Top tips for diversifying into hospitality

As part of a series of NFU Mutual podcasts called ‘Ahead of the Field’, we heard how Portnellan Organic Farm on Loch Lomond in Scotland has diversified.

The farm has been owned by the Scott-Park family since 1952 when Stanley Scott-Park bought 230 acres for his son Jock to manage as a beef and dairy farm. In 2005, Stanley's grandson David and great grandson Chris started offering moorings for rent on the loch. They’ve since started providing self-catering accommodation, glamping and speedboat tours, alongside running an organic beef herd.

Here are some of the lessons they’ve learnt from diversifying the farm and developing the business.

Work with what you have

Not all farms benefit from such a unique location as Portnellan, on the shore of Loch Lomond. But the important thing is to carefully consider what assets you do have and how you can make best use of them.

Chris says: “Do you have, for example, an old shed or a building that isn't doing anything? Do you have a small lake or even a loch on your doorstep that you can make use of? Also, you have to consider the wider area that you're in - are you in a particularly touristic area? Do you have walking or a cycle path going past your front door or are you just off a main road that's going to bring people to you?”

Do something you enjoy

Consider if your farm diversification plans could encompass something you’re already passionate about or in which you have experience. For Chris, that was boating: “I had worked for another company actually doing a similar sort of thing. I got some experience, got some qualifications. I also bought my own boat and then when I finished university, I decided that I could set up for myself and start running it from the farm.”

Visitors to Portnellan can now try anything from kayaking and paddle boarding to speed boat pub tours.

Plan and understand your community

Offering holiday activities and glamping is one of the most popular ways of diversifying farms, says Charlie Yorke, an NFU Mutual expert on rural affairs. This is particularly the case for farmers with buildings that aren't being used.

But do your homework first, advises Charlie: “It's really important to do plenty of planning, research and to understand your community and area to make sure the market is genuinely there for what you're trying to do.”

Chris agrees: “There's no point in opening up an equestrian centre if there's one just next door, unless it’s going be completely different. You have to know where your customers are coming from.”

Seek advice from people who’ve already done it

Speak to as many people as possible before diversifying, particularly other farmers who have already tried it.

Charlie says: “The help and advice you need will depend on your own skill set but also that of your family members. Remember what they can and can't do, and you are likely to need some expert advice like your planning, recruiting and managing staff. And it's really important in those situations to seek the right people to give you that advice.”

Your local planning officer should also be on this list, as they can help you understand what you can and can't set up on the farm.

Portnellan certainly benefited from outside advice, as David explains: “We were fortunate. I was at a meeting with the National Park and the NFU, and through that I got involved in doing a whole farm business plan with the National Park and that was very beneficial to us.”

His advice from years of experience is: “Think it through, speak to as many people as you possibly can, plan it and go for it.”

Protect what you’ve got

Right at the beginning, ensure you have the right insurance to protect your business should the worst happen. And draw on your insurance agent’s expertise, Charlie advises: “They've got ideas. They'll have access to people local to you as well, that could just help shape your plan and your business idea a little bit more.”

This is particularly true if your diversification plans involve bringing members of the public onto your farm. Charlie says: “You've got to make sure you've got the right insurance in place for slips, trips, bumps, anything like that. Make sure you get that protection in place.”

Use social media

Social media is a powerful tool to help diversifying farmers engage with the public and demonstrate they’re accessible and friendly.

That might require investing some time to get to grips with platforms like Facebook, Instagram and TripAdvisor.

Chris explains which social media platforms have worked well for Portnellan: “Facebook is great for keeping people updated with the kind of day to day goings on in the farm – it’s a great platform for being able to share pictures. TripAdvisor is good as well because it gives a little bit of an insight into how other customers’ experience has been, whether they've enjoyed it and what they thought was good. So far the reviews on TripAdvisor have been really positive.”

Angela Smith, Portnellan’s local NFU Mutual agent, says: “I think a lot of farmers are very scared to go on social media, but the more that we can actually show the public what farming is actually about, I think it will benefit all.”

She suggests farmers speak to other farmers to learn from each other, and then just give it a try.

Chris agrees: “It's not actually as difficult as it seems. You just need to play around with it a bit and you'll soon get used to it.”

It’s also worth investing time in your website. “That's probably where we generate most of our business from”, says Chris. “So, make sure your website looks the part. It should be clear and easy to use. You want people to be able to find you and the services you offer, easily.”

Portnellan podcast transcript [PDF: 131KB]

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