A Kentish venue making use of land previously ignored for 15 years
Sam and Paul Holland have created an ‘asset’ business on the edge of the River Medway, providing the structure, electricity, toilets and furniture for couples who want to add their own touches to their big day. Facilities also include a living willow arbor licensed for outdoor ceremonies. We talk to Sam about what will be their first season in business.
When did you start your venue business and what is its history?
We set the business up in late 2015 with the forlorn hope of getting some bookings in 2016. However, once reality had set in, we aimed to be ready enough to get some promotional photography done before the end of the summer and to get started properly this year. We have owned the site for over 15 years and have gradually been clearing it of brambles and getting the oak trees back in good shape. We didn’t really use the space previously, not even for grazing horses because of the oak trees. We can’t remember when the idea came to us, but once we had the idea we couldn’t understand why we hadn’t thought of it before!
Tell us about your location and site
The Oak Grove is right on the edge of the River Medway in north Kent, and surrounded by fields and orchards on the other three sides. We are lucky to be rural while right in the middle of the densely populated South East. Despite being rural, we do have neighbours and this has been our biggest concern. We want to be neighbourly – but have to balance that against running a business.
What facilities for outdoor functions do you offer?
From the start, we have seen this business as an ‘asset business’ not a ‘service business’. Of course, we need to provide excellent customer service, but what we are offering is a blank canvas rental of the land, tents, toilets (converted Rice horse trailers), tables, chairs, electricity and water.
We have a pavilion that we describe as a living willow arbor, and it is licensed for outdoor ceremonies so a couple can do the whole day here. They are free to choose their food, drinks and entertainment from any supplier – or do it themselves.
What services do you offer?
Other than a helping hand, contacts and staff on the day to keep on top of clearing up, we don’t provide any services. However, there is still lots of co-ordination, site visits and emails to deal with.
Describe how you researched and sourced your marquee
Paul was at the Showman’s Show in Newbury, with his work, when he saw the stretch tents from Freeform. We got prices for tipis and stretch tents, but the stretch tent suited out location better and is a bit different. We also preferred the ‘one big space’ aspect over a triple hat tipi. We didn’t shop around. Having found what we were after, we just went with it.
How do you work with your customers to make their event unique?
We don’t find that we need to work at it – our couples seem to come with such a range of great and different ideas. We are just here to help them bring those ideas to fruition.
How do you publicise yourself?
We list on two ‘wedding’ websites – Festival Brides and Coco Wedding Venues. We have invested a lot in our website as well, including a ‘mock’ wedding using my son and his girlfriend as the bride and groom. We invited all our friends to be the guests, offering free prosecco. It was great to see how much effort they put into their outfits, and we got some fabulous promo photos.
We feel that we need to be ‘discoverable’ so that couples looking for our type of venue come across us, so we have worked hard on our Google profile and have a Facebook page. We also do a local wedding show once a year and are booked into the Gay Wedding Show in Brighton later this year. In five years’ time, we will tell you which activities worked.
How would you describe your style or unique selling point?
We have two main strands to our approach. Firstly, we aim to provide a hybrid venue. We are outdoors, relaxed, woodland and countryside, but by having a wooden floor in the tent and first class facilities (including toilets – very important) we can deliver traditional and formal too.
Secondly, we like to reduce the stress on couples. By supplying the venue with the tent included, the floor down and all the essentials already there (such as tables, chairs, power, toilets, festoon lighting etc.) a huge part of the organisation of an outdoor wedding is already done. There is always pressure on couples on the day but we want to remove as much as practical. By only doing one event a week we can offer couples plenty of time to set up. This arrangement also de-stresses the events for us.
What challenges have you faced?
Time mainly. From the outset, we wanted to do things by the book. We applied for a ‘permitted development certificate’ to confirm that we had the legal right to set up and run this business. This took forever – and you can do nothing about it.
It also took a bit of work to convince the two banks we approached for funding that we could do this. They immediately want to pigeon hole us as being part of the hospitality and entertainment industry. We have no track record in that sector. We argued that this was a rental business and that made it much easier for them to translate our other business experience across.
Describe your average day mid-season
We have not done a season yet – however, we only do one event a week. This means our week will be clear up, grounds maintenance, build up. Most of the hard work will be down to our couples and their suppliers but we will be there to receive deliveries, make tea and help in whatever way we can.
Do do you enjoy about the business?
It’s great to be dealing with excited customers!
What other outdoor hospitality sectors do you operate in?
None! We have other businesses in hybrid power systems, sculpture and commercial premises.
What advice could you give to someone coming into the industry?
Be prepared to spend more than you budget! Also – it takes a long time before writing the first cheque to cashing the first cheque. Cash flow is King, and if you run out of cash 90 per cent done you will not make it.
Freeform Tents – +27 (0)21 709 0034
TroTec – uk.trotec.com
+49 2452 962 400
Converted Rice horse trailers
Blyth and Brown – 01509 622 220