How diversified businesses are coping with lockdown

The Bazeley family run well-established self-storage and bottled beer businesses at Offwell Farm, near Fareham, Hampshire.

A tenant of Southwick Estate, Martin Bazeley started the storage business in 2003 and launched Suthwyck Ales in 2000, teaming up with a local brewery to make beer using malt from the farm’s own barley.

See also: Coronavirus news and advice

The coronavirus lockdown caused the loss of 95% of the pub trade for the beer business and the closure of its Victorian Steam Brewery retail shop.

Martin Bazeley and his  sister, Jane

Martin Bazeley and his sister, Jane © Michel Focard

Home deliveries help compensate

However, a home delivery service has been swiftly developed and this, together with increasing orders from independent shops, has roughly made up for the loss of the pub custom, says Mr Bazeley, whose sister, Jane, runs the office for the businesses.

Storage and beer – preparing for end of lockdown

  • Marketing course with the Self-Storage Association
  • Google Ad words evaluation and improvement
  • Increased Facebook marketing
  • Thinking ahead, planning for possible loss of storage customers
  • Using time to make sure storage offer is spick and span
  • Review of shop hours and how to maintain new business of home deliveries
  • Developing online offerings at Barn Store and Southwick Brewhouse websites

“One or two pubs have been brilliant at innovating, selling take-away containers of beer alongside fruit and veg and much more,” says Mr Bazeley

“The shop already had an online order and payment facility, so it was simply an update to add free delivery within 15 mile radius and a minimum order of £30, and we were away.”

Online sales went from a trickle to a healthy flow, boosted by additional marketing efforts, including Facebook posts.

Brewhouse manager Matt Hallett’s latest e-newsletter included a video and just a couple of hours after it went out, he took £1,062 of orders.

Business review

The enforced turnaround has brought a swift reappraisal of the business.

“It has just made us revise the whole thing. Maybe this is going to be the new way we trade,” says Mr Bazeley.

“Perhaps we will open the shop just on Friday and Saturday for beer sales and take care of home deliveries from Monday to Thursday.”

The business qualifies for small business rates relief and received a £10,000 grant from Winchester council. “This has helped us gear up to the new way of operating, so it has been a brilliant help,” he says.  

Three business customers of the Barn Store self-storage operation have been badly affected by the lockdown and have been offered a 50% rent reduction for three months, with a review at that point, says Mr Bazeley.  

Barn Store

Barn Store © Michel Focard

“It’s important to have an end point. We prefer to help a customer who has been genuinely adversely affected to get through the worst and remain a happy customer, rather than lose a customer who may be hard to replace.

“It costs five times as much to acquire a new customer than to retain an existing one.”

Just three new customers have moved into the storage units since lockdown.

“We have been able to remain open, albeit discouraging casual or unnecessary visits. It’s mostly the business customers, one of whom is a supplier to the NHS, that still access their units.  

“The flip side is, we are expecting some ‘pent-up’ move-outs post lockdown – people who would have moved out naturally had it not been for the restrictions.

“We are examining our marketing to do what we can to replace these customers when they go.

“We’ve got to keep positive and keep going,” says Mr Bazeley. “We are channelling time into making sure the storage premises are looking top-notch.

“We all have to remember that however bad this is, it is temporary. When people are able to, they will be spending.”

Uncertainty causes wedding woes

Michael and Jenny Churches had a record 38 weddings booked for this year and many more coming in for 2021 and 2022 at their Glastonbury Wedding and Events business.

The ceremonies and receptions are held in a deconsecrated church right next door to Godney Farm, near Wells, Somerset, where they have a dairy herd, sucklers and sheep.

Michael and Jenny Churches, pictured with their son, Andrew, and daughter, Rachel

Michael and Jenny Churches, pictured with their son, Andrew, and daughter, Rachel © Jim Wileman

Wedding challenges

  • Uncertainty over likely physical distancing rule changes makes communication with couples difficult and planning almost impossible
  • Cashflow drop from weddings mean delay to investment on farm
  • Summer 2021 will be more of a management challenge as some weddings have been moved from 2020 and the calendar will be more crowded

After a two-year planning saga and much restoration work, the first wedding was hosted in 2015.

Providing a wedding venue is hard work at any time, with tensions rising as the big day draws near, and very bespoke arrangements are needed to accommodate different couples’ requirements.

“Since the announcement of the lockdown on 27 March, it has been awful,” says Mr Churches. The uncertainty makes planning impossible and things have been frustrating and, at times, fractious, he says.

“It was very stressful getting in touch with couples and having to tell them they were going to be limited on numbers before the government stopped weddings and events altogether.

“We have since managed to move 15 weddings that would have been taking place in April, May and June, and lost three couples that cancelled.

“We have even had to move our daughter’s wedding. When the invitations have already gone out it, it is even more frustrating for us and for other couples, because of the uncertainty and having to judge how long you leave it before you tell your guests it will not be happening.”

Six weddings are pending, with couples waiting to see if the government limits numbers or stops them altogether.

“The only small consolation is the farm is still operating as normal as can be possible,” says Mr Churches. “But the price of the milk and beef is not that good either. It is all looking a bit grim.

“We are grateful for the couples that still have their weddings with us and we are rolling all the deposits on for a year.” 

The shutdown time is being used to extend the car park and do maintenance such as creosoting fencing and planning for five glamping pods, pending planning permission being granted.

“We could really do with having them here now so we can get the services into them,” says Mr Churches.

“It’s all moving forward, but we just need the cash coming in – we’re not alone, but it’s going to be challenging.”

The farm funded the £167,000 spent on updating and converting the church, and while this is preferable to owing the bank, the farm must be paid back, as improvements are needed there too, says Mr Churches, who has applied for the £10,000 small business rates relief grant.

The Churches’ son, Andrew, has converted two Rice horse trailers (pictured above) into mobile event bars. One generally stays at the farm for functions in the church, while he takes the other one to events off farm. Both are being kept in the barn until lockdown rules ease.

FW Awards finalists 

Jenny and Michael Churches were finalists in the diversification category of the 2019 Farmers Weekly Awards and hosted a Farmers Weekly diversification event in October 2019.

Lakeland venture adapts to forced change of plan for first full summer

Isaac and Kerrie Benson only opened their Lakeland Farm Visitor Centre in July 2019.

Lockdown has meant the closure of the centre and the café, just as the business was looking ahead to its first full summer season.

However, like many others, the Bensons are adapting.  

Lakeland Visitor's Centre

© Jim Varney

Before the closure, footfall at the centre and in the shop and café was about 90% local, but also heavily weighted to older customers, who in general will have to isolate for the longest, says Mr Benson.

This makes the outlook for the recovery a long one. It’s never going to be business as usual for the next 18 months, while the older generation will have to shield, he points out.

“But I’m not complaining; things could have been a lot worse.”

Lakeland Farm Visitor Centre

  • Farm experience venue, café and farm shop, near Ings, Cumbria
  • Demonstration area based on an auction-ring setting for safe livestock handling
  • Dry stone walling demos and classes, alongside wool spinning and craft classes
  • Adapted to supply takeaway ready meals to help make up for loss of café income
  • Meat sales from own livestock has doubled in shutdown

Meat sales rise
While the café and the centre are closed, the use of the farm’s own lamb and beef has doubled, benefiting from the closure of the local town’s two butcher shops, which were heavily dependent on the hotel and restaurant trade.

The business has adapted to provide reasonably priced takeaway ready meals all day, on which no VAT is payable. Staff costs are also lower, so the margin is higher. Orders and payment are generally taken over the phone, and customers can pick up their meals in the car park.

Family labour 
The four full time café staff have been furloughed and the business is relying on family labour, alongside the full-time butcher in the shop.

Kerrie and Isaac Benson

Kerrie and Isaac Benson © Jim Varney

“We’ll miss the whole summer season,” says Mr Benson. “But as long as the furlough system is in place, the jobs will be there for the staff to come back to. But if that goes, they’ll be looking for a new job, and that’s the brutal reality of it.”

“We can’t expect to go into the winter with a full team unless there is some sort of help package and until our older customers have the security of a vaccine.”

The Bensons also have a holiday cottage, for which they received some local authority grant aid, but as the farm visitor centre is still in the process of being rated, they are unsure how much help will be available for this.

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