A Homeowner Q&A
Sara and Mark Eastwood were attempting to work busy schedules while bringing up their young children. In a quest to find more time for family life without having to give up work, they started looking at holiday rentals.
Five years later, they have three stunning Shropshire properties: Larches Retreat, Oaks Retreat and Clearviews. Combined, they have over 200 five-bubble reviews on TripAdvisor. Clearviews was booked before it was even built, solely on the strength of their other reviews.
If you’re wondering how to better your work-life balance by getting involved in holiday rentals, here’s how to build that all-important reputation—and your revenue.
How did you pick your first property?
Sara: There are only four years between all our children, and they were all very young, and it was really about searching out something I could do that would not impact massively on the children.
We quickly realized that to do it properly, we couldn’t manage letting long-distance. At the time, we were living in our dream home, but we decided to downsize that house and move out of our dream home so we had the money to buy a holiday let.
Mark: We sort of stumbled across the house that we ended up buying—it was very quirky and needed various changes, but it did have an authentic Norwegian log cabin! We thought there was potential for that to be quite an attractive small holiday let.
It’s about 10 metres from our house, but over time we’ve done more and more to increase its privacy.
What was your strategy given than neither of you had experience in the rental business?
Sara: We started our pricing well below what we wanted, because we felt that if you go in with a price that’s really cheap and then you exceed expectations, people are always going to be wowed by that even if there are a few mistakes. At Larches Retreat, we were charging about £40 a night, and now for two nights we’re charging £210!
Mark: We worked hard to get reviews and really listen to what people were looking for. Every time we had a comment from a guest about, “Oh it would be great if it had this”, we would always improve the amenities to meet the needs of travelers.
Sara: We always increase our prices after 10 five-out-of-five reviews!
It was only a few years before you decided to expand—what made Oaks Retreat the right investment?
Mark: There was still an area of garden on our property that initially almost put us off buying the place, because it was so separate and overgrown, but as we started to have a proper clear of the space, we started to think that with the right type of lodge we could create something pretty special. I wanted something fairly modern and crisp—a bit more high-end and design-led.
Sara: Basically, we didn’t want to poach our own customers!
Apart from design, what makes your properties a more exciting proposition than other holiday rentals?
Sara: Most holiday lets don’t do two-night breaks. Most holiday lets will do a three-night minimum, but we thought, “Why don’t we make it more like a hotel?” Because we’re on-site, it’s a lot easier for us to deal with the two-night handover, but we were getting so many two-night bookings that we kept putting the price up to try and put people off!
Mark: People are coming who are perhaps cash-long and time-short. People feel like they’ve come away into the middle of the countryside and yet they can still walk to the pub and the restaurants. We’ve played on that at little bit, and we’ve tried to set the pricing against other propositions that allow people to have that.
How do you communicate that sort of experience in your listing?
Mark: When we finished Oaks Retreat, we got a few of us together, had a few beers, lit the fire and tried to get some great photographs of the place—that’s always important. To some extent we’ve still got to achieve that with the Larches and the Oaks: to get really high-grade photographs.
Sara: In a lot of our reviews people say the photos don’t do it justice.
You broke with tradition for your third property, Clearviews, didn’t you?
Mark: We’d run out of space in the garden, but also we’d had contact with a specialist who was pretty adamant that the larger properties—particularly the sleeps-10-to-14 space—was a real opportunity.
Clearviews was very old and it needed quite a lot of work. But it just seemed to have the right mix of attributes: it was walkable into town; it had the potential to create multiple living spaces; and each bedroom having an en suite was a unique selling point that could secure us more revenue.
Where do you begin with such a large project?
Mark: All the design decisions were made with the holiday let market in mind: things like the noise, the space, having multiple spaces for large groups, the en suites, underfloor heating where we felt it was necessary, even the heating system—you can control each room individually.
Sara: That gives us the ability to offer the extra customer service. One of our guests had a newborn baby, and on the second day they phoned us up and said it was a little bit chilly at night time when she wanted to come downstairs and feed the baby. We were able to turn the thermostat in the lounge up at night without turning the whole house up.
What else can you do to improve the guest experience?
Mark: We email customers with suggestions for things to do and potential itineraries. Recently I’ve been coming up with various walks that they might want to do to get to a local pub, and they can download an app which gives them the breadcrumbs of the route. We’re trying to offer them a more bespoke service.
Sara: For Clearviews, we have an eight-page document I send people to make it easy for them to have a relaxing holiday. We include local supermarkets that will deliver, we’ve got caterers that can do anything from a seven-course with wine dinner party down to one company that will deliver foil trays so you don’t have to cook any food yourself. We’ve got local beer suppliers, we’ve got people who will come and do craft things—all sorts of different things so people don’t have to look that up themselves.
How does that help your business in the long run?
Sara: The TripAdvisor reviews are an absolute selling point for us, aren’t they?
Mark: Absolutely—that’s massive. We always push for as many reviews as possible.
Sara: We’ve got people staying at Clearviews at New Year who came and looked round when it was a building site. And they booked literally on the back of the reviews on our other properties. And that tells you something about the power of TripAdvisor reviews.