The Travellers and their Travails


Posted by in July's Magazine

Never. No chance .Certainly not! Scary, middle-aged landladies with big bosoms, who were as strict as they were fierce, owned guesthouses, not me. Worse still, according to Chris Brookmyre in his novel Quite Ugly One Morning people got murdered in guesthouses, while other people left jobbies on mantelpieces (yes, I said jobbie). Plus, as avowed by Bill Bryson in Notes from a Small Island, guest houses were the sort of places were ‘floaters’ were left in loos.

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As for the great British guesthouse breakfast, everyone knew it was a heart attack waiting to happen. A plate of greasy food saturated in lard and reheated in a microwave preceded by a bowl of cornflakes and washed down with tepid milk and a cup of instant no label coffee. For a foody like me this scenario was not so much a dream as a nightmare.

So it was that some years ago when my husband and I were talking about freeing ourselves from the shackles of the 9 to 5 rat race I found myself stunned when my dad suggested we buy a bed and breakfast. “You like talking and you’re a great cook. You’ll be a natural,” where his exact words. Cheers dad!

All of a sudden it’s twenty years later and the bed and breakfast is still going strong. Was it worth it? Yes, is the simple answer, and before you ask, we have never encountered a jobbie on our mantelpiece. But it hasn’t always been easy. Apart from having to share our house with strangers, which takes a bit of getting used to, there’s always the worry that, one day, guests will simply stop coming.

This was a bigger issue in the early days when we relied almost entirely on our star rating to attract guests. A poor star rating, of course, meant no guests. But getting a good star rating wasn’t straightforward either. Not only was it expensive to be rated – indeed probably still is – but your rating relied on an annual incognito visit from just one person. One person. And said person had the power to ruin your business or make it a success. You could not afford to fall out with him or her if you could help it – think Channel 4 programme Four in a Bed, but with bells on. Think power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Think stress.

Nowadays star ratings are all but superfluous. If you want to find out what a guesthouse or hotel looks like and how it performs you simply log onto an online booking and/or review site. There, in glorious technicolour, is everything you could ever want to know (and often what you don’t want to know) about the place in which you wish to stay.

You could argue that booking agencies have democratised the rating system making it quicker and simpler for the traveller to book a place to stay. However it is not cheap for guesthouse owners to get themselves listed with a booking agency. For the privilege of being under the umbrella of one of the biggest agencies, Booking.Com, we have to relinquish 15% (plus VAT) of all our income from guests. The flipside is if you are not listed with an agency you may as well be invisible and there is no ‘incognito’ visit to worry about.

Paradoxically, despite the mountain of details available online to inform the traveller, some guests still arrive spectacularly uninformed. For example ours is a listed Victorian townhouse and so we obviously have stairs. Stairs that are clearly mentioned in every online blurb about the house, invariably someone will turn up, with a suitcase the size of a small mammal, eye our winding staircase with mounting disbelief, and say “Gee, I never knew there were stairs, haven’t you got an elevator”?

Then there are those guests who want kippers or capers or clotted cream, possibly the only items of food not available on our breakfast menu (no dripping in sight, by the way!). Or there is the traveller who upon arrival at Glasgow airport phones s to ask if it is a nice walk to our house or should they take the bus (we are in Edinburgh). Not to mention the lady who phones from her room to ask where the ice machine is. Oh dear.

All misunderstandings are, of course, ironed out but over the years we have come to understand that there are really only two kinds of traveller. The first being the fearful kind who is scared of all things unfamiliar and who needs constant reassurance. Then there’s the other kind, the polar opposite of the former, who actively seeks out all that is different and foreign and embraces the new.

However, regardless of the category of traveller, each individual needs to be reassured on some subliminal level that they will not be murdered in their bed, that they are safe with us.

Not, to be sure, an easily achievable thing, after all, one person’s safe haven is another person’s prison. On balance, unless all those glowing reviews are wrong, I feel we get it pretty much right.

Twitter: @MWheelaghan

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