Navigating the Crisis | Sarah Stanley on leading Unique Homestays through COVID-19

The owner and director of Unique Homestays, Sarah Stanley, talks to us about leading her business through lockdown and how, despite the travel restrictions they are still receiving a high level of enquiries for future holidays, as well new members wanting to join their collection of homeowners.

How are you navigating your business through the current COVID-19 crisis?
We have been closely following government advice, but have also tried to put our moral compass to good use as we navigate through unchartered waters. The actions companies take now will determine their future. With this in mind, our key focus has been on the people; our homeowners, guests and staff. The team have proven to be gold dust in these difficult times.

What has the situation taught you about leadership?
Unique Homestays has a strong, varied leadership team and they have pulled together to adapt to the changing environment. Being an online business has meant we’re in the fortunate position where the teams can continue from home. It took a good few days setting up the new home workspaces and technology supporting that, which are quite a contrast to the buzzing office, but business is still running well. I believe empowerment and trust are key.

And what has it taught you about your business?
Having time to reflect has helped me realise that it doesn’t necessarily matter where the team are based. The main point being the importance of hiring and maintaining the right people, regardless of where they happen to live. Great relationships between the team and our owners have really helped us work through this time too. The positive feedback from both owners and guests, who understand we are acting in everyone’s best interests, has been incredibly reassuring. We’ve always put a big focus on relationship building and this will certainly continue, whether in person or more virtually.

It has been insightful following the trends in business. Despite the travel restrictions we are still receiving a high level of enquiries for future holidays, as well new members wanting to join our collection of homeowners. A large proportion of business comes from repeat guests and, during the pandemic, we have seen an increase in interest from those who have used Unique Homestays previously as well as a 6.3% rise in those coming via a personal recommendation. For me this shows the importance of ensuring excellent service and communication runs right through the customer experience. When people are in stressful, uncertain times, they want to use trusted brands they feel they can rely on. Our customers are more of a community; the word of mouth endorsement we receive has been and continues to be a large contributing factor to our year-on-year growth. This is something we are taking steps to recognise and reward further.

How are you – and the wider business – supporting your people?
Having the latest technologies as well as a bespoke website system has meant we can adapt quickly. We’ve built new virtual notice boards and use video call when we can; our management and team meetings have continued as usual but via Zoom. Our People and Culture Manager has been keeping in touch with employees on a regular basis. We have tried to be as flexible as possible, bearing in mind that everyone’s home circumstances are unique. We have accepted requests to work reduced hours for those that need to home-school or focus on other priorities, and furloughed less than half of the team, protecting their jobs for when business resumes to normal. The main priority is that everyone is safe and able to care for their families efficiently.

What do you see as the potential long-lasting changes to your business?
As the business has grown so has the team, quite rapidly over the last five years. Naturally, with that we’ve been assessing future office requirements. One thing I’ll take from this situation is that working from home can have its benefits, something to consider for the future. Office space shouldn’t be a block for company growth.

How are you, on a personal level, dealing with lockdown?
Overall I’m feeling positive. I’m grateful for having the opportunity to reflect on what is important and what is not.

www.uniquehomestays.com