As the AA announces its annual Bed and Breakfast Awards, Gill Charlton, Telegraph Travel’s consumer expert, who ran a five-star B&B in Cornwall for 15 years, reveals what she learned along the way.
1. There are a lot of slobs around
It is amazing how a couple can transform their room into a pastiche of Tracey Emin’s infamous bed in just one night. Wet towels, spray perfumes and water bottles soon ruin polished furniture. In the end I stain-proofed every surface with yacht varnish.
It is amazing how a couple can transform their room into a pastiche of Tracey Emin’s infamous bed in just one night
I would also whip the handmade Indian quilt off the bed if I spotted signs of slobdom on arrival. This was easiest in summer as – bizarre though it may seem – the state of someone’s toe-nails is a dead giveaway.
2. The late arrivals
Few guests have the courtesy to telephone to say they’ll be checking in late (we’re talking post 8pm). The impersonal nature of online booking has made this discourtesy even more prevalent. And when you do call their mobile to find out where they are, nobody picks up as it’s deep in a handbag.
3. The horrors of ‘August people’
Mention these two words to any B&B owner and they’ll raise their eyes skywards. August guests are a different breed: needy and greedy. They arrive before breakfast (having driven through the night), plunder the breakfast buffet for lunch, take bathroom towels to the beach, and come back shouty drunk at midnight. Some Cornish B&B owners shut up shop to avoid them.
4. First impressions
‘Meet and greet’ as it’s called in the business is crucial to building a relationship with new guests. If you can make them like you in that first hour, the rest is plain sailing. A cup of tea and a piece of home-made cake (or a glass of wine after 6pm) goes a long way as an ice-breaker.
5. People are surprisingly timid
This was a real eye-opener when I started up. I would open the door with a cheery “Hello, I’m Gill” and get a mumbled “Hello” in return. No names, no handshake, not even a smile. Over that first cup of tea I would find myself playing the clown to try and make people feel at ease.
August guests are a different breed. They arrive before breakfast, plunder the breakfast buffet for lunch, take bathroom towels to the beach, and come back shouty drunk at midnight
Another thing that always amazed me was how parents would fail to introduce their children. It was as if they were just part of the baggage they are unloading.
6. Hire the sheets; launder the towels
Guests wreck sheets so hire, don’t buy. Towels are a different matter. I wanted thick fluffy ones, not the hard, worn offerings from commercial laundries. Buy the best you can afford (they’ll last years if you use Vanish on the stains) and finish them off in a tumble dryer. Adding a Comfort dryer sheet works wonders.
7. You can never have too much water
It’s astonishing how much water people get through. A pressurised hot and cold water system is essential to run today’s power showers. If you are thinking of setting up a B&B make sure the mains cold water feed can take a 50mm pipe. Otherwise angry men covered in soap will start shouting down the stairs at you.
8. Fast Broadband is crucial
Slow Wi-Fi speed is the biggest complaint on hotel review forums. This can be a problem in old houses with thick walls. Get the experts in to set up a circuit of WI-FI boosters that plug into the electricity supply. I found Devolo boosters to be the best.
9. It’s a 24/7 job
Even if you have help, everyone wants to meet the owner. There’s no such thing as a day – or a night – off. A few years ago, a government directive said we had to replace our robust mains fire alarms with a wireless system. These new alarms are so sensitive that a tiny money spider can set them off. Many a night I’ve been shocked awake and had to calm the guests – and myself – before hunting for the culprit.
10. Spotless rooms are crucial
Cleanliness is the guest’s biggest concern and it’s amazing how many B&Bs fail in this respect. Bathrooms should appear as if nobody has used them before. We used toothbrushes and Milton to scrub away the tiniest traces of mould on tiles and would put our reading glasses on to check for stray hairs and nail clippings.
Keeping on top of flies, spiders and vermin in old houses is full-time job. One spring, I forgot to top up the attic mouse traps and a guest came down to breakfast saying she’d had a bad night’s sleep as a mouse was busy making a nest in the lathe-and-plaster wall behind her bed.
11. You can’t shut the guests out
Those days are long over. Give guests a key to come and go as they please. Make sure you’re around after breakfast and at tea-time to answer questions, book restaurants, and sort out that scrape on their hire car. But do build down-time if you’re tired. Hide the car, lock the door, and close the curtains. Early arrivals will head off again and return at the proper check-in time (4pm is perfectly reasonable for a B&B) which you should have emailed to them.
12. The curse of Tripadvisor
Every B&B owner has had a bad review. It happens. A guest doesn’t tell you the bed’s too hard/too soft, or ask for something that’s missing from their room. Instead they post all their niggles on Tripadvisor. Even worse, are the guests who say they’ll write a damning review if you charge them for cutting their stay short without notice.
And have you tried to find a country B&B on Tripadvisor? It’s almost impossible unless you know its exact name. Once B&Bs were listed under the nearest large town (often part of their postal address) but now they are listed under the nearest hamlet, a location that nobody ever searches for. Booking.com has a more sensible approach which is why so many B&B owners have been forced to pay 15 per cent commission to these online booking agents simply to raise their profile.
13. And finally…
Nobody goes into the B&B business to make money; it’s a lifestyle choice. The most important thing is to like people – a lot. And to be kind and patient with the pushy, the indecisive and the bores. Making people laugh with a few self-deprecatory tales is a good way to start. Helping deliver an extra-special holiday – by giving lots of inside track suggestions – will guarantee they’ll return. For it’s a truism of the business that the more you put in, the more you get out.