For Jack Pope, owner of Coracle Cove Waterfront Suite – a luxury bed and breakfast on B.C.'s Sunshine Coast – the 2008 global recession hit his business hard; as more people tightened their belts, fewer took vacations.
"Even though the economic meltdown didn't hit Canada too badly, there was still this perception of hard times," says Mr. Pope. Conversely, the growing strength of the Canadian dollar also made it more expensive for international visitors to come to the country.
Compounding this, he explains, was the emergence of online accommodation booking websites like Booking.com, VRBO, and Airbnb. "The whole supply chain really started to open up so there was more product in the marketplace," he says. "Subsequently, it became very competitive in terms of pricing."
Despite operating a luxury B&B, Mr. Pope felt pressured to lower his prices to meet both online market competition and attract those affected by the recession to come and stay. But lowering his prices did not offer a long-term answer to sustaining his business. He had to find some other way to save his bed and breakfast from sinking into decline.
After his retirement from teaching, Mr. Pope set up Coracle Cove as a premium B&B with his wife Sheila in 1999. Located at Four Mile Point near Sechelt on B.C.'s Sunshine Coast, it sits directly on the oceanfront, with three decks and a waterside hot tub.
"We built it ourselves, specifically as a vacation rental that offered a gourmet breakfast," explains Mr. Pope. The 700-square-foot, one-bedroom suite is situated on the lower floor of their house, with its own entrance and a kitchen.
"I enjoy regular interaction with my guests and recommending restaurants and local areas of interest," adds Mr. Pope.
By 2005, he had grown their business from a seasonal to year-round operation. As president of the B&B Association of the Sunshine Coast, Mr. Pope also helped create a destination marketing organization to raise the profile of the area.
However he wasn't prepared for the global economic crisis, which eroded the success he had achieved with Coracle Cove and threatened its very existence.
In an initial bid to lower their prices, Mr. Pope and his wife decided to make their gourmet breakfast optional instead of mandatory. Without it, guests save $30 per night and can prepare their own meals in the suite.
This seemed to resonate with many folks, says Mr. Pope. "It opened up a whole new market for us – people specifically looking for self-catered accommodation."
However, since his breakfasts had been a signature of Coracle Cove, Mr. Pope needed to revise his competitive advantage.
In 2011, he took an online hospitality marketing course at Cornell University, which inspired him to create a profile of his Coracle Cove guests using the TripAdvisor reviews he had collected since 2009.
"Current research shows that around 72 per cent of travellers will check with TripAdvisor before they confirm a booking," he says. "My wife and I worked really hard to encourage our guests to write reviews for us and we have been successful enough to have now received our third TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence. Only 10 per cent of properties worldwide are awarded this."
Using the psychometric tool he learned about in his marketing course, Mr. Pope identified common themes in his guests' comments.
"I looked for comments that fit into these three key areas: the kinds of activities that people enjoyed, their interests and their opinions on their stay."
What emerged was a deep appreciation for the setting of his B&B, namely its pristine waterfront view. Guests also repeatedly enthused about the wildlife that they were seeing right from the deck, including eagles, seals and orcas.
"The common theme was that Coracle Cove was a place where you could relax and be surrounded by nature. It consolidated what my competitive brand was going to be in the marketplace moving forward," said Mr. Pope.
Using his findings, Mr. Pope re-branded their entire business, including its website, print materials, e-mail signature, and logo.
"I ensured that content and imagery resonated with the brand profile we identified and that it was consistent. For instance, I took testimonials like our Lonely Planet write up – " The suite at this tranquil waterfront property is almost at sea-level, giving you immediate access to a truly special private deck overlooking the glistening brine " – and placed it at the top of my site in a more visible position."
His rebranding is also supported by a social media strategy and regular e-mail newsletters to guests and journalists.
As a result of his re-branding exercise, Mr. Pope's bookings for the first five months of 2013 have risen 42 per cent compared with his past three-year average.
"I've had my busiest spring ever," he says. "Compared with 2012, my bookings are up 65 per cent and my June, July, and August bookings are already at 91 per cent of where I usually am at the end of the summer."
The changes have also provided sustainability for their business, acknowledges Mr. Pope, who says that the average of a lifespan of a B&B operation is about five to seven years. "We're now going into our fourteenth year with a change in our approach that will allow us to sustain doing this business for at least five or six more years."
Special to the Globe and Mail
Jeff Kroeker is a lecturer in the accounting division at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia.
This is the latest in a regular series of case studies by a rotating group of business professors from across the country. They appear every Friday on the Report on Small Business website.
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