‘It’s been an incredibly difficult year’: How B&Bs are surviving the pandemic

The accommodation sector has been hit hard by the Covid crisis

By Natalie Bloomer

When Peter Pickering and Stephen George first opened the doors to their bed and breakfast in December 2018 they couldn't have hoped for a better start to their new business. Situated in the heart of the village of Flore, Russell House soon became a must-visit spot. In its first year it was mentioned in the Guardian's list of the 40 cosiest places to stay and has since been featured in several national newspapers. 

The period property, which was built as the surgeon's house in 1714 and was later used as a dairy farm, regularly receives rave reviews on Tripadvisor with people describing it as "the best place we've ever stayed" and "spectacular". But when the pandemic hit Peter and Stephen were forced to close the B&B and haven't felt able to open it since.

"We became an award winning B&B within such a short time. We climbed the tree very quickly and then all of sudden it was all cut off," Peter says. 

“It's much harder for places like ours to adapt compared to bigger hotels. There just isn't the space to socially distance in our dining room and we've made the decision not to reopen until everyone is vaccinated and we know that it is safe."

Despite the great success they had in the early days, the business has not been running long enough to access any government support and so the couple are now relying on their pensions to get by.

"We're one of the people who slipped through the net. We haven't had any help at all but we're lucky that we can survive without the income from the business."

Although Peter and Stephen are hopeful they will be able to reopen one day, they say there are still too many uncertainties to be sure.

The national picture 

New data from the Office for National Statistics shows that during the first lockdown accommodation and travel agency businesses saw the sharpest decline in turnover - falling to just 9.3 per cent of their February levels in May. During the summer months the number of those businesses trading increased from 43 per cent in July to 98 per cent by the end of August but by mid-January 2021 the number had dropped back down to only 37 per cent. 

In December, the Bed and Breakfast Association carried out a survey of its members which revealed that on average turnover was 60 per cent down in 2020 compared to the previous year. Of those asked, 53 per cent said that if things got any worse or new restrictions were brought in their business would need additional financial support from the government to survive.

Recent confusion over the government's advice on taking a holiday this summer has done nothing to ease the concerns of those in the tourism industry. Earlier this month, the transport secretary Grant Shapps said people should not book holidays yet but just weeks earlier the health secretary Matt Hancock spoke of his own holiday plans to Cornwall and predicted a "great British summer". The official line now appears to be that it is still too early to know. 

Back in Northants

The Swallow's Rest is situated off a country lane in the picturesque village of Brigstock and in 2019 was named the 4th best Bed and Breakfast in the world by Tripadvisor. Owner Sam Read has owned the property for seven years and says that although the business has been substantially affected by the Covid crisis she has managed to stay open throughout.

“It has been an incredibly tough year for everyone,” Sam says. 

“Whilst the accommodation sector has been massively affected, we are lucky at The Swallows Rest that we have managed to keep the business open throughout the year for key workers and those on essential travel.”

But in order to keep their doors open, Sam has had to make major changes to the way the business is run which has incurred additional costs.

“We had to undertake a full risk assessment implementing strict Covid guidelines throughout our business, including new cleaning protocols, wearing PPE, robust social distancing processes with check-in, serving breakfasts and guest contact and new ways of working to mitigate all Covid risks.

“New procedures were put in place to ensure people were travelling for essential reasons only. Contact-less and cash-free payment processes were established. We also signed up to the ‘Good to Go’ Covid-19 industry standard, so that guests could be assured of our commitment to Covid guidelines.”

Despite the challenges Sam is optimistic about the future.

“Long term I have no doubt our industry will recover quickly and business will return to a buoyant market with people wanting to get away within the UK for domestic breaks. 

“Being a small boutique B&B with only three rooms, even before the pandemic, we were always fastidious with our cleaning and took our hygiene standards very seriously. During the pandemic, this attention to detail served us well, as previous guests were confident returning to us. Once lockdown is lifted, people will be keen to get away, and Northamptonshire is a delightful county to visit so we are expecting a flood of enquiries.”