iTravel Staycation Award winner interviews 2021: Cofton Holidays

In the second feature of a new mini-series on ShortTermRentalz, we speak to some of the winners from the 2021 iTravel Staycation Awards, who were revealed via a virtual awards ceremony in June.

This time, we hear from Helen Scott, director of Cofton Holidays in South Devon, which won the 2021 iTravel Staycation Award for “the UK’s Best Caravan / Campsite”.

  • Please introduce yourself, Cofton Holidays, and the services you provide in the short-term rental / holiday rental industry.

My name is Helen Scott, and I am a director here at Cofton Holidays in South Devon. My family have owned and run Cofton for over 40 years now and the park is going from strength to strength.

Cofton is set within 80 acres of glorious Devon countryside, close to the Blue Flag Beach at Dawlish Warren, and guests return year after year to enjoy our range of accommodation and award-winning facilities. We’re always investing in our accommodation and growing our offering.

Today, we are proud to offer luxury lodges, static caravan holiday homes, dog-friendly cottages, hot tub cottages, and Georgian-style apartments, as well as pitches for tents, touring caravans and RVs. We are also gearing up to launch our new dog-friendly lodges, just a short distance away from our fishing lakes, in September 2021.

Guests can stay in our self-catered accommodation for a minimum of three nights [Friday to Monday] with four nights and seven nights also available. Each guest can benefit from the use of our facilities, which include a heated indoor swimming pool with a splash-pad area, bubbling water jets and hydrotherapy loungers, steam room and gym, on-site shop, family-friendly restaurants, fitness and cycling studios, pub, playgrounds, forest adventure area, five coarse fishing lakes, and much more.

  • What did it mean to you and your company to win the iTravel Staycation Award for the UK’s Best Caravan / Campsite? And to be shortlisted in more categories than any other tourism business in the UK?

We were over the moon when we heard the news. The last year and a half has been unbelievably testing for the travel and tourism industry, but we were determined to hold our heads high and continue investing in Cofton despite the park being closed to guests. We put every ounce of effort into transforming the landscape and increasing biodiversity on site through our rewilding project. We also invested over £200,000 to bring 48 new super pitches on board for RVs and campervans, ready for the staycation boom which was inevitably going to happen.

We couldn’t have done all of this without our amazing, hard-working team. Having our efforts recognised by a national awards body, when there are so many fantastic holiday parks across the UK, is just fantastic.

  • You recently invested £200,000 in “super pitches” for RVs and caravans — can you explain what this involves and what was your reasoning for this move?

In the summer of 2020, when the first easing of lockdown restrictions occurred, we experienced a rise in demand for our camping and caravanning facilities here at Cofton. It was a common occurrence across the UK holiday park industry as it wasn’t easy for holidaymakers to go abroad, and so people started investing in motorhomes and caravans so that they could easily holiday in the UK.

We predicted this booking trend ahead of its time and made the decision to invest in 48 new super pitches. Construction got underway in November 2019. Each of the new pitches can accommodate a motorhome or caravan with a maximum length of eight metres and comes with water and waste connections plus electric hook-up. Part of our long-term plan to make the park an all-weather all-year-round holiday destination for motorhomes and caravans, lockdown enabled us to fast-track the site upgrade. Now, each pitch has a tarmac area alongside a grave base, so that visitors can stay regardless of what the weather brings.

Investing in these pitches has really broadened our offer. Bookings from guests with caravans and motorhomes are up 20 per cent on 2019, hitting a record high for occupancy levels.

  • You also started a rewilding project during lockdown to increase biodiversity on your site — how does this reflect the ethos and commitment to sustainability at Cofton?

We are passionate about protecting the environment in which we live and work. We ensure that everything we do enhances the sustainability of the park. In 2020, we spent over £1/4 million on environmentally focused projects, the main focus of which was our rewilding project.

We were keen for the natural environment to flourish during lockdown so that guests could return and admire the beautiful landscape. Now, when you drive through the gates at Cofton, you can instantly see that the landscape has been lovingly looked after, creating a true wildlife haven.

The rewilding project is all about letting our land thrive in its natural, uncultivated state. We’ve introduced nature corridors through the planting of additional hedges, shrubs and trees, as well as introducing wildflower zones and tussocky grassland that is cut biennially. All of this helps animals such as hedgehogs move safely around the park. It also attracts insects and pollinators at the same time as providing enhanced nesting environments and food for a variety of birds and bats.

Guests discover a true wildlife haven when they stay, all thanks to our green sustainability values.

  • What are the main challenges or opportunities that have emerged for your business during the pandemic and the lockdown periods?

It goes without saying that the main challenge was having to close Cofton to our guests. Not only was it incredibly sad that many of our customers couldn’t come on their holiday, but we had to send the majority of staff home too. Thankfully, the furlough scheme helped us support our team, ensuring they had jobs to come back to when we were once again open.

Currently, one of our challenges is staff shortages and I know we are not the only business struggling with this in the hospitality sector. Job vacancies in the industry are at their highest levels since records began and businesses just can’t fill them fast enough.

We are in the middle of a staycation boom as holidaymakers don’t have the confidence to travel abroad just yet, but with so many people coming through our doors, we need to ensure the staff are here to deliver the high-quality service Cofton is known for. I think many would have left their jobs in the sector due to lack of confidence as a consequence of Covid-19 and Brexit.

The ‘pingdemic’ also isn’t helping matters for us, as many of our staff are told to isolate immediately, leaving us short staffed at short notice. This is particularly present amongst the younger staff who are actually catching Covid-19, resulting in whole households having to self-isolate. One of our directors is currently self-isolating with his family — four out of the five of them all work at Cofton! Situations like this ramp up the pressure on the rest of our staff.

I am a firm believer in facing challenges head on and turning them into opportunities. When one door closes, another one opens. We wanted to make the most of the site while it was empty. Whilst we missed our guests terribly last year, it did give us an opportunity to crack on with the jobs that are quite hard to complete when you have guests on the park. For example, we made improvements to our roads and walk-ways, making them safer for guests, and we introduced ANPR barriers, so that only registered guests could enter with their vehicles. Our rewilding project really took off and the lack of footfall and noise certainly encouraged a diverse range of birds and mammals to inhabit the new areas created for them.

Plenty of construction work took place during lockdown. This included introducing 12 new luxury lodges to the park. The Cofton Copse Luxury Lodge collection is the first of its kind on site. Complete with large decking areas, hot tubs and panoramic countryside views, these lodges gave guests something new to look forward to upon their return. They have been a big hit and have completely sold out for this summer. We also transformed two of our static caravan holiday homes whilst guests weren’t staying in them, making them wheelchair and dog-friendly.

In addition to the surge in bookings for our camping and caravanning facilities, we’ve experienced incredible demand for our dog-friendly accommodation. In fact, looking at the period between 12 April 2021 [when we re-opened after lockdown] to the end of September 2021, and comparing this period with the same period in 2019, the occupancy rate for our dog-friendly accommodation is 20 per cent higher. Dog-friendly accommodation is currently 93.85 per cent occupied for 2021 compared to 73.53 per cent in 2019.

This comes as no great surprise as customer behaviour indicates that they aren’t willing to leave the dog at home when the whole family is off on a staycation. With the absence of a flight abroad, it’s now even easier to take your dog with you on holiday and that, combined with the increase in dog-ownership during the lockdown, is why we’ve seen a rise in dog-friendly holiday searches.

We love dogs here at Cofton. Many of us are dog owners ourselves so we know how important it is to have the flexibility to bring pets with you. That’s why we’ve decided to add to our luxury lodge collection, investing £300,000 in four dog-friendly lodges which will be located just a short walk away from our fishing lakes. Launching in September 2021, the lodges will feature large decking areas, hot tubs and open plan living spaces with hard-wood flooring, making it easy to clean up muddy paws after a day of adventures.

These new lodges add to the dog-friendly offering we already have in place at Cofton. This includes selected self-catering cottages on our Eastdon Estate and selected static caravan holiday homes.

  • Family and group travel is booming right now — what impact do you believe the pandemic will have on our travel and accommodation choices, particularly in terms of who we will travel with, where we will stay, and for how long?

I certainly believe that the staycation is here to stay for the foreseeable future. Covid-19 hasn’t just gone away overnight and it will take time for travellers to regain that confidence to holiday abroad again, particularly in countries which perhaps are slightly behind the UK’s vaccination programme.

We are seeing many family bookings here at Cofton. That is increasing the popularity of our self-catering accommodation such as the apartments and cottages which are a short walk away on our Eastdon estate. As families make up for lost time apart, they are now coming together to enjoy a holiday, choosing our self-catered accommodation away from the hustle and bustle of the main site.

Finally, we are seeing holidaymakers seeking environmentally friendly destinations. We all saw those incredible pictures of crowd-free landmarks during lockdown and learnt that the air quality across the globe improved massively. Now, with climate change a hot topic again, I think people will be more aware of how their holidays will affect their carbon footprint, opting to choose destinations that are closer to home and that promote sustainability. That’s what we’re all about here at Cofton!

For more information, visit the Cofton Holidays website at this link.

This story was originally posted on 18 August 2021 on ShortTermRentalz.com

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