Reviewing 2010, renting a riad in Essaouira, Marrakech

Abby Aron is a journalist and author who specialises in tourism, especially the Moroccan tourist industry. In 2006 she wrote a book: Buying a House in Morocco. Her work appears in The Times, The Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph, Homes Overseas Magazine, Living Abroad Magazine, and Homes World Wide. She has also written Time Out Guides to Marrakech and Morocco, Weekend Breaks and Food and Drink.

She and her husband own Dar Ronde, a house in Essaouira, which they rent out as a holiday rental. Here she tells us about the successful year she's just had and shares her experiences.


Q: Has 2010 been more challenging than 2009 or previous years and have you felt the effects of the recession?

It started quite slowly at the beginning of the year. I thought “Oh my God it’s going to be a bad year”, but then it picked up, and I didn’t actually notice a huge change between 2009 and 2010. So no I don’t feel it has been a challenging or difficult year. It’s been pretty similar in terms of numbers of bookings, so I haven’t actually hugely felt the recession no.

Q: What did you aim to achieve in 2010?

The same thing we always aim to achieve, which is obviously the financial side, but it’s not really as our main aim, which is always to ensure that we do everything we possibly can to ensure our guests have a good time.

Q: And what sort of things do you do to ensure that people have a great time?

We have a good level of communication with our holiday rental guests. When people get in touch we explain to them what Morocco is like. We’re quite honest, because the market’s opened up. When we started taking bookings it was mainly people who knew Morocco, now they’re often choosing Morocco as opposed to Spain or Italy or something, so they don’t really quite understand Morocco and the cultural differences, so we’re quite honest about how it all works. How the house works, and how some of it’s not exactly child friendly in terms of stone floors and things like that. It’s important to give an honest opinion of what the house is like to people.

And of course it’s all about making their journey there easy, so we arrange things like pick up from the airports for people. We’ll organise taxis for them. We’ll get the taxi driver to meet them there and take them to the house. When people get there we’ll make sure they have a nice little gift on arrival, a bottle of wine, or some Moroccan cookies, something like that. It’s just looking after them really. And when they arrive there Kumar our house manager and Yusuf our housekeeper are there every day, checking they’re OK and seeing if there’s anything they need. Sometimes it’s quite bewildering landing in the Medina, it’s very foreign in many ways, so it’s just a sense of holding their hand if they want it. If they don’t want it then we back off really.

Q: What period is your busiest season and what did you do to prepare your holiday rental and rental business for this season in 2010?

The busiest season must be the summer time. We have our longest bookings, usually for about two weeks at a time, and it’s always going to be completely booked over summer. What do we do to prepare our holiday rental? Well each year we have to do work on the house, each year we have to paint it. Each year we have to buy things, replace things because it’s quite a hostile environment in many ways in Essaouira, very windy and harsh. So we always have to do a lot of work to prepare the house. This year we were very busy in the run up to summer as well, so we didn’t get a chance to do all the renovations. We’ll have to do it at the end of the year now. Generally its get the house ready for people.

Did you make any changes to the way you market your property this year to get more booking enquiries? Were they effective?

We’ve been with HomeAway Holiday-Rentals now for quite a few years. When we started with you guys we got a lot of professional photographs taken, we did a big spiel about it, and really since then we haven’t done anything new. We’ve kept it as it was, because that’s been effective over the years, so we didn’t really need to do any new marketing.

Q: Would there be anything that you do that really works well for you and you’ve kept up?

What’s worked well for us is having good photos, we’ve got our own website, with a link to so people can check availability and things like that. Obviously reviews help nowadays. Recently we got a very bad review that was quite annoying. The other day someone put a bad review up. Unfortunately we’d missed a few things, such is life. But generally they’ve been very good, and we’ve achieved this by making sure people have a good time when they’re there. Repeat bookings work well as well, because people will go and recommend the holiday home to their friends.

Q: Do you actively pursue repeat bookings from previous guests, for example email people after their stay? Do you give previous guests an incentive to tell their friends?

We don’t really do that. We do send out our own questionnaire to people. Just so they can give us feedback and tell us what works with the house and what’s wrong with the house, things they’ve enjoyed and things they haven’t enjoyed, things like that. We don’t ask them to tell their friends, but often people say we’ll tell our friends, and that’s really helpful and has proved successful. And we get quite a few people coming who said they’ve heard about it through their friends.

Obviously being a journalist myself I’ve written a lot about Morocco. I don’t plug my own house, but people have heard about it that way and that’s marketing for me without me having to do very much. I don’t think that actually transfers to many bookings, it’s just getting word of mouth out there really.

Q: How many weeks did you aim to have booked this year? Did you meet these targets and how did you get these results?

We always aim for around 50% booked up, and I’d say we did get half the year booked up. And how did we meet those targets? gets a lot of traffic, and I think Morocco has suddenly increased in popularity in recent years. It’s a hot spot to go to now. I think we look good online. People like our prices; we’ve kept our price the same for the last four years I think. We certainly offer a very competitive rate which appeals to people. Again on the whole people leave us good reviews. And I think that’s how to carry on doing well, we’re happy with that amount of bookings. Obviously more is good, but 50% is perfectly fine. That’s what we initially set out to achieve when we first bought the holiday home. When we first bought the house there were a lot less people going to Morocco. It’s only been in the last couple of years there have been a lot of people going to Essaouira.

Q: So would you say that makes it easier for you to get the bookings as well?

Yes I’d say it does. With us the majority of people who come to us are people who are doing their research, looking into Morocco and finding properties online. They see our property advert, like the look of our property for the price and the way it looks. We’re not specifically going out there and saying “Come to Essaouira”, I think people are just automatically looking at Morocco now. Also there’s not that many hotels in Essaouira, we don’t have to compete with lots of B and Bs as much because there’s more of a demand for self catering properties in Essaouira.

Q: How would your booking patterns compare to previous years, for example have you noticed more late bookings, more people looking for deals or shorter stays?

We would get booked up for summer quite early on. If we’re not booked up for summer by the end of March I’m often surprised. We definitely do get more people asking for special deals then they used to. Some people say things like, “We can’t afford it, and can we have it cheaper?”

Q: How do you usually deal with that?

Some people are very cheeky and ask for very cheap prices, and I usually don’t go down that far. But I am flexible on prices and I get a thrill out of helping people. It’s nice knowing that you can actually make it affordable for people. So I’m certainly happy to lower prices and I do do it quite regularly. People ask things like, "Can we not have breakfast and get it cheaper?" but that’s not really a practical idea because food is very cheap out there anyway.

Sometimes I do say no to people. For example if it’s very busy season and they want an annoying thing like a three day booking, when I could be filling it up for a week. I generally do drop the price for people and I do think that does make the difference because I think everyone likes to find a bargain really.

Q: Do you think if someone asks for a discount, just by giving a discount means they’ve had a better holiday experience?

I do genuinely think that. I think people like to feel they’ve had to work a bit for their holiday; they like to think you’re working with them, you’re not reluctantly giving. I’d much rather give a discount than loose the booking. If I didn’t cut my price I’d feel there was an immediate friction between us and that’s certainly not what I want.

The house is obviously a business, I can’t deny that, but it’s also much more of a relationship really kind of working very much with people we have over there, people we have who are going there, and just making it all work. There’s nothing worse than making your guests grumpy so they have a bad time, because that’s much more detrimental for everybody in the long run and it’s just not really how we ever intended to rent the house. It’s not like we’re trying to make lots of money out of it at all. It’s like a kind of pension a very long term thing that we want to have when we’re old. 
So did you buy it as a retirement property that you’re funding at the moment?

We bought it more for the fact that my husband and I are both freelancers. We don’t have anything like pensions or anything like that in our lives. I think it’s more like we’ll keep it, as an asset. So when we’re thinking about retiring we can choose what to do with it then. We bought it a very long time ago, about six or seven years. So it’s very much a long term plan. We rent it out because first of all it’s very important for us to have a house that is actually lived in because of the conditions over there. And it’s important for us to provide employment for local people. But the most important thing for us is looking at it in the long term.

Q: Would you say it’s an investment property as well then?

Yes it’s an investment property more than a business for right now.

Q: What is your relationship like with your holiday rental guests, what are they looking for in your property and what do you do to ensure they have an unforgettable stay?

Well again it’s all about establishing a strong communication before you get there. I think communication is so important. Before they head off you should reassure your guests that they can ask you questions during their stay. You should be very open to questions. And I think it’s all a case of making it run quite smoothly, their getting to the house, finding the house manager there who will show them around, and creating a good first impression. Having the house clean and tidy when they get there.

I think being honest really does make a difference. Morocco is a land of festivals, there’s always one going on, so there’s often lots of noise going on at night and I like warning people before they go that it’s going to be noisy, or that people like to have parties after dark during Ramadan. It’s important that people are clued up. It’s a two way process, we expect people to respect the house, and we in turn give them the respect that they need really.

Q: Sometimes owners feel worried about mentioning little things to their guests. Not necessarily things big things that they’re obliged to say, that would ruin people’s holidays, but little things like there might be a lot of noise at night, because they’re worried it might put people off booking. Has that ever worried you?

I think there’s an element of that, but I think people are going to discover that when they get there anyway, so when they get there and they discover it they’re going to be more annoyed that no one told them. We had someone recently who wanted to go in January, which is never a good time to visit the house because it’s the rainy season. Being very ancient houses, the house sometimes gets flooded and things like that. I wrote them an email saying, “We’ll offer you a very big discount because this is January and this is what happens.” He wrote back saying, “I’ve chosen to go somewhere else, but thanks for being honest.” To me that’s far better than not telling him, then the drain gets blocked, the house gets flooded, I have to deal with it, and he has a miserable holiday. I just couldn’t do it and look at my face in the mirror after it. And when people have children as well it’s important to be honest. People often write to us and say “Is it safe for children?” and I always tell them it’s exactly what it’s like for children. There are stone floors and there’s glass, and having been honest nine times out of ten people say, “That’s brilliant we still want to book,” because they know what to expect.

I always tell them about the layout of the house, so they know how they can arrange the bedding and decide where they want to sleep. If you create a picture in their minds I think it really makes a difference. It means there are no surprises when they get there and it makes for a nicer holiday really. I’d rather be honest and have them not book, than lie and not have them want to come back to my holiday home anther time.

Q: We’re still in recession at the moment, do you think that means owners have to be more competitive to get bookings, and what have you done this year to set yourself apart from the rest?

I think it’s all down to the price. We keep our prices competitive. The best advice is to keep I can give is to think about setting your rental rates. We haven’t put our prices up in four years and offer great value for money, which does make a difference.

Q: What have been the biggest challenges of the year so far? Have there been any experiences that have been difficult at all? How did you deal with them?

We’ve had difficulty with a bad review, that’s been a challenge. Obviously it’s been very frustrating because it was due to lots of things that could have been dealt with if only they’d told us they weren’t right at the time. Volcanic ash, that’s been a problem. We had a client who thought he could get there then wasn’t allowed to fly when he got to the airport. Everything there was just a mess.

Q: How did you deal with the volcanic ash incident? Did you have to refund him?

No he didn’t want to be refunded; he just rebooked again for November. We could have refunded him, but he was very keen to get over there, so it made more sense. There were some other clients who worried they wouldn’t be able to get there, so I offered to refund them if that was the case. I just thought it was so depressing, if they’d paid several hundred pounds for a holiday, and then couldn’t go and lost all that cash. Fortunately they could fly, but if it had been the case I probably would have kept the 25% deposit and given the rest back. But luckily that didn’t happen, so they went there and they were fine.

We had a similar incident last year where someone else missed their flight. That was a very complicated one. Obviously it wasn’t our fault in the slightest. They didn’t realise they’d missed their flight at first, by that point we already had the taxi arranged to meet them and our house had got the staff ready. They asked us for money back, but we didn’t refund them because it didn’t seem like our responsibility, but you just have to take each case as it comes really.

Q: What have you learned this year which you wish you knew at the beginning of the season?

Going back to that annoying review. In hindsight the problems you can have from having a house stuck out on the corner of Essaouira, is sometimes communication between us and the staff isn’t as easy as it should be. We didn’t know about some of the problems that were there. In the review I saw there had been certain problems that could have been dealt with if I’d known about them. If I’d known there were certain things that weren’t working I would have got them fixed, without having to go over there. So I suppose that would have helped.

Q: Having learned from that experience, what would you be doing in the future?

That review highlighted how important it is, in a place like Essaouria which is so different from everywhere else, you have to basically renovate and restore every single year without fail. We always try to do it before summer. This year we decided to leave a few things till November, but in hindsight I would have gone there before the summer to make sure everything looking better prior to the summer.

Q: What sort of things do you have to do to renovate your property every year? Is it a lot of work?

You have to paint the whole property from top to bottom every single year, because of the sands, it gets very windswept. It’s quite a big job because it’s a large place. We have to replace the television set every single year, which sounds bizarre but we do. And we have to constantly replace things like lamps, which are always going. Things rust an awful lot in Essaouira because of the climate. We have to replace all the bedspreads and linens because the laundry system over there is all done by hand, and it’s quite harshly done, using bleaches and stuff, so things aren’t really very well sustained. So there are jobs that need to be done each year. And there are big jobs that are more fundamental. At the moment we need to do a big renovation on the kitchen. On the whole it does require a lot, more than we realised when we bought it. If we’d known we probably would have considered a different way of building it in the first place.

Q: Does renting out your property cover the cost of the necessary renovations?

Yes it does. Certainly the rent does go towards that. It’s not crazily expensive to renovate it. It hasn’t affected us too badly in terms of people going over there, but what has changed is that we’ve kept our prices the same, and labour has gone up quite significantly. So as before we would have been able to get cheaper labour, labour is much more competitively priced now. Being Morocco there’s no standard rate. There’s no authority that says, “These are what the prices should be.” It’s just what they feel like charging at the time. That’s one of the main problems that we’re not charging any more, yet labour is a lot more expensive.

Q: Do you haggle with labourers?

We do haggle. Kumar our house manager is good at haggling for us. When we’re over there doing it ourselves we do have to haggle. 90% of things you should haggle for in Morocco. You look at the price and it’s not realistic in many ways. You also do get situations where sometimes it’s all right to go with someone who’s charging a bit more, if you know they’ll do the best job, and we give bonuses as well if we’re pleased with their work. We also give bonuses to our staff for managing the build or any restoration work that gets done. We give them 10% of the build price, which inspires them. It’s up to them to move all the curtains, move all the stuff. It’s a lot of work for them when we do painting and things. That’s a very important thing about running a holiday rental. If you’re not there yourself it’s so important that you respect your staff.

Q: Would you say you’re conscientious in your relationship with your staff and the way you treat them?

I would say we’re quite conscientious. They look after our house and they do an incredibly amazing job. They rely on us to communicate with them regularly. Without our staff we haven’t really got a business so we have to treat them well. The house is there but there’s no one to run the house. So we’re very conscientious about the way we manage them.
Copyright, November 2010