Have you ever dreamed of moving to the seaside and opening up a Bed and Breakfast of your own? We meet couples who have done just that. Words: Lesley Gillilan
Tue, 10/27/2015 - 15:47
In 2010, city lawyers David Hoyes and Philippa McKnight jacked in their jobs, sold their London home and moved to the western tip of Cornwall. For years they had been thinking about doing something completely different in a place they had grown to love. ‘We wanted our children to grow up with fresh air and an outdoor life,’ says Philippa. The question they’d always asked themselves was what they would live on, but by the time they were ready to move, they had a plan.
From the proceeds of their London property, the couple bought a large detached Victorian villa in Penzance and after a year of building work – adding en-suite bathrooms to five lovely bedrooms – they opened their doors to paying guests. ‘We chose the bed-and-breakfast route because we love food, design and travel,’ says David. ‘But we were complete novices. We had no idea what was involved.’
Theirs is not an unusual case. The accommodation industry is full of downshifters and B&B beginners turning holiday romances into reality by swapping city jobs for a seaside ‘lifestyle business’ – or a home with an income. Jason and Annie Robinson, the couple behind Swain House in Watchet near Minehead, both worked for Disney in London when they bought a weekend bolthole in the Somerset town. They began to spend more and more time there, so when the shop next door came up for sale, they took an impulsive decision to buy it, renovate it and open a boutique B&B. ‘It was a complete gamble,’ says Jason.
Former librarian Brendan McDonagh and fashion designer Lionel Copley’s love affair with Hastings and the East Sussex coast also began with a small holiday cottage. They loaned the cottage to friends, who wanted to bring other friends, and as their little house began to earn an income they wondered whether there might be a market for a B&B. In 2006, they bought a 15th-century, half-timbered building – already trading with two guest rooms – and transformed the interior, adding two more rooms. ‘When we opened, we were amazed when the phone began to ring,’ says Brendan.
In all three cases, success has been a triumph of hope over experience, but all three have earned their stripes. Reviews of David and Philippa’s Venton Vean guest house in Penzance are peppered with superlatives: ‘stunning’, ‘classy’, ‘immaculate’, a ‘chic haven of period features’, and The Guardian enthused about the ‘industrial luxe vibe’ at Swain House near Minehead (‘attention to detail comes in spades’). Meanwhile, the award-winning Swan House in Hastings is widely considered a five-star blueprint for the quintessential boutique B&B (hotel standards at guest house prices with a big helping of ‘effortless style’). All three have been rated by TripAdvisor as best B&B in their regions. ‘For us, it was a gamble that paid off,’ says Jason.
So what has made these ventures so successful? Style is one factor, but it won’t have been effortless in the making. Immaculate, yes, but that’s down to hard graft. In a high-risk business – which sees a lot of failures – there is no room for rose-tinted spectacles. ‘A priority is to get the basic product right,’ says Karen Thorne, who runs residential courses for wannabe guest house owners from her own B&B in Shropshire. ‘Don’t skimp on the beds or the breakfast – both have to be perfect,’ she adds. Other bywords include fresh, locally sourced, homemade, eco-friendly, cosy, chic – the list goes on. Effective marketing is another key factor, and a great website. But, according to Karen, a B&B’s primary asset is its owners’ ability to get on with strangers, and to offer a genuine welcome. ‘It’s all about people skills,’ she says.
FINDING THE RIGHT PROPERTY In an industry that thrives on quirks and unique offers, exceptions are common – but broadly speaking there are three main property options: buy a ready-made boutique B&B (for which you will usually pay a premium), do up a tired, run-down seaside guest house or small hotel (often cheaper than a house of an equivalent size), or buy a roomy family house and convert. The tired hotel options often come with damp, dated decor and dodgy carpets, meaning an expensive makeover, and can be more difficult for beginners to mortgage. For house conversions designed to accommodate more than six guests, you will also need planning consent for change of use.
As a rule of thumb, you will need the income from three or more rooms to make ends meet. In all cases, look out for properties with kerb appeal (pretty in pictures and oozing character), handy parking and lots of plumbing, or ready-to-go en-suite bathrooms. And location is key: not just pretty streets and nice views, but popular holiday places with easy access to transport routes, shops, restaurants, beaches and things to do. David and Philippa chose Penzance because it’s cheaper and has more of a community feel than neighbouring St Ives. ‘Penzance made sound business sense but still offered us a good quality family life,’ says David. The trick is to find a niche in an established area or to spot up-and-coming places. When Brendan and Lionel opened Swan House, Hastings looked decidedly risky; now it’s a must-do for London weekenders. And Brendan is not fazed by the new B&Bs that have sprung up alongside their own. ‘A bit of competition keeps you on your toes,’ he says.
Another big problem is finding a property that combines attractive guest rooms and a decent living space for the owners. ‘In most of the B&Bs we looked at, the accommodation was really depressing and often in the basement,’ says David. ‘There was no point in making such a big move if we didn’t have a nice place to live.’
He and Philippa solved the problem by converting a garage in their Venton Vean garden into a self-contained annexe for the family. ‘Having children in the same space as guests doesn’t really work,’ says David. The Robinsons agree, and they continue to run Swain House from their cottage next door. At Swan House, a flat above the guest rooms suits Brendan’s more singular lifestyle down to the ground.
ART AND FLOWERS The fun bit is doing up the rooms and, aside from quality bedding and efficient plumbing, there are no rules. ‘It’s all about individuality and character,’ says Wendy Ogden, editor of Alastair Sawday’s British Bed & Breakfast.
Fashions come and go: the tired boutique trend for splodgy wallpaper and Ikea has been largely replaced by grey colour schemes furnished with a mix of modern designer, distressed vintage and mid-century retro furniture, scattered with unusual collectables. Swan House has this timeless, eclectic style off to a tee, though. According to Brendan, the devil is in the detail: fresh flowers, handmade soaps, glasses of sherry, cakes, cushy sofas and open fires add value.
Swain House installed luxury slipper baths in two of its bathrooms, added REN toiletries and cotton robes and gave a wow-factor to rooms by hanging a wall of custom-made digital wallpaper (each a striking detail from a National Gallery masterpiece). Venton Vean went for a clean and classic look: white floors, splashes of vivid coastal colour and an eclectic mix of vintage and Scandinavian design alongside local art. ‘We didn’t want to go too far down the seaside theme,’ says David. ‘It seemed too much of a cliché.’ As seasoned travellers, he and Philippa based many of their decisions on things they’d liked in other hotels. ‘We tried to create the kind of place we’d like to stay in ourselves,’ he says.
FACING UP TO REALITIES These days the pair don’t get much time for holidays. Far from glamorous, the B&B life is a round of early-morning starts, late check-ins, paperwork, health and safety, the pressures of managing the market’s high expectations and the occasional guests from hell. ‘The majority of people are lovely,’ says David. ‘But there’s that five per cent who are out to trip you up or test your boundaries.’ He is haunted, he admits, by the fear of ‘the negative online review’.
His advice to novices is to farm out the laundry (by far the biggest headache), take a month or two off in winter and not to underestimate the hard work of a busy high season. ‘We knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but we didn’t envisage the long hours. From Easter until the end of October we’re on the go seven days a week. Our first season was really tough.’
And however tired, you can’t afford to let standards slip an inch; you have to keep smiling. ‘Sometimes I feel a bit like a swan on a lake,’ says Jason. ‘On the surface it looks elegant and serene, just gliding along, but underneath it’s paddling like mad.’
WORTH THE EFFORT? Get the sums right and you can earn a healthy income. As a rough guide, four guest rooms (less than three is rarely viable), sold at £90 a night for three nights a week for 10 months of the year provides a turnover of £43,200. There will be better returns in high season – or in all-year-round city locations – but it’s safer to calculate your income based on 30 per cent occupancy. And don’t forget to factor in overheads and costs: breakfast, cleaning, laundry, marketing, maintenance, taxes, business rates and all those little extras that justify charging a premium rate or give a B&B an extra edge. ‘It is important to keep re-investing so that the rooms don’t start to look tired,’ says David.
The sensible way to fund a B&B business is to trade in a high-value city home for a small mortgage (or an outright purchase) on a larger seaside property. Buyers who are dependent on borrowed capital might find their B&B income is simply servicing a loan – which is okay as long as they are able to maintain a secondary career and can find the time to devote to it. For many, the whole business is a tricky balancing act. ‘We’re never going to make a lot of money,’ says David. ‘But it’s great to be your own boss, and we’ve got Cornwall on our doorstep with time to enjoy it with our children.’