Coronavirus: Advice for Holiday Cottage Owners & Holiday Let Businesses
Note: This is not official advice from Schofields, but is intended to provide guidance which may help. Official advice is being updated constantly and can be different for England, Scotland and Wales, so check the recent government guidance.
These are difficult and unprecedented times that we all find ourselves in. The coronavirus is significantly impacting the travel and tourism industry and although we are in uncharted territory, it’s important that holiday let businesses are prepared.
The next few months are going to be challenging for holiday letting businesses, who are going to face many tough decisions. This page aims to provide some practical guidance to help holiday home owners face the coronavirus crisis as best as possible over the coming weeks and months.
It’s easy to get caught up worrying about your holiday letting business – but it’s essential that you preserve the health of you, your family, staff and guests.
The rules that apply to regional and national lockdowns vary and change frequently. Property owners and managers should take all reasonable precautions to ensure they do not knowingly accept guests who are not meant to travel to the area. Before guests travel they should also check and understand the relevant legislation that applies to their booking.
England – National lockdown: Stay at home. Find out what you can and cannot do. England’s rules are due to last until at least mid-February.
Wales – All of Wales is at alert level 4. Further information on these rules can be found here.
Again, guidance from the Competition and Markets Authority says that consumers should expect a full refund if lockdown laws make it illegal to use that service.
Strategies for holiday let businesses during the coronavirus pandemic
Check your holiday home insurance
From a business point of view, the main concern for most holiday home owners is likely to be the financial impact due to loss of income due to cancelled bookings. You may be protected by your holiday home insurance against loss of rent – contact your insurance company to check if you can make a claim.
If you insure your holiday home with Schofields – our claims advice is here.
Will insurance cover be restricted whilst holiday homes are unoccupied?
You may be concerned that due to the current government restrictions on travel or quarantine, the usual inspections of your holiday home cannot take place and your cover may be restricted.
Contact your insurer if you are unable to comply with your policy conditions. Insurers are generally being flexible in their approach towards policy conditions.
Until you are allowed to visit your holiday home, can you ask a trusted neighbour, agent or housekeeper local to the property to check on it? If you can, arrange for them to turn off the water to the property as this will help to prevent any damage that can be caused by escape of water.
Can you travel to your second home for essential maintenance?
If you are intending to travel to your second home to undertake emergency repairs, essential maintenance or to comply with your insurance inspection warranty, you must comply with national and local restrictions that apply.
If you are unable to travel, then tradespeople might be allowed to go into a house to carry out essential work or services.
How to manage coronavirus cancellations
If guests are unable to travel to your holiday home due to government travel restrictions, how should you handle guest cancellations?
The idea of losing income by providing a refund or amending bookings is very unappealing – owners work hard to obtain bookings. Whilst most owners have terms and conditions in place to cover the majority of eventualities, we are all facing unprecedented circumstances which are regularly changing.
Generally, holidaymakers and owners are being understanding of the current crisis, showing a willingness to compromise and work together to amicably arrive at a mutually acceptable solution.
Every holiday home owner’s situation is unique, and it is your right to manage your business as you see fit. However, it’s essential that you are fair and don’t breach consumer law (see CMA investigation below).
These are some of the options for you to consider.
Provide a refund for holidays that are due to start during the Government’s current restrictions on travel. Refunds would normally be subject to the bookings terms and conditions – but in the current circumstances, the legalities of such contracts are under review.
Allow holidaymakers with a booking that starts during the travel restrictions to defer their booking to a later date this year or sometime in 2021.
If guests are not in a position to re-book their holiday just yet, offer a credit note (for the amount paid to date) which can be used for a future booking.
Most owners would prefer holidaymakers to amend their holiday or receive a booking credit rather than a refund. Encouraging customers to “postpone don’t cancel” wherever possible. You may wish to offer an incentive: a 5% discount (for life), don’t increase the cost of 2021 trips and don’t have an expiry date for credit notes.
When deferring a booking or providing a credit, make it clear that your normal cancellation terms and conditions will apply to the new booking (unless the coronavirus restrictions are extended to cover the new booking dates). This should hopefully avoid cancellation disputes should guests want to change their dates again or ask for a refund.
Bookings via Airbnb, HomeAway etc.
If your booking is via an OTAs or listing site such as Airbnb, check what their refund and cancellation policies are. Some listing sites are allowing guests to cancel their upcoming holidays and get a full refund.
Enforce cancellation T’s & C’s
There are reports that some owners and agencies are standing firm on their cancellation policies and not refunding or amending bookings – they expect guests to claim on their insurance. However, lots of travel insurance policies do not cover the Covid-19 pandemic.
If you choose this option, you should still refund any expenses you have not incurred – cleaning, welcome basket, utilities, laundry etc.
Which option is right?
It’s essential that you are fair and don’t breach consumer law. Consumers would expect to receive a full refund when a business has cancelled a contract without providing the services or a consumer is prevented from receiving the service e.g. due to a government lockdown.
Whichever approach you choose, beware of controversy. There’s lots of press coverage about disputes between guests wanting a refund and agencies who aren’t in a position to give one. Also, the legalities of booking terms and conditions are questionable. There are reports of legal proceedings pending – so bear this in mind.
Coronavirus cancellations and refunds is a new scenario which hasn’t been tested yet – ultimately, the courts would decide on disputed cases.
CMA investigating cancellation policies
The Competition & Markets Authority (CMA) is investigating concerns about cancellation policies. If it finds evidence that companies are failing to comply with the law, the CMA will take appropriate enforcement action, which could include taking a firm to court if it does not address its concerns. Read more.
Update: 9 June
Following CMA action, Vacation Rentals (which operates popular accommodation sites including Hoseasons and Cottages.com) is now offering refunds for cancelled bookings. The CMA will continue with its inquiries into the holiday accommodation sector, which may ultimately lead to court action against companies which fail to comply.
Sykes Cottages has reversed its policy on cancelled bookings and will now offer customers full refunds following intervention by the Competition and Markets Authority.
Can guests claim through their travel insurance?
Before you provide a refund, check if guests can claim off their travel insurance.
Depending on where your guests are travelling from and when they took out travel insurance, they might be able to claim on their travel insurance to recover any losses incurred. They might also be covered if they are diagnosed as having contracted Covid-19 or are required to self-isolate.
Unfortunately, some holiday makers have found that their insurance does not cover them during a pandemic.
It is now highly unlikely that holidaymakers will be able to find a travel insurance policy without an exclusion for coronavirus-related claims.
How to handle new bookings
With government guidelines constantly changing, there is always a risk that bookings will subsequently have to be cancelled if further travel restrictions are announced.
Keep in mind that it’s easier to hold on to an existing booking than get a new one. Consider relaxing your cancellation policy and balance payment timeline to help last-minute decision making during these uncertain times. Maybe allow cancellations as late as 3 weeks before arrival and move balance payments to 3 weeks before arrival so that your guests don’t have to pay until the picture becomes clearer.
Hopefully, guests with existing bookings will adopt a wait-and-see policy rather than cancel as the rules are constantly being changed.
Covid-19 risk assessments
In preparation for opening, you will have to risk assess and manage the risks of COVID-19 to your cleaners and guests. There is a sample template on our risk assessment post.
One will also be needed should you wish to apply for one of the various accreditation schemes below.
Covid certification schemes
These are free, online, covid certification schemes from VisitEngland and the AA.
Once completed, holiday let businesses can display certificates at their property and use the logos online to give guests confidence that you are adhering to the Government guidance, have carried out a risk assessment and have the required processes in place.
Deep cleaning and reopening tips for holiday rentals
From disinfecting to using the right products and step-by-step cleaning guidelines, here are some coronavirus deep cleaning tips to help protect your cleaners and guests.
Managing bookings during the coronavirus crisis
What if a guest develops covid-19 symptoms whilst staying at a holiday let?
Guests should not arrive if they have a temperature, feel unwell or display any symptoms of the virus.
But what happens if they develop covid-19 symptoms whilst in your holiday let, can they self-isolate in your property or should they go home?
For properties in Scotland: see guest illness section.
Here is some helpful information from the NHS on what to do if you fall ill with COVID-19 symptoms whilst on holiday. This can be downloaded from PASC (pdf), placed in your rental and guest information.
Should you have a booking gap between stays?
Some agencies and listing sites are recommending that the property is left empty for a total of 24 hours after the previous guests have checked-out, followed by a deep clean. Booking buffers aim to reduce the risk of potential exposure to the coronavirus, which can remain in the air or on surfaces for several hours or even days.
There is no requirement to leave a property empty. Property owners or managers will have to make a professional judgement on booking buffers depending on their cleaning and sanitisation strategy.
Can you have guests from multiple households?
The rule of six
England: you must not meet with people from other households in groups of more than 6. This rule will not apply to individual households or household bubbles of more than 6 who will still be able to gather together.
Scotland: from 25 September, only one household (or one extended household) is permitted to share self-catering accommodation while the current restrictions on indoor private gatherings are in place.
Wales: the number of people who can meet indoors at any one time is six, excluding children under 11, and all must belong to the same extended household group.
Agencies and property owners are contacting customers who these changes affect to discuss whether they want to adapt their numbers, postpone their holiday or request a refund. At present, there is no indication how long the rule will be in force. However, the rule is likely to impact forward bookings due to take place in the next few months.
Holiday letting businesses should not accept bookings from groups that are clearly exceeding the limit.
QR codes track and trace
It is now a requirement for holiday lets to display their QR code in the accommodation. Each guest should scan the code using their phone, and check in on the NHS Covid-19 app. Further information.
Just like owners, guests will need to adapt to the ‘new normal’ when renting a holiday let. Before they arrive, make sure they know what they should expect/do during their stay.
- It’s likely that check-in and check-out times will change to allow additional time for cleaning. Many owners expect to change arrivals to 5pm and departures at 9am.
- Guest information should be stored in wipeable laminated folders. Ideally, you should email guests all the relevant information that they need ahead of their arrival or provide a digital guestbook.
- Guests will want to take steps to reduce their risk of infection by social distancing. You can reduce person-to-person contact by offering self-check-in and checkout by using a key safe or smart lock.
- If you provide a welcome basket to guests during their stay, consider only offering items which are sealed or packaged – ideally presented in a wipeable container or simply leave them as stand-alone items.
- You could leave a ‘covid care pack’ for guests to use during their stay with face masks, disposable gloves, hand sanitiser and disinfectant wipes. If you aren’t providing these items then recommend guests bring these items with them.
- Guests may want to bring their own bedding with them. They should let you know before they arrive, so you can prepare the property to suit their needs. To limit human interaction maybe leave out an additional set of bedding and towels for stays over 7 days, so guests can change them themselves if they wish.
- Some properties are de-cluttering and removing non-essential amenities that could be regularly touched (e.g. toys, games, books, flyers) and making them available upon request or suggest guests bring their own. Alternatively, rotate items, take them away for 72 hours or consider whether any items can be left and disinfected at changeover.
- Maintenance during a guests stay should be kept to only essential issues. If a visit is required wear PPE.
- Ask guests to dispose of their rubbish, keep the property clean and sanitised during their stay, in order to reduce the risk to cleaners, owners and follow on guests.
- To ensure guests are able to maintain a high standard of cleanliness and hygiene while staying at your holiday home, ensure your holiday rental is well-stocked with plenty of cleaning and sanitising products.
-Antibacterial hand sanitiser in high traffic areas – leave one by the front door so guests can sanitise their hands as they enter and leave your property
-Disposable gloves and disinfecting wipes
-Disinfectants and cleaning supplies
-Hand soap for each sink
-Extra towels and sheets
- Putt up ‘wash your hands’ signs and add some advice at the front of your guest information book so guests are reminded to keep hygiene front of mind.
- You could also add an extra measure of reassurance by placing a message near the entrance to inform guests that the property has not been accessed since being deep cleaned.
- Provide guests with departure instructions such as leaving the property clean and tidy on departure, loading the dishwasher, disposing of rubbish in an external bin and stripping beds.
Marketing your holiday let during the coronavirus crisis
Holiday cottage booking sites are reporting record bookings for 2021. Don’t discount, hold your prices or increase them if demand is outstripping supply. This is your opportunity earn valuable income after the lockdown.
Solutions for larger rentals
To attract new bookings, some owners with large properties that usually cater for groups of 6+ are offering a discount for lower occupancy or reducing the size of the property (if possible) by closing areas off. This will also help reduce cleaning expenses plus wear and tear.
Decide on a rental rate similar to local competitors that sleep six, but it’s likely that your larger property has additional space and facilities compared to these – so factor that into your prices.
Consider a more relaxed cancellation policy
Plan for the end, it will come and people will have an appetite to travel once again. They will be naturally cautious and may hold off for a while before booking, especially international travel. There’s likely to be a lot of demand once restrictions are lifted.
For future bookings outside of the lockdown period, holidaymakers will want to know what their cancellation options are. You should consider a more relaxed cancellation policy so that travellers feel secure booking a property that allows them to get a full refund, a credit or change their dates due to future coronavirus lockdowns.
Consider allowing last-minute cancellations for bookings between certain dates (July-August?) to reassure people that they can book, but change plans if required due to future lockdowns. Some listing sites (your competitors) are offering a free cancellation policy.
Loosening your cancellation policy may seem counter-intuitive since cancellations are precisely what you’re battling. However, wouldn’t you prefer to have a booking with the possibility of some cancellations rather than no booking it at all? Re-letting even at the very last minute is possible as demand for August and September is far greater than supply.
However, for guests who have previously changed the date of their booking due to lockdown, but want to amend again or cancel their booking, it’s likely that normal terms and conditions will apply.
New markets to target
Local tourists – staycations will no doubt be the first preference for holidays. People will want accommodation that they can drive to, avoiding airports, flying and getting stranded abroad. Here are some tips to attract domestic travellers.
Target families – if the rules of six allows, extended family holidays are becoming increasingly popular. How to create a family friendly holiday rental.
Welcome pets – a third of owners choose to take their four-legged friend away with them on holiday. Here are some tips for creating a dog-friendly cottage.
Promote midweek working breaks – create the ideal environment for those guests who are not tied to an office from Monday to Friday and can work remotely whilst on holiday. Provide fast Wi-Fi and a quiet workplace away from noisy distractions.
Late escapes – make sure you are ready to make the most of short-notice bookings made within a week before check-in.
Whether guests want to find a holiday cottage for a long weekend or they’re looking for an entire home for a month, reconsider your minimum/maximum stay policy and adapt to market demands. Here are more tips to attract different types of guests.
Promote the benefits of a holiday rental over a hotel
Historically, guests have chosen holiday rentals because of amenities like private kitchens and space. Now, more than ever, travellers may choose a holiday let over a hotel so they don’t have to congregate with both staff and other guests in high-traffic communal areas and have more control of their surroundings.
Share your enhanced cleaning regime
When you start taking bookings and guests start arriving again, it’s essential that you reassure them about your commitment to cleaning and disinfecting your holiday home.
It’s now more important than ever to maintain high standards of cleanliness at your holiday home.
Here are some tips on what property managers and cleaning staff should be doing:
- Make sure your cleaning team focuses on high-traffic areas (kitchen, bathroom, bedrooms) and frequently used items (handles, switches, key safes), wiping down surfaces with a recommended cleaner.
- Use disposable cloths or paper towels when possible, wash reusable cloths after use.
- Disinfect kitchen brushes and sponges with detergent and warm water.
- Provide your guests with ample disinfectant, cleaning supplies, hand sanitisers, soap, tissues, kitchen roll, clean towels and disposable gloves.
- Encouraging guests to use hand sanitiser or wash their hands as they enter the property. You could also consider putting up more ‘wash your hands’ signs and add some information at the front of your guest information book to keep hygiene front of mind.
- Minimise person-to-person contact during bookings to comply with social distancing rules. Offer contactless check-in and only undertaking essential maintenance during a guest stay.
- Keep an eye on your guest reviews. Ideally, they will specifically mention cleanliness, since that is at the forefront of everyone’s minds right now. If you don’t see cleanliness getting a shoutout in your reviews, it may be time to talk to your cleaners. Ask them to list their procedure and make sure it lines up with the latest info from the sources above
Cut your expenses
One way to deal with the downturn in holiday letting business and cash-flow sparked by the coronavirus pandemic is to temporarily cut expenses at your holiday home for unused services or ask for a holiday on bills.
- Consider cutting back on TV subscriptions such as Sky or Netflix. If you have a landline and internet in your holiday property, cut it or lower your tariff.
- If you have a smart thermostat like Hive, control the heating remotely to save on your energy bills. Switch gas/electricity to the cheapest supplier.
- Can you defer mortgage payments?
- Defer tax payments.
- Turn off appliances at the plug and drain the hot tub.
- If you use the services of a gardener, can you reduce how often they come?
When it comes to reducing employee wages, some staff would willingly reduce their hours for the security of continued employment. Others might opt for unemployment. Ideally, you should focus on retaining the expertise of your best talent so when business picks up again -you are ready to get back up and running.
If you’re going to stay home for the next few weeks (or months?), use this time to analyse and improve your holiday letting business.
Here are several ideas:
- If you live onsite next to your holiday home, use the time to carry out spring cleaning and any maintenance projects or interior upgrade plans.
- Audit your (and your competitors) reviews and feedback from previous guests to find opportunities on how to improve your business.
- There’s likely to be fewer international guests, therefore, it’s a good idea to target new markets such as domestic travellers, pet owners and families. Which listing sites or agencies specialise in these markets?
- Improve your listing site descriptions and photos
- Create or optimise your holiday rental website.
- Re-evaluate your Property Management System (PMS) and Channel Manager.
- Now is the perfect time to be creating a content calendar and publishing new blogs. Include details of your enhanced cleaning process to attract travellers who are using new search terms such as ‘clean holiday cottage in X‘.
- Engage with your followers on social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter.
- Look into how you can use video to market your property.
- Some owners have switched to mid/long term lets until the pandemic is over. It’s a unique opportunity for people to go away for a month and still be able to work.
- Keep updated with all the latest news on the short-term rental industry.
- Take time to pause, reflect and implement new technology and services that will make your life as a property manager easier.
If you are looking for some ideas on how to do all of these and more – read our marketing tips.
Government financial support schemes
The next few months are likely to be challenging for businesses, especially those individuals and businesses in the tourism and hospitality sector. We are watching keenly to see how the government will respond and support businesses in the tourism and hospitality sector.
A full range of business support measures has been made available for small businesses to survive during the coronavirus crisis. As a holiday let owner you may be entitled to access support schemes, depending on your circumstances.
Contact your local council if you think you are eligible for a grant.
The PASC newsletter provides advice on the latest financial help available in England.
See the ASSC latest news for Scotland
While there’s nothing you can do to stop the coronavirus outbreak or its effect on the travel industry, hopefully, these tips can help during these very difficult times.
The safety of all our loved ones, friends and colleagues is what matters most. We encourage everyone to follow the Government’s advice so we can keep each other safe and healthy.
Stay positive. This will end and people will not stop needing a holiday.
Useful further reading:
Government travel advice
Information for UK tourism businesses
VisitScotland’s Coronavirus advice page
Scottish government guidance for the tourism and hospitality sector
If you have a question that isn’t covered above, please let us know in the comments below.