November in jolly olde England. Cold. Drizzly. Gray. But, with a bit of luck, an occasional pop of sunshine. During a recent month-long stay, while the weather was chilly, the welcome I received from my property manager was consistently warm.
England’s beautiful Cotswold region is located approximately 75 miles northwest of London. From Heathrow Airport, a visitor is whisked from the hectic, traffic-laden outskirts of London back in time to an idyllic countryside worthy of any Jane Austen novel. Bright green hills roll by, broken only by narrow lanes bordered by stone fences, picturesque villages, and plentiful white, fuzzy sheep.
Even with the addition of central heating, historic cottages, crafted centuries ago from the plentiful golden stone of the Cotswold region, can be less than comfy by twenty-first-century standards.
Late one afternoon, I came in from a brisk walk down the fairy-tale lanes of Chipping Campden and noticed the cottage was less than warm. After boosting the thermostat a bit, I set about building my daily fire. By evening, I had upped the heat twice more but realized that the cozy living room was not getting any warmer and the kitchen was downright cold.
Edging my chair closer to the fire, I sent a text to Honeypot Cottages’ property manager, Andy Smith. Straightaway, he replied that it sounded like the boiler was out and needed to be “topped off.” He offered to come that night, but I assured him I would be fine. The cozy English comforters are toasty warm! He promised to be there first thing the next morning. My bedroom was upstairs, and I had stayed up late listening to the intense Alabama versus LSU game, online. I told Andy I would most likely sleep in and he could let himself into the cottage the following morning.
I woke the next day, dressed, came downstairs, and was welcomed by the crackling of a roaring fire in the fireplace. The large wood basket had been replenished with logs and kindling.
It felt like Christmas morning!
Andy had left a note asking me to call, explaining the problem was the boiler, and telling me he would need to go up to the third floor to “top it off.” He didn’t want to do that while I was sleeping for fear he might frighten me.
As soon as I texted him, Andy returned immediately, got the heater back on, and stayed to chat a while about my trip, his family, the business, and the magical Cotswold area itself. He even offered to drive me to nearby Dover’s Hill so I could get some good photographs of the rolling hills. Not only did I have a great property manager, I felt as if I had made a new friend.
Decades of Booking Direct
Over 40 years before I heard the term or learned its definition, booking direct was simply the way our family traveled. Summer vacations on the private, sugar-white sands of Fort Morgan, Alabama. Autumn canoeing trips to the Buffalo River. Laid-back weekends in Georgia’s Blue Ridge mountains. Spur-of-the-moment visits to New Orleans, Nashville, Natchez, and more.
When we began to plan a vacation, I would pick up the phone—and, later, after searching online—and talk directly with the property management company. I’ve always appreciated the personal contact and the relationship built with property managers from the early stages of vacation planning.
Now, as a woman traveling alone, I value the assurance that the person on the other end of the phone or email will not only be my host but also someone with whom I’ve made personal contact and can call on in an emergency or in an unfamiliar location.
Honeypot Cottages: Badger’s End, Cidermill, Kissing Gate, The Thatch, Silk Mill, and More
Andy Smith and his lovely wife Sarah, cofounders of Honeypot Cottages, were introduced by a mutual friend and, within a year, found themselves married and putting together a business plan. They currently manage 16 unique, individually-owned holiday (British for “vacation”) cottages in Chipping Campden, a centuries-old market town at the northern end of the Cotswolds, and in nearby hamlets Paxford and Ebrington.
The Honeypot Cottages themselves include a delightful array of storybook cottages with appealing names: Badger’s End, Cidermill, Kissing Gate, The Thatch, Silk Mill, and—you guessed it—The Honeypot! The cottage names are posted on each property using plaques that fit the time period the cottages were built, making them easy to find—both in person and online.
During November 2019, one of the Smiths’ properties became my home away from home. Sansons Cottage, conveniently located on Chipping Campden’s bustling High Street, is located less than a three-block stroll from the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker as well as welcoming pubs filled with hearty conversation and inviting fireplaces, tearooms, restaurants, shops, bakeries, and delicious “takeaway meals.” While there, I had only to mention a need or raise a question to Andy or Sarah to have it immediately answered.
Their special brand of hospitality was on display from the start. I had fallen in love with the cottage after seeing photos on their Facebook page. And I knew I wanted to stay a month. Midway during the month of November, they already had a three-night booking for the home I was already calling “mine.” Andy reached out to the guests who had previously booked the cottage and persuaded them to switch to another home, just around the corner, to allow me to have a full-month’s stay.
Upon my arrival, I discovered a welcome-to-Chipping-Campden bottle of wine in the refrigerator. Sarah arrived the next morning, bearing a hamper filled with breakfast items: eggs, bacon, milk, bread, jam, and cheese. I learned this was a holiday special they were running for their guests. Just perfect!
Each Friday morning, Sarah and one of her helpers arrived to bring fresh linens, change the beds, clean the bathrooms, chat for a bit, and offer any help I might need.
Because it was November and I am a “fireplace person,” my little woodshed in the garden was depleted twice during my stay. A quick call to Andy brought firewood, stacked in the woodshed and replenished in the inside basket. When I ran out of kindling, Sarah showed up at the door with a fresh bag within minutes of my call. If I needed to go to another village or even the closest city, Cheltenham, to shop, they were available to take me.
I had an opportunity to sit down with the Smiths and talk about their business venture.
With a warm smile, Andy explained the beginnings of the business. “When we married, Sarah was working for an agency here in this area, managing and cleaning other people’s second homes and holiday cottages. We bought our first cottage, The Honeypot, in 2007, completely ripped everything out, and started over. It wasn’t long before the word spread, and we were being asked to do the same thing for other people.”
“We began with The Honeypot, a holiday cottage in the heart of Chipping Campden, and, before we knew it, the business had grown into Honeypot Cottages,” he continued. “I handle the bookings and management. Sarah Smith Cleaning & Management looks after the rest. Sarah has three or four helpers, all self-employed, who work for her. Our three daughters pitch in and help too.”
Andy added, “A couple of our properties are on the market now, and we constantly have second-home owners contacting us to take on their properties. In addition to caring for our cottages, Sarah’s cleaning service also manages several other second homes.”
Q&A with Andy and Sarah Smith, Honeypot Cottages
Ren Hinote (RH): This was my second time staying in one of your cottages. Initially, I remember finding Honeypot Cottages online. How do you use third-party channels to get new guests? And how do you get them to come back, like I did?
Andy Smith (AS): We like to use third-party channels to get ourselves out there along with the big booking sites. However, it’s a real challenge getting noticed because they often have the top spots on Google. We also use other, smaller national agencies that give us opportunities to offer free “late deals,” which helps a lot. Everyone’s looking for a bargain. We believe the best way to get guests to return is to offer fabulous service in the first place, including good, clear communication, and offers of help for the duration of a guest’s stay. We want our guests to have a holiday that is carefree as well as memorable.
RH: Sarah, you have wonderful linens in your homes. How did you choose the brand, and how do you work with your homeowners to get them to use your linens and towels?
Sarah Smith (SS): When we began, our homeowners supplied their own linens—one set on, one in the wash, and one to spare. Originally, we did all the laundry from our home in Chipping Campden. As the business grew, so did the amount of laundry! We found ourselves spending a huge amount of our spare time washing, drying, ironing, and folding linens. We would get bits done between running the children to after-school clubs, preparing meals, and other things. We often found ourselves up until 2:00 a.m. doing laundry, to make sure there wasn’t a backlog, and stuffing linens into bags for the following day’s changeovers. We soon began shipping the linen out to local ironing people and eventually moved to a local linen company four years ago. We’ve changed linen companies since then, when the standards of the first company dropped. We’re happy with the linen company we currently use. They’re based in Stratford-upon-Avon, and they supply a few hotels and businesses locally.
RH: Having stayed in two of your cottages in the last three years, it appears that you have a standard kitchen package . . . similar plates, glassware, and other items. Is that correct? If so, how did you decide to standardize kitchenware, and how do you work with homeowners on this?
SS: We try to go along with our owners’ wishes when it comes to plates, glasses, and other kitchen essentials. Breakages or lost items can be a challenge. If a cottage allows the space, we try to keep a few spares in the cupboards so that we can quickly replace items. Because we’re located in a country village, we often have to travel to Stratford, Evesham, or Stow-on-the-Wold to purchase replacements, and restraints on our time can make that impossible. If a cottage happens to have breakages, we have to make do with what we can find locally. Consequently, we sometimes supply our cottages with crockery, glasses, or more obscure items, like a cafetiere [a French press coffee maker] from our own kitchen! We’re often missing an item from our home, only to find it in one of the cottages at a later date.
RH: What are some of the challenges you face today that you didn’t face when you started the business?
AS: Competition! When we began, there were only a few other local agencies, but now everyone seems to be in the holiday leasing business, especially with the advent of Airbnb, which gives people the option of advertising their own space in their own homes. We’ve heard more than a few horror stories. Guests need to be careful and do their research as much as possible. If guests can locate the owner or agent and talk with him or her directly, it reduces the risk of booking a cottage that isn’t available or a home that doesn’t meet their needs. We much prefer taking bookings over the telephone, but we understand that many guests want to book online.
That’s fine with us, but we like people to know they can ask us any questions at any point in the booking process, straight through to departure.
RH: What challenges do you think vacation/holiday home rental managers will face during the next decade?
AS: Definitely competition from the big agencies offering online booking, taking the first page of Google, and Airbnb. They make it so easy for people to rent their own homes.
RH: What do you love most about your business?
AS: Simply put, we love working with people, knowing they’re planning a special holiday—or just a weekend away—and making sure they have a fabulous stay. We like to offer our support without being underfoot or in people’s faces. We completely enjoy the personal touch. Several of our returning guests call and ask us to meet them at one of our local pubs, The Volunteer Inn, for a drink or a meal. That particular pub and Toke’s (wine, cheese, and delicious homemade takeout foods) offer discount “tokens” to our guests as a special incentive to stop in.
It’s truly a small world, and we love discovering “people coincidences.” Often, when talking with potential guests, we learn that we know some of the same people and places. We have an interesting story about two couples, one from Canada and the other from Australia, who met in a restaurant line in London. They began chatting and learned that one couple had recently stayed in one of our cottages and the other was booked to stay with us in the very same cottage! These two couples have kept in touch and meet in their travels around the world. And it all began when they stayed with us at Honeypot Cottages.
Andy and Sarah Smith have found a way to offer a super helping of down-home hospitality in the middle of England’s beautiful and historic Cotswolds. As for this traveler, and I am certain many others, I’ve discovered the “honeypot” of gold in the center of one of the most magical locations on the globe!