A Cottage Case Study !

So it seems I can’t even go on vacation for a week without thinking about business ….

We have just come back from a week at a summer cottage up near Bancroft, Ontario on beautiful Elephant Lake. Given that their were very few photos on the website we had asked a series of detailed questions of the owners about the state and function of the cottage before we dragged 14 family members 3 hrs up north.

When we arrived, the cottage was less than we ‘expected’ …. aside from the ‘garage-sale chic’ accomodations, which we could get over – our issues were around safety, sleep and cooking…. all important ones when your group consists of 8 adults and 6 kids ages 1 through 10.

When we voiced our concerns (apparently we were the only ones in 30 years to complain!) we decided to have the discussion with the daughter of the owners, who also worked and lived on the property. Her and her brother (both in their 40s) ran and maintained the property that their parents had built from the ground up nearly 40 years ago.

It was a huge eye opener to not only the EMOTION that was attached to the cottage for them, but the unwillingness to change ANYTHING as a result.

But during our discussion, we were able to point out some key issues that the family would have to address in the next 3-5 years:

1. The parents were beyond retirement age and no one in the family business had talked about how exactly ownership would be passed on between brother and sister (both single, childless) when they passed or retired.

2. The original owners were still making all of the key decisions and purchases when it came to the property, and children were still fearful of interfering or offending their parents.

3. There had been NO significant upgrades, changes, safety improvements made at least in the last 10-15 years to any of the cottage properties, yet their prices had increased based on inflation/market expectations, etc.

4. There was extreme personal and emotional attachment from the parents, stunting them from making or even listening to suggestions about the property, the business or ‘moving forward’.

If I had the time I would have sat down and drafted up a small business plan for the family  – but hey, I’m on vacation! I kindly mentioned that if the siblings were seriously considering running the property – neh, the BUSINESS – and acquireing ownership, they needed to take measures to step into that role today and empower themselves with the responsibilies of living up to current market standards. If they wanted to survive, they were going to have to do some serious improvements, budgeting and marketing if they wished to keep up with the Jones’.

My plan would have involved:
1. REBRAND – rebranding the cottage and using the ‘kitchy’ interiors as a kwirky selling point, exploiting the family angle and keeping the focus on the waterfront and beach area (which was one of the most beautiful in the county).

2. BUDGET – prioritize the MOST needed improvements and upgrades in each cottage and work out a budget that could be slowly worked on the in the next 12 months. Again – focus being, sleep, safety, cooking.

3. WEBSITE – clearly, not a lot of businesses are going to do very well without a well functioning, well-written site. Some simple upgrades, strong messaging and neat photos could make the difference for someone 3 hrs away debating whether to spend $2,000/wk at your property or someone else’s.

4. FAMILY MEETING – I would encourage them to sit down and draft a business ‘will’ or ‘succession plan’. At least get some main issues or concerns from the family on the table (with an advisor or mediator) would be absolutely necessary for this family and this business to SURVIVE into the second generation.

Sometimes, its so hard to not see the forest for the trees – and in running a business, you wish you could help everyone that you meet, doling out free advice. Unfortuately, sometimes you just have to open their eyes with an idea or two, then sit back and crack open a cider…. cause hey, you’re on vacation!

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