Farming families who have diversified into self-catering are reopening their doors after the coronavirus lockdown.
These businesses have been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic, but many remain positive about the future.
The demand for self-catering, on-farm holidays is generating optimism, but question marks remain over the state of the economy.
We hear from two businesses about their plans, hopes and fears for the future as they gear up for the return of visitors.
Caroline Millar, The Hideaway Experience, Dundee, Angus
It was with a mixture of “relief and excitement” that Caroline Millar reopened the doors of her enterprise.
“Back in April, there was talk of possibly being shut for the whole year, but in the end it was just short of four months we were closed for,” says Caroline, who, along with husband Ross, runs four five-star lodges on the family’s farm.
Bookings are busy through to October, but she’s conscious a lot of these have been “displaced” from the April-to-July period. “We’ll never get back that lost time in terms of occupancy.
“There’s a lot of additional work, but we’d rather be open and have that extra cost than not be open. We just have to adapt.”
Caroline has been particularly helped by guidance from organisations such as The Scottish Tourism Alliance, Scottish Agritourism and the Association of Scotland’s Self-Caterers.
“The advice and training made reopening relatively straightforward because we could find out about everything, from necessary deep cleaning to proper procedures for communicating with guests should they feel unwell.
“Obviously, some businesses – like those who host weddings or events – are not able to welcome people back yet, so we’re conscious we’re lucky compared to many.”
She is confident that the Covid-19 pandemic won’t hit the general upward trend in agri-tourism, with ever-more people looking for “fresh air and freedom” through activities such as cycling and walking in the countryside.
“Pre-Covid, there was growing demand for agri-tourism because people were looking for a more authentic experience, often linked to the desire for food-related experiences.
“During the past few months, too, the public has become more aware of the farming community – and the role farmers play – so this could translate into more interest in farm stays.”
There will, she says, be a new market of people this year who traditionally haven’t holidayed on-farm in the UK, but will try it rather than heading to, for example, Spain or Greece.
“People are being cautious and those who normally stay in a city hotel, for example, might choose a farm. There’s all the space, you can go straight to your self-contained accommodation, and it doesn’t involve getting on a plane.
“People are desperate to go on holiday and, right now, people may even have some spare cash because they haven’t been spending during lockdown. But there is a big question mark over people’s finances in the medium- to long-term and I am worried about the economy.”
“I struggled with the closure,” says Caroline. “That first week, I spent all my time issuing refunds so there were all the financial worries, plus I missed having people around. Having the farm helped, though – I never thought I’d say lambing helped my mental health!
“For many years, agri-tourism been the ‘Cinderella’ of farming – people have never fully recognised its importance, but this whole horrible experience has made everyone more aware of the role it plays sustaining farming businesses.
“I feel so sorry for all the enterprises that will go under as a result of Covid, but right now I’m feeling energetic and optimistic and ready to go at it again with renewed gusto.”
Visit The Hideaway Experience website for more information.
Ruth Tuer, Craik Trees Manor, Penrith, Cumbria
The countryside is reopening for business and self-catering providers are ready for the challenges ahead, says Ruth.
“The whole sector is excited to welcoming visitors again – and we certainly need to, financially.
“We simply can’t cope with long vacant periods and lots of us have been investing over the past few years to make properties better or unique – particularly out of the ‘honeypot’ areas – so that has to be paid for.”
Ruth expects life won’t return to “normal” before summer 2021, but still hopes to salvage 2020 as a year, partly because visitors come to her part of Cumbria outside of the traditional tourist season.
“Our doubts and frustration and despondency will ease as soon as we get back into a routine,” she says. “We’ve had our first guests and that worked OK, so I feel a lot more positive. But during the latter stages of lockdown, I was really fed up and depressed – which I’ve never felt in my life before.
“Initially in lockdown, we’d done a lot of maintenance work and the farm went along as normal with lambing and ground preparation, so it didn’t really hit us and we weren’t doing too much worrying.
“But as lockdown progressed, I was worrying about this massive raft of rules and legislation that would come with reopening – and that’s still fluid and moving by the minute – which almost felt like a mountain that was simply too high to climb.”
Coronavirus couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Tuers, whose diversification had recently evolved to offer “big house” self-catering, a self-catering cottage for two, glamping pods, a shepherd’s hut and camping.
Flooding – which had been even worse than in 2015 – effectively washed away the farm entrance meaning business stopped on 5 February and, just as they were preparing to reopen, the pandemic struck.
“One thing that has helped has been using forums and Facebook and making the most of digital communication – that networking has made a huge difference in terms of and advice and support,” says Ruth.
“It’s been important to have been able to access ‘working’ knowledge from organisations such as Cumbria Tourism, Farm Stay UK and the CLA, rather than just hearsay.”
Ruth says the pandemic will permanently change the way she runs the business – and with the help of a digital technology grant, she’s developing an app that will allow her to interact with guests remotely.
“That’s partly a direct response to Covid-19, but it’ll be great for sharing information. Sometimes, I tell our life story 20 times in a day – that’s lovely but not always necessary to do it face-to-face.
“We’ll always be about, but we’ve got to that age where we want to draw back a little so it doesn’t feel like a 24-hour-a-day business.
“There are still big uncertainties, but we’re not as badly off as so many people and self-catering providers are a very resilient bunch.
“For us, like so many farmers, self-catering isn’t merely a top-up – it’s an important way of using all the assets we have. It’s a major part of how we do business – we farm crops, we farm animals and we farm people.”
Visit the Crake Trees Manor website for more information.