Making most of winter nights with seasonal woodland illuminations.
With a strong focus on customer experience, the team at Cheshire Falconry’s woodland venue has ventured into ticketed events offering magical experiences in the woods with sound, light and water features. The Magical Woodland and Christmas Woodland events feature storylines delivered by specialist actors and are accessible to all. We speak to Emma Clarke.
Describe your event and how many people it attracts?
We hold a number of events at Cheshire Falconry throughout the year, the largest of which are The Magical Woodland and The Christmas Woodland. The Magical Woodland ran for the second time this year, from 20 October to 2 November, and saw an increase in visitors from 3,000 in 2016 to 7,000. The Christmas Woodland, which in its fourth year has taken the idea of visiting Santa to a whole new level, creates theatre in the woodland, and ticket sales have been amazing with over 5,000 sold for this December.
Explain a bit about your venue and its history
Set in the centre of Cheshire in 15 acres of woodland at Blakemere Village (a family-run attraction, home to a unique collective of independent shops and activities) Cheshire Falconry is much more than the one bird aviary it originally opened as 22 years ago. Employing eight full-time team members, there are now between 60-70 birds of prey, expanding massively with changing markets and trends of the day and overnight visitor market.
Five years ago we identified the need to take the business to another level; although the falconry experiences were successful, visitors were looking to add to their experience once on site. We identified the need to create experience days, beginning with Cheshire Segway. Three years ago we bought the woodland bordering Blakemere, which enabled us to open Cheshire Outdoors, a full experience package including archery, laser clay shooting, bushcraft, low ropes, cycle hire and much more. Last year we ran our first wedding – a back to nature experience set in the magical woodland.
The events calendar was born when we noticed the depleting numbers attending the traditional Santa’s Grotto on site. We identified that people wanted more of an ‘experience’ which is when we looked at creating events with a difference.
The market comes from far and wide, and we have created an offer that is attractive and possible for four year olds to 80 year olds, and any age group inbetween. During the week corporate team building events and educational trips use the facilities and leisure visitors at weekends.
This year the team was finally recognised for all their hard work and Cheshire Falconry won “Best Small Attraction in Cheshire 2018”.
What is the event’s history?
The Christmas Woodland, now in its fourth year, is a magical journey to visit Santa. “A Theatre in the Woodland”, visitors meet numerous characters who entertain them on their journey; some have activities, some tell stories, others lead the way to the next instalment of the adventure. Christmas Woodland also incorporates an ice-skating rink, fairground attractions and food/craft stalls.
We work with a local Cheshire company called Believe in Magic to create the full event.
Obviously with a Christmas experience we attract a large number of families with children under 11, surprisingly we also attract young couples. The dwell time is two to two and a half hours, and people travel up to 30 miles to visit us.
We are flexible to our customers’ needs, allowing them the opportunity to make the experience their own and don’t force the full story onto them. Some children don’t like Santa but can still experience the wonders of Christmas. The experience is set so Santa is just one part of the enchantment.
We are aware that there is nothing worse than paying to attend an event then turning up and everything else that is there costs money. We have therefore created two packages, one where our young visitors can enjoy the woodland experience and meet Santa, the other includes unlimited activities such as live theatre, skating, fairground rides and craft with Mrs Claus, as well as the Christmas Woodland.
Our experience is also targeted at couples so we include a gift for adults as well as children so they too can enjoy the fun!
Our Magical Woodland event came from something very different. We wanted to do something that was unusual, something that couldn’t be visited in the North West. We were aware of an event held in Perthshire called the Enchanted Forest, which after seven years now attracts 70,000 visitors with an economic value of £2.2 million to the local economy. Our vision is to make this happen in Cheshire.
We held our first Magical Woodland event in 2016. It was a late decision and we didn’t invest in marketing, in fact our main marketing was via Facebook, and that attracted 3,000 people. For our 2018 event we started planning in late 2017, bringing in partners and looking for funding. Our falconry teams were marketing the event at each experience day and we have been selling tickets since the summer. 2018 exceeded expectations so much we decided to open for an additional evening at the end of the event. We have already set the dates for 2019 (19 October – 1 November).
The experience involved the creation of six installations set within naturally formed bowls in the woodland. Each had a theme of water, sound or light, some were a combination and they were all interactive. Along the paths between each installation entertainers or statues created interest at every step.
How does the relationship work with the venue you hold the event at?
In 2013 we bought the woodland which is used for the experience days and events; we saw the opportunity and took it. This is what makes our events so unique. The Woodland backs onto Blakemere Village, where Cheshire Falconry is based, this means we have full access to its car parking facilities and great signage to the venue.
How did you find applying for permission?
We already have experiences on site so have our licenses in place. Noise and lighting into the night is covered already under our wedding agreements, as is serving food and drink.
Working with our local authority has been very important, we have found them happy to work with us and support us in our projects as we keep an open line of communication with them.
How have you planned the layout of the events?
We don’t use a marquee, but have a number of small structures around the woodland which we perform wedding ceremonies or bush-tucker experiences in at other times of the year. Made using the timber from the wood, these are used for the story telling elements of the Christmas Woodland event.
For Magical Woodland we have constructed new structures to deliver the entertainment. We have a water spectacular controlled by WII controllers where light swirls around and water dances to music. It took us two weeks to construct all the structures needed.
The events utilise the full 15 acres of woodland. We are very lucky that natural ‘bowls’ have formed so we are able to keep installations hidden from sight until people walk to them. We try to create a natural flow using characters or animation, but also allow visitors the option to make their own routes.
What entertainment do you offer?
Our policy is to use local where possible, for everything we deliver. We also hire people who have the same objectives as us to ensure the customer has the best experience possible, which means we have to be as flexible as needed all the time.
To create the Christmas theatre in the woodland we originally worked with a theatre company in Liverpool, but their focus was on the acting, not flexibility and customer engagement. We now work with a local family run business that is passionate about providing an unparallelled and personal experience. Since this change, we have seen our visitor numbers grow. All our actors have been chosen because of their focus on the customer, not necessarily their acting ability. They need to be attuned to the child’s appreciation of the mystery and what they like, but also what will scare them. The actors are in character from the moment they arrive until they leave, the mystery never stops.
For the Magical Woodland we needed to look for partners who were willing to support our vision and help us to develop the event over the coming years. We looked for entertainers who could deliver outdoors and in all weathers, but most of all focussed on the entertainment of the customer.
Because this event is self-financing, we need to work with people who are willing to take the risk with us. The artists we contracted agreed to work with us on a profit related pay agreement for the first two years, meaning they receive a share of the income through ticket sales, and the only way to ensure payment is to create an outstanding experience! We are not charging our catering suppliers for the first two years while we develop our audience; we feel it is important the caterers get something from the event and in return will support the event providing a quality experience.
What provisions do you make for power, lights and sound?
Sound and light are two of the themes for the Magical Woodland, which is why we partnered with Event Equipment – they have the expertise and resources to match our vision, which is fundamental to the success of the event.
We do have a strong infrastructure already in place to provide a whimsical wedding setting of fairy lights and soft music within the woodland itself and of course the wedding barn is fully powered, so our guests can party into the night.
How do you manage admissions and visitor safety?
Our events and experiences are all run on a ticket basis. Guests arrive at our established reception desk and then enter into the woodland.
Even though a lot of our offer is within woodlands we are fully accessible and have created wheelchair friendly footpaths and a safe environment for children with special needs, who use our facilities often. We provide an experience that enhances all the senses, allowing visually and hearing-impaired visitors to enjoy the experience as well.
How do you publicise the event?
At the end of each Birds of Prey experience our team tells guests about our events. A lot of our sales come from gift vouchers which we promote on every enquiry and especially over the Christmas period.
We tried something new at Carfest this year; we did a Birds of Prey display and had a trade stand where we created a Christmas display to promote our Christmas event. We had fake snow, a sleigh and characters.
For our Christmas Wonderland we encourage repeat business by changing the characters within the story each year. We also introduce the characters into the woodland throughout the year so children can begin to feel the story developing.
We feel people need to see the brilliance of the event and therefore video is our main marketing tool. We create YouTube videos, which can be inserted in social media and on our website, promoting the new characters but also showing previous years’ experiences.
What challenges have you faced?
The biggest challenge we face has always been getting the message out to the public regarding our woodland experiences. We try and make our experiences unique for the guests to enjoy the great outdoors. Trying to get that message across to all markets is a challenge, but we keep working on it.
How have you financed the event and how profitable is it?
Everything we do is self-financing. As the Magical Woodland is such as big event and required the development of a large infrastructure, we have sourced a partner, Richard Warrener from Event Equipment. We both believe in the opportunities this event can bring to the area and are willing invest our own funds, time and equipment, understanding that in the first two years we will receive limited returns. We were also successful in bidding for and receiving £5,000 in funding from Marketing Cheshire, via the SLANT project to help us develop the Magical Woodland marketing progamme.
What other outdoor hospitality sectors do you operate in?
We have mentioned our experiences and falconry days, this was the base from which we have developed. Woodland weddings are our new challenge growing from this year’s base of five weddings.
What advice could you give to someone coming into the outdoor event industry?
Never stand still, keep coming up with new ideas, always believe you can do it and it will happen, be flexible and respond to your customer and they will reward you in the long run!
Event Equipment www.eventequipmentltd.co.uk
Stanwax Laser www.stanwaxlaser.co.uk
Aqua Rhythm www.aquarhythm.co
8-9, 15-16, 22-24 December 2018
19 October – 1 November 2019
Cheshire CW8 2EB