In the first of our series on outdoor hospitality entrepreneurs, we meet Tom Turney – the man behind diversifying Tapnell Farm on the Isle of Wight. Louise Creasy reports.
Originally the setting for the legendary and original Isle of Wight Festival 1970, it seems Tapnell Farm is creating an equally notorious name for itself and raising the bar for tourism on the Island. A second generation member of the Turney family, Tom Turney has realised his dream of an eco-holiday heaven that emulates the charm of an island childhood, and with the help of his family evolved it into a micro commercial empire that includes glamping, a farm park, restaurant, wedding venue and more.
It all started in 2008 with Tapnell Manor, a house on the Turney’s family farm available for let. It was self-catering at its most basic – a key would be left for people who had booked and they would look after themselves. A decade on and the site has evolved to become an award-winning tourism attraction welcoming 100,000 visitors each year.
Andrew Turney, head of the family, bought the farm in the early 1980s and is still playing an active role in the reinvention of the business. Tom is one of four children and returned home six years ago after gaining a degree in business and management from the Leeds University Business School. Inspired by the success of hiring out the house, he set up five safari tents on the farm with the help of a diversification grant.
“Having the idea of glamping resonates to my childhood when we brought friends back to the farm,” says Tom. “Our parents were always very welcoming and I realised there was massive potential for people who were working in the cities to get away to the countryside and receive the same sort of experience.”
More money in glamping
With the decline in the dairy industry hitting the Isle of Wight particularly hard, the Turney family sold its herd of cattle in 2014. “We were receiving 9p a litre less for our milk on the Island, compared to the same cows doing the same job at our Dorset farm, and it just wasn’t sustainable any more,” he explains. “Dad’s always been forward thinking and pushing us towards new ideas and had foreseen that dairying was a declining industry where we lived. We’re in such a beautiful spot, and utilising the land in a completely different way in a relatively new market at that point seemed an obvious direction to go.”
At the same time the closure of two animal attractions on the Island meant an added opportunity. Tom explains: “A couple of local tourist attractions [Seaview Wildlife Encounter and Colemans Farm Park] had to close down for planning and family reasons. The timing was perfect for us as we had moved away from dairy and had the space and buildings to rehome some of the animals. They were hugely successful businesses so we knew we were onto a winner and it fitted really well with our new direction.”
Food and play
By now Tom had established Tom’s Eco Lodge which, as well as the five safari tents, now included three wooden cabins, two ‘eco pods’, three farm cottage lets and the manor hosting up to 100 people at any one time. In 2015, and in homage to the family’s dairy farm heritage, Tom’s brother in-law, who had a background in catering, launched the Cow Company, converting an old Swiss barn to a restaurant, which opened in June, along with a gallery gift shop.
“The Cow Bar and Restaurant, which has since branched out to cater for vegan and vegetarian diets, is established in its own right now and has become a standalone business,” says Tom. “The play barn quickly followed. At first it was quite agricultural, with a few tunnels, hay bales and a zip wire, but incredibly popular – within a few months we were too busy. We misjudged the demand and were struggling to keep up.
“We learnt from that and it showed us the kind of thing people wanted. There’s never been a grand plan, we’ve always tested the market and gone with what works. We have vision and ambition but we’re very fluid in our approach, and as a relatively small business we are lucky enough to be able to adapt and change based on customer feedback.”
A move to weddings
As any recent visitor will testify, Tapnell Farm is now an established farm park and glamping site, but it’s an events venue too. Last year the family offered East Afton Farmhouse and Tapnell Farm for weddings. Tom explains: “We’re already fully booked for next year. We’re offering holiday-style weddings, so we do one wedding a week and guests can get to know one another other over the course of that period. I got the idea from a friend’s wedding that I attended last year – it leaves a far more lasting legacy, and there’s a real trend for weekend and week-long destination weddings at the moment.
“We also host events in our restaurant and rustic barn. We recently held a big Halloween party where we had 350 predominantly local residents along for a big knees-up. We’ve got Christmas coming up so we have Santa Claus coming to town. We did it for the first time last year with an elves workshop and the opportunity to feed and pet reindeer – it was a real hit. This year will be bigger and better and we have four planned weekends of different activities building up to Christmas day.”
Tapnell Farm is a great example of 21st century thinking combined with environmental credentials. In 2012 it installed a 500kW solar power plant, which is the equivalent of delivering energy to 300 houses. This is linked to the accommodation and farm units along with a biomass boiler, which runs off wood pellets and is connected to the central heating and hot water systems. Water supply will soon come from the farm’s bore hole, which is in the process of getting signed off so that it’s not solely for agricultural use.
“Employing sustainable practises is a mind-set and we are continually evolving. The big one now is waste and we were aware of that when we opened up the restaurant so started using compostable products – it’s always something that’s involved in our decision making and we’re constantly looking at improving what we do. Earlier this year I spoke at the first Isle of Wight Environmental Conference initiated by the Isle of Wight Council to consider how it can secure a low carbon, resource efficient and environmentally sensitive future. Next week I’ve got a meeting about how to turn our waste into energy.”
While all the winter housing, silage pits and infrastructure of the dairy has been converted into either Tapnell Farm Park or holiday accommodation, the farm itself is still operational in arable. “We have 400 acres in total and land-wise most of it is still farmed. We grow wheat and maize, and crops for renewables which are sent to an anaerobic digester – a renewable gas plant that turns feedstock in carbon dioxide and methane. The former goes to fizzy drink suppliers, the latter back to the grid as gas for local residents. Our business is split between property, renewable energy, farming and leisure, the last two of which are probably the two biggest sectors.”
Finance and growth
Since Tom’s first input, the market has changed massively and it’s flooded with glamping – now the most profitable part of the business is the farm park, and it’s certainly keeping him on his toes. “We have to change all the time as visitors may be coming 10 times a year. With the accommodation, people come once a year, so all it needs is updating, or to keep up with demand and build more pods.” To that end two bespoke Modulogs were added in 2017.
In order to keep evolving, the family spend a lot of time with outside advisors specialising in finance, rural planning, legal advice and architectural design. “We probably use them a disproportionate amount of time but they’re very valuable,” says Tom. “They’re expensive but save you money in the long run, and it is something we’ve always done as a family business. We don’t pretend to know everything. A decade ago I felt like I knew everything, now I’ve learnt to understand my skills and my limitations. This has become instrumental in creating and evolving the farm.”
In terms of finance the business has a small amount of bank loans, but compared to those of a similar size, it’s very low on leverage. The sale of the dairy heard helped to kick start Tom’s Eco Lodge and a strong balance sheet has meant the ability to self-fund a lot of things from there. “It is organic growth rather than acquisitions and borrowing lots of money,” he continues. “We were fortunate enough to get a tourism grant for keeping the park open 363 days of the year. We want to give people full time employment and progression, rather than just having seasonal employees which is the norm for most tourist attractions on the Island, and we want to change that.
“The key to success is predominantly our team. I think it comes down to your employees seeing the business’s values as a foundation stone. If you set an ethos and a way of doing things, and believe in it and live it, it’s more relevant and tangible for everyone involved.”
It is this holistic approach to growing a business sustainably that has won it several accolades. Since 2013 Tapnell Farm has secured 35 awards, with Tom himself, Tapnell Manor, the glamping accommodation, farming, the farm park and its sustainable practices all recognised.
Pros and cons of Island life
“We try to embody everything that is good about the Isle of Wight and we’re lucky enough to have such a beautiful place to do it all, and that is part of our identity,” says Tom. “There are obviously cons about being on an island. It costs more to build here and it is worth less in the end, so it’s double marginal disadvantages but on the flip side things are cheaper. So, if you want to buy or rent it’s less expensive than on the mainland, and that extends to the land, too. It’s cheaper for us to install solar energy than say in Hampshire for instance, and we get more sunshine hours so it’s double marginal gain on that.
“People like the idea of being on a ferry but don’t want to wait five hours to get on it – the ferry companies hold people to ransom and it’s getting worse. Red Funnel and Wightlink are cutting services and monopolising their profits which has a knock-on effect on businesses like ours as it affects our guests and their holiday experience.”
Tom is a strong believer that if you do something that’s good and fits the environment it has the best chance of long-term success. Rather than differentiating the business from others, the family concentrates on what customers want and focusses on what the business is good at, including what its location offers. Outside of this Tom also turns to information sources such as Farmers Weekly and the Economist, as well as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which holds the world’s largest online festival of ideas (the Disruptive Innovation Festival).
“You have to evolve with the changing markets,” Tom says. “Currently around a third of Tapnell Farm’s day visitors are tourists. We currently have planning in for a lake, which will be home to an aqua assault course that we hope to open next summer. The idea is to encourage more summertime play, as unlike most farm parks, we’re quieter on sunny days. Because we’re an island, when the sun’s out people head to the beach, so this will help bring people here, and keep them here for as long as possible.”
Tapnell Farm is a great example of a small-sized company leveraging market diversification to drive growth. With plenty of exciting projects in the pipeline for 2019 the future looks bright for the entrepreneurial family behind what is now a flourishing farm park, glampsite and function venue.
Hot off the Press!
Tom’s Eco Lodge has just taken gold in the Glamping Business of the Year category at the Beautiful South Tourism Awards
Isle of Wight, PO41 0YJ
Toms Eco Lodge
01983 758 722
East Afton Farmhouse