The power of business community and collaboration
If the past year has shown us anything, it’s the value of community and collaboration. This is just as true for our business community as it is for our personal lives.
It has been incredibly inspiring to see how small businesses have adapted to new challenges and supported each other during the pandemic.
Once such person is Karen Thorne of Bed & Breakfast Academy and Hopton House B&B. Karen talks to us about why she created the Academy and how she has helped independent B&B owners set up and run their own businesses, particularly throughout Covid-19.
The story of Bed & Breakfast Academy
Before setting up her B&B, Karen worked at British Airways, in IT, for 16 years. As IT Resource Manager, she was managing around 130 staff. When Karen decided to leave BA, partially due to stress, she made another big change. She moved, with her family, from their home near London to their holiday home in Shropshire.
Not wanting to return to corporate, Karen decided to turn her new home into a B&B. She opened Hopton House, ‘a rural retreat with a touch of luxury’, in 2004.
Then, after a couple of years of running a successful B&B, Karen wanted a new challenge.
“I enjoyed the process of setting it up but, once it was up and running, it was ‘Right, now what?’, says Karen. “I needed to use my brain and I was used to working with people – a big part of my role at BA was coaching and personal development. I had this idea of setting up B&B courses and launched my first in 2006.”
It took some time to build the new business, alongside running the B&B. However, Karen gained some good press in publications such as Country Living Magazine and The Guardian. This helped to raise the company’s profile and bring in customers.
“I was running a two-day classroom course at Hopton House once a month, with about 12 people on each one. I had people coming from all over the world, even as far as Nigeria.
“Then, about 5 years ago I set up a Facebook group for the people who had gone through the course. It became this really vital group. People would go on there if they were having a bad day and needed morale support, or if they needed to ask a question and get advice.”
Coming together during Covid
At the start of the Covid pandemic, there was a lot of uncertainty over what would happen to businesses. The impact on the hospitality sector was felt almost immediately, as guests began to cancel bookings.
“It was quite terrifying for a lot of people because they were relying on that income and it was suddenly all gone,” says Karen. “It happened just as accommodation businesses start to get busy as well. January, February and March tend to be really big months in terms of deposits coming in. That April was my first ever negative income month, because we were having to give deposits back, so that was quite frightening.”
“I went live in my Facebook group and just said, ‘Look, don’t panic. Just take a deep breath and we’ll get through this together.’ And then the group really came into its own in terms of people coming together. I set up a weekly Zoom call for my group members, so they could share ideas and concerns, and just to see others in the community. I think all of us felt so much better after having been on one of these calls, even if it was a complete moan-fest, just from seeing other people.
“If you’re on your own, it can be so difficult sometimes. Having that community working it all out together saved so much time and made it better.”
Adapting the business for life in lockdown
Sometimes good things can come from bad situations. Karen has made a big change in her business, in response to the pandemic, which she feels has made her business more sustainable.
As classroom settings were no longer an option, she moved her course online and launched it in August 2020.
“I’ve had 27 people go through the course now, which is really fantastic. My business is now all online. I’m probably not going to go back to doing classroom courses, because the online course is doing so well.
“What’s really great about having the online course is that it’s there – someone can buy it tomorrow and access it straight away. Plus, it’s not reliant on me delivering live training.
“Another benefit is it’s more affordable for people. With the classroom course, people often travelled a long way and they had to stay a couple of nights, which could make it an expensive endeavour. The online course is far more accessible.”
Karen has also launched a new marketing membership for B&B owners, helping them to develop authentic marketing, tell stories and build an email list.
“This wasn’t something I’d been planning but I saw the need for it. My members want to be B&B owners, not marketers. The point of the membership is for me to explain things to them in a way they can easily understand, without them having to go through lots of courses and spending lots of time on it.”
Why travel independent
With vaccinations being rolled out, there is hope that we’ll soon be able to get back to some sort of normality, including being able to take holidays. The question is, when restrictions are lifted, will people be willing to travel and stay away from home?
Karen is optimistic: “I think we’ll see people wanting to travel locally and appreciating what’s on their doorstep more. And I hope that people are picking up on the message about supporting local businesses.
“After the last lockdown, we saw a rush of people booking to get away, so there definitely is a pent up desire. One of the biggest trends on Pinterest at the moment is people looking at holiday destinations, so there is that virtual planning going on.”
Karen is, of course, a massive proponent for booking independent B&Bs over national chains.
“The big chains have their place but if you’re after something a bit more special, that’s when you start to look at independent hotels and B&Bs. When you want something unique, with more personal service.”
Choosing to stay in independent accommodation also helps local economies. Karen says, “If you stay at an independent B&B, it’s not just them you’re supporting. It’s the butcher they use, the cleaners they get in, and so on. By supporting those businesses, you’re supporting a whole local culture.”
Collaboration is key
Karen believes the key to building a thriving community of micro businesses is collaboration.
“Networking is really important, either through online networks such as the Simply Club or at local networking events. I think there could be more collaboration between some of the small businesses who work together.
“It starts with recognising the other businesses that are helping your business, either through giving you their custom or signposting customers your way. It can be as simple as saying thank you. You could go further and give them a discount on your products/services.
“More can be done on social media too. If a B&B mentions a local restaurant, how about the restaurant returns the favour.”
Get the support you need
When Karen first started to think about creating online courses, a few years ago, she realised she needed some expert help to make it happen.
“I needed some coaching because I had a head full of ideas and I didn’t know where to start. I’d followed Emily on Twitter for a while and had a personal recommendation, so I decided to contact her. She really helped me to clarify where I was going with the online course.”
Karen joined the Simply Club and continues to be a highly-valued member. When asked how she’d describe the club to others, she said:
“The Simply Club is a very supportive group – you always get your questions answered in the Facebook group. The resources that Emily sends out on a weekly basis are really useful.
“It’s just great to have that support there when you need it. Emily is always there, if you’re struggling or getting stressed about the current situation. It’s a great resource for businesses to collaborate and share ideas.
“If you’re thinking about joining, I’d say go for it! There’s nothing to lose but a lot to gain.”
If you are a micro business owner-director or sole trader looking for guidance from a small business expert and a community of like-minded business owners, I invite you to join the Simply club.
Please note, we don’t take booking through the website and encourage people to book direct with the accommodation, so that business can avoid paying a fee to a third party.