Looking beyond Covid-19 to the future

Julia Hart Julia Hart Uploaded

Julia Hart of Ayoola Serviced Accommodation tells SAN about the impact of Covid-19 on a new business in the apartment space.

Ayoola Serviced Accommodation is a small accommodation provider based within the business district of Bracknell, Berkshire. It was set up by three entrepreneurial friends after spending many a day working out of bland, cramped serviced apartments and aparthotels across the UAE and the Philippines.

We realised the importance your environment plays on your mental health and, ultimately, how this affects your productivity. With this in mind, we set about creating a brand that, not only offers luxury and space, but lifts your mood, creating a calm environment after a frantic, stressful day. We, therefore, opted for a Bioliphic design principle, bringing the outside inside, providing guests with a fresh approach to their space but also ensuring they have all the necessary facilities they need when working away from the office or home.

Ayoola opened its doors in May 2019, with real motivation to bring these new health and wellness concepts to the market. The response has been fantastic, the brand has been well received. We have had great guest review and created the kind of consumer confidence we had hoped for.

So much so, that in early January 2020, we felt confident to expand and take on another two units, from another provider looking to reduce their accommodation portfolio. We saw this as a great opportunity to push forward and incorporate these units into our now growing service offering. With the consent of the previous supplier, we branded the units, bringing them into the Ayoola family and ensuring they met the environment standard we prided ourselves on. They were immediately placed onto our OTA and the bookings started flying in.

However, behind the scenes the agent we were dealing with were dragging its feet, taking weeks to complete the paperwork for the official hand over. In the meantime, news of a strange virus in China was starting to emerge, but it’s a long way away and not something for us to worry about, right? Under no such circumstances did we ever imagine that this would affect us here in the UK. At that time, nobody in the industry could have foreseen the impact it would have across the planet.

On the week commencing 9th March we started to receive messages from our corporate clients, saying that their companies had started to impose travel bans and they would have to cancel their upcoming bookings. Clearly it was disappointing, but it couldn’t get worse, could it?

On 12th March I attended the Short Stay Show at Excel, I sought advice about what on earth I should do about the new apartments! We had spent so much time and energy pulling it all together and felt a strong sense of responsibility to the team and to the existing vendors. I had agreed to take on these new apartments, they were branded, ready and on the website - but the leases were still not signed. The overwhelming feedback, from the professional community, was quite overpowering. This was now about survival!

I could not worry about those feelings of guilt and ethics, I had to be completely practical to find the best way forward and to keep my developing business afloat. By Friday 13th we had received 50 per cent cancellations and, devastatingly, within the next four days the cancellation rate had risen to 90 per cent, leaving us with an income loss of more than £10,000, a huge amount for such a small, embryonic business. Within a week we had gone from the excitement of expanding our business, to what could only be classed as a potential collapse.

After a few days of reflection, discussion with the accountants and business partners, we could see no other option, but to not move forward with the commitment to sign the new leases. Completely devastating and quite surreal. It was sink or swim. After much soul searching, it was time to put my ‘big girl pants’ on and face the consequences of the decision and try to move forward with our existing units only. Understandably, the agents didn’t take too kindly to this news, requesting that both the branded properties to be cleared and a formal check-out procedure to be followed, as standard practice. They made it very clear. There was no other option, period.

We then faced a 48-hour turnaround to clear the units, put everything into storage. Just as we prepared ourselves, our operations manager advised us she had been with a family the previous weekend whose daughter had been diagnosed with Covid-19. Now our work force was being depleted, the removals companies were shutting up shop, the man with a van guys wanted to charge triple due to the social distancing rules. I seriously needed to find another option, and fast.

The agents kept hassling: "When are you removing your stuff? This needs to be cleared!"

I felt overwhelmed, the government had just told everyone to keep two metres apart, avoid unnecessary journeys and contact, but what could I do? I had to dig deep and, after a business colleague had reminded me, decided I was not going to be pushed around in these circumstances and forced to ignore government advice, to the detriment of my health, as well as the potential health of my family and business partners. Though I was continuously being told that it was ‘business as usual’ for the agents, the apartments would need to go back onto the open market and views would commence imminently!

There was, clearly, no flexibility or comprehension of what they were asking. As far as they were concerned, they were determined to stick to their procedures, no deviating due to unforeseen circumstances that the entire world was facing. However, I held my nerve and after an extremely fraught 48 hours, I waited by the phone in the belief that they would surely see sense. After all, who was going to be out looking at apartments now that the lock down was imminent? Finally, at 5.30 the call came!

They would allow us to delay our completion and the check out to continue with all the furniture and our branded accessories in place! What a relief, finally they had seen sense and realised that what they were asking simply wasn’t feasible. We now had to focus on the units we have and find a way to drive bookings, cut costs and survive. As a team we quickly hatched a plan to contact the NHS, all the closing hotels and local letting agents. We had to get our message out there that we were taking bookings, for Key Workers only, on social media and at cost price.

To date, we have managed to get bookings until the 18th April, but thereafter we just don’t know what the future may hold. What we do know is that we have created an exciting concept and striking business model that our clients clearly love.
We know that travel is changing, and mental health and wellbeing is now being taken seriously. We also know that businesses are keen to look after their A-star executives and reduce their staff turnover rates.

Our business was just on the cusp of turning a corner and our brand was going to start to grow and, I believe, it was due to this approach. I, therefore, am optimistic for the future. Once we are through this challenging time, people are going to want to move around once more. Understandably, I think they will be nervous at first, but I also feel that people will, potentially, stay close to home for a while.

I, therefore, feel our approach, thinking about people’s wellness and mental health, will be the area of growth to focus on. Clients and individuals will be looking for a healthier environment and corporates will be taking mental health issues more seriously. This is an opportunity for Ayoola Serviced Accommodation to capitalise on the market, build on our strengths and become leaders in the market, returning to the upward growth we were experiencing before the arrival of Covid-19.


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