When my husband Ian and I converted our redundant dairy buildings eight years ago, we had no experience of marketing a product direct to potential customers.
Before having children, I was an HR manager and Ian worked on the family farm, so it was – and still is – a steep learning curve.
But selling rooms and cottages is not like selling shoes on a shelf that will still be there to sell tomorrow. Once the night has passed you can’t sell the same night again. It might sound obvious, but I find it helps focus the mind when looking at price and how to market our accommodation.
When pricing, look at the local area and compare what your competitors charge.
We have two standards of room – regular and extra special rooms – so we can price them to fit different budgets.
If we want to keep busy out of peak season, we have to be a bit more creative, such as offering three nights for price of two or a complementary bottle of wine and chocolates.
The other thing to consider if you do a winter deal is that the people may come back or tell their friends.
Word-of-mouth is very powerful. A few years ago I offered three nights for two on a bleak February week to a couple of brothers, they went home and told their family and 18 of them now stay for a long weekend every year.
What is Farm Stay UK?
Farm Stay UK is a farmer-owned consortium with more than 1,200 members. It was established in 1983 as The Farm Holiday Bureau, with support from ADAS, RASE, the National Tourist Boards and Farmers Weekly. Over the past 30 years, £3.5bn has been added to the rural economy as a result of guests staying on farm locations through Farm Stay UK.
Advertise on websites
We use various websites such as Farm Stay special offers and laterooms.com for late availability and discount the price. Late Rooms takes a large commission, but we still make some money on the booking and it gets different people through the door.
When we started eight years ago, it seemed much simpler – we advertised in two or three brochures with the now-defunct tourist boards, a basic website and a bit of online advertising.
Today, there are so many choices of how to sell and market, while not forgetting we are, in the main, busy farmers with many hats to wear.
Farm Stay is the only printed brochure I advertise in as there are still people who like a hard copy brochure to look at. They may then go to your website to make a final decision but they start with brochure. Some people keep them for years.
Organisations such as Farm Stay UK are very important to us and we have a great East Anglia group, which focuses on marketing our area of the country, run by a small committee and part-time administrator.
We give out information at county shows; arrange local press coverage and regional advertising. I am now on the committee and it’s a classic case of the more you give to an organisation, the more you get back.
My father-in-law could never understand why people would stay with us in the middle of nowhere. It was because we have space, fresh air and wide-open skies. You are not just selling a room, you are selling the urban idyll of living in the countryside – or, as I call it, the Country Living view of the countryside!
Build a website
The most important asset we have is our website. The internet is bursting with accommodation providers, so you have to stand out from the crowd.
It doesn’t have to be all singing and dancing. You don’t have to take online bookings but it helps, just attractive and easy to use.
One of the best things we did was to pay a professional photographer for images of the farm and the accommodation.
People don’t always bother to read text but a great picture really helps.
Make sure it’s up to date because if it’s not people will wonder if the business is still going. I look at lots of other people’s websites to get ideas of what I like.
I use Facebook and always try to have something to say, and a lot of our customers interact with us. I put special offers, pictures and videos – anything that gives people more information. Last summer, a guest couldn’t wait to talk to Ian about the harvest as they had seen a post on Facebook and wanted to know how things had gone.
I am always looking for things that don’t cost money but may take a bit of my time instead, so we have entered and won local tourism awards, which lead to great press coverage and prestige for the business.
We have offered competition prizes in the press in return for e-mail addresses, which we can then use for our e-newsletter that is sent out every few months.
Lots of people asked us about buying vouchers for stays for friends and family so we now have this as an online option, where the vouchers can be bought and downloaded.
Every few months, I check Google analytics to see how people are finding our website. Farm Stay is always in the top three, along with some of the local tourist attractions we have been linked from for free. It also helps to know what sites to stop paying for as they aren’t providing enough business.
Trip Advisor, love it or loathe it, is here to stay and customers use it and you can’t stop them so we have embraced it and hope it works to our advantage. Respond to challenging reviews, and if you can find the time, respond to good ones, too.
I also find if I have a guest who is a little tricky I work harder to make sure they have a good stay.
The award-winning Dairy Barns bed and breakfast and self-catering holiday cottages are in Hickling in Norfolk, between the Norfolk Broads and the coast – www.dairybarns.co.uk or 01692 598243