Business Cornwall profiles holiday home letting agency Cornish Gems and discovers how a decision to focus on the luxury end of the market is paying dividends
The reputation of Cornwall’s tourist industry has come a long way in recent years. Where once the Duchy was synonymous with bucket and spade holidays, it is now attracting an increasingly cooler and sophisticated clientele.
Voted for the past two years as Britain’s favourite holiday destination, Cornwall has again become fashionable. Quality over quantity, which is very much the story of Truro-based holiday lettings agency Cornish Gems.
Cornish Gems was founded four years ago by long-time friends, estate agent Julianne Shelton and restaurant manager Nadia Durrant, after spotting a gap in the higher-end of the holiday market.
While there was no shortage of holiday cottage letting companies out there, there were not so many purely devoted to the top end of the market.
Shelton says: “We thought, if we’re going to do it, let’s do something which is very high end. All our properties are very high quality, meet four or five star standards and we are extremely proud of them all.”
From the outset, Gems has prided itself in not letting standards slip, offering a fully managed housekeeping solution, where properties are constantly checked and maintained in tip-top condition. Up until the end of 2010 this fully managed service was offered via a number of reputable subcontractors.
“Owners value the fact that we offer a fully managed service,” says Shelton. “We understand that most of our owners live busy lives with many demands. It can be quite daunting knowing where to start, particularly if it is their first venture into holiday letting. We simply take the hassle away from them, effectively manage their property so they can reap the benefits of the investment it can return without having to get involved.”
It is evident that Cornish Gems prides itself on offering owners peace of mind with its full property management service. Its experienced team manage absolutely everything from marketing and maintenance through to cleaning/laundry servicing and the provision of luxury welcome hampers. Its objective is to create the very best first impression for each arrival of guests, because first impressions really do count.
“Ultimately,” says Durrant, “we want owners to sign up and stay. Not many leave, but it is very competitive out there and agencies are offering new deals all of the time and like us are adapting to changing market forces.
“One thing is for certain, we offer a very comprehensive service for only 20% commission. When we see other agencies undercutting us, owners have to ask ‘what are they offering? Can they claim to provide what Cornish Gems provide?’ I think we provide an excellent service for a very good price.”
In hindsight, starting a luxury holiday business just as the global recession was about to hit could have presented its problems, but Gems has been able to maintain steady growth and now employs a team of seven soon to become nine.
“Last year was quite challenging for us,” admits Shelton. “The year started off well, with early reservations very strong, but then it tailed off considerably from March to about mid-May, and we were beginning to wonder what was going to happen. Thankfully bookings really picked up again after the General Election and we ended 2010 hitting our targets by selling £1.5 million worth of holidays, bringing over 10,000 visitors into the Duchy.”
She adds: “On evaluating our business last year we uncovered some interesting trends. Our finest, most expensive properties were very popular as were our smaller, keenly priced properties.
Mid-range properties, which still offered premium quality but perhaps no sea view or wi-fi, were slower to sell.
“This highlighted that there is a percentage of our customers who aren’t affected by the recession and are booking our top properties anyway. We also found a large number of guests had significantly cut back their holiday expenditure, staying in the UK and having one holiday, but ensuring that the property was of the highest standard possible offering desirables such as sea views, parking, wi-fi, more than one TV, good bedroom to bathroom ratio etc.”
Shelton continues: “At the opposite end of the spectrum we had guests that were also cutting back on their expenditure but still wanting two to four breaks in the year, so opted for our keenly priced properties without the costs of features that they wouldn’t need. They also felt safe in the knowledge that although they were selecting our more inexpensive properties, they would still be of a high standard to be in our collection in the first instance.”
“Repeat business is key for us” says Durrant. “That’s improving year on year,
which is very encouraging and testament to how well we run our business.”
But even in the height of the recession, Gems was never tempted to compromise on only offering four and five star accommodation. Indeed, rather than move more towards the economy market, the company instead put a capital ‘L’ into Luxury by introducing Cornish Cribs in April of last year.
The Cornish Cribs collection features simply the most opulent and high end properties to rent in Cornwall complemented with a dedicated holiday concierge service. The ‘Cribs’ tend to be larger properties, typically featuring indoor swimming pools, hot tubs, home cinemas, saunas and a host of high tech gadgetry.
“As long as it’s legal,” jokes Shelton, “we can organise anything. Cornwall has so much to offer visitors! There is an ever increasing array of land and water based activities offered by some inspiring businesses throughout the region. We don’t just sell holidays; we sell experiences, creating tailored holidays for guests via our dedicated holiday concierge service.”
Durrant adds: “Last year holistic therapies were popular with Cornish Cribs guests wanting to relax and unwind in the opulence of their chosen Crib. Surfing was a big hit along with private dining. This year we are showcasing some exciting new packages tailored for the bride or groom to be, well-being and nutrition right through to fishing, golf and shooting breaks.”
There are currently five Cribs on the company’s books, with another two due to come online shortly.
Because the Cribs are expensive, they don’t tend to rent out 30 weeks in a year so the team is continuously looking at how we can strengthen occupancy outside the school holiday times.
“For example we’re exploring the corporate market,” explains Durrant. “Because we’ve built up relationships with other reputable businesses providing these great activities, we can organise tailored corporate breaks to Cornwall, delivering team building or hospitality weekends that give employees or clients a real treat and taste of luxury in Cornwall.”
The biggest treat is of course each Crib which takes luxury to an extraordinary new level. The Daily Telegraph reviewed Cornish Cribs as Beverly Hills meets Cornish clotted cream whilst the Financial Times reported a stay in a Cornish Crib to be an amazing Cornish holiday of a sort that’s not been possible before.
Whether it be Gems or Cribs properties, a key ingredient to the company’s success has been the fact that Shelton and Durrant openly admit that when it comes to the business, they are both control freaks!
“That control is so important,” says Durrant. “We need it to keep the owners happy and onboard, and we need it to keep the guests happy and coming back. We now have a proven track record of achieving excellent occupancy rates and incomes, if we are also controlling the quality and the cost of the housekeeping we should not be giving our owners a reason to leave.”
This desire is a major reason for the launch of a new division at the start of 2011. Cornish Gems’ new in-house housekeeping division is now available to owners ensuring Cornish Gems really is a true one stop solution for holiday letting management in Cornwall.
Following its recent relocation to much larger premises in Threemilestone near Truro, the company can undertake all servicing of the properties via its team of fully trained housekeepers and managers.
But while Cornish Gems continues to expand, with an increasing number of international visitors particularly benefiting from the exchange rate, the company has no ambition to become mass market.
Shelton concludes by saying: “We’re trying to provide a service that’s different. We have no desire to be a mass market business, where we risk diluting our service and lose touch with our customers. We are a niche business, but with a collection of properties that is second to none. We have had an outstanding start to 2011 and look set to achieve close to 20% of 2011’s overall sales target of £2.5m before the end of January.”
This article appears in the February issue of Business Cornwall magazine