In summary, today’s market is a disrupted one. The big players have got much bigger (Airbnb, TripAdvisor, HomeAway) and the small players have either gone under or partnered up to become much cannier about reaching and providing services to their guests.
Developments in the way, when and how people use technology has radically changed the way people find properties they like. Social media has become a huge part of that. Peer reviews are still critical. Video is now expected. Styling is a must.
People expect a formal and informal story to be communicated and to be able to switch from tourist to traveler mode depending on their group size both at booking and throughout their stay.
Groups with more than one generation continue to actively seek customer service. Where as Millennials, who actively don't, use websites that help them avoid speaking to real people (Airbnb, HomeAway, Lastminute.com, Skyscanner). However all generations are currently seeking authentic 'slow' experiences.
What are our competitors doing?
Since AirBnB came on the scene, prices in the industry have generally have dropped by 20% (cost per booking). However, more and more, there is industry talk that the hosts and guests who initially flocked to use AirBnB, and who’ve had very mixed rental experiences, are becoming more canny about where, how and who they book.
AirBnb is the talk of the town. But is it for everyone? Their typical traveler is usually single, a couple, or a small family. It is less often multigenerational. Their travelers prefer to feel independent and enjoy their trip without having to interact much with others, be it travel agents, hotel concierges or tour guides. Quite a challenge for an industry that has focused on the human service element for years! To fulfill these customers’ needs, and differentiate their offering, digital-only companies like Airbnb, HomeAway make the absence of human interaction a selling point. Owners Direct offer a half and half option, giving owners details through the sales process - certainly this has worked for us this last 3 years.
Self-service travel is particularly popular with Do-It-Yourself travelers (often Millenials) whose use of technology is to plan, manage and book travel online, rarely speaking to another human in the process. This is a travel trend that we’re watching. Millennials are not our core market for sales, but older generations are slowly adopting and Silver Surfers are a growing market for us - with very different website usability requirements! They love to talk with people and double check everything!
The creative, luxury home-share brand One Fine Stay has grown significantly and in a similar time frame as AirBnB. Whilst they are almost polar opposite in their branding and approach, they’ve got much in common: they benefit from staycation travel trends, similar growth patterns (in cities) and social media, owner stories and reviews are key to their sales model.
Some of our team are also OFS hosts, and we know the company has had a tough time in the last 2 years with their city-centric offering. In the main because of safety concerns around terrorism in cities, and wealthy clients are worried enough to seek holidays elsewhere. We have certainly seen an increase in international guests coming for family get-togethers at out most expensive properties, spending £600-£750 per night and up to £3800 per week instead of staying in London.
Safety is something holidayers can’t take for granted anymore. The continued and close international warring has fuelled the increasing staycation trend and looks very much set to continue. Even if the holiday terrorism threats reduce over time other factors such as airport stress (especially for 2 and 3 generational groups) is enough of a reason to put people off air travel.
Easy driving counts for a great deal. The UK's traffic continues to be horrendous in school holidays and the New Forest’s proximity to London is one of our greatest strengths. Sadly the New Forest Tourism Association is not strong and it is one of the UK’s least known National Parks, grossing £93 million per annum from visitors, versus £140 million Yorkshire, and £230 million in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs - quite a bit further from London!
Authenticity is valuable in 2016. One of the things that we’ve learnt from the feedback from our guests is that they are hungry for ‘real home’ and authentic experiences. Essentially people want to have the choice of moving between the mode of ‘tourist’ to ‘traveler’ - even if the group they are travelling with are larger and have different needs.
This is evident in the type of home guests are attracted to. For example, (comparing to an average all white holiday home) people seem to seek more rather than less stuff, colourful, artsy, eccentric, eclectic. They especially don’t want identikit houses with matchy-matchy interiors. They want to feel like they’re in a home-share and community-share experience, picking out the bits they want and discarding those they don't. Airbnb and OFS both use this in their marketing too.
Alongside that, guests seek masses of ideas for inexpensive, creative, add on experiences. They want to be in the know about the best bits to do before they’ve arrived. OFS put Host Tips on the best coffee, beer and park in their area and offer a 24hr concierge service to make restaurant bookings. AirBnb has its own guide per city but they aren’t house location specific.
Mobility and health are big motivators for choosing a family holiday destination. As the baby-boomers and their parents head into their 80's and 90's, so do their requirements for down-stairs bedrooms, one floor housing, well placed (and good looking) grab rails, houses that take companion dogs, wheelchairs, air tanks, etc. 'Last time we're going to be together' holidays are on the up and increasingly with very ill group members as the VIP guest.
How we compete
The perks of truly being local
Our genuine local knowledge, top tips and insider information all help our guests to feel ahead of crowd, confident in booking and enabled to make the best of their stay. Our website and dedicated blog host more information on what to do during your stay than all our competitors. From where the best beaches and beginners cycling routes are to advising guests to book well in advance for The Pig and our reviews on local festivals. Our advice, guidance and tips (and the way we share them) is consistently the most loved service we offer and our top reason for positive feedback from guests.
As a result we are growing this area with interviews with local business owners, happy guests, forest experts (foragers, navigators, gardeners, agisters etc) and of course you! We know our guests want to find out why our hosts love where they live and why they’ve built their home like it is.
Another unique perk we have as a local business are our connections and friendships with other local businesses. It means we are able to offer unique discounts to our guest and hosts. We’re teamed up with Brand New Forest for broad local discounts and then our own friends, such as Lime Wood, Solent Cellar, Famers Choice etc. all add to the offering. We want to be part of supporting our community and want our guests to feel part of it from the moment they book.
This isn’t just about saving money. It’s about letting guests feel part of the Forest and giving them local insider tips on making the best of their stay. This value-add is critical to our offering and we’re prioritising adding even more offers.
Experiences and events
We’re asking people to spend a lot of money per night on their accommodation. Travel, eating, drinking and entertaining themselves frequently doubles the accommodation cost initially committed. To balance this out we spend a lot of time and effort with our guests creating ‘priceless’ or ‘back to basics done exceptionally well’ experiences; be it cooking marshmallows with your kids by a campfire on a secluded beach, our best wild swimming spot, the ultimate secret tree to climb, a map to a beautiful clearing in the forest for a picnic or arranging for a river taxi to take them to lunch. Without exception these are our bestseller experiences that have the greatest wow factor for a time-tight and too-busy-to-plan holiday-makers.
We also are uniquely positioned to help guests with private events. We know most of our guests book with something to celebrate. Be in a 50th Birthday or the annual full family clan-gathering. We offer help with big details; private chefs, decorations, boat charters etc. and the little details; a bespoke cake hidden in the fridge and bubbles on ice on arrival.
This event focused approach has proved so positive that we’ve brought our dedicated Event Manger on to the team. These events and experiences don’t just add something for our guests, they add something for us too. They fuel a flurry of social media check-ins and check-me-outs that guests share online. This ‘free marketing’ has helped us to gain more friends and family referrals, and the experiences themselves have given us more repeat guests.
Authenticity in what we sell, how we sell it and who we sell it to
The authentic nature of our homes is our biggest sales focus and we spend a great deal of time developing community-created, style, experience-led ‘stories’ to share our homes in an informative and interesting way. Building these stories into our sales and marketing mix, with the right images, is really important to us.
We want our guests to feel that our team is authentic too. We follow up on every booking with a personal call and our local guest manager drops in to check on guests and offer suggestions (and deal with any immediate problem solving).
We also want to ensure that we attract authentic guests. Unlike the big companies, we don’t assume everyone’s going to be a good guest. We use our booking follow up calls to filter out inappropriate guest or change bookings if guests have chosen the wrong house for their needs. Attracting the right guests, getting the know them and helping improve their stay is important to us.
The New Forest is a no-brainer location for a safe Staycation. Hampshire frequently features in the ‘top UK places to live surveys’. Our safe tides, safe beaches, well maintained roads and distance to London all helps.
Our mobility access
When it comes to mobility and health issues in our houses, as our collection grows, we’re getting better. And we’re getting more bookings because of it. Communicating what we can offer to busy daughters and sons trying to book somewhere for a frail or sick family members is important. We get most of our phone calls about this sort of enquiry and a booking might incur up to 30 emails checking details. Five of seven of our full time rental houses have downstairs bedrooms and good access for frail or wobbly legs to get to the bathroom. Getting this mix right for us is a growth business area and we’re building up our knowledge to support guests more.
In particular we’re working on understanding more about how we can help guests with specific health concerns including; ambulance transport, nurse visits and specifically chemo and oncology related needs. For unexpected illness we have already had quite a bit of experiences with guest having to go to hospital and the hospice during their stays with us.
The next steps for New Forest Escapes
We are currently in the middle of refreshing how we look and sound. We have revived our branding to make New Forest Escapes look more approachable, luxury and personality led – evoking trust and projecting a desirable and authentic forest lifestyle.
We are in the middle of radically reinventing our website and our booking system. Our site is having a layout overhaul to make it easier for guests to get to the information they need quicker. It’s also going to be much more visual - allowing our property photography to work harder in attracting guests. The rebuild will be done in two phases with the hope of being finished in the New Year.
Our booking system is also being assessed. Whilst market leading, it isn’t good enough. This is a big challenge as there are no other ‘off-the-shelf’ UK providers that can do the job we need. We’re got a lovely development team working on improvements and are hoping to have something new in place by March 2017.
How hosts can help
The New Forest tourism board doesn’t offer a huge amount of support in attracting guests to the area. We work very hard to originate relevant, fresh and appealing content for our audience but are always on the look out for new ideas! If you have any suggestions, contacts or creative ideas (however wild) on how we can spread the word about out properties and the Forest please let us know.