PROFILE: A five-star experience

Hayesbank Bed & Breakfast is an award-winning 13-bedroom bed & breakfast situated in a quiet residential area just two minutes’ walk from Ashford town centre, and close to many local attractions such as Dover Castle, the White Cliffs of Dover, Leeds Castle, Port Lympne Wildlife Park, Canterbury with its magnificent Cathedral, and many coastal areas.

When Divya Nagarajan and her husband Deva Jeganathan bought the business late last year, it had fallen into a poor state of maintenance.

The couple were property entrepreneurs at the time. Divya explains: “When we first looked at this deal in Ashford, Kent, we did so with a view to buying it as an HMO (house in multiple occupation).

“This 13-bedrooms 1930s property was run as a poorly performing B&B, and by the time we acquired it the property was in an extremely dilapidated condition. The vendor was living in Italy at the time that the property had been put up for sale,” she tells Luxury Bed & Breakfast. By this time the whole business was being run by just one residential manager, who was responsible for everything in the business including bookings, cleaning and breakfast. “He had only leased the property, so he did not do any refurbishment,” Divya explains. “The B&B was in a bad state.”

Owing to its poor condition, it had been generally given a wide berth by potential buyers, she says. However, she and Deva stepped in and bought it with the initial idea of embarking on a project to convert it into a HMO, given its proximity to the town centre, as well as local amenities including Ashford international station, Ashford station, Ashford Designer outlet, William Harvey hospital and the M20. It is also just 40 minutes by high speed train to central London.

Divya says: “Ashford Borough Council, which had initially accepted our application to convert this property into an HMO, came back to us and asked if we would continue running the B&B as before because of its track record, and owing to a demand for emergency accommodation in the area. We decided to take this up as a challenge, as we were learning a new business and a new experience.”

Three months after acquiring the property in January last year, they embarked on the main renovation of the property, conducted room by room, which took three months – although Divya says ongoing minor renovations are still taking place.

She says there were a few things she learned in the process. “We took over the business with a lot of bookings which we did not cancel, and trying to carry out renovations with guests staying slowed down the refurbishing process. If we had not had bookings we could have completed the main renovation in just one month. That was a big lesson for us,” she says.

For example, there was scaffolding on the building’s exterior limiting the parking space at the rear, which she says annoyed some guests who had seen the B&B advertised with parking for a certain number of cars. “We learnt it was important that if there were any changes we would tell the customers to know what to expect in advance,” she says.

Changes to the business so far

The couple has completely transformed the B&B with fresh styling and improved its facilities, implementing innovative ideas in improving customer experience, she says. “We have implemented a hotel management system, an accounting system, and we deliver a sumptuous, personalised breakfast menu. Guests tell us what they want to eat in the morning. It can be a cooked or continental breakfast, or they can request something particular that they personally want. It is not just about what we happen to have to serve them.

“It was very basic when we took over. We started by giving guests complimentary welcome drinks in our dining room and offering them biscuits, Thank You cards with vouchers for customer retention, and tickle-the-five senses (smell, sight, touch, sound and taste).

“We also offer personalised customer care. Our managers, cleaners and everyone we employ has been trained to give 100% customer service satisfaction on, for instance, cleanliness.”

The building was refurbished to very high standards, she says. “Online booking suite Eviivo was very helpful to us. We reached out to a number of OTAs, and by April we were on booking.com and Expedia. Prior to that, this particular B&B had never been advertised through OTAs.

“Our motto is ‘Home Away from Home’, and our approach to the business is to implement 5-star hotel standards in our B&B. We use bed linen and towels, that are eco-friendly, use less water and consume less electricity to dry.”

From the start they found a need to increase the occupancy rate, and to help achieve this they tapped into European market, given the B&B’s location close to Ashford International station, Folkestone ferry service and Folkestone shuttle service.

They were also smart in establishing that there were many local wedding venues without accommodation, liaising with all the organisers in the area and providing them with accommodation with increased flexibility in check-in times and check-out times without charging additional fees. “This summer our rooms were filled with wedding parties,” she says.

Future plans

The key aim of Hayesbank’s owners is to enhance the customer experience. Divya explains: “The way we will go about this is by implementing an app that allows us instantaneously to check-in, check-out, provide keyless entry and access the room service tally.”

She has registered via the Bed & Breakfast Association for B&B Day. “We plan to do some local advertisements in local radio or newspaper to make the local community more aware of our B&B, for instance if anyone local needs and extra room for a guest to stay,” she says.

The B&B owners also plan to implement a keyless smartphone bedroom entry system whilst retaining the existing lock and keys to take into consideration those guests, typically older guests, who prefer the traditional key-lock method.

They are constantly learning ways in which to increase our standards equivalent to five-star hotel standards in the B&B from watching TV hotel shows such as Channel Four’s Four in a bed, she says. “Among the things I learned from that show are that is cleanliness very important, often more important than the facilities, and that people do not like smells, so we make sure we put diffusers throughout the property so the whole place smells good.”

Given that the local wedding venues lack guest accommodation, as well as liaising with the organisers and providing them with flexible timings, the B&B provides promotional offers and local knowledge to its guests about Port Lympne Wildlife Park and other local tourist attractions, in the process creating greater awareness among the European tourists about these locations.

“We also encourage repeat visits by providing affordable rates for local builders, contractors and local employers when they make regular bookings,” adds Divya.

Hayesbank uses environmentally sustainable bed linen and towels from EcoKnit. “These towels and bedlinen use less water for washing, dry up to 40% faster and last longer than usual bed linen and towels,” she says. “We are working on making our renovated business a green B&B, with such towels and bed linen successfully implemented throughout, and with appropriate waste disposal. We are trying to save the energy as much as possible, to help make for a sustainable development.”

Achievements

Hayesbank B&B’s Trip Advisor rating has already improved to four stars having initially suffered from having been taken over in a dilapidated condition, according to Divya. “We are new to all OTAs and have managed to secure a 7.7/10. Our B&B was short-listed as a finalist for the Service Accommodation of the Year 2017 by Property Investors Awards for crossing many hurdles and also striving hard to deliver the best customer service,” she says.

She adds that she learned from the Bed & Breakfast Association summit in October not to get upset by bad reviews but instead to respond to them positively and with empathy rather than defensively, thanking them for their comments and saying, “Next time you are in Ashford please drop in for I am sure you will have a better experience”.

“We are aiming to become the #1 B&B in Ashford and to improve our ratings to ‘excellent’ with all OTAs and Trip Advisor,” she concludes.

If you have recently renovated your property and would like to share your story, we’d love to hear from you. Email the editor bill.lumley@jld-media.co.uk