In Under the Tuscan Sun, the 1996 memoir, Frances Mayes tells her story of buying an old fixer-upper in Italy that turns out to need more fixer-upping than she expected. In the end, she has a beautiful and special place and an easy-paced lifestyle that most only dream about.
Terrie and Mark Hayward did something like that, except their story takes place more than 15 years later and it would not be such a happy tale if it weren’t for social media.
They were childhood sweethearts, growing up in Braintree, Massachusetts. They joined the Peace Corps. On their third morning on the job servicing villagers in Papua, New Guinea, their first work assignment challenge was to remove an arrow from the head of an indigenous tribesman. Mark Hayward had not quite understood the local language, so, in preparation, he grabbed a pair of tweezers.
Over time, the Haywards and the villagers understood each other better. And in their two years in New Guinea the natives of Braintree, Massachusetts fell in love with island living.
When they arrived at the six-room little inn, the task before them was not quite as daunting as removing an arrow from a living head with a pair of tweezers, but it was right up there.
Mark Hayward recalled, “Structurally, it was fine, but cosmetically it was a horrible putrid pink color and it had sat empty for quite a while. It took me six, 10-hour days, with a rented Ford F250 pickup truck just to clean out the backyard area of all the junk and leaves that had piled up.”
Some friends came down, and after a while, the place started to take shape. What it didn’t take was reservations. Culebra is part of Puerto Rico, and when he turned to the travel board for help he was greeted with apathy.
The tourist board is calibrated to serve big hotels on the urbanized Puerto Rican mainland. Apparently, it had no interest in serving the plight of a guestless inn on an outlying island.
He remembered “hyperventilating and feeling nauseous on a flight home to Massachusetts. We had committed ourselves to an enormous amount of debt on a business with no customers, no cash flow and absolutely no presence on the Internet.”
To attract visitors, Mark Hayward turned to all of the traditional outlets. In addition to the government tourist bureau, he tried travel magazine ads and offers of free stays in exchange for press coverage. Nothing seemed to work.
The clock was ticking. The Haywards needed to attract customers or face bankrupcy. Then, apparently as a last resort, he turned to social media. He started blogging, posting pictures to Flickr and videos to YouTube.
He had no social plan, no go-to-the-Web strategy. He just started posting.
“I had no idea where to start, what to blog about, or even how to register a domain name. Every time I sat down to try to write a blog post, I wasted a tremendous amount of time staring at a blank computer screen with the cursor blinking back at me,” he said.
And still the phone didn’t ring. And the mortgage payments were coming due.
Hayward redoubled his online efforts. He spent hours on hours just reading blogs, Twitter and Facebook. He used Google keyword searches to find examples of travel content he liked. He started pointing other people to online content about Culebra. Over time, he became recognized as a credible source on the subject. He is a natural story teller and his blogging style became less forced and more relaxed as he took simple stories and told them well. He saw hope at the end of the connection and he determined that “creating a social media footprint” was the best hope to reverse the direction his dream and business were heading.
It took a while, but it did turn around. The guests started coming and now there's sometimes a waiting list. To be able to rent out more rooms, the Haywards are moving out of the Palmetto and the income well supports it.
Today, his original blog is among the first you’ll see on any online search for places to stay in Culebra. His blog has led directly to coverage in Conde Nast Traveler, the Boston Globe and other prestigious magazines. Palmetto is at the top of the list on TripAdvisor searches for that neck of the Caribbean.
Social media is 100 percent responsible for the success of the once flagging endeavor. Hayward has become known in social media circles. In fact, he is considered so adept at it that Australian uberblogger Darren Rowse invited him to write a book on blogging for small business.
The Haywards are the sort of story I love. They pursued a dream, it almost became a nightmare and in the end, social media made the dream a reality.