Real business story

A £4 toothbrush sparked an idea to delight customers

While some of the little touches customers come across at bed and breakfast business The Old Mill House might seem obvious, they only saw the light of day because of a concerted effort to think about what might frustrate a guest.
Adam Tomlinson, The Old Mill House

Off the beaten track near Padstow, The Old Mill House is always looking for new ways to attract customers

Adam Tomlinson had just arrived at a big chain hotel when it dawned on him, he’d forgotten his toothbrush. A trip to reception relieved him of £4 for a not very good replacement and left him feeling this is exactly the kind of reason consumers don’t return to a particular business.

Tomlinson, however, saw an opportunity to take an everyday frustration and turn it into a moment of delight with a simple but wonderfully effective intervention.

He and his parents – the business is a family-owned and run operation – put together “forgotten essentials” boxes to go in each of their seven rooms. Containing items such as deodorant, razors, sanitary products (and of course a toothbrush), the box also features a little note explaining that the items are there for guests to use at their own discretion. If no essentials have been forgotten, they’re urged to leave them for the next guest.

“I’d say 80 per cent of people don’t touch it, five per cent clear it out and 15 per cent take one thing – but more often than not offer to pay for it when leaving,” Tomlinson said.

The Old Mill House

Customers at The Old Mill House have praised the “forgotten essentials” box

At £5 a go to put together, Tomlinson is firm in his belief that they provide far more value for money based on the feedback he and the business get, with lots of comments made on and Tripadvisor.

The boxes are a perfect example of a low investment touch that can be scaled back or cast aside if either the positive customer feedback isn’t forthcoming or they start to substantially erode the profit margin of a room booking.

Pushing to exceed guests' expectations

The Old Mill House is not a destination hotel, it’s off the beaten track near Padstow. As Tomlinson puts it, they are always having to “up their game”. He wants guests arriving with decent expectations about the kind of experience they’ll have, which are then exceeded. “Another trial we did was putting a decanter of sherry in each room and, again, the amount of people who commented was incredible.”

Knowing who their key customer demographic is, those aged 40 and over, means the family can tailor new additions to the offering – such as hooking a pair of reading glasses over each menu in the bistro. They also ensure any changes fit in with the hospitality firm’s position somewhere between a B&B and a hotel, an environment which means they can welcome people to their room with candles and music playing.

Tomlinson gets inspiration for new ideas by being a traveller himself, visiting new places and thinking about what would have made his time there a little more enjoyable. “Sometimes this just reinforces what you do, and sometimes it directs you to a better way of doing things,” he explained.

More small changes that work

From maximising local partnerships to reducing waste, Britain's hospitality firms are out to prove that small, creative changes can make a huge difference. Catch up with the other seven stories in the series below:

Top takeaways

The Old Mill House is proof that changes don't need to be big to make a difference.

Adam travels a lot and thinks about what would have made his time at each place a little more enjoyable.

Choose a low-investment touch that can be scaled up or back as needed.