How do some of the county’s award-winning hospitality businesses continue to deliver excellent experiences in testing times? Giles Brown speaks to a handful of them

The word “normal” has become a bit of a joke for those working in Cumbria’s tourism sector.

As they tackle the ongoing effects of Brexit, the pandemic, the seemingly unending staffing crisis and rising costs, “normal” seems a long way in the past and unlikely to come again anytime soon.

However, a lack of normality does not exclude the possibility of success and there are countless examples of those doing a great job despite the challenges.

One example is Carole and Simon Higginbottom, who run Dufton Barn Holidays, which won the Cumbria Tourism award for best self-catering accommodation of the year last year.

The business comprises Shepherd’s View and the Pennine Potting Shed, which provides accommodation for up to three people and is particularly focused on walkers completing the Pennine Way.

Carole says Shepherd’s View, which opened in 2018, is a draw for couples who may prefer a slightly quieter experience in the Eden Valley away from the busy Lake District.

“The concept was to make it absolute first class luxury but with all the personal touches of a self-catering property in the country,” she says.

"As we speak today, there's still quite a lot of opportunity for guests to book," says Simon. "We're seeing that across our peer group as well. It does appear that other people who offer a similar sort of standard to us are having the same sort of gaps. I think that suggests a trend that people are looking abroad at the moment, leaving it last minute and/or are affected by the cost of living crisis.

“We’re not overly expensive by comparison to the Lakes. I don’t think it’s about price, I think it’s just the general market.”

The couple say one of the biggest challenges is promoting the property and enticing people to come and stay in the slightly lesser known area of the Eden Valley.

However, with 70 per cent of their bookings made up of repeat customers, visitors tend to develop a love for the area when they do come.

"Once they get here they go, 'Oh crikey. There's nobody here, that's great’,” says Simon.

“People want peace and quiet and we’ve definitely got that in Dufton.”

Although they are part of an owner-owned agency Premier Cottages, which markets properties across the country, they say it is hard to compete with larger agencies and booking platforms.

The growth in the number of people putting their homes on platforms such as Airbnb has also increased competition.

In addition, as overseas travel becomes easier post-Covid, Simon and Carol say they believe people are opting to holiday abroad.

However, they are also seeing more foreign walkers make use of the Pennine Potting Shed, from locations as diverse as Europe, Canada, New Zealand and Bali.

In fact, the shed, which opened last May, is reaping the benefits of the growing interest in long distance walking, with bookings 50 per cent up on last year.

They say the key to making both businesses a success comes down to fulfilling and exceeding people’s expectations, alongside an eye to detail.

"When somebody arrives it has to be exactly like the pictures you use to advertise it,” says Carole.

“You can't strip it bare of blankets and cushions or maps. You have to be true to your photographs. You’ve really got to pay attention to your cleaning and your maintenance, people notice that.

“We want every guest to come and feel like it’s the first time it has been used.”

Little details also make the difference, from stocking the kitchen at the Shepherd’s View with essentials such as sauces, oils, milk, tea and coffee to welcoming hungry walkers to the potting shed with chocolate bars.

“It’s really important to step into the guests’ shoes and imagine how they will use the property and we constantly do that,” says Simon.

Carole says listening to guest feedback is also vital.

“I’ll listen to constructive criticism. We won’t be defensive about it and often they’ve got brilliant ideas.”

Challenges come in the form of pitching their prices right at a time when people are feeling the pressure of rising costs.

"We have not put our prices up significantly in the last couple of years,” says Simon.

“We've had to to a certain extent but we're also mindful that guests haven't got lots of money either.”

At the 10-room Cedar Manor, in Windermere, owners Jonathan and Caroline Kaye say turnover has dropped as people have begun heading overseas and reined in spending in response to the increased cost of living.

While some foreign tourists have begun returning to the Lakes, Jonathan says it has still not hit pre-Covid levels.

"The gaps we're seeing is because the full international market isn't fully restored yet,” he says. “There's an extensive amount of Brits missing but we know from data that a lot of Brits have had staycations for two to three years. Now they're all going on their journeys abroad.”

The boutique hotel, which offers breakfast, afternoon tea and supper platters, employs five full-time and two part-time staff.

Jonathan says the major concern is finding replacement staff and accommodation for them when any of its current workers leave.

"It's a very, very fragile ecosystem for hospitality at the moment," he says.

"I think there are hundreds if not thousands of vacancies across the national park for catering staff. So if we lost someone, I don't know how we would replace them.”

He says most live-in rental accommodation, with landlords offering single rooms for hospitality staff in the local area, has disappeared.

Meanwhile, rental prices have increased beyond the capability of many working in the sector.

Jonathan says Cedar Manor is considering buying its own property in the area so it can guarantee there is somewhere for staff to live.

"Property prices in the area have soared so it's made it quite tricky to get your hands on something reasonable," he says.

"We would need to get several people placed in there but it wouldn't be ideal for a family. We are scratching our heads a little bit on what we do about employment and accommodation.”

In response to the challenges, Jonathan says they are concentrating on getting things right to ensure happy guests who will recommend the accommodation to others.

"We've always been very fanatical about our attention to detail," he says.

"When people are paying good money to come and stay we want things to be perfect for them.

“We're keeping our pricing as competitive as we can afford to be. We haven't had a significant price increase since before Covid. We're just absorbing the increases in costs.”

When it comes to Cumbrian tourism success stories, it is hard to find a better example than Sally Fielding.

Sally founded the highly successful self-catering rental business Sally’s Cottages in 2003 before selling it to national operator Travel Chapter 18 years later.

She says she followed a few key rules to keep the business running successfully.

“The first rule we always had was ‘make things easy for people’,” she says. “How many times are you frustrated by not being able to get in touch with the right person in a company, or trying to buy something from a website that doesn't work easily. If you can make things easy for your customers, then you’re already better than plenty of businesses.

“The second rule is ‘hard work’. I loved working in the evening because I could really focus on various projects knowing that I wasn’t going to get interrupted. When it got to midnight I’d decide I was in Hollywood because it would be 4pm in Hollywood - nearly the end of the working day and the perfect time for a cup of tea and cake.

“The third rule was to hire people who are better than you. Everyone who worked at Sally’s Cottages was better at the job they did than I could have done it. We also hired in terms of the values people held. If their values were in alignment with the values of the Sally’s Cottages culture, they were in – if they had integrity, positivity and were hard working, then we knew they’d fit in with the rest of the team.”

Despite the challenges she believes Cumbrian tourism businesses are still in a good place.

“I believe that we’re too far from London for Cumbria to benefit from anything the Government might do, and we’re not Scotland, so we’ve always had to stand on our own two feet as a county,” she says. “While it’s annoying, it is beneficial in hard times because we’re hardy and can thrive in the face of adversity because we know how to adapt and rely on ourselves.

“I’m hopeful that people will still want a break but they’ll stay in the UK rather than going abroad, as it’s a lot easier to keep an eye on costs this way. I’m hoping for sunny spring days and long summer evenings – that has got to help.”