Interview with Chris Parkin, co-publisher of an online newsletter for innkeepers and others in the hospitality industry
He began as an apprentice in the Savoy in London, and 36 years later has his own country inn—plus a subscription website directed to helping others run a successful bed and breakfast.
In this exclusive Mequoda interview, Chris tells us the details of his exciting career, both as an innkeeper and as a publisher.
MEQUODA By way of background, what is your educational and professional background?
CP No great educational awards, but did rather better at college, having determined my career path, completed a city & guilds 150 and 151 in catering.
MEQUODA How did you get into the hospitality industry?
CP After so many years at school sitting behind a desk I just could not face another 30/40 years of it! Plus, you know, when you see a door marked ‘Private’ or ‘staff only’ — there are a lot in the hotel/hospitality industry — I always wanted to see what was on the other side!.
I completed the city & guilds courses and landed my first job at the Savoy in London, in the grill room kitchen.
MEQUODA What did you do before www.bandbowner.com?
CP I spent 36 years in the UK hospitality industry. Following my apprenticeship at the Savoy I went to Branksome Towers Hotel and graduated to management.
Three years later I decided I was qualified to open my own restaurant!! Three months later I realized I wasn’t — Ah, the courage of the ignorant!
However, in spite of my limitations it was a successful business and gained some critical acclaim. Eight years later we sold it and bought our first accommodation — a restaurant with six rooms in the Cotswolds.
My most recent establishment is the Carlton Lodge Hotel in the North Yorkshire Moors national park, which I have owned for the last 16 years and had 24 beds and a busy banqueting suite at its peak. I have downsized recently to just 16 beds to meet the changes in the local market — and to save my knees.
MEQUODA Anything else we should know about you personally or professionally?
CP I serve on the local council and this keeps me very involved in the local community. It also provides direct insight into national, regional and local government and the various legislation which is being considered, developed and implemented. (At least that’s how I justify it to Tom!)
MEQUODA What best describes your position with www.bandbowner.com? Are you the founder/sole owner/president/webmaster — all of the above — or what? Was this website your creation? What is Tom Cone’s role in the business?
CP Co-founder, joint webmaster and author. Tom is the co-founder/joint webmaster (technical) marketer.
MEQUODA How did you come to start www.bandbowner.com? What’s it all about? Who are your subscribers? What motivated you to launch your site?
CP Matters really came to ahead during the foot (hoof) and mouth crisis in the United Kingdom. Through my contact with local government I was able to keep my fellow business operators (mainly in the tourism industry) up to date with news and decisions, not rumor and possibilities. The information provided was well received and at then end of the crisis, I realized that there was a need for an industry-based support website.
The site aims to offer timely information, advice and support to smaller independent accommodation providers mainly in the UK. Subscribers are accommodation providers of a variety of sizes.
My personal drive is to make ‘B&B owner’ a service that I would subscribe to if I were starting out again!
MEQUODA How long has your site been active and what is your subscription fee structure? What is included with a subscription?
CP The site was launched in November 2004. Membership is £49.95 to join and £9.95 a month to stay on board. Members get open access to the discussion forum, the download area, news and information articles and some unique software to show them how to save money and plan for the future.
For instance, we have developed a forecasting package that reports in terms the B&B owners understand — occupancy levels and bed nights booked — as well as for the accountants and bankers!
MEQUODA How easy, time-consuming, etc. is the process of adding new content?
CP For me, it’s getting the article together and writing for our audience that is the challenge. I also have to edit articles (without upsetting our experts!)
MEQUODA How many people are involved in preparing and posting editorial content?
CP Five retained industry commentators with industry experts brought in as, required, i.e., on specific topics should the requirement be evidenced.
MEQUODA How often do you add new content?
CP Approximately every three days; sometimes a little longer. If a hot topic comes up, frequently shorter! Starting out was a problem, as we felt we had to fill up the site with lots of content, but now we are moving towards ‘timely content’. This is a key benefit of electronic publishing and allows us to keep our audience updated more effectively than printed publications.
MEQUODA What’s the single greatest tool that helps you get your new content out every week?
CP Industry knowledge from a variety of sources, including the discussion forum.
MEQUODA Marketing and promotion seem to be a great challenge for most subscription website publishers. How have you approached this task, and what kind of results have you experienced?
CP We also have the extra challenge that our target market isn’t particularly web active! We have used direct marketing and have had limited success.
We have done a presentation to a industry group. We are currently undertaking direct marketing and adverts in key publications.
MEQUODA Do you have any advertising on your site?
CP At the moment the answer is no. We prefer to maintain our integrity and enjoy the confidence of our members. We are happy to provide a forum for industry-based knowledge with links if they are appropriate to our members.
MEQUODA How do you find new subscribers, or how do they find you? What’s the process like for increasing sales and memberships?
CP Direct mail, links to industry related sites, Google placement (naturally), UK hospitality associations, regional tourism associations, business sales agents, and ‘expert’ articles in industry publications with links back.
MEQUODA What’s your best advice to Mequoda members who are seeking to develop additional revenue streams outside of advertising for their online business?
CP Become the ‘industry expert’ and use that ‘title’ to enhance article sales, e-book sales, on line training opportunities.
MEQUODA What has been your greatest challenge to date, doing business online?
CP It has and will be convincing members to join and to be comfortable with the ‘new’ technology. The UK online market place is a little behind the U.S., especially with smaller business operators being web-enabled.
MEQUODA What tips would you pass on to aspiring publishers who want to start a subscription-based website?
CP Find your niche. Become the expert. Buy the right software package.
MEQUODA What’s the best or smartest thing you’ve done? What’s the worst?
CP Get married. Getting into local politics. (You decide which is which!)
MEQUODA What subscription-based websites do you subscribe to and/or recommend?
CP Jim Laube’s restaurantowner.com and Bill Myers’s Bmyers.com.
MEQUODA Which of the above is “doing it right?” (marketing their product, building a subscriber base, providing value, etc.)
CP Probably because it’s industry-related, Jim Laube’s site. But I don’t think he would have got there without Bill Myers. Both provide ‘value’ and I think that is key to subscription — as long as I feel I get value I’ll stay subscribed — and I think every Mequoda member faces that acid test every day.
MEQUODA What question have I neglected to ask you that you want to answer?
CP How did you set your membership price? We based it on the value of the software members have free access to once they join.