.
• Use the expertise and information that’s out there. Groups and organisations that are working towards improved accessibility in the UK will welcome the chance to help you.