Midway through a very successful career in HR and Recruitment, Guy Barnes, alongside his wife Kathrin, swapped the hectic lights of London for the peaceful, rural surroundings of the South West. Since making the 250-mile-plus move, they’ve never looked back.
Having grown up in Devon before leaving for the big smoke, the prospect of starting a family saw Guy and Kathrin move back to the coast to create their very own “proper west country escape” in the form of what is now an outstandingly unique, award-winning bed and breakfast.
Before being transformed into a BnB, Lee Byre was actually the family home for Guy as a child, and remained his parents’ (John and Judy) home after he left for the capital. An almost poetic tribute to Guy’s commitment and dedication to his family, as well as the way in which Lee Byre operates.
While Lee Byre’s mouth-watering meals and gorgeous guided walks are huge attractions for holidaymakers all over the world, Guy knows that it is the power of the relationships they build and the stories they tell that truly separates it from similar businesses.
For this week’s #KnapChat, I spoke to Guy about the beauties of the West Country, his decision to up sticks and move from London, his goals and ambitions with Lee Byre, and the impact of technology and digital media on the BnB industry. Enjoy!
KW: What inspired you to open Lee Byre? Was this always your aim?
Guy: I had lived and worked in London for over 10 years before I realised that my goal had pretty much become: survive the week, live the weekend. I was time poor, trying to cram everything I wanted to go into a few precious hours. Then, exhausted, I would head back to the office on Monday morning.
The inspiration for Lee Byre came as I started to question this, along with the sheer expense of living in London. I started to look for a way to reduce my expenses and increase the time I had available to do the things that mattered to me.
Starting a BnB business was never the goal but it has become the best way to include the things that I love and value, whilst allowing me to relocate and raise a family.
KW: Tell us more about the initial goals of Lee Byre and how it all began…
Guy: The goal was to set up a sustainable business that met our money needs – which were somewhat reduced having left London – and importantly our family needs too.
My wife is German and we travel to Germany for four plus weeks each year with our daughter. We have decided to raise her to be bilingual and give her the best shot at feeling at home in both countries.
As parents, we wanted to be as present as possible during our daughter’s childhood; since we live and work in the same space this is 100% possible.
KW: And where do you envision it going?
Guy: Three years in and the goal has shifted considerably. When we started, I had this ‘ideal’ client and a clear vision of what I thought guests would want out of a stay in this remote part of Devon. But that wasn’t who walked through the door!
Three years in and the vision has developed in response to the guests who thankfully came, many of whom have since returned for more.
We offer an award-winning bed and breakfast experience that guests can adapt to include: homemade packed lunches, homemade and partially foraged evening meals, guided day walks and star treks by night through Dartmoor National Park. We encourage guests to do as much, or as little as they would like.
KW: How has your experience in HR and recruitment influenced the way in which you run Lee Byre?
Guy: It has had a huge influence. In my HR and recruitment career I spent each day interacting with and listening to people, asking questions and pulling out the bits of information that make the difference – this translates well to hosting!
I love the interaction and it has been a very natural shift for me and my family. I learned early on in my career that rather than talking about myself, people would open up and relax much more when I took an interest in them and started asking questions.
People want to talk about themselves, so I would let them! Because of this, a stay at Lee Byre is less about the transaction of a bed and the service of breakfast each morning. It becomes a conversation.
Our guests are taking the time to stay with us and so we take the time to get to know them. As a result, we can make informed recommendations for things to do that are specific to those guests. They, in turn, feel they have had a unique experience and have got the most out of their time in Devon.
KW: What did your years in HR and recruitment teach you about building relationships?
Guy: It taught me that emails and technology often get in the way of building relationships. I will always pick up the phone if there is any problem, or a question to answer.
Secondly, it taught me that a great way to build good relationships and show that you are different to the next outfit is to anticipate needs before you are asked. This was a huge lesson when I was working in recruitment sales.
Get to know your client and then be proactive. It helped me to stand out and ultimately pick up jobs I wouldn’t have otherwise. And in my current role as host, it means my guests compliment on how their needs were met without needing to ask for extra things – you learn what to look for and always try to do better. If you stop getting better then you run the risk of losing that returning business.
KW: What in your opinion are the key ingredients in building relationships?
Guy: Don’t just limit the conversation to work. Learn what your client wants. Anticipate their needs ahead of them asking and meet face-to-face whenever you can.
KW: What is your favourite thing about running a B&B?
Guy: The interaction with our guests and the time it gives us throughout the day as a family, which we would not have if I was doing a regular 9-5 job.
KW: How has social media changed the way in which people find businesses such as Lee Byre?
Guy: Social media has drastically increased the indirect traffic to our website and booking page. Those who find us and interact with us on social media, particularly Instagram, are not looking for a BnB, but they find their way to us because of the content we are posting.
Whilst this indirect traffic and community hasn’t yet translated into sales, we can see by looking at the visits to our website, and where those visits are coming from, that social media has increased the awareness of our business.
In the future, when it is time to book that memorable trip to the West Country, hopefully we’ll be there, front of mind!
KW: It’s interesting that those who find/interact with you on social media tend to be people not actively looking for a BnB. So, what is the aim with your content, and what separates your profiles from that of other similar businesses?
Guy: Our aim when posting content through social media is not to showcase the BnB, but the experience you can have throughout Devon and Cornwall whilst staying here.
When it comes to travel, we think that Instagram is used for inspiration, often not with a destination in mind initially. So our posts are typically about our lifestyle and the places we explore through the West Country.
By showcasing this bigger picture, and hopefully telling the story of how we spend our time in this part of the world, we hope to inspire people’s travel a little bit. When people start to look at the detail of where to stay, the idea is that they have seen our brand, and make the connection between an amazing experience in Devon and Cornwall with a stay at Lee Byre.
We feel that we have broadened our target group by not focusing just on the BnB side but on the travel experience itself.
Other Bed and Breakfast and Guesthouse business do a great job in our region and the competition is tough. But many still focus their lens on their rooms, breakfast, or the garden. I am sure this works to a degree, but people don’t spend their days with us, they are out exploring, so that’s what we focus on. The details of the BnB you can pick up on the website.
KW: Do the likes of TripAdvisor make it easier or harder to get people to stay and recommend your business?
Guy: TripAdvisor is the biggest social media platform in our line of business. It is so so powerful.
We find that most guests will check our TripAdvisor reviews before booking, even if they are not contributors themselves. It plays well for us because our guests have given us outstanding reviews, so the answer is yes – it helps! But of course it can play both ways.
I like TripAdvisor and find that it does keep us totally focused on where we fall short and what we can do better.
KW: What are your views on Airbnb? How has that affected the industry?
Guy: Airbnb is an amazing tool and it has made travel and stays much more informal. It has increased the options that the traveller has – especially at the lower end of the market – which means that BnBs, Guesthouses and Boutique Hotels have to work extra hard to provide something unique, interesting and memorable. Otherwise, why would you stay at Lee Byre if you can stay down the road, in someone’s spare room, for half the price?!
I believe Airbnb has drastically improved the quality in our industry. Now you need a story to tell. You need to provide food that is locally sourced, seasonal and organic. Furthermore, a plate of meat for breakfast with a soggy mushroom, greasy egg and over-cooked tomatoes is no longer good enough!
We’ve had to re-invent the typical breakfast. At Lee Byre, it is our chia pot, made with chia seeds, coconut milk, homemade yoghurt, our own honey, topped with seasonal fruit, that is the biggest hit in the morning. Airbnb can only be a good thing, and if you do it well, the chance to shine in today’s market is even greater.
KW: What do you recommend doing the most in Cornwall/Devon?
Gosh, so many things! But my top five would be:
- A day walk through Dartmoor National Park, taking the time to stop for a wild swim in one of the high moor’s rivers and enjoying one of our awesome packed lunches en route!
- Take in a sunset at Brentor Church, Devon. Looking out over Dartmoor to the East and Cornwall to the West. Breathtaking views. Watch hot air balloons rising through the golden midsummer haze on a still evening.
- Make the trip down to Cornwall’s mining heritage coast, go down Geevor tin mine and drive along arguably one of the most beautiful coastal roads in Europe! (personal opinion!)
- Explore some of Cornwall’s most beautiful and historic fishing villages, dipping into Padstow, Boscastle and Port Isaac on the North Coast, and Falmouth, Fowey and Looe on the south.
- Finally, get in the sea! Take a surf lesson at Watergate Bay, or explore North Devon’s wild, rocky and empty surf breaks if you are experienced. Go coasteering for adventure, or go out on a rib with Rob at Devon Sea Safaris for a truly unique look at our coastline and the mammals and birds that live there.
To some, moving hundreds of miles to start a new business while leaving behind a successful career would be seen as a risk, but in one sentence Guy rationalised it entirely.
His aim was to “increase the time I had available to do the things that mattered to me.”
Should that not be the ultimate objective for most decisions we make in our lives? Time is one of the only things we cannot get back, so why not do everything you can to spend it surrounded by the people and things you love and value the most?
Guy is someone who understands and appreciates the true power of relationships. When talking about business, he talks of ‘experiences’, ‘conversations’, ‘stories’, and ‘inspiration’.
His goal has always been to spend time with those he holds closest. Yes, the vision may change – like with his idea of the ‘ideal client’ not matching those who walked through the door – but that end goal never appears to have left his sight.
That is something we can all learn from, but for now, I’m off for a star trek around Dartmoor National Park. See you next week!