A mini ‘immersive’ Alpine experience at the Riverhill Estate, Kent, complete with ice rink, reindeer and party tent
In order to increase revenue to cover staffing costs for the Spring/Summer season, the Riverhill Estate’s Himalayan Gardens made use of its infrastructure in the ‘off-season’ to create a winter wonderland at Christmas. We talk to Sarah Rogers, who manages the estate with her husband Edward.
Describe your event and how many people it attracted
The ‘Riverhill at Christmas’ venture offered visitors a skating rink, Alpine Café and events marquee, hosting breakfast and afternoon tea with Father Christmas and pre-booked Christmas lunches and parties.
Explain a bit about your venue and its history
The Riverhill Estate has been home to the Rogers family since 1840. The current owner’s great, great grandfather was passionate about gardening and bought the property in order to create a fabulous hillside garden. He sponsored some of the early plant hunters who brought back specimens from the far East, hence the name ‘Riverhill Himalayan Gardens’ which, to date, has been the core business for the estate, attracting c30,000 visitors, alongside property rentals and farming income.
What is the event’s history and what made you decide to run it?
The gardens are open for six months of the year (March to September). As the business grew we realised that we would benefit from having permanent staff members (a café manager, events manager as well as the current garden team). It was therefore important to us to generate income in the Autumn/Winter to cover these costs.
Our visitor car park which is unused in the Autumn/Winter provided the ideal location for a winter venture, with hard standing for the marquees, plenty of room for additional parking and fine views across the Weald of Kent. Visitors wouldn’t need to access the gardens, so there wouldn’t be wear and damage to these areas and essential garden restoration and maintenance could also be continued during the closed season.
Having decided on a winter venture, we heard that another local business, Tonbridge Old Fire Station (TOFS), was also thinking of running a skating rink. We decided to join forces and to operate Riverhill at Christmas as a joint venture. We were thrilled to benefit from TOFS’ experience of running evening events and parties.
How did you find applying for permission to run the event?
The events were all covered by our existing Premises Licence.
How did you plan the layout of the event and what structures did you use?
The dimensions of the top terrace of the car park dictated the layout to a certain extent. With our Spring/Summer garden opening business being weather dependent, we were determined that a winter venture should be protected from the elements, so we opted for a huge marquee with clear sides and a clear roof to cover both the skating rink and Alpine Café. This meant that visitors were protected from the elements but still had the sensation of ‘skating under the stars’ at night and the benefit of the wonderful views and blue skies during the days.
The event marquee had a very different feel. Still with clear sides to enjoy the view, this marquee was fully lined with a dance floor and starlit ceiling. The catering tent and toilets were sited so that it could serve both the event marquee and the Alpine Café/rink.
We focused on ensuring the short access path from the car park to the marquee was dressed to create the feeling of a ‘winter wonderland’ with lit fir trees, groups of hand-made wooden ‘log reindeer’ and even a wonderful sleigh for families to sit in for photographs.
How did you research and source your marquees, flooring, bars etc?
To a certain extent the size of the marquees required dictated our choices. The bars and café furniture were constructed here using scaffold boards. As skaters were able to keep their skates on to visit the Alpine bar, the flooring needed to be non-slip throughout the skating marquee, whereas all other areas were carpeted.
What entertainment did you offer and how did you choose and source it?
The skating was all provided by the rink supplier. We opted for a synthetic rink made of the latest materials. This meant that we could have the rink within a (warm) marquee, it was more environmentally friendly and visitors wouldn’t get wet when they fell over. We had also heard that it was an easier surface for children to skate on.
We chose a well-known DJ and party planner who we have worked with for many years to provide the entertainment for the parties.
What provisions did you make for power, lights and sound?
We had two generators (one for back up). Although the back up seemed an expensive precaution, we were extremely grateful for it when the first generator had a fault in the middle of a busy weekend!
How did you manage admissions and visitor safety?
The majority of skating tickets were pre-booked with limited numbers on each session (numbers were advised by the rink supplier). All Father Christmas sessions were also pre-booked. A separate exit meant that we avoided any congestion, although it was a shame that exiting visitors didn’t get to enjoy the reindeer walk – perhaps a consideration for another time.
What ground protection did you use for cars and footfall?
We were fortunate that all the car parking and pathways were already hard standing, although some path improvements were necessary after snowfall.
How did you publicise the event?
Mainly through social media (using both TOFS and Riverhill channels) but we did distribute leaflets locally. Large banners and plenty of fairy lights on our road frontage also helped to spread the message that there was something going on!
As we are in the process of upgrading our main garden website, we chose to create a new website (and logo) for the winter venture.
What challenges have you faced?
The particularly cold weather at the end of November and December created some unforeseen problems. Not only were our heating costs greater than expected but the initial design of the marquee, running East to West, created a ‘wind tunnel’ so we quickly had to install an additional porch on the catering tent and some better doors and thick entrance curtains. Thankfully this worked well once installed but caused a headache at the start.
We also, rather ironically, faced difficulties in the ice and snow. Although we had supplies of salt, heavy rain and freezing temperatures meant that we struggled to keep the access road open and had to close the rink on one day.
How did you finance the event?
The majority of the event was financed as a joint-venture between TOFS and Riverhill Gardens. We also had three sponsors who provided sponsorship in return for web/media branding and signage on the reindeer walk and by the skate hire stand. While some areas of the venture provided a good return, we lost out on skating numbers during the first two weeks of opening as this was before the schools broke up.
What are your plans for next year?
We need to think carefully about the timings and marketing of the skating rink to ensure that tickets sales are more evenly spread.
What other outdoor hospitality sectors do you operate in?
We offer weddings, outdoor theatre and, as previously mentioned, the gardens are open to the public March to September, with many associated family events within the gardens and The Riverhill Café.
What advice could you give to someone coming into the outdoor event industry?
Always think carefully about the logistics of an event. Make sure that all your visitors can park easily, are warm and have access to lovely loos – it makes a big difference!
Leisure Skate www.leisureskate.co.uk
County Marquees www.countymarquees.com
County Marquees www.countymarquees.com
HEAT & POWER
Geoff Boorman Fuels www.geoffboorman.co.uk
County Marquees www.countymarquees.com
WI-FI / CARD MACHINES
Simon P Productions www.simonp.co.uk
NFU Mutual www.nfumutual.co.uk
Riverhill Himalayan Gardens
Kent, TN15 0RR