A casual wedding reception venue with bunting, Pimms and thoughtful lighting.
Coton House Farm is a small, working establishment rearing Aberdeen Angus cattle, sheep and hogs. It also runs a livery yard and riding school for the disabled. Situated in the picturesque village of Whittington, near Lichfield, Staffordshire, it offers a traditional, country marquee wedding reception venue catering for up to 220 guests. Owner Darren Martin talks to Open Air.
What made you decide to start your wedding venue business?
We were visited by Princess Anne for our work with the Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA). We had set up a marquee for the occasion and it was then that we started to ask if people were interested in using it for weddings: we were inundated! That was the start of the business really. Currently we’re converting the barns into two different sized wedding venues, both with one or two acres of outside space. People love to be looking at horses, sitting on hay bales, being private.
We operate in the summer. We try to avoid polluting the area with lighting: it’s all achieved very naturally so people can appreciate the countryside. We use solar lighting and low lighting LEDs, turning them on and off at salient times so it’s not continuous. For example, the mains lights are lit for safety when guests arrive or leave but turned off during the event itself. In so doing we manage the impact on our surroundings and change the social atmosphere. The last thing you want to see are lines of street and car park lighting! Do it our way and everyone can see the night sky and stars.
What facilities for outdoor functions do you offer?
The people who stay overnight are those attending a wedding or having a function at our venue. There are accommodation options around and about but some people want to enjoy the countryside as much as possible while they’re here. We have some enclosed fields for camping and have allowed for camping trailers and caravanettes. Of course, being a riding school, we have the necessary facilities such as toilets and showers although they’ve not been set up specifically for campers.
What services do you offer?
Barry Gwilt is our own experienced chef who has worked mainly in Hong Kong and America. He sources the produce from our farm or farms up to five miles away. The food chain couldn’t get much shorter! Our free range hogs, the beef and the turkey all come from our farm. The local butcher is a relative of ours so everything is done very nearby. As regards the animals, they are all kept far away from the marquee and the house itself. However, the horses roam neighbouring fields to the marquee: guests like to watch them.
How did you research and source your marquee?
In trying to work out which was the best structure to have I began on the internet then called many companies. My choice was not the cheapest but the prettiest, the most durable and the one which provides what we need – a warm, safe area which can be adapted to different tastes. Sometimes we extend our marquee for catering and bar units. For example, we recently included the cellar look with proper taps and coolers for a ‘real’ pub experience.
What are your plans for the future?
We’re open for business during July and August and have about 19 weddings booked for each month this year. We could be open year round, holding weddings every month. We are at a crossroads: do we want to be a permanent wedding venue or do we want to be a farm that provides a wedding facility? We’re concerned that the character of Coton House Farm would be lost if we were to make it just a venue. An accountant would say go for the wedding venue route, but farms and the countryside are about a way of life.
How do you work with your customers to make their event unique?
I always say to the bride and groom to be, if you’re looking for chicken and white wine sauce then you’re best off at a hotel. Here it’s like Ma and Pa Larkins’ wedding (The Darling Buds of May), all bunting and Pimms and a casual atmosphere. Sometimes it’s difficult to get people inside for the speeches and cake because they simply want to sit in the sun, on the hay bales, in the fields. Fortunately, during fine weather, the marquee’s sides can be opened bringing the outside in. Formalities need to be run delicately with no rigid timings. This can be slightly annoying for the chef but it works for the guests,
How do you publicise yourself?
Facebook, that’s it. We’ve been booked out with Facebook ever since we made a page. For many service providers (cakes, tables, flowers, etc) Facebook is their sole advertising: they get far more hits on their Facebook pages than they do on their websites. As we are a unique venue and guests’ reviews have been so good we don’t need to advertise anywhere else.
What challenges have you faced?
Employing the right people – people that actually want to work – has been our only real challenge. A prime example is when we employed a wedding planner who was paid very well but couldn’t cope with the volume of work. Today we seem to manage it quite well ourselves. Once you have the right people in the right places everything is fine. We have about 40 people working for the venue now (including bar staff, catering staff and cleaners) and it’s all going well.
Do you operate in any other outdoor hospitality sectors?
My wife and I host about one wedding fair every season. We don’t charge for local service providers to have a stand but we do check them out first to ensure visitors meet people who provide excellence. Larger companies have wanted to exhibit too but we prefer to work with small businesses and manage things ourselves, so we can maintain standards.
Do you enjoy the business and why?
It’s fun! It’s hard work and can be very tasking but when you see each wedding day, that it’s different and such a success, the feeling is fabulous.
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