When Sarah Holland set up a bed and breakfast business in the Old Butcher's Shop in Orford, Suffolk, three years ago, her first call was not to the local tourist board but to her son, asking him to help set up a website.
Mrs Holland, whose business is based in an area of eastern England that could be described as truly remote, calculated that the conventional approach to promoting a B&B – guidebooks and tourist centres – would not work.
"You don't get anybody simply driving past the window, I'm not on the way to anywhere and Orford is a long way from anywhere," she said. "A woman who ran a B&B that I had stayed in a lot advised me not to waste money on too many guidebooks but look at using the internet. I don't see the point in printing leaflets, I just direct people to my website." A website presence has strengthened the business, she added. "I'm quite certain that without it the business would have been harder to establish. I get inquiries from people in the United States and in Australia. Once you have a website you can be found anywhere. In theory, someone in Brazil could book a room."
Sarah Holland is not alone. According to Visit Britain, around 80 per cent of England's 20,000 or so B&Bs now have a website or an online presence. It would appear to make sound business sense: in 2008, 77 per cent of travellers are predicted to conduct their travel planning online and 62 per cent of guests are predicted to book accommodation over the internet, according to this year's British Hotel Guest Survey.
One of the main beneficiaries of this phenomenon is the small, out-of-the-way B&B that struggled by on repeat visits, word-of-mouth or a listing in a guidebook.
"The internet has made a vast difference to B&Bs and really allowed them to punch above their weight," said Pam Foden, quality manager for Visit Britain. "Traditionally, it was enough to work with the local tourist centre, but websites can drive phenomenal traffic.
"There's a new generation of B&B owners who are arguably smarter than traditional set-ups. They've worked in other businesses. There used to be an attitude that B&Bs would not pay a commission to fill their rooms, but that's changing. Operating your B&B from the web takes a lot of managing.
"It's no good for the dippy operators who've done things one way all their lives."
One sure sign that B&Bs are seen as a market enjoying an internet-inspired renaissance is that larger operators are scrambling to sign them up to web portals. Nigel David, a former senior director of TUI and Thomas Cook, is now chief executive of Eviivo, one of the newest companies offering online bookings.
In Eviivo's case, a software package called frontdesk offers customers bookings direct from the websites of B&Bs and guesthouses, as well as linking the properties to more than 40 travel and leisure websites, including lastminute.com; hotels.com; Co-op Travel; expedia.co.uk; bedandbreakfasts.co.uk; and theAA.com. In return, Eviivo takes a 6 per cent cut of any sale.
It may seem curious that someone familiar with dealing with the high turnovers of major travel companies would be interested in the returns from a 6 per cent cut of a £40 room, but Mr David is convinced the internet has transformed the fortunes of the B&B. "Rural properties are the ones that are really benefiting," he said. "They've had to rely on local traffic and guidebooks in the past but I think the world is moving beyond the guide book. This is allowing small B&Bs and guesthouses to compete with the Travelodges of this world."
Mr David feels that services such as frontdesk, which allow for "real-time" bookings, overcome the traditional problem for small accommodation owners who take internet bookings.
For the most part, the drawback for small operators has been the historical requirement to allocate rooms to third-party distribution channels, meaning they risked not being filled, even if the B&B got a direct call from someone looking for a room – something of limited appeal to a B&B with, say, just four rooms.
After 23 years running Danehurst House, a five-room B&B outside Tunbridge Wells in Kent, Angela Godbold decided to sign up to frontdesk two years ago. "The amount of money we were spending on advertising was extortionate," she said. "I was aware that my children were doing all their bookings online, so I decided to stop being an old fuddy-duddy and sign up. It was nerve-racking to start with because we like to talk to our guests in advance, and you wondered who would turn up."
The benefits of using such systems are clear, according to Mrs Godbold, who estimates up to 70 per cent of her business comes from the internet.
"It has helped our business a great deal – especially during off-peak times. We are in a village, and unless you knew where we were it was difficult to get any passing trade. The way people book has changed completely. We used to get people calling on the off-chance after they had picked up a leaflet from the tourist office. But now people like to book in advance."