Marketing messages for self-catering businesses in early COVID-19 recovery

Posted by on May 20th, 2020

This post will give you an overview of the latest communications advice from Visit Britain and other trade organisations, and looks ahead to the next phase as businesses and travel begin to open back up.

Customer concerns will shift as we move through the steps towards normality, and marketing and communication messages should shift accordingly. We have included practical ideas on structuring a staged communications plan, and the messages which could be deployed at each step.

Importantly, the messages in this post are not only intended for your obvious target audiences (i.e. people booking holidays in Cornwall), but also for the local community. As discussed at the end of this post, local people are likely to have a mixed reaction to welcoming holidaymakers, and we should be sympathetic to this fact.

Visit Britain splits its communications recommendations into three stages:

1 – Crisis phase
2 – Early recovery
3 – Recovery

Currently, the Visit Britain guidelines only cover the current stage – crisis phase. Here we are looking ahead to early recovery.

The current state of play

On 11 May the Government announced that hotels, B&Bs, and, although not explicitly mentioned, self-catering businesses, should remain closed.

Further details can be found in the COVID-19 recovery strategy. This confirms that hospitality businesses should remain closed until step three, which will be no earlier than 4 July.

Impact on summer holidays

Health Secretary Matt Hancock was quoted in The Telegraph on 12 May, saying:

“…it is clear that we will seek to reopen hospitality, some hospitality, from early July if we keep successfully reducing the spread of this virus.

“But social distancing of some kind is going to continue. The conclusion from that is it is unlikely that big, lavish international holidays are going to be possible for this summer. I just think that’s a reality of life.”

It is realistic, therefore, to expect increased interest in UK holidays from those who would normally travel abroad.

With organisations such as The Country Land and Business Association suggesting rural self-catering businesses should be able to open first (owing to open space and social distancing abilities) (The Telegraph, 12 May 2020), there is a chance that the increased demand for UK holidays could be funneled into predominantly self-catering businesses.

Understanding customer concerns

Visit Britain currently outlines the key customer concerns as:

  • Will I be able to cancel my booking?
  • How long will the travel restrictions last for?
  • Can I postpone my booking?
  • I was going to book for later in the year. Can I still do so?
  • Will I be able to get a refund if I need to cancel nearer the time or if travel restrictions are still in force?

As we move towards early recovery, we would also add:

  • How do I know the accommodation will be clean and safe?
  • How will I be protected while on-site?
  • Are communal spaces still accessible?
  • What other venues and attractions are open/operating in Cornwall?

Marketing messages and tactics

With the focus being on minimising the cancellation rate beyond 4 July, marketing should look to alleviate the customer concerns outlined above.

A staged approach

It is clearly important to not jump the gun and straight away start encouraging travel to Cornwall from the 4 July. It may be useful instead to openly communicate the steps you will take as we move through the crisis, into early recovery, and beyond. For example:


  • Still closed, but taking steps towards reopening at a time when the government says it is safe to do so (currently no earlier than 4 July).
  • Reiterate process for cancelling/postponing bookings up until 4 July.

Gradual reopening:

Address concerns about cleanliness:

  • Outline the steps you’re taking as a business to create a clean environment, in a simple and to-the-point way.
  • Some hotels have said they will increase ‘visible cleaning’ to reassure guests while they are on-site – i.e. a person regularly cleaning public spaces, to be seen by guests. This could be a good way of helping address concerns once you are able to welcome guests again.
  • The Professional Association of Self-Caterers is working with Visit Britain to come up with guidelines, standards and certification for hospitality businesses. This process would be approved by Environmental Health and would be an online process to achieve certification. Signing up to accreditations such as this will give your cleanliness claims gravitas.

Address concerns about social distancing:

  • This is an opportunity to highlight the benefits of self-catering accommodation over other types.
  • Highlight additional steps the business will be taking to minimise contact, such as self-check-in, only selling every other cottage (if applicable), limiting access to communal spaces such as pools (or running a booking system), availability of food deliveries, etc. Some self-catering businesses may be able to offer room service, or takeaway catering.

Set expectations:

  • Make it clear that the on-site experience may be different to previously, but focus on this in a positive way – it ensures the safety and wellbeing of everyone.

Sell Cornwall:

  • If the vast majority of restaurants, pubs and bars, and attractions are still closed, it is important to highlight the other great things still available in Cornwall:
    • Beaches
    • Surfing/SUP/kayak
    • Walking in the secluded countryside
    • Storm watching
    • Beach sunsets

Communicate clearly and regularly

In a time when accurate and specific information is hard to find, any communication with customers and potential customers should be relevant and factual.

Customers with bookings beyond July should be contacted regularly to ensure they don’t feel compelled to cancel their trip, while potential customers need to be kept in the loop about the steps that will be taken once it is safe to gradually reopen.

A note on terms and conditions

In its latest guidance, the Professional Association of Self-Caterers makes an interesting point about Ts&Cs:

“The number one question that guests will be asking when booking post COVID-19 will be, ‘what if we have to cancel?’ We should all take a good look at our terms and conditions and decide how we are going to answer that question.

“Everyone, from Which?, Martin Lewis, travel supplements in the daily papers etc. is going to be offering advice on how to book a ‘risk-free’ holiday. Those with harsh and onerous terms and conditions will get less bookings than those that operate more flexible policies.”

So, if you are able to build some flexibility into the booking terms, this could form an important part of your marketing messaging.

Consider the local community

Since the crisis began, there has been an internal conflict between wanting to welcome visitors back to Cornwall to boost the economy, and not wanting to put a strain on local resources and emergency services.

As travel opens back up again, we are likely to see resistance from some local people in Cornwall and the South West. In order to minimise the impact on your business, we would recommend:

  • Being open and honest in all communications.
  • Make it clear that you will always be working within the guidelines set out by Government and local authorities.
  • Any talk around the ‘early recovery’ plans should clearly state that you’ll only be welcoming visitors once it is safe to do so.
  • Expect negativity, especially online. Ensure someone is monitoring your social media channels, and prepare statements/responses before they are needed.
  • Be consistent.

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