In 2018, John Keggin took part in Isle of Man Tourism Industry Day “with a few business cards and an idea”.
“I wanted to try to create a business where we could really showcase the best that the island has to offer, taking quality accommodation around the island and providing a high level of service that would attract visitors to the looking for a quality product, he says.
John has a good understanding of the ups and downs of the Isle of Man 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 led to its closure in 1990. But tourism on the island is experiencing a renaissance and the John’s company, Island Escapes, is a big part of it.
He had found his inspiration for the new venture in Cornwall, working with a company that ran holiday homes.
John recalls: “I spent some time living in St Ives which is a bustling tourist destination and it reminded me in many ways of the old days of the Isle of Man when the beach was crowded and bustling with tourism.
“While I was there I realized that this type of business could work well on the Isle of Man, so I came home and set up the business.
“I felt like the Isle of Man had a lot of Cornwall ingredients, but lacked the mass tourism of Cornwall.
“But Cornwall is actually a very difficult place to get to. It’s a long drive even if you’re from the south of England: it’s seven hours from London and three hours from Bristol, but people still flock there in their thousands. In some ways it’s just hard to get to like the Isle of Man is.
John’s business model reflects what a growing number of people are now looking for in a self-catering vacation, and he’s far from the idea of earning a little extra cash by renting out your spare room on Airbnb.
He says: “Customer expectations have been on the rise for years and catering is now seen as a premium product. In the past, it might have been seen as the bottom end of the market, but that’s certainly not the case anymore: people will be opting for this luxury vacation home experience.
The initial challenge when he set up the business was finding suitable properties, but as a few prominent owners started buying into his idea, the business began to grow.
Then Covid arrived and everything changed.
John says: “2020 was supposed to be a really good, strong year for the business, but all of a sudden we were forced to cancel pretty much everything we had for the year and the future of the business. ‘enterprise seemed very uncertain at this to indicate.
“I think if I hadn’t already worked so hard to get to this point, I would have just given up on the idea, but I was too invested in it at the time.”
And, far from sounding the death knell for his business, the Covid provided an opportunity that John had not foreseen, but which he quickly seized: the staycation.
He says: ‘As we neared the end of the lockdown there was a lot of talk on the island about staycations and people not being able to go anywhere and I decided at that time that was a great opportunity for us to really show the best of what the island has to offer to our people and make them our ambassadors for the future.
‘Because there’s nothing better than having hundreds of local residents spreading your message because they’ve experienced your product first-hand by staying there
‘The amount of great feedback we received from this really helped boost and start the business and following this a number of people who had stayed with us on stays contacted us to say that they were so impressed that they were going to buy a vacation home and would we manage it for them?
“So in some ways Covid has really helped turn the business around and now that border restrictions have been lifted we have been able to grow and expand our team ready to take on the challenge of welcoming visitors back to the Isle.”
Island Escapes now manages 85 properties across the island offering over 350 beds. Their visiting season runs from April to the end of October: “At the moment we have about 90% occupancy until September, so there are opportunities for people to book, but things are certainly very busy,” says John.
He also finds that staycations are still popular, especially out of season: “We have just seen a relatively busy winter – by no means packed, but we are seeing people staying at our properties who may live in Ramsey or Douglas and come to Castletown for a three-night stay because it’s so different and you don’t have to worry about thinking, “I wonder what the ferry will be like in February?”
“Our business model was based from April to October, but we continue, we move forward in the winter with the locals, and the locals have really helped us with that and by sharing this message. Many of them post their pictures on social media and this gets out to a wider audience, so the more people that come through our doors the better.
“Now when they go on holiday to England and they talk to people from the Isle of Man, they can sell it a lot better because they have actually stayed here and holidayed there 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 when I think they can now – the number of people I have talked about who had done a boat trip to the Calf of Man in 2020 who had never been there before but did because their options were limited.
“Wherever we have small gaps in our bookings, we will try to promote them to locals so people can contact us for last minute deals.
“I’m also setting up a loyalty program for locals which will launch later this year.”
As a board member of Visit Isle of Man, John also sees how his business can play a role in the bigger picture when it comes to tourism on the island.
Around 11 million Britons choose to stay in the British Isles for their holidays and John believes his business, and the island in general, are well placed to tap into this market.
He says: “The island is the best of the British isles in miniature. You can walk in the hills during the day, then go down to the beaches for a drink in the evening.
“The Isle of Man will not appeal to everyone: we are not going to attract people who want to go abroad. But for the type of people who like to holiday in Britain, it is very attractive.
The Isle of Man Passenger Survey for 2019 found that over 300,000 visitors came to the island for a holiday. Visit Isle of Man aims to increase this figure to 500,000 by 2032.
“Provided the hosting infrastructure can grow, there’s no reason we can’t access it.
“We only need 500,000 of those 11 million visitors.” Various stakeholders such as Manx National Heritage and Steam Packet are coming together to try to provide this and it’s exciting to be a part of it.
Because we all have this common vision of where this is all going.