Founded in 1997 by a group of self-catering property owners who did not want to pay agency fees or lose control of their business, Premier Cottages is well established as a beacon for quality, self-catering accommodation.
We caught up with Chairman Alistair Handyside to get his views on the industry, how it’s changed over the past two decades and what makes Premier Cottages, and its members, stand out.
SuperControl (SC): To those unfamiliar with the Premier Cottages brand, what exactly do you offer?
Alistair Handyside (AH): “Premier Cottages is a membership organisation – we get together to jointly market our properties, giving members the benefit of a highly regarded single luxury brand, but leaving them the freedom to run their business the way they want to. The membership aspect offers members a lot more support than they would typically get from other channels – we have regional meetings and an annual meeting where members come together to exchange ideas, get updates on industry trends, as well as support and encouragement, and the Board is always available to assist members with advice on issues such as photographs, what audience to target, and how to position their property on pricing.
“We have high quality repeat guests, and members all share their guest data¹, which gives us access to a huge database. We also have full websites in French, Dutch and German, which gives us good access to international guests. Our social media is strong and active (almost 70,000 Facebook followers), which is a good source of traffic to our website. Our PR company does a great job – we do a lot of journalist visits, and get fantastic coverage in the national press. We also have a very high quality brochure, which is sent out to previous guests and requesters.
“Our main differentiator is our quality – we only accept high 4-star and 5-star graded properties, so our customers are confident of the quality of the collection and very brand loyal.”²
SC: How does Premier Cottages differ from other agencies/channels?
AH: “Ownership of the booking remains with the member, and they are free to set their own prices, terms and conditions, and guest relationships. There is a membership fee but no commission. There is a much more interactive relationship between the member and the board.
“All members, including the Board, are self-catering operators in their own right. Any fellow member or Board director a member speaks to will know first hand what they are talking about and will be able to provide advice and assistance.”
SC: In the 21 years you’ve been operating, what are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the industry?
AH: “Undoubtedly the advent of the internet, which has made the entire market a lot more visible. Self-catering used to be about putting an ad in The Lady, and a card in the local newsagent, sending out a few leaflets to enquirers and hoping for the best. Now everybody can see everything online – photos, 3D tours, video, pricing, availability – and can compare all sorts of properties instantly. Guests are a lot cannier, and their expectations are a lot higher. The quality of properties has gone up massively, even over the past five years, and we are all having to work a lot harder to get the bookings.”
SC: So, what advice do you have for self-caterers still reluctant to embrace online booking?
AH: “It makes your life so much easier! You come down in the morning and the booking is there, logged, with very little needed from you (apart from the changeover). It removes many hours of drudgery, but doesn’t remove your ability to communicate with the guest.
“SuperControl is the platform we use for the Premier Cottages website, and the one we recommend to our members, as it integrates seamlessly with our website. The SuperControl team is very helpful not just from a Premier Cottages perspective, but in their patience and willingness to help our owners who are new to online booking to get to grips with the system. They have an excellent customer services desk, who are very well trained, and very responsive, so a problem doesn’t remain a problem for long.
“If you use SuperControl, the settings are flexible. It gives you a lot of statistical tools, so you are able to track how each cottage is doing relative to last year. You can set the system up to send out automatic reminders for balance payments, directions etc (but if you want to stay hands on, then you don’t have to do this). Importantly, if you set it up correctly, it can tell you how each of your booking channels is performing for you. This is critically important, as all advertising platforms are a cost to your business, and having lots of channels can be very expensive, reduce your margin, and isn’t necessarily more effective than focusing on a few which work hard for you. Ones that do not perform should be removed. If you aren’t 100% clear on where you get your bookings from, then that is very difficult to do.
“SuperControl has other nifty automated options, such as being able to set the system to automatically apply a last-minute discount to unbooked cottages within xx days (your own choice) of arrival. That gives you flexibility to operate, but without you having to do any extra work.”
SC: What are the main sector trends you’ve identified year-on-year?
AH: “To attract bookings, it is really important for properties to have a Unique Selling Point (USP) and to make that USP very clear. That doesn’t necessarily have to be physical (though features like pools and hot tubs or proximity to a beach are very popular and always book well). It might be that you are within walking distance of a fantastic pub, or that you are dog-friendly or baby-friendly. Whatever it is, you need to shout about it – bookings are increasingly harder to get, and there is no shortage in the market of sleep-4 cottages in unexceptional locations with no standout features that have pretty empty calendars.”
SC: What does the future hold?
AH: Hard work – I always quote Tom Peters to our members, to remind them that we need to continue to evolve to keep getting the bookings in this fast-changing market: “If the other guy is getting better, then you’d better be getting better faster than the other guy is getting better…or you’re getting worse!”