Geoff & Su Smith
Farmers thinking of starting a caravan site could do worse than pay a visit to Geoff and Su Smith’s award-winning enterprise at Pembridge in Herefordshire. They were welcomed by other site operators when they started up and say they would be prepared do the same.
Townsend Touring and Camping Park is now operated as a limited company, while the husband and wife team are partners in the associated 55ha (125-acre) farm and farm shop.
Discussions about the development started five years ago when Geoff and his brother Richard still worked in satellite communications. It was clear that the farm could not support two families, even if a farm shop was opened.
Following talks with ADAS consultants, a planning application for a shop and 5ha (12-acre) caravan park, which cost £7000 to draft, was made in June 1999. Construction started in 2000. The shop opened in 2001 and the nearby 62-pitch caravan park in 2002, by which time building work was complete and trees planted at the outset had started to grow.
Now all the beef cattle, lambs and vegetables produced on the farm are sold through the shop, plus locally produced bacon and pork, bakery products, free-range poultry and eggs, and foods ranging from preserves to potato crisps.
So what advice would Geoff Smith offer to would-be caravan park entrepreneurs? The first is that it is worth buying in planning expertise, and being prepared to work closely with local authority staff at every stage of the development.
He also warns potential site operators that the demands of dealing with the public are very different from those of farming.
“At 16 all I wanted to do was farm, but my father persuaded me to try working at something else before coming home,” he recalls. “Doing this broadened my experience and gave me confidence to deal with planners, builders and the public.”
He believes that there is scope for other farmers to get involved in setting up touring caravan parks, but only if they are prepared to invest a lot of money to cater for increasingly sophisticated customers.
At Townsend Farm, they laid 0.7 miles of sewage pipe, 1.5 miles of electric cable and 0.9 miles of TV cable and spent heavily on roadways and a luxurious toilet, shower and laundry block. A muddy shallow pond on the site has been transformed into an attractive lake, which could soon become a put-and-take fishery.
“Doing much of the work ourselves we spent around £280,000, but a ball-park figure for a five-star site is an investment of around £6000 a pitch. Even when you invest this much it takes a long time to build a customer base.
“While we could fill the site several times over on bank holidays, we still have lower occupancy over most of our season, which runs from 1 March to 14 January.
But we still have to maintain the site and to be committed to working seven days a week.”
The park cannot be seen from the village or surrounding public roads and locals appear to appreciate the business it brings to the area. On arrival visitors are given a printed set of ground rules which aim to keep Pembridge residents happy and make everyone’s stay pleasant and peaceful.
Townsend Park’s price structure reflects the fact that its facilities place it at the upper end of the market, and this tends to attract people who respect the site and the surrounding countryside.
Advertising is mainly through a marketing group for five-star sites and on the internet.
In high season caravan owners pay £19 a night to stay on one of the hard standing super pitches with a pylon for hooking into services like water, electricity and waste water disposal. In the low season the same pitch costs £14 a night.
The charge for a super grass pitch in high season is £17 a day and this falls to £12 in low season. Caravanners pay less for standard pitches.
However, prices are based on two people in each caravan and visitors pay surcharges for additional adults and children, and TV hookup.