WESTSIDE MAGAZINE, January 2007

“I say to people, it’s like having friends to stay but, at the end, they pay!” Thus Maggie Dobson explains the basic premise behind the hugely successful business she has, for the last 20 years, built and run from her Hammersmith home.

At Home in London gives visitors the chance to swap the anodyne experience of hotel living for a warm welcome into private homes in all of the Capital’s most ‘des res’ areas, including the leafy west. And it gives householders the opportunity to enjoy a financial return on that spare room, with the security of working with a long-established, professional accommodation agency that supports landlords and ladies every step of the way.

Forget Rigsby of Rising Damp fame. B&B-dom has come a long way from the days of, as Maggie puts it, ‘the 1950s, pink nylon housecoated, lipstick-stained fag-in-mouth landlady!’ It’s now eminently respectable: ‘If people have got a room and it isn’t rented, they’re thinking, how mad am I not to be doing it? It’s perfect for ”empty nesters”. And they might not have a board outside, but unusual people are doing B&B. When Lloyds crashed, I had the most amazing houses; one with a ballroom – quite extraordinary! Because people were thinking, what can we do to improve cashflow?’

You don’t have to live centrally with a ballroom to qualify as an At Home in London host: homes in Chiswick and Hammersmith were as fully booked this Christmas as those in Chelsea and Westminster. Proximity to the Tube is important but, property-wise, Maggie deliberately caters for ‘a very broad spectrum. I’ve got lovely places in Mayfair with enormous bathrooms but I’ve got cheaper stuff as well, not necessarily with en suite facilities, so we’re appealing to everybody.’ Equally appealing to everybody is the Government’s Rent a Room scheme, whereby you can receive up to £4,250 a year tax free by letting a furnished room on a short or long-term basis (Maggie’s clients are interested in both). So: how to go about it?

Maggie is always on the lookout for new properties and her website is packed with useful information. Most would-be hosts phone first for a chat and to receive guidelines and an application form, before Maggie meets them at home. ‘I try to spend at least an hour and a half, just to get a feel of what they’re like and if it’s going to work for them – because it doesn’t work for everybody. There are loads of beautiful homes in London but not everyone can open their front door to a complete stranger who might be exhausted after a long journey and say “welcome, come in, here’s the room, here’s the key”. Our hosts have got to be very flexible and easy-going. We give them as much information as possible as to what to expect.’

The very fact that visitors have chosen a B&B over a hotel indicates an open-minded attitude and as much interest in sampling local life as in seeing the sights, but cultural differences do apply – and here Maggie’s cosmopolitan knowledge is a godsend. Is your British boiler up to providing two baths for each Japanese client? And did you know that, while two Italian women travelling together might be happy to share a double bed, two American women wouldn’t? Or that Chinese visitors consider themselves honoured guests – because in China it’s such an honour to be granted a visa to travel in the first place?

Maggie’s skill lies in matching the requirements of both parties, each of whom may be wary about impinging too much on the other, providing guidance and constructive feedback to both. Working with the support of Visit Britain from her earliest days and as a founder member of the Bed & Breakfast Homestay Association, she knows her stuff. In 20 years, she’s had ‘nothing pinched’ and next to no glitches. Many of her hosts have been with her for years and high numbers of clients are ‘repeat business’, which says it all.

This is a profession where efficiency and ‘people skills’ are equally important and Maggie manifestly has both in abundance. She’s an inspiring delight to meet: someone who’s launched a business from scratch and run it with flair, humour and a vital personal touch. ‘You’ve got to enjoy what you do. We build up such a rapport with hosts – and clients. It’s a very friendly network; we have parties for hosts, swap useful information and funny stories. I think people like working with us because they find it so friendly and we have such a laugh.’ Well done to At Home in London for leaving both visitors and hosts smiling!

Alison Adams

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