Distinctive Group

Tourism is our region’s biggest earner, drawing around £10bn into the economy every year. So how are small independents faring in the ‘David v. Goliath battle’ against the big guns? Very well actually, says Penny Jones, of Crabpot Cottages.

With 140m day trippers and 10m staycations every year1, the East of England is a visitor magnet.

Even the wholesale return of foreign  travel post-Covid hasn’t put a dent in the local holiday scene.

In fact, business is booming at Crabpot Cottages, in Norfolk, as company director Penny explains.

“We’ve just launched an office in Hunstanton – opening up a whole new part of the north Norfolk coastline – and been overwhelmed by demand and new holiday cottage sign-ups.

“Easter was extremely busy which bodes very well for the summer, and bookings are significantly up on last year.”

The family-run firm, also based in Sheringham, is holding its own against the big, well-known, online booking platforms – and is determined to stay that way.

Penny explains, “Our strapline is ‘Holiday Like A Local’, and we only take on properties we would happily stay in ourselves. We are independent and therefore can give a service that larger companies cannot. We know each property individually, and who owns it.

“We are very passionate about our business. We want to do well for the owners who trust their houses to us and offer holidaymakers the best service at the best price.  

“We absolutely do not want to get big. There are about 60 houses on our books now, and we will probably put a ceiling at 100 properties because our niche offering is all about quality.”

Penny and Mike’s immediate aim is to consolidate the business. “We’ve had a fantastic start to the year, which thankfully seems to be bucking the national trend.

“It has surprised me, I’m not going to lie, but we’ve got to work hard to keep our share of the market. We are still very little fish in a huge pond and must put in twice the effort to get noticed.

“So, we’re investing heavily in the marketing side, particularly SEO, because we can’t afford to throw money at digital advertising.

“It’s got to be done the hard way, and it is hard, with noses to the grindstone from 6.30am, but I love it. We all do!”

Penny launched Crabpot Cottages eight years ago, having previously been in property development, and learning the ropes at another local holiday firm.

“Our business came about almost by accident when we started letting our own houses, and it grew organically for the first few years. 

“We kept working away quietly under the radar, and then Covid hit and suddenly everything took off.”

Today, both Penny’s adult children work in the small close-knit team. “Because we are so small, we can guarantee that personal touch. People want choice in their holidays – they don’t all want to be driven down the same road.

“A holiday is such an emotive – and expensive – purchase. People save up all year and they want to have a precious time. It’s the same with our homeowners, they’re not just numbers in a big book.”

Last year, Crabpot organised over 1000 holidays, “which is pretty phenomenal,” says Penny.

“From now until September, our feet don’t hit the ground, but we’ve also invested a lot in technology like the Touch Stay app, a digital guidebook for visitors, which is a real timesaver and super-efficient.”

As the national row over second homes, holiday lets and affordable housing rumbles on, Penny takes a more phlegmatic view.

“Historically, coastal living has always been at a premium. Even in Edwardian times, Overstrand was known as the village of millionaires, and holiday lets aren’t a new trend. People in the fishermen’s cottages used to camp out in the summer so they could rent their homes to visitors.

“Right now, it’s a political hot potato but second homeowners are not the root of the housing crisis.

“The real cause is the lack of social and affordable housing. My children don’t want to live in this area, they live in Norwich where there are more facilities for young families. 

“Without tourism, there would be a lot less jobs in the coastal villages. (Nearly 250,000 jobs are directly linked to tourism in the region2).

“I’ve lived here all my life including those times when there were no jobs. Now housekeepers are earning £20 an hour. We can’t have it both ways.

“Taxing second homeowners – whose properties, many of which, aren’t suitable for family living anyway – isn’t going to work. These houses are not all suddenly going to be released onto the long-term rental market.”

“Tourism is a huge market, employing everyone from window cleaners to repair men, and our local MP Duncan Baker understands our concerns.

“We’re hoping the abolition on tax relief announced in the Budget doesn’t go through because a lot of people are lobbying against it, including our professional body PASC UK, which supports self-catering, short-term holiday lets.

“We just don’t believe it’s the right way to tackle the housing crisis in areas like ours. The focus should be on sorting out the long-term rental market instead.”

In contrast, Penny welcomes the mandatory government registration scheme for short-term lets, which starts this summer.

This will enable local authorities to keep track of supply in their area and help them address the impact on local housing and the community.

Everyone with a furnished holiday let will be required to upload copies of their fire risk assessment, insurance and electrical certificates.

“Hopefully it should clamp down on the rogue element and make the market safer and more regulated. All holidaymakers and reputable cottage owners deserve that level of protection and security,” Penny concludes.