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Holiday let experts define future roadmap for post-COVID sector recovery

Grant Seaton

Leaders from across the holiday let sector have united to share their insights, advice and guidance as operators continue to respond to ongoing trading challenges due to the evolving COVID-19 pandemic.

Organised and hosted by Grant Seaton, Senior Business Lending Manager at specialist holiday let mortgage lender, The Cumberland, the panel consisted of Joby Mussell, Chief Commercial Officer at holiday letting agency, holidaycottages.co.uk; Gill Haigh, Managing Director at Destination Management Organisation, Cumbria Tourism; and Fiona Campbell, Chief Executive of the Association of Scotland’s Self-Caterers.

The virtual roundtable, which took place on Thursday 1st October, focused on how operators might move forward in light of the fast-paced nature of the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions and the short notice changes that continue to delay the sector’s bounce back. Collectively, the panel agreed that whilst in the short-term, the focus is on navigating the immediate challenges operators are facing, longer-term, the future for the UK’s holiday let market looks positive with bookings for 2021 already looking healthy.

Short-term challenges versus long-term boost

Joby Mussell

“We are confident in the long-term future of the staycation market, with new audiences experiencing the benefits of UK holidays this year and demand for 2021 already looking strong.” Joby commented. “Demand and bookings remain high with the holiday season extending all the way through into October – we experienced a very busy September with less than 3% availability left and less than 17% availability going into October.

Meanwhile forward bookings – a mix of 2020 transfers and new bookings – are 156% up year-on-year providing greater security of long-term earnings and recovery.”

Gill added: “The fact remains that people still want a holiday, they want something to look forward to and that is where the UK’s holiday let sector will really come into its own.”

Grant added: “As an industry, we’ve shown our resilience and agility and proven we can react with pace, whatever obstacle we may face.”

Planning for and responding to evolving restrictions

It was agreed that having a clear set of fair and balanced principles in place will make it easier for operators to react to changing restrictions and communicate efficiently with guests to maintain positive sentiment.

Gill Haigh, Cumbria Tourism MD (Image by Phil Rigby)

Gill explained: “Having strong, reassuring communications with customers is critical. Operators should consider formulating a plan around cancellations and updating their terms and conditions in line with CMA guidance.”

When considering what operators can do to minimise the potential damage of short-notice restrictions, Joby emphasised the importance of preparation and speed. “Being reactive and anticipating future changes and how they could affect policies is important. Prepare for the worst case scenario in the event of local and national lockdowns and have the strategic and operational plans in place now.”

Joby also suggested making last minute availability prominent and attractive as people seem to be more confident about booking at short notice. “For July, August and September, we saw a 15% increase in bookings with a lead time of three weeks or less.”

In terms of local lockdowns specifically, Gill suggested operators focus on local tourism opportunities by encouraging people to rediscover what is on their doorstep.

Fiona Campbell

Meanwhile, Fiona encouraged operators to use this opportunity to consider how to make their business more attractive to customers and looking at where they could make improvements, for example, offering flexible cancellation policies and promoting COVID-secure cleaning practices.

Communication and collaboration remain critical

The panel agreed the significant role leadership communications has played and will continue to play. “Having a strong and clear communications strategy has been absolutely vital over the past six months, both in terms of how we as an industry and body can support our members, and in terms of how they can manage their guests,” explained Gill.

This is echoed by Fiona: “Joining forces with sector colleagues and collaborating on key factors affecting our members has proved to be a massive support. I’ve no doubt that once the pandemic has passed, we will look back and think, despite the incredible challenges we faced, we have made some brilliant relationships and helped thousands of operators.”

Financial considerations

From a financial and cash flow perspective, Gill recommended, where appropriate, operators use the 15% VAT reduction as a sales opportunity. Reviewing staffing levels and costs should also form part of the forecasting and financial planning process alongside considering how the Jobs Support Scheme could be used.

To this, Grant added: “It’s also important that operators keep a direct line of communication open with any provider of finance to ensure efficient support is identified and put in place if and when it is needed.”

While Rishi Sunak’s Jobs Support Scheme was welcomed, the panel agreed that for self-catering operators, the focus should be more on cashflow support. “Wage costs for smaller self-caterers are not as high as in serviced accommodation so the focus of support needs to be on cashflow rather than jobs. For example, bounce back loans, CBILS, extension of payment of loans and, if VAT registered, have a VAT deferral to help see operators through the winter months,” explained Gill.

The roundtable also discussed the work the panel is doing behind the scenes to support operators, including Cumbria Tourism producing trackers for lobbying Government and the ASSC securing £1 million for distribution amongst some of its members.

Gill commented: “The critical point here is that we cannot afford to let businesses that were perfectly viable prior to the pandemic close their doors due to lack of financial support. These operators are a major contributor to our economy and our communities and it’s vital that we help get them through the next six months.”

Grant concluded the session: “Today’s discussion has shown just how passionate our industry experts are about the operators and markets they serve. Collectively, we are working around the clock for members and for the industry as a whole to ensure they have the support systems in place to help them face the ongoing challenge of COVID-19. As a united front, we are highlighting where we think support is needed and what this might look like, in order to face this issue with strength and emerge stronger than ever.

“We hope to have shown that, despite the challenging times we find ourselves in, providing we can navigate the very near future, the long-term future looks much brighter for the UK’s holiday let sector.”

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