Winners' Stories - East Ruston Cottages
In a series of Blogs we turn the spotight on some of the recent winners of our first eDogAdvisor awards and find out more about how their business started and what it means to be an award winner. This time it's East Ruston Cottages, winner of Best Friendly Place To Stay, owned by Sue Allen.
East Ruston Cottages came about by accident, certainly there wasn’t any sort of a plan! It started when we moved to the Norfolk countryside over 20 years ago and were able to finally have dogs as our work changed and meant we could spend time with them. Our first rescue lurcher, Milly, and our Border Terrier, Tugger set up our habit and we currently have 4 dogs. We lived in our little cottage happily for a few years enjoying the local countryside and beaches, dog friendly pubs and cafes and took this very dog friendly area all very much for granted. The cottage had been part of a small farm and had barns and yards next to it, now belonging to the larger local farm, and we often used to peer over the wall with our pie in the sky dreams about owning the barns one day. About 10 years ago we found out that the barns were for sale at auction so we had a bit of a dilemma. We certainly didn’t have the money to buy them but this could be our only chance so we went cap in hand to the local farmer! We begged, borrowed and bent over backwards to get the money together and finally, after about 9 months, we were the proud and ridiculously poor and in debt owners of a Norfolk threshing barn with a yard, an old pig unit with a yard and about 3 acres of land that we managed to persuade the farmer to sell with it all. Then the fun began!
The only planning permission we could get was for holiday rental so that’s what we did. We had no experience of building work ......but we did have experience of holidays. Every year we had been away with our dogs and friends in the UK so we knew what we wanted in the way of a properly and genuinely welcoming dog friendly holiday cottage so that’s what we set out to build! It was always very difficult to find somewhere that allowed us to bring all our dogs (it still can be!) and we often ended up paying a LOT of extra money for them but we always left the houses tidy and clean. We reasoned that if we wanted to holiday with multi-dogs and yet left properties clean and tidy why wouldn’t other people? So we decided to be properly dog friendly, not charge for dogs, make the property nice and welcoming too for the humans. The sort of place we would like to holiday in.
As a pilot and a secretary our skills for barn conversions were pretty limited but we set off on the steep learning curve and after an exhausting year and a half we ended up with The Old Piggery, made just as we would like a holiday let to be, comfortable and easy and safe to be in with dogs.
At the time, one of the many little jobs I had was doing the changeover cleans for a friend’s holiday cottage in the village. Both properties were listed with a national agency but I thought I would have a go at marketing them myself so I got a talented friend of mine to make me a website and put them both on – it seemed logical, if a little unimaginative, to call it East Ruston Cottages.
All this was very uncharted territory but it soon became apparent that my little website was achieving better bookings than the national agency and we parted company! After that, the website grew and grew as local friends and acquaintances got in touch to ask if they could add to my website. I took them on if they were prepared to be properly dog friendly and soon got to about 10 and had to call a halt to any more growth as it was such hard work but then I discovered an online bookings system which made my life a lot easier, I learnt tons about social media marketing, advertising etc via the old Business Link system courses and seminars and then a really good friend of ours took voluntary redundancy and started working for me, handing all the admin and accounts on a self employed basis. I could not run ERC without her! So after that I was able to grow more easily.
Up until now I’ve never gone out to find places to add to the website, it’s always been people coming to me which is how the website has ended up with such a mix – from a shepherd’s hut, to barn conversions and cottages, up to big seaside family houses. Whilst several are in the village of East Ruston we now go as far south as the fabulous seaside village of Winterton and nearly up to Cromer and a little inland into the Broads National Park but I don’t go further afield as part of the success is that I stick to the area I know. If someone wants to know about the best beach to go to from their holiday property or where to buy raw food for their dogs or the nearest dog friendly pub or cafe, I can let them know as I live here and use these places. Several of the properties are owned by ex guests who have holidayed here, fallen in love with the area and bought their own holiday home to use and for me to let out the rest of the time. Yet other guests I have lost as they have sold up and moved here after falling in love with Norfolk during their holiday!
We’ve been running for nearly 8 years and this is the first year I have decided to actively go out looking for more properties to add to the collection. So many of the places on my website have amazingly good bookings for this year and into the next that there isn’t much left to choose from so finding some more, properly dog friendly properties is the goal for this year and will allow me to pay for a little more extra help in running the business. We’ve also spent the last 3 years converting the second barn, a much bigger one, to another holiday home so we will be adding that to the collection later this year. It’s a bit fabulous even though I say so myself! Watch out for Running Hare Barn on the website.
Just being in Norfolk helps hugely with the business. It is so genuinely dog friendly. There are a great number of cafes and pubs welcoming dogs, there are a huge amount of easy to access beaches (many of them joined all round the coast) which are either dog friendly all year round or have minimal seasonal restrictions. The countryside is very easy for walking and there is little in the way of livestock to worry about and negotiate. This part of Norfolk in particular is very arable and not very densely populated so it doesn’t feel busy and you often can walk without seeing another person or dog. There are no motorways leading to Norfolk or many big A roads and you don’t go through it to get anywhere and to get to this part on the East Coast you have to really want to come so it doesn’t get very busy. It’s very unpretentious too. North Norfolk is a bit different but this part of east Norfolk is a little more old fashioned and not as well known and better for it I think!
The internet and social media have been key elements in the success of the business. The Facebook page has over 4000 ‘likers’ and is a really active little community. Twitter helped in the early days and the website is the main advertising tool that I have and I have built up a great e-mailing list too. Opportunities to get reviews from customers onto the internet via sites such as eDogAdvisor have been invaluable as they show potential guests what others think about the properties and with eDogAdvisor being specifically for dogs this is a great benefit and important to us and our guests. The fact that East Ruston Cottages has recently won an eDogAdvisor award because of those reviews is a huge boost to the business and personally I am really thrilled. It’s so good to know that there is such a great resource for finding reviews on specifically dog related products, whether it is holidays or food, groomers or insurance; it helps us all.
For more information on East Ruston Cottages please visit the following:-