Coronavirus: Advice for Holiday Cottage Owners & Holiday Let Businesses
(Updated 17 July)
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.
Until the dates listed below, holidays are still banned despite coronavirus lockdown restrictions being eased. The Government has said: staying overnight at a location other than the place you live “for a holiday or other purpose is not allowed”. This includes visiting second homes.
The good news:
- Holiday cottages in England are permitted to reopen July 4.
- Holiday cottages in Wales will be allowed to reopen for bookings from July 11.
- Self-contained holiday accommodation in Scotland (such as cottages and second homes) with no shared services can open on 3rd July.
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, 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.
How to manage coronavirus cancellations
Guests will not be able to travel to your holiday home during the current government restrictions on travel. But how should you handle guest cancellations? Read on.
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. However, the press is reporting ongoing conflicts between the large holiday cottage agencies and their guests due to cancellations.
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 being investigated.
Allow holidaymakers with a booking that starts between now and the July date travel restrictions are expected to be lifted 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.
Here is the Airbnb extenuating circumstances policy.
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.
In an ideal world, even though guests may appreciate a full refund, they may upon reflection see that the pandemic is not the owners’ fault and the loss should be shared between both parties – a partial refund or credit maybe. It does happen.
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.
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 July bookings
Many of the large holiday cottage agencies and individual owners are only accepting new bookings that have an arrival date after the July dates travel restrictions are to be lifted in England, Wales and Scotland. If you accept bookings after this date there is always a risk that bookings will subsequently have to be cancelled if travel restrictions are announced by the Government.
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. For bookings with arrival dates after the July dates travel restrictions are expected to be lifted, 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 after the July dates when holidays are allowed will adopt a wait-and-see policy, there is no reason to cancel at this time.
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 after 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?
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 guidelines are that multiple family holidays in holiday cottages are restricted to just two households in England and they must maintain social distancing.
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.
- 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.
Holiday cottage booking sites are reporting record bookings for July -September and 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.
Consider a more relaxed cancellation policy
Plan for the end. This 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. Don’t give up because you have uncharacteristic booking gaps, even into late July and August. 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.
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?
Attract 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. 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. Welcome families and their furry friends – staycations often include children and pets.
Make sure you are ready to make the most of short-notice bookings made within a week before check-in.
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.
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.
If your holiday let is registered for business rates (rather than council tax) and has a rateable value of £15,000 or under, you may be eligible for a grant of £10,000. If your business has a property that has a rateable value of over £15,000 but less than £51,000, you may be eligible for a grant of £25,000.
For holiday lets in Wales, the government’s new guidance states that three specific clauses need to be adhered to:
- Self-catering accommodation produce two years of trading accounts to 31 March 2019
- Self-catering accommodation must let the property for 140 days or more in the financial year 2019-20
- Self-catering accommodation business must be the primary source of income for the owner (minimum threshold is 50%).
The government urged people not to misuse the support it is offering.
Contact your local council if you think you are eligible for a grant.
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
Wales: Guidance for holiday accommodation owners
If you have a question that isn’t covered above, please let us know in the comments below.