In 2018, John Keggin went along to the Visit Isle of Man Tourism Industry Day ‘with a few business cards and an idea’.
‘I wanted to try and create a business where we could really showcase the best of what the island has to offer, by taking on quality accommodation round the island and providing a service to a high standard that would attract visitors who are looking for a quality product, he says.
John well understood the ups and downs of the Isle of Man’s tourism industry.
He grew up in Port Erin where his grandfather and later his father ran The Towers Hotel: the demise of tourism in the 1980s and 1990s saw its closure in 1990. But tourism in the island is enjoying a renaissance and John’s company, Island Escapes, is very much a part of it.
He had found his inspiration for the new company in Cornwall, working with a business that managed holiday homes.
John recalls: ‘I spent some time living in St Ives which is a bustling tourist destination and it many ways it reminded me of the old times of the Isle of Man when the beach was packed and bustling with tourism.
‘Whilst I was there I realised that this type of business could work well back on the Isle of Man so I returned home and set the business up.
‘I felt like the Isle of Man has got a lot of the ingredients that Cornwall has but it doesn’t have the mass tourism that Cornwall has.
‘But Cornwall is actually a really difficult place to get to. It’s a long drive even if you’re coming from the south of England: it’s seven hours from London and three hours from Bristol, but people still flock down there in their thousands. In some ways it’s just a difficult to get to as the Isle of Man is.’
John’s business model reflected what a growing number of people are now looking for in a self catering holiday and it’s a long way away from the notion of making a bit of extra cash by renting your spare room on Airbnb.
He says: ‘Guest expectations have been on the rise for years and self catering is now seen as a premium product. In the past it was perhaps seen as a lower end of the market but it certainly is not like that any more: people will opt for that luxury holiday home experience.’
The initial challenge when he first set up the business was to find suitable properties but, as a few significant property owners started to buy into his idea, the business began to grow.
Then Covid happened and everything changed.
John says: ‘2020 was due to be a very good, strong year for the business but then all of a sudden we were forced to cancel pretty much everything we had for the year and the future of the business looked very much in doubt at that point.
‘I think if I’d not already put so much hard work into getting it to that point I would have just abandoned the idea but I’d invested too much in it by then.’
And, far from spelling the end of his business, Covid provided an opportunity that John had not foreseen, but one he was quick to grasp: the staycation.
He says: ‘As we neared the end of lockdown one there was a lot of talk on the island about staycations and people not being able to go anywhere and I decided at that point that this was a great opportunity for us to really show off the best of what the island has to our local people and get them to be our ambassadors for the future.
‘Because there’s nothing better than having hundreds of local residents who are spreading your message because they’ve experienced your product first hand by staying there
‘The amount of great feedback we had from that really helped drive and kickstart the business and, as a result of that, a number of people who’d stayed with us on staycations contacted us to say they were so impressed they were going to buy a holiday home and would we manage it for them?
‘So in some ways Covid did really help turn the business around and now that the border restrictions have been lifted we’ve been able to grow and expand our team ready to take on the challenge of welcoming back visitors to the island.’
Island Escapes now manages 85 properties across the island offering more than 350 bed spaces. Their visitor season runs from April until the end of October: ‘At the moment we’re running about 90% occupancy through till September so there are some opportunities for people to book but things are certainly very busy,’ says John.
He is also seeing staycations still being popular, especially out of season: ‘We’ve just seen a relatively busy winter – not packed out by any means but we’re seeing people staying in our properties who maybe live in Ramsey or Douglas and come down to Castletown for a three night stay because it’s so different and you haven’t got the hassle of thinking: “I wonder what the ferry’s going to be like in February?”
‘Our business model has been based around April to October but we keep going, we tick over in the winter with the locals, and the locals have really helped us with that and with sharing that message. A lot of them post their photos on social media and that goes out to a wider audience so the more people we get coming through our doors the better.
‘Now when they go on holiday to England and they chat to people about the Isle of Man they can sell it much better because they’ve actually stayed here and had holidays here themselves.
‘If you went back three or four years I think some of the locals wouldn’t have been able to sell the island so well whereas I think they can now – the amount of people I’ve spoken to that had been on a boat trip to the Calf of Man during 2020 that had never been there before but they did it because their options were limited.
‘Wherever we’ve got little gaps in our bookings we’ll try and promote those to the locals so people should get in touch with us for last minute deals.
‘I’m also putting together a loyalty scheme for locals which will launch later this year.’
As a member of the Visit Isle of Man board, John also sees how his business can play a part in the bigger picture when it comes to tourism in the island.
Around 11 million Britons are opting to stay within the British Isles for their holidays and John believes that his business, and the island in general, is well placed to tap into that market.
He says: ‘The island is the best of the British Isles in miniature. You can be walking in the hills in the day then you can go down and enjoy a drink beside the beaches in the evening.
‘The Isle of Man isn’t going to be for everyone: we’re not going to get the people who want to go abroad. But for the type of people who like holidaying within Britain it’s very appealing.’
The Isle of Man’s Passenger Survey for 2019 revealed that more than 300,000 visitors came to the island for a holiday. Visit Isle of Man aims to increase this to 500,000 by 2032.
‘Providing the accommodation infrastructure can increase there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to get to that.
‘We only need to get 500,000 of those 11 million visitors. Various stakeholders like Manx National Heritage and Steam Packet are all coming together to try and deliver this and it’s exciting to be part of that.
Because we’ve all got that shared vision of where it’s all going.’