Mary Sparrow

's story

Mary, owner of Hippersons Boatyard was already planning to move her customer journey and marketing activity online when the pandemic hit. But a focused conversation with a Digital Boost mentor from BT opened her eyes to the power of YouTube and gave customer insights that helped make her holiday experiences unique. Now, bookings are higher than ever, and she plans to take advantage of the demand for stay-cations.

Mary’s holiday business is one of many forced to close during pandemic lockdowns. But she and her husband took advantage of a demand for UK-based vacations and created experiences in 2020 that people want to come back to enjoy again in 2021.  

Their success is, in part, due to a decision to move the whole customer journey online which accelerated as the full impact of Covid-19 was felt.  

It was a very different story when they bought their sixty-year-old boatyard business on the southern reach of the Norfolk Broads National Park, seven years ago. Moving their barge home from London to Suffolk, Mary and her family decided to occupy one of their own houseboats when the barge was in dry dock for repairs.

She immediately knew things would have to change.  

She realised they had bought a tourism business, with boat maintenance taking second place. But they would need to attract a different type of customers and manage stays, from booking to check-in, directly rather than going through an agent.

So, they created holiday experiences including overnights in stylish new luxury glamping pods, water-based experiences including canoe tours, paddle boarding and dayboat hire, and packages with bookings at the best local restaurants.

Three years ago, Mary joined the business full-time, giving up a career in education for health reasons. She decided to move online and taught herself to run the customer experience and promotion of their holidays, learning about marketing, the power of Facebook, and setting up a YouTube channel to give customers the information they need before arrival.

It was a fortunate decision. Mary had an advantage when the pandemic brought the first lockdown in March 2020, and her plans accelerated. She realised that if she didn’t go online they could lose the business forever.

Taking up free digital courses on offer, Mary upped her digital game, creating and commissioning vlogs, and building her website with more engaging content.

Consequently, when they were allowed to open on 4th July 2020, the business was super-busy. Units and day boats were perfect sizes for the social bubble and visitors enjoyed the experience so much they quickly booked again for 2021.  

Mary discovered Digital Boost, who provide unlimited mentorships via partners as well as workshops and extensive digital training, as she sought to improve her skills during lockdown. She connected with Chris from BT for a mentoring session. She was most impressed that he had researched Hippersons beforehand and came to the conversation armed with great ideas.  

The focus of the conversation was YouTube, and Chris shared his screen to show Mary how it works, how to get subscribers and how to write a profile that connects to Facebook and other social media for message continuity.

He also showed her how to create ads and promote locally, which inspired her to create a film showcasing their guided canoe tours for local people using her new underwater GoPro camera, aimed to reach the age-group most connected to YouTube.

From analytics, Chris and Mary realised that people liked videos about the engines and what goes on around the yard even more than the marketing-type films. This insight is bringing about a fundamental shift in her marketing approach as she plans a series of vlogs that connect the yard, the waterways, and the holiday experiences on offer.

Mary said:

“I’m so excited to move forward with the ideas Chris shared and am impressed that he found out about us before the call, especially as he is a volunteer.  
Our digital strategy is working, and I’m so pleased we moved online. We are creating employment opportunities locally and I am excited that customers love our new approach.”  
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