Fosse Farmhouse – Global appeal
Caron Cooper is the owner of Fosse Farmhouse in Wiltshire, a four-star Visit England silver and AA silver B&B that welcomes both domestic and international guests, including a significant number from Japan.
The property near Castle Combe is the setting for the Japanese animated series Kinmoza, which attracts more than five million viewers.
Cooper’s B&B journey began almost by accident in 1984 when she attended an auction for a group of former agricultural buildings located just outside the picture-postcard village of Castle Combe.
“To my surprise and amazement, I was the successful bidder!” she says. “This was the beginning of my big adventure into the tourism business, and the start of an amazing relationship with Japan,” she tells Luxury Bed & Breakfast magazine.
Previously she had worked as an international DJ and as the manager of a vintage stall in London’s Portobello Road. She also had a passion for baking – which has since proved to be highly useful in raising the appeal of the B&B to her guests.
Fosse Farmhouse is situated in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, some 20 minutes from Bath Spa, a city hugely popular with tourists from around the world. Given strong competition in the hospitality market in and around Bath, she says she recognised early on that she would have to provide something unique and different if visitors were going to choose to stay at her B&B, some way out of the city.
She explains: “To achieve this aim, I decided to fill the farmhouse bedrooms and self-catering cottages with my vintage collection, and to style them like a page from Country Living magazine. I also baked scones daily and made home-made jam from the fruit grown in the orchard, as well as producing my own Farmhouse cider.”
Situated as a great base for Bath and just a walk through the woods to the beautiful historic village of Castle Combe, Fosse Farmhouse has two B&B guest rooms and two self-catering cottages in the grounds, lending a useful element of diversity. Cooper says: “Sometimes I am not so busy in the B&B when the cottages are busy and vice versa. You do have to spread your risk.”
The business initially grew simply by word of mouth in a time that pre-dated the internet. She has a positively altruistic approach to her business and says that she has actively tried to build it up while avoiding any dependence on online travel agents (OTAs). She says: “I feel that once you are in their control then they can manipulate the way you price and indeed the very way in which you run your business, when every independent should be completely in control of this.”
Maintaining independence from OTAs is not easy owing to the fact that the online giants are so powerful, she says. “I have been in this buisness 30 years now and the rise of the OTA has only occurred within the last decade. Before that, we relied on guide books and word of mouth and newspaper and magazine copy, and I still try to maintain that approach because I believe that is what makes us individual.”
Cooper says she also likes to establish a rapport with customers before they book. “I want to know more about them as much as they want to know more about me,” she says.
This individual approach is at odds with hospitality businesses in the so-called gig economy, and she says she is eagerly awaiting the imminent outcome of the Competition and Markets Authority’s investigation into the practices of OTAs.
Airbnb too has had a hugely detrimental effect on existing accredited B&Bs, she says. “You cannot deny that. It has just grown and grown and it is unstoppable unless we all get together and try to use our own associations such as the Bed & Breakfast Association to drive across our point, because the OTAs have such a huge budget to promote themselves and we are minnows by comparison.”
She says she appreciates the work of the association for helping to persuade the government to bring OTAs into line. “I’d recommend any B&B owner join a trade association. It will help if you can be a member of an organisation that is going to help support you,” she says.
The arrival of Airbnb has resulted in a surplus of available guest accommodation in the area. “New Airbnbs are just popping up everywhere,” she says. “What do we do? We have to fight back.”
The best way to survive in the face of a challenge of this magnitude is to offer something different that stands out, she says. “One way is to promote the fact that as a B&B you are inspected by the fire authority and you ensure the standards set by the public liability and insurance are in place it is safer for your customer. People must be aware of that because it is so important.”
Guests are clearly taking a greater risk in booking into an Airbnb than into a B&B, she says. “There are a lot of unfortunate things that have happened to people staying in Airbnbs that have been hushed up because they are careful to ensure the stories do not get made public. The public is therefore much safer staying in a place that has already been officially inspected,” she says.
“When I bought the property, I did so on a whim at the auction and without any real idea of what I was going to do with it. Then having realised the size of the property and the cost of renovation and overheads, I had to think of some way to support the running of it if I was going to stay here. The only thing I could think of was by turning it into a B&B. A friend of mine in Bath had a very successful one at the time and he recommended I try it and see.,” she says
“As an experienced owner he gave me helpful advice that I duly followed on how to set up as a B&B, but I never expected that 30 years later I would still be here and thriving,” Cooper says.
Over the years she has had had to overcome many hurdles, among them the effects on her business of foot & mouth disease in 2001 when it was devastating the UK countryside.
“Government advice was for the public not to go near farms. My B&B is called Fosse Farmhouse, but I am not a farm. However, all the guests that had booked from America and elsewhere worldwide cancelled their reservations overnight, leaving me wondering what on earth to do.
“You have to know how to survive in this business. You never know what is around the corner but whatever it is you just have to get over it and find another way.
“A lot of people did go out of business during that time because their bookings literally ceased,” she adds.
While clearly an individual, Cooper firmly believes in appealing to a wide audience. “B&B owners s should not market themselves specifically to just one market. The should try to be appeal to as many as possible by being as inclusive as they can as they never know which market is going to go down and another come up. Couples, families, children – it’s important to be there for everyone, for that’s how we are able to continue.
“By focusing on just one single market you put all your eggs in one basket as that market could easily come to a sudden halt. During the Gulf war for instance, American guests simply stopped visiting. If you are relying on a strong American market you are prone to that drying up overnight and therefore you need to encourage domestic and European guest markets too. Think about everywhere rather than just one particular place,” she stresses.
A combination of luck and good judgement enabled Caron Cooper to capture a reliable Japanese audience.
She explains: “The Japanese connection began purely by chance a quarter of a century ago when I happened to meet a Japanese couple in London, a Mr & Mrs Mitani, who were creating their own British country-style B&B in Japan.
“I was really curious to understand why Japanese guests would be interested in staying there, so I invited them to visit Fosse Farmhouse to experience the real thing in the Cotswolds,” she says.
“The Mitani’s loved their stay with me, and on their return to Japan introduced all their guests staying in their British-themed B&B to my business. Some 25 years later they have remained enthusiastic ambassadors for Fosse Farmhouse and our joint collaboration is ongoing.”
In 1990 visitors from a popular Japanese women’s magazine ‘LEE’ visited the Mitani’s B&B and saw the images of Fosse Farmhouse that the Matani’s had taken.
“They decided that they would like to feature my B&B in their magazine and a six-page article was published reaching some 300,000 readers,” she says.
Then in 1992 a competition was held by the BTA during the ‘Britain Welcomes Japan’ campaign and Fosse Farmhouse was chosen as Best Tourist Accommodation.
Cooper says: “The British Embassy in Tokyo then invited me to visit the Embassy and make an afternoon tea party for the Japanese Royal Family.
“While I was pouring the tea to his Imperial Highness Prince Mikasa and his family I happened to mention that if they ever came to England I would like to invite them to stay at Fosse Farmhouse.
“On my return to the UK I had a telephone call from the Imperial secretary requesting a visit, in 1994. Prince Mikasa his wife and daughter spent three nights in my B&B during July that year.”
The powerful connections between this English country B&B and Japan continued with a young Japanese author name Yui Hara writing a manga story based on Cooper’s life in Fosse Farmhouse.
“Each episode has me baking scones in the Aga or driving my vintage 1954 Morris Minor to the local farmers market in Cirencester,” she says.
Meanwhile Kinmoza or Kiniro Mosaic is the second most popular anime on Japanese television and in 2012 the Japanese film crew visited Fosse Farmhouse and all the locations described in the manga story, including Kemble Station, Cirencester, Bibury and Bathampton.
These places have become a magnet for anime fans from all over the world to discover and now there are more than 5.5 million viewers of KINMOZA! series 1 and series 2. “There is even an app produced by Sony to help fans find their way around the Cotswolds featuring all the locations,” says Cooper.
The feature film ‘Pretty Days’ was released in 2016 and she was flown over for the premier in Shinjuku Tokyo.
“I walked the red carpet together with the Japanese voice actresses from the pop group ‘Rodanthe’ and signed many autographs for adoring fans,” she says.
Naturally enough her website features a link to a Japanese translation.
If she were to start all over again she says she would not change her approach. “I have always identified with my own individual character, which comes through in what I offer. Some people are very fond of it and others dislike it completely. It doesn’t suit everyone, but that’s just who I am, and this is my home. I don’t want to lose sight of that because I love living here, and I have to be happy and comfortable surrounded by the thinks that I like. To be an individual is an asset to the business of a B&B owner,” she concludes.