Business recovery stories: North Hayne Farm Cottages
North Hayne Farm Cottages is a family-run self-catering business in the Devon countryside, with eight cottages and an on-site children’s farm. The business caters especially (but not exclusively) for families with children with autism, many of whom return year after year. Although over 90% of guests moved their 2020 bookings to a later date, owners Roger and Cheryl Dixon anticipate it will take until 2023 for their business to fully recover from the impacts of the pandemic.
North Hayne have shown real resilience in the way they’ve navigated the crisis, in particular by:
1. Having good financial planning and forecasting already in place so that when lockdown was announced they were able to check the figures, make plans and work out what they needed to do to get through.
2. Looking after their staff, reassuring them that their health and safety was paramount.
‘Many of our team have been with us for years and we felt an enormous sense of responsibility for them. Before we reopened we met with each one individually to talk through what we were going to do to keep them safe and invited their ideas to help us plan. Roger even built an entirely new laundry room to reduce contact and risk.’
3. Reassuring their guests that they and their bookings were in safe hands, from gaining accreditation such as VisitEngland’s Good to Go scheme to making health and hygiene information fun and light-hearted.
4. Keeping their customers engaged and making it fun and relevant. Seeing that previous guests had started to send lockdown treats and donations for the animals, Roger and Cheryl set up a donation page, now being transformed into a formal adoption scheme for some of their rescue animals.
‘The one thing that has got our business through the pandemic has been not being afraid of change and not being afraid to think about those positive changes you can make. Changes don’t have to be negative’.
5. Thinking about how to run their business safely without losing what makes it special. North Hayne made a welcome video for each cottage to replace the usual in-person show around, and greeted their guests on arrival at a safe distance in the farm yard, making every arrival a ‘mini-celebration’.
6. Keeping the personal touch. Cheryl provided guests with personal COVID care packs including sanitiser, masks and information including a list of local places where they could go to avoid crowds. Whilst the popular play barn had to close, each cottage instead received a trug filled with toys specially chosen for the children’s ages, interests and needs.
‘A few years ago our area had several cases of Avian flu, which felt like a big challenge for a farm business. But now we think “we’ve survived a pandemic, we can get through anything now!'
7. Focusing on their key markets. The North Hayne team carefully planned how to make the children’s farm experience safe but still a familiar routine for their guests with autism, which was a resounding success.
8. Learning from visitor feedback – asking their guests what was working, what they liked and what needed to change gave the team confidence that they were getting things right.
9. Extending their season. To make up for some lost bookings, North Hayne introduced a pre-Christmas weekend, which filled up so quickly they added a second. This is a change they plan to keep!
How other self-catering businesses have adapted: Wallops Wood Cottages
Wallops Wood Cottages, Hampshire is a family-run collection of self-catering cottages in the South Downs. Owners Katherine and Andrew rewrote their risk assessment when the pandemic first emerged, which resulted in new cleaning protocols, as well as a 'swap box' for each kitchen so that items are replaced after each guest and the others quarantined for at least seven days. Bedding is also quarantined between guests and non-essential items such as decorative soft furnishings, games and DVDs removed.
They have also introduced more robust, guest-centric booking and refund terms and conditions.
‘Keeping flexibility on refunds has been a saving grace. People were happy they could deal with a person rather than getting an automatic response. And this meant they were more likely to rebook than request a refund. Communication is key – telling people what you’re doing about it. And a bottle of wine to say sorry always helps!’