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Free-range camping anyone?

A family business providing a unique camping experience

The purchase of 28 acres by Jules and Sandra Sayer in 2002 now sees over 16,000 campers visit Petruth Paddocks each year.

Located at the foot of the Mendip Hills in north Somerset the ‘free-range,’ family-run campsite Jules and his team has created provides the perfect opportunity to get away from the daily ‘hamster-wheel’ that can be life thanks to the team’s informal, laid-back approach.

Kicking it off with caravan rallies

When the Sayer family originally brought the land, half the acreage was set-up as a livery and the other was initially used for caravan rallies.

“Our neighbouring farmer had closed down his caravan park but was still getting booking requests and suggested that we consider offering the land up for caravan rallies,” explains Jules.

Rallies are events that are generally run by members of local Caravan and Motorhome Clubs. Each club will host a number of rallies each year and will tend to book out the whole site in advance offering it to their members at a cheaper nightly rate.

From a landowner’s point of view, all that is needed is to supply the land and have accessible running water and the rest they will organise themselves.

“In the beginning we found this very easy, and a great little money earner which others could easily consider.

“We would hold up to 15 rallies a year generating a turnover of roughly £10,000 with very little investment,” he says.

A couple of years after purchasing the land, in addition to the caravan rallies the family also started to offer camping for a maximum of 28 days a year with the provision of temporary facilities.

“Under permitted development rights we were able to offer camping for this limited period of time each year. Holding down full-time jobs and with a young family, we ran the site very much as a hobby for 10 years growing to around 800 customers a year until 2012 when we came to the realisation that this was what we really wanted to do in life.

“Campers were coming back year-on-year because they loved the informal culture we’d created, and so in 2013 we made the decision to go for it on a bigger scale,” says Jules.

Increasing camper numbers

Before investing significant amounts of money in developing the camping business the family made sure they did their research to gather as much information as they could to inform their business venture.

“While our experience and gut feel told us we were onto something, we carried out market research gaining the opinions of our customers, friends and local suppliers, through an online survey to ensure what we were planning was a gap that needed filling.

“In 2013 we created a website that was representative of who we are and what’s on offer at Petruth Paddocks. We learnt early on to set expectations that you can meet and easily exceed.

“Our bookings for the following year grew over 500% from 800 to 6,500 campers and in 2017 we topped 16,000 people. But, with that growth comes responsibility.

“Not only do we make it our mission to provide the environment in which people can enjoy their stay, but we also have to ensure we comply with legislative and regulatory requirements.”

Jules states that planning permission is a must and should ideally be obtained before you embark on a project. Health and safety is another factor that needs to be carefully thought through, as well as ensuring the right insurances are in place.

“We outsource our health and safety audit to the NFU. They come out to the site every three years and review the site and the policies in place, pulling together the correct paperwork, risk assessments and staff briefing documents which we are responsible for updating and communicating to our team.

“We have public liability insurance and our policy is reviewed each year. Frequent legionnaires tests are carried out on all water sources and we have a waste management policy in place ensuring we recycle as much of the rubbish as possible rather than it being sent to landfill.

“These are all factors of owning and running a campsite that have to be taken into account to ensure you have a safe environment for your visitors. This is not something you can skimp on these days,” says Jules.

The culture and ethos at Petruth Paddocks

The family do not shy away from the fact that compared to some camping sites what they offer is ‘basic,’ but very much play on the experience they offer; being at one with nature and reminding mums and dads of the fun and adventure they had camping as children and the importance of allowing their children the same freedom.

“We provide the facilities which would appeal to anyone who wants to experience camping, from hard standing for caravans and motorhomes to bell tents and shepherd huts for those wanting to experience glamping with communal shower and toilet blocks.

“We very much encourage people to make the most of being outdoors. Every evening we deliver fire-pits made out of old washing machine drums, alongside kindling and logs.

“With so many people on site, you have to have some guidelines in place and make it clear how we expect people to behave. On arrival we provide a welcome pack that answers every question we’ve ever been asked so people are informed and aware of the ‘boundaries’ and we have rules in place such as an adult behavioural bond and a set quiet time each evening for every field.

“In this sense we appeal to a broad demographic from families to couples and are one of the only sites to cater for group bookings. We manage this by designating each field for different groups of people. Each week we pre-plan where groups are going to be sited so that people are usually next to others looking for a similar experience.

“We always over-staff so that people have time to stop and talk to our guests, and yes it may take a little longer to complete tasks, but everyone is treated like a person at Petruth Paddocks and not a process.

“It’s this culture that sees people return year-on-year,” he adds. “We are family and this is so much more than a business for us, it’s a heritage for our two children Kelly and Steve.

“There are always challenges but we love what we do and we’re told this shines through in everything we do. As someone once said, ‘People will forget what you said to them, they will forget what you did for them, but they will always remember how you made them feel’, and that’s our mantra.”

Farm diversification, diversification ideas, rural business, rural business ideas

About The Author

Jules Sayer

Petruth Paddocks

More Information

Petruth Paddocks fact file:

  • Free range camping site based in Cheddar, Somerset open all year round
  • Family run business employing four full-time and 12 part-time team members
  • The site has capacity for 1,500 people at any one time and attracts a wide range of different people
  • In 2017, the family had 6,000 bookings that saw 16,000 people though the gates
  • The family work with the local community who last year benefited economically to the tune of over £1 million from the visitors to Petruth Paddocks
  • Bookings are made online via their website using a system developed by the Cornish company Anytime Booking
  • Jules has launched a Facebook group for free range life for people to share relatable stories and experiences so life goes on beyond Petruth Paddocks

 

Jules’ four tips for anyone thinking of going into a similar line of business:

  • You have got to love people
  • Think through how big you want to get, there are pros and cons for each case
  • Create a good website that accurately describes what you offer
  • Consider thoroughly any regulations you may need to conform to
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