Events, workshops and holidays in a multi-functional tipi space right on the edge of a Cairngorm forest.
We talk to owner Polly Cameron about the importance of looking after your team and providing a “relaxed, natural, authentic experience”.
When did you start your venue business and what is its history?
My husband Ross and I came to the Dell 11 years ago and took over from my Uncle John. The Dell had been bought and restored by my grandparents in the 1960s. They converted the building into separate cottages and started one of the first self-catering businesses in the Cairngorms.
Tell us about your location and site
The Dell sits on four acres right on the edge of the Abernethy Forest, a mile from the centre of Nethy Bridge. We have endless woodland trails on the doorstep and a thriving, friendly community around us.
The site is surrounded by deciduous trees as old as the house as they were planted by the head forester for whom the Dell was built. The gardens are wild and abundant with flowers, fruit trees and our organic vegetable garden with hens.
On the edge as we move towards the forest we have an area of tall granny pines which is our more public event space.
What facilities for outdoor functions do you offer?
In our event space we have our own Tentipi Stratus structure which sits permanently on a larch deck and is winterised with oak doors and a heating system along with the trademark central open fireplace. In the summer we pop up the sides and open it to the woodland where we swing hammocks in the trees and gather around our huge stone firepit.
We can accommodate up to 30 guests on site which lends itself perfectly to small woodland weddings, wellness retreats and workshops and we also open the space to the public for pizza nights and music events.
What services do you offer?
We have recently brought together a fantastic new team here at the Dell, all hospitality focussed and very passionate about their field. Between us we can look after the planning process, hosting throughout and catering. We are well connected with all of the creative industries and work closely with some fantastic local suppliers to produce small scale events that fit well with the relaxed vibe of the Dell.
Describe how you researched and sourced your structures
For years we hired the Tentipi structures, generally as part of a configuration of three for when we hosted the larger scale weddings. They provide a beautiful internal space within a very structurally sound piece of kit so when the hire company was selling off old rental stock we jumped at the opportunity.
How do you work with your customers to make their event unique?
Dawn has recently joined our team as events manager and is very passionate about making each event have its own stamp. We only host a handful of weddings each year as we really want to focus on each of them individually rather than churning one out each weekend.
The same goes for our retreat market, each one has slightly different requisites and hopes for the time attendees are with us and we like to allow space between them so as not to compromise the planning process.
How do you publicise yourself?
We have an active and engaged social media presence along with some strategic accommodation placements, namely Kip Hideaways, I-escape and Airbnb, but the majority of interest does come directly through our own website.
For our wedding content we work with The Wedding Collective and have a really supportive network of suppliers who each shout about each other.
How would you describe your style or unique selling point?
I think our location is incredibly special and has largely influenced how we put everything else together. I think folk come to us looking for a relaxed, natural, authentic experience which is close to nature and produced in a way that’s totally in tune with the individual.
What challenges have you faced historically?
Cash flow has always been the biggest challenge here as we are constantly in a development phase of some kind; it’s very easy to tip the balance. We have always had to cut the cloth as we have it and at times be patient, which we can find really difficult!
How did you manage through the pandemic?
As with everyone in the industry this has been an incredibly difficult time to navigate, particularly as the events side of our business now forms such a large part of the equation. We very much scraped through, literally with our money running out right as we were able to take more deposits.
We had very little financial support as we were deemed to be one self-catering unit at one address. But the ‘roaring 20s’ came after the last great plague so it does really feel like the level of enjoyment and pleasure from gathering in any form is so much higher and more valued than before, so we are just looking forwards
How large is your team – any special people you’d like to mention?
We are a team of six. Myself and husband Ross look after the management and development of the business, and in November 2021 we took on a completely new team which has been a very energising process.
We have a series of heads of departments now after many configurations, and this seems to be the best way forward. Each individual has ownership of their role and we are at the final stages of just letting them run with it. We have Dawn Fraser, our resident events manager, Tom Kaye, resident caretaker, chef Lindsay Douglas and head of housekeeping/aesthetics/gardens, Lucka Poyner.
As with all small teams, we come together on big housekeeping days or cottage renovations. We share meals together and regularly engage in ‘inspire me’ days. A big focus for us has been team mental health and development so we really strive to get this right for all members individually. We have recently connected up with Kelly’s Cause which is a mental health first aid trainer and we’re hosting a session with them along with a number of local independent businesses later in the year.
Have you worked with any industry bodies or consultants?
We engaged with a financial consultant pre-pandemic and it was massively useful to hear an outside perspective on our place. We will continue with this and have also sourced some personal mentors who are working within the industry which we find hugely inspirational.
What are your plans for next season?
We have mapped out the events for next year and have purposefully reduced the number of retreats and weddings and placed them carefully within the year. This season feels a little over stretched as we realise that we have just said yes to everything during lockdown in the attempt to get back on our feet.
Next year we want to create a bit more space to allow us to host our own events – supper clubs, gigs, a craft market and lots of music. We are also hoping to develop our on-site grocer which was set up through Covid times but now forms a really important part of the business. We make meals on site from our own produce and local ingredients for guests to pre-order to have in their accommodation on arrival, together with carefully matched wines, some local organic beer and other holiday treats.
We are hoping to build a physical premises for this where we’ll have a coffee machine for morning coffee and hot cinnamon buns along with gifts to accelerate the shift into holiday mode; books, kites, bows and arrows, drawing books, bath salts and candles.
Describe your average day mid-season
There is no average day! Each day can be completely different, from huge changeover days where we all muck in, to setting up the tipi for a firelit public yoga class, to tending the garden, cooking up a storm or hosting a gig… and everything in between!
We have two little boys so our priorities always begin from there.
What do you enjoy about the business?
I love the variety and opportunity surrounding us. We have an incredible local community on the doorstep and are constantly being approached to host really interesting events. Last week we had Charlie Gladstone host a workshop on ‘gentle leadership’ based on his incredible book Do Team (a must read). We had 30 local hospitality businesses who we work closely with throughout the year in the tipi and it was buzzing!
What other outdoor hospitality sectors do you operate in?
The tipi has provided us with a real multi-functional space and it morphs easily from one thing to another now with great ease. It can be a retreat space for yoga or meditation and then a beautiful space for a family dinner gathering. It can host a small intimate gig of 100 or a day time social with pizzas flying out from the bar. It has also been used for many community focussed events such as our kids Wild Club and small team building groups.
What are you most proud of?
I think we feel most proud when we see our guests having a very real moment of enjoyment in their surroundings, whether they tell us or, for example, on a retreat when there is a shift and people leave with their shoulders a bit lower. We feel proud that we have created the environment for them to relax.
What advice could you give to someone coming into the industry?
If you create a space that can be easily multi-functional, then dip your toe into lots of different events and see what feels good. We’re now at the point where we know what is a good fit for us but it’s taken some time. Variety is the spice of life!
Bright Chilli www.brightchilli.com
The Dell of Abernethy
Inverness-shire PH25 3DL