A sensitively converted stone barn in West Yorkshire with unique features for “special celebrations and inspired meetings”.
Chilli Barn is thinking on its feet to keep couples and event organisers happy in the midst of Covid by juggling postponements, creating micro wedding packages and working with AV professionals to welcome virtual guests, while also diversifying to create a marquee cafe, grocery deliveries and an online shop. We talk to owner Richard Reeve.
When did you start your venue business and what is its history?
We converted a stone-built barn at Yorkgate Farm as an exclusive wedding and party venue in 2013/14 after a long planning battle. The farm has been in my wife’s family since the 1870s. Since 2014 we have hosted over 150 weddings.
Tell us about your location and site
Chilli Barn sits on the crest of Otley Chevin overlooking Lower Wharfedale on the southern edge of the Yorkshire Dales. It is across the road from Chevin Forest Park, popular with weekend walkers, and faces out onto pasture.
The venue has excellent transport links as it is only 10 miles north of the road and rail hub of Leeds and close to Leeds-Bradford International Airport.
The barn’s arched south-west facing wagon door is now glazed above bi-folding doors which open onto an extensive lawn. Its aspect and elevation does however expose it to the westerly gales which can make the use of marquees and other outdoor structures challenging. Because of this we do not use them in the winter months and in five years our contractors have not failed us yet. We have brilliant sunsets through.
What facilities for outdoor functions do you offer?
We use a variety of outdoor structures to provide extra dining and chill out space for weddings and parties including cosy yurts of all sizes, elegant pole and canvas marquees and breathtaking tipis, which can be sited anywhere in the 500sq m grounds. We use sturdy aluminium-framed marquees attached to the barn to extend the ground floor out through the wagon door.
What services do you offer?
Chilli Barn offers exclusive use of its facilities for weddings, birthday parties, naming ceremonies and other special celebrations. The barn is also used for high-profile corporate events, such as away days or product launches, and also workshop activities such as mindfulness, yoga and Christmas wreath making.
We offer a full planning service for weddings and other bespoke events and have a large commercial kitchen to cater for them.
Describe how you researched and sourced your structures
We use three main suppliers for outdoor structures – Yorkshire Yurts, Bar Events UK (tipis) and All Occasions Marquee Hire. Tentative initial enquiries from Googling and word of mouth contacts have developed into strong working relationships over the years.
How do you work with your customers to make their events unique?
We listen to and advise our customers from showround to final tweaks to create an event plan tailored to their needs and desires. The great thing about the barn is that our guests can style their event how they want, from formal seating to a festival feel.
How do you publicise yourself?
In many ways – from our website, social media, wedding site listings and magazines to roadside signage. Word of mouth is also incredibly important for us and we often find we are giving showrounds to people who have been to a wedding or party at the barn before or know people who have.
How would you describe your style or unique selling point?
Our USPs are several – the unique charm of the building itself, its scenic location, exclusive use, good transport links, personal service and vegetarian/vegan menu. Our style is informal, intimate, authentic and friendly.
What challenges have you faced historically?
The early years were a steep learning curve with challenges over obtaining planning permission, evolving a design for the conversion, finding builders that would fall in love with the project, connecting utilities in a remote rural location, working out the best way to operate as a wedding venue with little experience to draw on, developing planning systems and pricing structures, stressful dealings with Environmental Health over noise issues, and building up a strong staff team. And then, after a couple of years of smooth, relatively challenge-free operation, we hit Covid.
How has Covid-19 impacted you?
Nearly all our couples book April-October, and this year all but two postponed to 2021. Now some of our spring 2021 bookings are postponing again. Without financial support from the government from the furlough and bounceback loan schemes, and without a hugely resilient staff team, we would be out of business.
One particular challenge has been how to reach agreement with our couples over postponement as our usual T&Cs became invalid. Contracts with couples were ‘frustrated’ under the Contract Act 1950, which advocates the common law fairness principle of sharing any losses, however the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) guidance was heavily weighted against businesses. The insurance companies were ruthlessly self-interested and refused to compensate couples, arguing this obligation fell to suppliers. What to do?
In practice, we are finding that if we try our best to be fair and flexible with couples, the favour is returned. For example further down payments have been requested and made in return for flexibility over postponement (we’ve only had one cancellation).
Some couples are prepared to compromise on numbers and defer their parties, others want to postpone until they can realise their original dream. Some couples have booked this year despite restrictions, simply because they really just want to get married somewhere lovely with their closest friends and family. The desire to marry isn’t going away, and different preferences balance out to some extent.
As a smaller, more intimate venue, Chilli Barn is better placed than many for mini- and micro-weddings and has hosted five since mid-August. We are building on this and looking at ways to enhance the wedding experience with, for example, more elaborate dining with bespoke tasting menus, more substantial ceremonies planned with celebrants, and the inclusion of virtual guests through the live streaming of ceremonies and Zooming speeches in collaboration with videographers.
We are also looking at ways to use space outdoors to aid social distancing, although we are limited by the current absolute limits on guest numbers unrelated to the space available, whether indoors or out. An online petition to change this was debated in Parliament on 9 November, available on parliament.tv
In the absence of weddings, we’ve held the team together by doing what we can. To start with this meant delivering bags of groceries, which then developed into an online shop. When takeaways reopened we were able to employ our catering facilities and run a takeaway café from a marquee in the grounds which has proved popular. We were about to offer Sunday lunches in the barn when the second lockdown hit.
How large is your team – any special people you’d like to mention?
We have a small team of around 10, all effectively on zero hours contracts. Our wedding planner Natalie Johnston, chef Zak Bradshaw and front of house manager Lucy Fleming, along with Leah Matthews and the rest of the FoH staff, have held together through lockdown and grafted hard in all weathers to make a success of the marquee café. And they are all special!
Have you worked with any industry bodies or consultants?
Wedding directory websites such as Guides for Brides, Bridebook and Hitched have been brilliant, working hard to support venues and other wedding suppliers and couples, promote discussion and innovation in various forums, flagging up information and advice, representing the wedding industry, lobbying government and challenging CMA guidance and corporate intransigence from insurers, to give a few examples.
UK Bride however have not helped, in my experience, and visiting their website it appears to be a Covid-free zone, the only mention I could find being eight short threads on the members’ forum.
Our local accountants and solicitors have been excellent and other wedding suppliers who have to deal with the knock-on effects of postponements have been very helpful. We’ve also worked closely with the registrars at our local register office to ensure Covid security at ceremonies.
What are your plans for next season?
We are more than fully booked in 2021 due to postponements so we will be super busy and are preparing for this over the coming months. Due to current Covid uncertainties we are also not just preparing for Plan A but also Plan B and even C; there are so many scenarios. We are hoping for the best but also preparing to revise plans with couples to mitigate the effects of any restrictions which may remain or return.
Describe your average day mid-season
We generally host one or two weddings a week and they are rather like a one-off performance of a play with its own actors and set design, followed by a bespoke catering and entertainment plan. We then reset the venue and gear up for the next wedding.
Days follow a cycle. We’re missing the brilliance and magic of many of our weddings this year but we’re also really proud of our micro weddings, which are spectacular in their own way.
What do you enjoy about the business?
The buzz on the day, teamwork, seeing couples with big smiles and plans fulfilled, the investment of time and money paying off, innovating and growing the business as a living thing.
What other outdoor hospitality sectors do you operate in?
Incredibly in the current climate we are working to launch Chilli Yard Kitchen in adjacent converted farm buildings. This will integrate with and extend our current catering operations and also bring the barn to the attention of restaurant customers.
What are you most proud of?
The way in which, at its best, Chill Barn can bring everything and everyone together on the day.
What advice could you give to someone coming into the industry?
Be inventive and creative about how you can host weddings. Legal changes are due in the next year or so which will allow much greater freedom in how weddings are run.
East Chevin Road
West Yorkshire LS21 3DD