People often ask how we have ended up running Mill Farm. Here I describe my decision to give up a career in Bristol to set up Mill Farm Eco Barn with my husband Neil. Find out what running a holiday business involves and how finding work that works has been the secret to her success.
How did you set up Mill Farm?
Mill Farm began in 2012, Neil had a crazy plan to set up a holiday business in Norfolk. I was pregnant with our second child and on a good salary working as a Director at the environmental charity, the Soil Association in Bristol. Like many changes in my life, it started as an off the cuff remark “if we ever want to do anything different, we need to do it soon” I remember saying to Neil. “At the moment we can get a mortgage, but we won’t if we go down to one income” this conversation set something in motion. After that Neil kept disappearing, spending evenings on Rightmove and I hadn’t quite realised what I’d done!
A year later, we’d purchased Mill Farm, which back then was a ramshackle house where we live now, the shell of an old barn (with planning permission for residential conversion) and a collection of old sheds and outbuildings. Whilst on maternity leave, I’d also managed to get some Rural Development Funding from the European Union to develop the barn as a high end self-catering holiday home and a centre of excellence for sustainable tourism. The grant had to be spent quickly so we sold up in Bristol, I took redundancy and we moved to Norfolk. Or at least the kids and I did – Neil commuted to work in Bristol for the first 3 months!
Looking back, knowing what it is like to have a 6 month old and a 2 year old and managing a self-build project, I probably would have said no way but I went along with it and I’m pretty glad I did. I cruised play groups trying to make friends and in doing so radically improved my driving skills – I’d only ever travelled by bike before. Once the kids were finally in bed we spent the evenings, filling in grant claim forms, researching building materials and with the help of a good friend we developed the marketing plan for the business.
It was a crazy time. Neil moved up permanently in March 2013, the build was complete in September. The trips around the play groups became very useful as I shamelessly called the Mum’s up and asked if they or their handy partners could construct and move furniture in the hours before we opened and they came, thank goodness. Since then we have hosted over 600 groups, couples, families and friends in our barns. We have made friends, at least 3 couples have moved to the area since staying with us and we are going to a guests wedding in December. We feel we have contributed to the local village by spearheading a campaign to improve the children’s play area (we raised over £35,000), we have put a path on our land so guests and locals can walk the route more easily and planted over 2000 hedge plants and trees. I even joined the parish council. I have to admit though, I don’t really remember my youngest’s first two years!
What’s it like running Mill Farm now?
It surprises me, still, how much effort it takes. Firstly, there is the constant development of the site and what we offer. Neil has a very clear vision for the site and he won’t stop until it is complete. Last September he added a wildlife pond and is managing the paddocks for wildlife . This year we are revamping our games barns as well as bringing back chickens.
It has also been a real family affair. Neil’s parents are local, anyone who has stayed with us will have met Terry who looks after the grounds and the guest allotment and Shona who does all the linen for the barns. My folks, albeit further away, have been a huge help to – editing websites, making furniture and much more.
I’m the main point of contact for bookings and enquiries. At Mill Farm we’re passionate about providing great service and a beautiful destination for group get-togethers. We’ve focused on every detail to make the barns feel like home rather than formulaic holiday lets, so we’re well-equipped from the kitchen to baby equipment to books, games and DVDs. Our aim is to ensure guests have a memorable holiday – we want them to fall in love with the barns and the area as much as we have.
Part of my job is going the extra mile for guests. If they’re coming for a family celebration, I can help them organise a cake, caterers and even a photographer. We also provide a huge amount of advice to guests in the lead up to and during their stay. I’ve also started writing blog posts to give guests more insider details that might be helpful for their stay.
Fridays are my craziest day. This is the day we say goodbye to guests and welcome new ones. I usually bake a loaf of sourdough bread for our Eco Barn guests which goes in their welcome basket, together with other homemade goodies such as fresh eggs, organic produce from our allotment, locally-made jam and a freshly baked cake by our baker friend Andrew. My day revolves around supporting our team of cleaners and responding to any maintenance issues.
By far most of my time though is taken up by marketing. I’m not a marketing person by background so this hasn’t come easily to me. Things have changed so much, just in the five years we have been operating that it feels that this is becoming a bigger job, not a smaller job. The main issue is visibility. I know we have a great product but getting the message out and sustaining our on-line presence is really hard. Whilst Google and Facebook are constantly changing, making it hard to keep up as a sole operator, online travel agents are having a bigger and bigger impact on the market making it harder for small businesses to be found. I try hard to get direct bookings as it benefits both the guests (you have a more personal experience and it’s cheaper) and us as a smaller business.
Managing Kids and work
Hands downs this has been the hardest issue for me. I still think I’d like to return back to work someday, I spend a lot of time ruminating over this. Do I actually have the time? What would I even do? Do I really want to give up the flexibility? In so many ways I am so very lucky, yes my work is very fluid (so I do feel like I am constantly at work) but I have 100% flexibility. I pick my kids up from school most days and can cover their holidays. That stress of who is picking them up today, isn’t generally part of our lives.
Recently I have become much stricter about how I work too – I am not sure why it took me so long to figure this out but the following measures have really made a massive difference (but I am only 2 weeks in).
a)I have dedicated hours in the week, which I plan a week in advance
b)I sit down to complete tasks – rather than just ‘be’ at my desk
c)I sort the tasks out around weekly themes – to avoid fliting from one thing to another
d)I have joined Facebook groups and such as the Boostly Academy and Vacation Soup – these international groups are made up of people in the same business as me, we exchange ideas, take part in group activity and learning and this has 100% reduced the feeling of isolation and helps give me focus and a sense of how my marketing needs to change.
e)I turn off my phone syncs when I am with the kids at the weekend – so distractions are at a minimum. I have muted most of my notifications permanently but guests can still call.
f)I have said no to any further building project until we have had a really ‘big’ family holiday!
g) And yes I need to produce a bi-weekly menu – I hate planning family meals.
On a deeper level I worry that I should still do more. My life is very domestic because we are in hospitality. I work from home, bake bread for guests and sometimes make jam, chutney or home grown apple juice. I do wonder what kind of role model I am for my two girls but I’m hopeful that I’ll find the balance and find a way to contribute more. I guess the next challenge is going to be to find the right part time role, or voluntary post where I can put my background in Environmental campaigning to more use.