Friday 30 November 2018

Market Mentality: Blackpool Hotels

With the fifth anniversary of Little Touches ® approaching in March 2019, we thought it only fitting to take the time to reflect on our experience working in the Blackpool hospitality market. We've met a lot of different people, running businesses of all shapes and sizes and believe it important to identify and lay bare the common threads encountered along the way. 

By no means is this an attempt at us venting frustrations on our part, it is an honest assessment of our experience building a business in Blackpool.  

Minority refusal of essential safety certifications

Although at Little Touches we are all about championing quality accommodation providers, what supersedes quality is safety, and for that reason we're listing this point first and foremost. The following four pieces of compliance documentation are absolutely necessities for the running of any place of lodging: Public Liability Insurance, Gas Certificate, Fire Risk Assessment and Food Hygiene. Their presence in day to day operations should never be viewed as discretionary, but indeed compulsory. 

The reason we are mentioning what should be a formality is because of a pattern we've noticed. A culture has emerged in pockets of certain streets that views, quite flippantly, these four safety documents as optional expenses that can be avoided. 

One particular example saw our company decline membership of our TRIPLE C (Clean, Cosy, Comfortable) affordable accommodation scheme to a Blackpool hotelier, due to their casual attitude to having Public Liability Insurance. Their response, which was and is still shocking, came in the form of the remark ''no one on this street has public liability.''

The situation is made worse by the fact that the large Online Travel Agencies (OTAs), who provide the lion's share of Blackpool reservations (over 90% of new room sales) leave the safety side of things completely unchecked. It is our opinion that this rewarding of poor business practices is what feeds this small minority and their obstinance towards Guest safety.    

To be clear, we must once again emphasise the phrase small minority, however the negative impact reflects on all Blackpool businesses and residents alike. Particularly for Guests visiting Blackpool for the first time - they check-in to an undesirable and unsafe property -  the result being that they tar all the resort and its whole accommodation stock with the same brush, never to return again. 

There have been whispers around Blackpool for some time now about the municipal government stepping in to enforce compliance amongst accommodation providers and Little Touches would wholeheartedly support any motion that moves towards such a by-law being passed.   

Blackpool Pay As You Go Attitude

Having previously covered this topic in a roundabout way in the article The Independent Hotelier Mindset, it is now time to deep dive into this Blackpool phenomenon. The definition of the mindset in 2016 was the following and it still holds true today:
''Most independent hoteliers will only engage in marketing and consultancy expenditure if it can be directly and instantly attributed to a room sale''
As a company, two of our core revenue streams operate on as Pay As You Go - No Questions Asked commission basis. They are our room sales on and sales in our Ticket Office for attractions and shows, and a natural model for these lines of business is Pay As You Go. 

However, this simply is not financially viable for almost everything else we offer. In our experience though, the Pay As You Go idea has almost a religious fanaticism amongst a significant number of Blackpool accommodation providers. Many times, we have been surprised at the often comical extremes that the proportionate mindset has been taken to. 

Our best example is when were approached by a hotelier with whom we have a very strong working relationship. Following the host receiving room sales off and engaging in other services, they then decided to opt for our Professional Photography service. As far as we were aware, when engaging in a business photoshoot, as opposed to a sole headshot picture for the likes of LinkedIn, businesses are issued with a selection of images for them to use. The unwritten rule of the photography industry is that someone's taste is subjective, so most photographers take more than you need and issue most images with additional copies lit differently.

After the photoshoot at this particular property, out of the blue and completely announced, the hotelier came to see us at our Ticket Office/Hotelier Hub. Completely satisfied with the bulk of the pictures received, the host still sought money back for the images in the album they did not feel they would use. Even though by that time we knew the PAYG attitude inside andout, for it to be used in this context was shocking and taking things to the nth degree. A fitting analogy that highlights the absurdity of the situation is to think of it like a chocolate assortment tin. One may not like that hard toffee or the hazelnut one in a Quality Street/Roses tin or the Bounty in a box of Celebrations, but you cannot return the tin back to the supermarket wanting a partial refund after eating everything else. In general, the world operates on a use it or lose it, take it or leave it, all or nothing basis. 

Our opinion is that at the root of it, there is a refusal for any of the hoteliers' money to be used to contribute to our overheads. Another underlying factor is that many of the struggling Blackpool accommodation providers initially had a romanticised dream of running a seaside Bed and Breakfast, which hasn't quite been realised. It is disheartening that we are expected to conform to a PAYG model for each and every service we provide, yet if the shoe was on the other foot and we approached a hotel for a room for the night, with the price being exempt from overhead costs, we believe we would be laughed out the door. 

What would be the likely response from a utility company if asked to uphold this model? It borders on the ridiculous, but for a water company to issue a monthly bill with an itemised shower by shower, flush by flush list is a good comparison to some of our experiences. 

The intense price-driven market

Despite championing the bona fide independent gems and dubbing them Masters of Their Niche through our GOLD scheme, we also wanted to single-out the best of the budget best. Our TRIPLE C scheme, which offers value for money verified stays across Blackpool was established to satisfy the more price conscious Guests. We decided that the upper cost of TRIPLE C Double Room would be £50 per night, with most of our low cost members falling between £35 and £50. However, all of our assumptions about what constitutes a budget stay have been thrown out window given the constant enquiries looking for rooms for £20 (or less!). 

The £20 or less properties very much exist, but not on or any of the self-respecting OTAs. Instead, most of these places exist offline, in a sort of underbelly. Finding them relies on word of mouth or going knocking door to door and putting in the legwork. It is such a great shame that such operators are devaluing the properties of hard-working hoteliers, who offer nice accommodation. A proposed solution that's been tossed around for years is minimum pricing enforcement across the resort, but due to the underground nature of troublesome properties - and their invisibility online - it may not have much effect. 

Two examples that typify the intense price-driven market are as follows: a man down on his luck and a lady ''treating'' her son and his fiance. There is a particular gentleman, one of our most loyal Guests, who regularly stays at different Blackpool hotels and is very price sensitive. However, when Blackpool is at its busiest, he fully accepts that when push comes to shove, he will have to pay more to find a safe place to stay. Regularly asking after £20 single rooms, it is not uncommon for him to pay nearly double. On the same weekend this gentleman had to pay double, we had a telephone call off a lady enquiring about a Double Room for her son and his fiance for Two Nights. Aimed as a ''treat'' for the soon-to-be-weds, she wanted to know if we had anything available for £35 with breakfast. 

That's two people, two nights on a packed summer weekend for a mere £17.50 per night, frighteningly lower than the previous rock bottom of £20. To us, £20 or less is by no means a treat, but a prison sentence! The contrast between these two examples is very clear and doesn't bode well for the resort. 

52 Week Resort vs. Seasonal Mindset

Every November, after the Blackpool Illuminations have gone off for the year, the biggest TV show in the country - BBC's Strictly Come Dancing - pays Blackpool a visit. If it is good enough for Strictly, coming to see us as what is traditionally classed as out of season, then in our eyes there is no reason why many other big events can't be staged November through to March. Leading the way over Winter is the Royal Pigeon Racing Association British Homing World Show of The Year, which regularly attracts over 25,000 people in what many people stereotype as the ghost town period of the year. For all the many benefits this brings to the local economy, there is even more untapped potential with the visiting Pigeon Fanciers, as they find each January a resort predominately shuttered, with a barren events offering that could otherwise tempt them to stay longer than the two-day pigeon show. 

We fully understand that between April and November is always going to be "the season," but the intervening winter months should be a clearly defined off-season and not just an abandonment waiting for April to roll around again. Business owners can, should and will continue to take months abroad in the likes of Tenerife, but it is important to recognise that this exodus every single November leaves Blackpool an empty town and leaves us wide-open to comments like "we always come when there's nothing on."

To move the resort ever closer to a good as its going to get 52 Week Resort, it is time to grab hold of catalysts to this process such as the new Winter Gardens Conference & Exhibition Centre to tempt flagship events of yesteryear such as political party conferences back to Blackpool and seduce large business organisations and confederations to give Blackpool a go for the first time. 

Proactive approach vs. atomised approach

The overarching theme which ties everything discussed so far together is best encapsulated by two approaches to business: proactive or atomised. 

For those who we describe as atomised, the Blackpool experience for their Guests tends to start and end at their doorstep. Often what factors into their jaded outlook is a long history of running a business in the resort, which likely hasn't worked out as initially hoped. Many of such properties have been up for sale for years, leaving the hoteliers stuck with a business that is much unloved. It is therefore hard to convince these business owners about making positive change, be it improving their business in general and/or embracing Blackpool more fully as a resort. 

A further segment within the atomised hoteliers are what is often referred to by those engaging in the practice themselves, as "hobby Guest House owners." Typically, these hoteliers have long paid off the mortgage on their property, have built up a successful business, but now instead of retiring elsewhere they continue to run their holiday accommodation, as and when they feel like it. Although never begrudging anyone a happy retirement, we recognise that on busy Saturdays in the summer our reservation system is saying no rooms at the inn, but that's far from the true picture because of the Hobby Guest Houses that are either sitting empty or partially full due to the widespread blocking of rooms from sale. 

What exacerbates this situation even more is the Minimum Length of Stay clause that masks the true supply of rooms. The ideal for those wishing to continually have the archetypal 2 nights minimum is for the clause to be removed in the immediate days before the Saturday, if not indeed a couple of weeks before to open up room sales on what is the day in Blackpool. Conversely, those hotels that are more flexible with the length of stay convention - which tend to be the lower priced ones - get the business. Our attitude, which we have tried to convey to all our network of accommodation providers, is to take Guests in for one night in their hour of need on a Saturday and then they may come back for two or three at a later date. Regularly we are met with responses against one night stays such as "it costs more in bedding and linen " and "one nighters are always more trouble." All we can really say to this is for hotels to increase the room rate for these stays to cover their cost concerns and that the so-called "troublemakers" would likely be put off by the higher price in any case. 

One example of an interaction we had with a very atomised hotelier has been on our own doorstep on Withnell Road, where we have a strong "referrer army." Whilst handing out our new Ticket Office leaflet, a disgruntled hotelier appeared at his front door soon after the leaflet had been posted to make a scene, scrumpling up the leaflet, tossing it into the road and saying "posting s*** like this through my door. " Pardon us for informing him of the many savings and services his Guests could make a couple of doors down!

The result of all this cynical behaviour is what causes most of the aforementioned issues in the Blackpool market. When struggling financially, this penny pinching, wanting everything itemised Pay As You Go attitude is what places companies like Little Touches front and centre in the firing line. Additionally, when many are stuck for years trying to offload a property that just won't sell, it's no surprise that they want to escape Blackpool to the likes of the Canary Islands when they get any money over the season.   

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there are the proactive business owners, the newer blood, many of whom are still in the honeymoon phase. Only too keen to recommend our Ticket Office, as discussed in a previous blog post here, they take pride in providing a well-rounded resort experience for their Guests. In this instance, the holiday starts and ends at the Guests' doorstep with pre-arrival information that sets the tone from the outset before they even begin their journey. 

Proactive hoteliers make a beeline for events such as Hoteliers Coffee Mornings at Viva and Blackpool Zoo, trade shows and the Pleasure Beach season launch. They're eager to know of what's new for their Guests each year and the tools and resources available to them to promote such venues on their behalf. Likewise, our GOLD programme is also only really suited to those proactive properties who are willing and enable to see the bigger picture. 

As with most things in life, the proactive vs. atomised approaches are not black and white, but a different shade of grey! It is important to understand that all accommodation providers will run certain aspects proactively and others more atomised. There is no clear distinction that can be made between one and the other, it comes in degrees on a continuum. Most atomised properties are far from lost causes, having for example, the best breakfast with locally sourced produce and Egyptian cotton sheets in their bedrooms. All they need to do is put a similar amount of care and interest in to what goes on in Blackpool and acknowledge how by working together we can all improve the resort. 

Opportunity in the packaged experience

For all our concerns about what is holding Blackpool back, the other side of the coin is far from doom and gloom and as a company we are very optimistic about the opportunities that lie within the packaged experience. 

In a previous blog post about the importance of our so-called ''referrer army,'' we shone the spotlight on those hoteliers who already subscribe to the package experience by recommending our Ticket Office as an extra service that they can't or do not wish to offer themselves.

The British traveller when visiting most international destinations is offered a comprehensive, often all-inclusive package whether it be for Greece or Spain, Florida or Vegas. On the contrary, for those travelling to Blackpool the individual elements that make up a well-rounded stay are still separate. Accommodation, activities and shows, dining and transportation must still all be researched and purchased separately in most situations. Rather than it being a case of all for one and one for all, it is often every man/woman for themselves - a dog eat dog free-for-all that goes against the blueprint for a thriving destination.

As a resort, Blackpool has got the biggest collection of branded attractions outside of London and a shoreline that was named the second best in the world after Dubai and ahead of the Gulf Coast, that also incorporates a Blue Flag beach. Not forgetting, iconic landmarks such as The Blackpool Tower, its legendary Ballroom, plus three piers and the fantastic Winter Gardens. These are things that are unique to the destination and locals and business owners alike should be taking great pride in and shouting from the rooftops.

For those who know Blackpool relatively well, it is well recognised that some of the most successful larger hotels have already figured out that packaging the otherwise fragmented elements together is the key. Such hotels are united in the fact that as a minimum they tend to offer at least dining, entertainment and transportation from the main tourist-generating areas such as Scotland and Yorkshire.

Our new venture Weekend Blackpool, takes a strong stance on the importance of being able to offer a complete end to end service, with accommodation and activities and shows all in place to start us off. 

Final word

Our vision for a utopian Blackpool would be a heavy-handed, government-led approach to safety and quality and a change in the hands-off, arms length business culture to one that is profoundly more proactive. 

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