Luxury B&B Furnishings and Design.
We went into the B&B/hotel business on the north coast of Cornwall because, as a result of a car accident, my legs are full of metal, and freezing weather makes life very uncomfortable for me. The north coast of Cornwall hardly ever freezes! We both love our B&B/Guesthouse and take great pride in the wonderful accolades heaped upon us over the years. We love meeting lots of people, have made good friends with some guests, and enjoyed the variety of people who come through our doors. You must be a ‘people person’ to be in this business. It is surprising how many proprietors are not! My wife and I, and our lovely staff are fantastic people persons.
The approach we took when we bought Woodlands Country House near Padstow in Cornwall was that we would make it the kind of place where we ourselves would love to stay. My wife and I were middle-middle aged, not wealthy but with sufficient disposable income, and we don’t particularly like impersonal thirty-bedroom hotels. We wanted a place to feel relaxed, with some style, comfortable, decent personal service, with good local knowledge and well-trained staff who think the same as us. Above all, a B&B that offers a wonderful breakfast. Something home-from-home. So we developed Woodlands Country House with those criteria in mind.
I was once told, by Jill Stein, first wife to Rick Stein and a very skilful interior designer, that wherever you turn in the hotel or B&B, there should be some kind of ‘wow factor’. Unfortunately, ‘wow-factors’ can be very expensive, so imagination is crucial (unless you are stinking rich, of course!). We have managed to collect a few pieces of ‘wow-factor’ over the 16 years we have been here. We are also fortunate to have a nice house with inspiring ‘wow’ views.
My sister-in-law is a buyer for large department stores and online shops. She has always said that a bedroom should have plenty of ‘tut’ – those little curios and stuff that don’t do anything but just sit there on the windowsill or shelf: Such as a wig holder, a silver ship, old leather-bound books with funny book-ends, a Dinky toy collection of RNLI vehicles or even a life-size metal head of Poseidon. Rooms should be personalised, full of interesting things to look at. We bought loads of ‘tut’ from junk shops and antique markets for virtually nothing and scattered them around the house.
Being a Victorian house, with, thankfully, quite a lot of history – it was built in 1887 by the top Cornish architect of the day, Sylvanus Trevail, and it served as a Fleet Air Arm Hospital during World War 2 – we thought we should decorate accordingly, using Victorian colours with Victorian or pre-Victorian furniture, where possible. It was also fortunate – if you can call it that – that both our mothers died within a few years of each other and left two large houses-worth of lovely furniture!
Woodlands Country House was a run-down B&B trading within the VAT threshold by people who, basically, carried out the minimum of decoration. We had a little capital to start with, enough to get rid of the Anaglypta wall paper, dark-brown floral bathroom tiles, most of the electric showers, hanging Spider plants and replace the maroon and gold floral crockery. Our other big outlay, at the first, was to buy Frette linen. The height of luxury, it certainly has a wow-factor and was a very good investment. We are told that Elton John and Joan Collins will sleep in no other linen but Frette. Also, I know they are a bit unsustainable, and expensive to launder, but our huge, fluffy, high-quality towels are always remarked upon, and score highly in guest approval. Furthermore, we provide flannels not only in the bathrooms but also as individual hand-towels in the guest loo instead of paper towels or a blower. This makes the place look more like a home.
It was great to start with a kind-of blank canvas. Over the first six years we added and added to the house and its ‘look’, going without a holiday for eight years, and putting all profits into bringing the house up to our high standard. I suppose it is all down to ‘taste’, one of those things that is very difficult to learn or quantify, to achieve the ‘look’ that guests will enjoy. We got ideas from magazines, other boutique hotels, period television programmes, and by accident. I trawled reclamation yards and antique markets at the beginning. With the help of a very good painter and decorator, we found the courage to use very strong Victorian colours and paint effects. We painted the guest sitting-room – The Blue Room – three times before we got to the blue we wanted!
We wanted the ‘feeling’ of a grand old house or stately home, with family portraits and lovely old furniture everywhere. Our guests are usually the type who enjoy the grand-old-house effect, from well-off young professionals to comfortably-off retired people. Our rates are a little more than a smaller B&B, but cheaper than an hotel. If you feel like you are being treated like an important house-guest, rather than a fee-paying stranger, in a stylish establishment, guests will be willing to pay a higher rate.
I believe that because our B&B looks luxurious, well-furnished and stylishly decorated, the guests seem to respect the house more. They are mortified if they spill coffee on the duvet, devastated if they block the loo. They are far more respectful in a well-furnished house (I imagine) than one that looks like a run-down budget hotel or a student’s hostel. In 16 years, we had only one or two couples check out leaving a terrible mess behind – but that is another story. Even children want to be on their best behaviour – like visiting their grandparents.
Our other great investment, made when we first opened, was in quality beds and mattresses. You can have quaint bed-heads and old four-poster beds, but no matter how gorgeous and old the bed looks, how great the breakfast, or luxurious the furnishings, if your guest wakes after an uncomfortable night, with a bad back, they will hit Tripadviser with a vengeance! It is essential the mattresses are renewed, with top-of-the-range, multi-pocketed mattresses, and quality mattress ‘toppers’, possibly every 5 years.
The only unpleasant part of this business has happened recently: the huge influences of Online Travel Agents – OTAs. Over the past seven or eight years, people now book through these powerful OTAs and lose the personal service and help from us. The likes of Booking.com have squashed out traditional searches, taking over all direct bookings with false advertising and incorrect guidance for our guests. OTAs have encouraged free cancellations and they mislead people into booking rooms with the assumption it is cheaper to do so through them and not direct with us, the accommodation providers! Apart from the Michelin Guide, we stopped membership of Visit England (and Cornwall), Sawday’s, Wolsey Lodges and The AA, as we got hardly any bookings through them. Now our advertising budget is out of our control, paying around 12% of turnover to OTAs! Also, the reliance on ‘The Cloud’ and IT, along with social media marketing has slightly overtaken my wife and me, and I lag behind, badly, in modern methods in marketing a B&B.
As we are getting on in age, and slightly falling to bits, we are down-sizing and semi-retiring in 2019. We are going to just run two rooms (as opposed to the eight we have now), turning four rooms into two grand suites, with every mod-con – smart TVs that look like mirrors, Pod coffee machines, charging points in the power sockets, etc – but also retaining a luxury style and high-quality furnishings. We will stop using OTAs and henceforth rely on our reputation, our past guests, and we will advertise with the ‘quality’ guides like Michelin, Sawday’s, Wolsey Lodges and Mr & Mrs Smith.
A Good Breakfast:
We, my wife Pippa and I, are both caterers and enjoy the finer things in food – as most of the people who visit this part of Cornwall are. I have a particular enthusiasm for a good breakfast, and our aim, from when we started our B&B sixteen years ago, was to do for breakfast what Rick Stein did for fish. I have written a breakfast book – ages ago – and I have done breakfast cooking demonstrations at the prestigious Padstow Christmas Festival for ten years, at the Alistair Sawday Owners Conference in Bristol, and at various other venues.
Our guests can expect a stylish and delicious breakfast in the morning, in a comfortable dining room, with views of the countryside and the Atlantic coastline beyond. We offer a quiet service – a gentle enquiry of what they would like, tea or coffee, type of egg, accompanied by a trickle of soothing music and the odd moo from the cows outside. And then, after a bowl of something from the cold buffet table, we offer a well-cooked breakfast, from a subtly imaginative menu. Nothing too frightening like kale, stir-fried, with a poached egg and served on pumpernickel (seen on a breakfast menu in Putney!) or baby spinach, blueberry and wheatgrass smoothies! Just plain Cornish cooking.
We feel part of a good British breakfast must have a cooked element. I sometimes wonder what on earth some providers are thinking of when they decide just to serve a ‘Continental Breakfast’. I have seen it! A continental breakfast should be an option, especially in city-centre B&Bs where business people have only time for a cup of coffee and a cigarette – like the French.
We also have a few USPs, that guests enjoy: To avoid flobby toast, guests can toast their own hand-sliced bread, as well as squeeze their own oranges or grapefruit for juice. The waiting staff will be very willing to do this for the guest, but we think guests rather enjoy doing it for themselves. Mostly everything is homemade or locally produced.
Fiona Duncan of The Sunday Telegraph said of us: “Possibly the best breakfast in Britain: homemade compotes, granola, pastries and main dishes that include milk-poached smoked haddock, devilled kidneys and fishcakes.” And BBC Good Food Magazine said; “Breakfast does not come much better than at Woodlands.”
Accolades from our guests on Tripadvisor are always much appreciated and enhance our reputation for a good breakfast. Which, it seems, is as important to most guests, as a comfortable night in a stylish, clean room. Luxury can come at a cost, but in the end, the investment is readily paid back in better rates, better profits and, to some extent, nicer guests!