Rising to the challenge

No amount of hospitality experience can ever prove to be quite enough to absorb the initial shock of opening up your own B&B and welcoming in your first guests. Bill Lumley talks to Alex Johnson, co-owner of four-bedroom Crickhowell Ty Croeso
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Situated on the edge of the Brecon beacons and alongside the River Usk in the shadow of Table Mountain, the pretty village of Crickhowell has been attracting guests for five hundred years. It was named best place to live in Wales by The Sunday Times in April this year.

Up a hillside overlooking the village and commanding spectacular views stands Ty Croeso B&B run by Alex and Cory Johnson, who both have formal qualifications and extensive working experience in hospitality. Ty is the Welsh word for house and Croeso – pronounced Croyso – means welcome, so Ty Croeso means House of Welcome.

HOSPITALITY BACKGROUND

Both Alex and husband Cory have an extensive background in hospitality. Her experience began with a three-year course studying hotel an institutional management at Torquay College, now South Devon College. “It was a really good college where you learned everything you need to know about hospitality,” she recalls.

Every summer course students on the course would work on a placement in the hospitality sector, and on her last placement she worked with Bass Inns & Taverns, pursuing an innkeeper management course through the summer holidays, working in two central Cardiff pubs and one in Bath.

“I loved what I was doing but I was working at a pub close to home the work was full-on 80 hours per week with one day off. So, I took a job in Shepperton at the Moat House before being invited to work as bar manager at the Hilton,” she says.

GRADUATING BACK TO WALES

She says she left hotel catering at a time she and a friend were both working at the Hilton. “He would operate the catering function for conferences at the hotel while at the same time taking responsibility for running the bar,” she says “The two of us would meet and express disbelief to each other at the hours we were having to put in. When a new manager came in, we both left to work for an estate agent in Surrey, Curchods.” It was looking for people who understood what hard work was, she says, so they both fitted the bill.

Alex worked there for a year – long enough for her to be awarded best salesperson of the year – before returning to Wales. “That was where I wanted to settle down buy a house. My parents had a furniture business, and I opened my own shop.” She then worked in retail for 15 years, before she and husband Cory took over Ty Croeso B&B.

Having left hotel and catering and moved into retail with her store Alex had resolved not to return to the hotel and catering sector. But she says running the B&B is very different. “We have different hours and different lifestyles. Although here at the B&B it is virtually 24/7 with guests staying in the building, it never feels demanding as it was when we had to do the bar shifts from 7am till 3pm, before taking a break and coming back to work again from 6pm till midnight,” she says.

TAKING OVER

Of course, behind the usual challenges the initial introduction and for all future guests too, because it is your own business, your concern these days is that if they write anything about your B&B online they will write a very good or better still excellent review. And as someone was quoted in the press recently, a one-star review really is like a drive-by shooting.

The challenge on first opening up a B&B can feel all the more stressful if your property was previously run as a hospitality business, she says. “You renovate it to your style and put your mark on it but at the back of your mind you cannot help but worry they are going to compare you negatively with the previous proprietor.”

DIFFERENT KINDS OF GUEST

Alex says Ty Croeso attracts a different style of guest to the ones that generally stayed in the corporate environment of the Hilton Hotel. “The kind of guests who stay at a place like the Hilton and those who choose to stay at a B&B are totally different. I became disillusioned by the Hilton, but although anywhere in catering everyone wants their pound of flesh meaning you must work hard, I love running the B&B despite having to work so hard working for my own future and our own business. Some people say they only choose B&Bs because they are all unique and prefer the personal touch whereas the Hilton comes across as faceless staff even though there are many lovely people working there,” she stresses.

“But the Hilton is more for business people who are expecting that standard – every room is the same without the personal touch, which some people find too much. A B&B is more about feeling at home and feeling comfortable with the personal touch. That doesn’t suit everyone of course but in a B&B, and you do get people who don’t want to talk to you, but you can sell straight away and keep niceties to a minimum.”

THE CATALYST

After 15 years business at her store began to suffer due to a change in the high street, she says. “We rented the premises, and we both realised we had to do something else and make a change.

“Then one day we came to see this property on a cloudy and wet Sunday afternoon, and as we walked into the guest lounge it was bright and we both thought wow, this is lovely! So, we bought it.”

The love-at-first-sight feeling about the property is still there, she says. “We are up on the hills, so we have amazing views, even when it is raining.”

Cory works as a key accounts manager for a company called Fryetts, which produces fabrics that it sells to companies that make sofas. He works in the B&B at weekends, when he talks care of the computer side of things and the clerical side, she says.

“At weekends I call him the booking clerk. But it is a joint thing. My parents are retried from their furniture business often help me when I have the school run to do daily during term time.”

Cory’s weekday work at the fabric company begs the question whether this means they find themselves not having to look far when it comes to furnishings. Alex says: “When we first came here we changed the materials in the lounge as they were quite cold colours and the new fabrics happened to come from the company he is now working for – a lovely family business – and it happened just by chance. Now if there is a fabric we really like then we buy from there,” she says. “For example, we have recovered various chairs from materials they supply – they do have a gorgeous selection – but we chose the interiors together. If one of us doesn’t like it then we won’t have it. It’s a real mixture to be honest.”

TY CROESO HISTORY

Originally built as a Victorian infirmary, many years ago the property had been operated as a hotel. By the time Alex and Cory bought it, the previous owner had split the building in half. She explains: “We live on one side, which is completely separate with an in-between room and a separate reception. One door leads to our dwelling, and the other door leads to the guests’ accommodation. They have their own communal lounge on the ground floor and the guest rooms are over the two floors above this,” she says.

One of the first jobs the couple did was to refurbish all the bathrooms and bedrooms. “They all had electric showers, and we changed them, so they all had both showers and baths, all done in as different manner. They were all colourfully painted and we repainted them neutral colours.”

OPENING CHALLENGES

When they opened they had just six weeks to get open in time for a walking festival, the next event on the calendar to draw tourists into the area. “That was February, which is a pretty rubbish month as business goes,” she says.

“January can be surprising, but February tends to dip down. We were determined to open in time for the February walking festival, because the alternative was to just carry on refurbishing and talking about this new challenge. Talking about breakfast is not the same as doing it, cooking it and starting the business.”

They conducted a practice run with friends and family, she says. “We stuck to a deadline. You need to, otherwise you just drift on.”

In the event they made it open in time for the deadline only to find they had no guests. Alex says: “The previous owner had not been selling the property specifically as a B&B but was prepared to sell it however any prospective buyer wished to operate it, she says. “The previous owner did have some booking still on her books, as they were carrying on until they sold it. We inherited just one couple from her, and then we really had to start from scratch.

“You can still carry on, but you need to stick to a deadline. Otherwise you can drift on with the refurbishment. You think you have a budget but you don’t really have one: you think you are going to do these rooms, recarpet and do what is necessary to spruce it up and there comes a point when you have to start to make some money. That’s the most difficult part. You try to stick to a budget, but you must go for quality. Fortunately thanks to my dad’s business in furniture, I had good contacts and the shop that had given us ideas what we would like in furnishings. So we prioritised things, and knew the first thing we had to do was to upgrade the bathrooms, as they did look tired.

THE GUEST ROOMS

When you walk in there is a lounge area with chairs and at the end is a guest room that runs half the length of the house, with a super king-sized bed. “It had been the previous owners’ own private accommodation and it was one of the rooms we weren’t going to do until we had some more money, but we were prompted to renovate it when there was a leak,” says Alex. “We have had a dozen marriage proposals here, as well as quite a few honeymoon guests. Beside the super king bed, the room has a sofa bed, so it is a perfect family room. There is also a zed bed to sit in which is quite big.

The B&B now has four guest rooms. “As you walk up you see the roll top bath through the balustrade. The bath has a view out of the back garden. Although nobody can see you in the bath there is a blind. Then there is a separate room which is an office area with a desk and lamp for guests use, although nobody seems to use it. I always say there is an office for them to do some work and Wi-Fi is very good here now as well as we are on a satellite system.”

Wifi she says had been a major challenge until they found the satellite solution.

“We would have guests having hysterics because of the weakness of the Wi-Fi signal,” she recalls. “Until two years ago all around the building were those plugs supposedly boosting the signal, and whenever we rang BT they would say oh yes it is working. We were at the end of a line so the signal was weak, and everyone advised us that guests all nowadays expect to have decent Wi-Fi.”

WALKING COUNTRY

“It is walking country around here, and most guests stay for that reason. But from time to time you will ask a guest if they have everything they need for their walks and they come back a reply saying they just plan to drive around the area,” says Alex.

There are a number of wedding venues in the area so the B&B attracts a fair number of guests visiting purely for the purpose of attending particularly for weekends in the summer. We also have the Glanesk country estate just below us, which has a festival in August and other events through the year, and which is good for our business.”

She adds: “It’s always difficult in the quiet months. Walkers will walk any time, which helps in the quieter times of the year. Ladies travelling for business like the guest lounge as it feels more comfortable than walking into a bar/ restaurant on their own,” she adds.

TWO-NIGHT RULE

The couple try to stick to the rule for minimum stay for weekend guests of two nights, but this year that has been a challenge to meet, she says. “As soon as the summer holidays start we are ram packed full – always is – but some people ring asking just to stay on a Saturday, and it is so much better to have people stay for two nights at a weekend as it is so much work, washing and preparing everything twice. We have tried to stick to the two-night rule, but realistically you have to be flexible. There are quiet months. June this year for example was quiet after a busy May with the two bank holidays.”

EATING IN

The couple chose not to offer their guests an evening meal from the outset. Alex explains: “We have always been a B&B. When we first moved here the children were one and two years old, and we adapted our lifestyle. If we had chosen to offer evening meals there would have been no way we could have looked after the children as well.”

BUSINESS COLLABORATION

When Alex and Cory took over the B&B there was a village restaurant that would encourage them to recommend it to their guests. “If we sent any of our guests to eat there, they would give us a star on a card,” she says. This culminated in them receiving a free meal in return for a certain number of recommendations, she says. “Nobody really does the star system in the village anymore,” she adds.

However, the B&B does receive recommendations from businesses in the village. “There’s a lovely bookshop in the town, Book Ish, recently crowned best bookshop in Wales. The owner, Emma Corfield-Walters recently launched a literary festival in Crickhowell. She has had a lot of authors come to talk about their books,” she says. “Just before the holiday we had One Day author David Nichols come and stay on Emma’s recommendation. But sometimes there is not enough going on for you to work successfully together. We will always recommend people, but it would be nicer to say maybe if that guest comes down on our recommendation they can have a free cocktail. I need to be more proactive with things like that and get in touch with them!” she says.

STARS

When the couple first moved in, the property had four stars and they brought this up to five. Alex recalls: “I will never forget the guy who came the first time as that was my first experience and felt like I was in an exam. But he was really nice, and said he didn’t really think we could have five stars as the rooms weren’t big enough.

“After a while we rearranged the rooms and made it appear to have more space. One room in particular now has an en suite and a wonderful view, and it now has the addition of a king-sized bed, which is a minimum I think people now expect. We have been awarded five stars from Visit Wales, who come every couple of years to do a proper visit and surprise us.”

The B&B has another double room that has more room around the bed as well as a beautiful view, as well as an en suite, and the B&B’s end room has a sofa bed as well as a double bed, making it another that can be a family room. “People like it because there is room for them to eat and watch tv from the sofa,” she says. “The en suite there has a shower rather than a bath.”

FACILITIES

Although the B&B unsurprisingly does not offer a 24-hour reception Alex says: “People often ask whether we will be open at midnight for them to check in and of course we say yes just fine. I am open 24 hours, but I don’t advertise it.”

The B&B has an alcohol licence and has an honesty bar located in the corner of the guests’ lounge. “Guests help themselves to a glass from the cupboard,” says Alex. “We don’t offer a full range of every optic – we offer a variety of spirits including gin, vodka, whisky and brandy, as well as wines, and guests write down what they have taken. This gets a lot of good reviews, although at the same time many guests don’t use it at all. Sometimes it is so popular I do consider getting in more brands of gin to serve with Fever Tree tonics,” she says.

Meanwhile when guests first arrive they are offered tea, coffee and Welsh cakes. “If they arrive later in the day I will offer them perhaps a glass of wine or prosecco,” she adds.

REPEAT GUESTS

One of the rewards for delivering outstanding service in a beautiful setting is the booking of repeat guests. Alex says: “I have really noticed it in the last two years. Many people have always said they will have to come back but there are lots of other places to stay. I used to get really excited when people said that and then you wouldn’t see them for maybe two years. But I get it now and it is lovely when people come back. I recognise people more than their names. Someone put on the registration form recently under reason for stay, ‘Stayed before. Lovely place,’ and I felt a bit of a tear in my eye. Cory said I need to get a grip! I foud that nice when they came back.”

BUILDING UP A FRESH BOOK OF BUSINESS

Alex says she thw two of them found it quite nerve-wracking to be putting their own stamp on the place when people who had stayed under the previous owners came back to stay.

“One guest had been quite a few times even before the previous owners staying in the area for business, and when we had taken over he chose to bring his wife because they both loved the village and surrounds. I felt more nervous about that, but I decided no I was going to do it my way. Your own personality is inevitably going to be different to the previous owners. Just give them a real welcome – that is all I can really do,” she concludes.

 

This post first featured in the Winter issue of Luxury Bed & Breakfast +InnKeeper magazine, which can be viewed here. Please subscribe so you can get the print magazine sent to you.