We talk to Wales’ Business Woman of the Year winner, Amber Lort-Phillips, about developing new business ventures at Lawrenny Estate.
Working in the wellbeing industry for over three decades, Amber Lort-Phillips is a health and wellbeing entrepreneur at heart. She met her husband Adrian at an entrepreneurial leader’s course at Swansea University and the rest is history.
“I actually used to be Adrian’s personal trainer many years ago and we met again on the course,” says Amber. “I was running my own gym and health club in Narberth and Adrian, who had a media company, had moved back to his family’s Lawrenny Estate to help run the property side of the business.”
The estate itself is an organic dairy farm in the heart of Pembrokeshire, in the UK’s only coastal National Park. The main residence at the centre of the estate had been a large castle which was blown up in 1954. Adrian’s grandfather had returned from the war and decided the structure, which had been used by the army, was not viable as a family home. Adrian’s parents David and Virginia took over the family business at the end of the sixties, and the estate is now run by his older brother, Owen.
Lawrenny Estate is now a thriving series of family enterprises. Owen, who is a founder director of the Calon Wen Dairy Cooperative, operates a high tech milking operation. “It’s amazing,” says Amber. “The cows are able to milk themselves, have food served up to them by a robot and get followed around by a robotic cleaner!” Amber’s sister in law, Liza, runs Cymbrogi Futures from the estate, a consultancy educating teachers on the new Welsh curriculum and principles of sustainability.
When the farm moved out of the village, the old site was earmarked for housing. Adrian is heading up the development project, which will see nearly 40 sustainable homes built in the community. “It is testament to my father-in-law, David’s vision that we live in a vibrant, working community,” says Amber. “It is a very small village and the estate business has been focused on keeping it alive and thriving.
“One of the many things that makes Lawrenny unique is the village shop. Locals can access it 24/7, using a key fob system so it doesn’t need to be staffed all the time. The village also has a great pub, a very successful sports club, a busy church, village hall and its own hostel. That strong sense of community is one of the things that makes Lawrenny so magical,” says Amber. “Everyone who comes says so”.
The estate is now home to the Little Retreat, which offers glamping and wellness workshops, and the Big Retreat festival. It also hosts corporate events and the occasional wedding. “Although we are very happy to limit weddings to four a year,” says Amber. “We are part of a very small community and weddings often mean a lot of noise.
“As the farm has modernised, we have been able to make use of redundant assets and this, along with my father in law’s vision and the whole family’s support, has underpinned everything we have done. The site where our glamping accommodation now lies was once a Georgian walled garden, the new restaurant and retreat space was once occupied by Victorian glass houses and the festival itself is on the site of the old castle and the parkland around it”.
The Lawrenny hospitality offering has come together from a holistic family vision. “My father in law had always wanted the castle site, where he spent his childhood before it was blown up, to be used as a place of gathering and inspiration.
“My mother in law, Gini, was running a B&B and we paired up to create the first version of what is now the Little Retreat. Having run wellness courses from the site, the accommodation is an extension of that wellbeing retreat vision; people can come to stay for a wonderful experience all year round. It is a priority for the Welsh government to keep Wales open to visitors 365 days of the year, so both the council and the National Park have been very supportive”.
Today, the Little Retreat is a glamping/retreat business with onsite experiences including foraging and feasting, heritage walks, forest bathing and art lessons. Workshops are run by leading practitioners in the wellness industry including movement coach Richie Norton, yoga from the Nordic Sisters, wild swimming with Laura Owen-Sanderson and cookery demos with Ryan Riley. The Little Retreat was a finalist in the itravel staycation award in 2020/21 and has a Green Key Award.
“I really want people to come here to reconnect with the natural world around them,” says Amber. “I want them to discover new experiences such as foraging and feasting, wild swimming, nature walks and lots of other activities that enhance mental and physical wellbeing.
“We have five all-year round geodomes (from F.Domes) with hot tubs, private bathrooms and kitchens. We also have five seasonal stargazer bell tents from Lotus Belle with outdoor bathtubs and private bathrooms and kitchens. We are licensed through the Woodlands Champions Club – Ben Carden there is an absolute font of knowledge and an amazing man”.
Big Retreat Festival
It was through a wellbeing class that Amber was running that she met Diana Hinde (who turned out to have been the marketing, branding and sales capability director for Diageo!) and the idea for the ‘Big Retreat– A Wellbeing and Adventure Festival’ was born.
“We sat round the kitchen table and brainstormed an event that could bring the retreat experiences to more people. Our retreats had become so popular and often people would be crying, not wanting to leave. We had one lady who hadn’t slept properly for seven years and she managed to get a good night’s sleep at one of our events!”
Launched in 2017, and voted one of the top five wellbeing festivals in the UK by the Guardian, The Big Retreat has a capacity of 3,000 for 2022 and will welcome headliners Reef and Toploader. Wild swimmer Laura Owen-Sanderson has come on board to help develop the brand.
“Laura is now also our sustainability director as well as running wild swimming sessions at the Little Retreat, she also runs our own community interest company (CIC) We Swim Wild and I have just set up The Big Retreat CIC with her and Dale Barker (who curates some of the music at The Big Retreat)”. In recognition of their business prowess, Laura and Amber both won the top 2021 Welsh Women in Business award from media company Llais Cymru, supported by the Development Bank Wales – Laura in the nature category and Amber in tourism and hospitality.
Amber now also works with Pablo Janczur and his team at Orchard Live, the company behind the events at Cardiff Castle, on the Big Retreat. Off the back of the festival, Lawrenny will play host to a four-day LGBTQ wellbeing festival later in the year. “It makes great sense as they take over the site and infrastructure after our event finishes, which cuts costs.”
Investment and growth
“We are going through a period of sustained investment and growth at the moment,” explains Amber. “The total investment in the business is around £800K – we have borrowed around a third of million, invested some ourselves and also received a grant from the Welsh Government Coastal Communities Fund to develop teaching spaces and fit out the kitchen and dining areas. The Welsh Government Coastal Communities Fund is funded by the Welsh Government and administered by The National Lottery Community Fund.
“The expectation is that once the business has settled, our accommodation side should provide a strong return on investment. It is worth pointing out that the pressure of looking after people’s highest expectations can be quite mentally tasking so it’s not all plain sailing! Also, the physical workload can be immense. There is a lot of very hard graft when you start out, so aches and pains are definitely part of the package!
“With regard to the festival, we are recovering from the loss of two years’ trading due to the pandemic. The Welsh Government has been extremely supportive of events such as ours and has helped us stay alive. We were fortunate to receive money from the Cultural Recovery Fund and are looking forward to coming back stronger in 2022. We cannot wait to see our Big Retreat family again!”
Looking forward, Amber has plans to expand on corporate retreats. “The festival has opened a lot of doors for us. We have made lots of contact with local businesses for sponsorship etc. and had lots of exposure through social media, which has had a great knock on effect for the Little Retreat. We get enquiries three to four times a week from corporates wanting a place with a sustainability and wellness ethos to host influencers they are working with”.
One current development will cement Lawrenny as a true destination venue. Amber is overseeing the conversion of an old potting shed by the walled garden into a restaurant offering a foraging and dining experience.
“The foraging dining experience with Michelin trained chef Matt Powell from Fishing and Foraging Wales is opening in about four weeks and features a 10 course foraged meal.
“Our plan is to continue to deliver on our foraging and feasting vision, to rebuild some of the glass houses and turn the gardeners’ cottages into further accommodation and therapy rooms. We also want to create some inspirational outdoor teaching spaces and a walking ‘labyrinth’.
“Laura and I are bringing out a book too – The Feel Good Guide to Pembrokeshire – combining wellbeing and the power of the great outdoors. Everything we do is about finding your feelgood!”.
An abundance of expertise
With nearly 30 years’ experience in the industry, Amber is perfectly positioned to drive the retreat business. “I have an inherent understanding that wellbeing and nature are interconnected and this is a far cry from the more superficial fitness industry. We are lucky here in Wales to have some of the most beautiful spaces in the world and, as a nation, have decided that wellbeing is fundamental for us to be a thriving country.
“Government policy and planning frameworks are very supportive of what we are doing and there is an abundance of expertise to be found, which we are continually learning from. Through social media we have created connections all round the world with others on this same frontier, which is pushing the industry in this direction”.
Amber doesn’t fear competition. “Everyone who creates spaces and experiences here in Wales has something unique to offer and as a nation we are going out to the whole world saying Wales is very special in terms of wellbeing, discovery and experience. I don’t believe there is a limit to this market; my husband constantly (and boringly) keeps repeating that the best thing for a good restaurant is when another great one opens up next door!”