Tourism is worth £2.72bn a year to Cumbria’s economy and supports an estimated 63,000 jobs.
But there’s more to our tourism offer than comfortable country house hotels and fine dining restaurants.
The Chamber’s Cumbria Business Growth Hub is proud to be working with businesses that are pushing the boundaries, offering visitors new experiences and taking them beyond the traditional tourist honeypots.
Predator Experience offers visitors the chance to experience wildlife up close in a way that most of us never thought possible.
Options include walking with wolf hybrids, a cross between a wolf and a Czechoslovakian Wolfdog; flying Britain’s most iconic bird of prey, the Golden Eagle; hawk walks where hawks follow participants, flying tree to tree; and owl and fox experiences.
Dee and Daniel Ashman launched their unique business in 2009.
Dee said: “Between us, we’d had 40 years’ experience working with predators and in bird of prey centres, but we found what we were doing was soulless.
“We wanted to do things in a more natural way, emphasising conservation, to educate people about the role of predators in biodiversity so they understand that predators are hugely influential in managing the environment.
“You are so much more aware when walk with or handle predators in their natural environment. It’s a more interesting and immersive experience.”
A session walking with wolf hybrids costs £85, but groups are limited to a maximum of four people.
Dee said: “Having small groups makes it easier to bond with the animal. It’s much more intimate, they are with the animal all the time. We could fill groups of 20 but that wouldn’t be good for anyone and it wouldn’t be ethical.”
Initially operating from Lakeside YMCA, the business moved to its present site at Ayside, near Newby Bridge, in 2010.
Now the couple are looking to take the business to the next level to play its part in making the Lake District a world-class visitor attraction. They have plans for a £950,000 purpose-built centre.
Cumbria Business Growth Hub is helping them to apply for a £170,000 tourism infrastructure grant through the Rural Development Programme for England, funded by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development.
Dee said: “We want to breed our own birds. We’ll have animal enclosures enabling us to move the wolf hybrids on site, better guest facilities, education rooms, and hospital facilities for rehabilitation of wild species.
“We will also employ five members of staff and we estimate that our annual contribution to the local economy will rise to £1.1m.
“A lot of our experiences you can’t find anywhere else in the UK. Our clients come from all over the country, and overseas, and when they’re here they spend money on accommodation and in other places in the Lake District.”
Dee was full of praise for her Growth Hub adviser, Adrian Luckham.
She said: “He’s helping us with the grant submission and he’s been absolutely brilliant. We couldn’t have done it without him.”
The Solway Plain is a forgotten corner of Cumbria.
But it is rich in history and wildlife, its wide-open skies are a complete contrast to the county’s mountainous interior, and the sunsets are stunning.
Fiona Stoddart is on a mission to bring its attributes to the attention of a wider audience.
Last summer she set up her guided tour business, Solwayconnections, to run Secret Solway guided tours.
She said: “My qualifications are in tourism and leisure management, including a master’s degree, but I ended up in higher education, teaching and doing research. Then I decided it was time for a change and to go back to my roots.
“I’ve lived on the Solway for 15 years and I love it. It’s so beautiful and it’s got an incredibly layered history, from pre-Roman to the Romans, Vikings, the Reivers, the Scottish wars, around the industrial revolution including the old Carlisle Canal, smugglers, drovers and the two World Wars.
“Why isn’t it better known? People know Cumbria for the Lake District and Hadrian’s Wall, so the Solway gets overlooked.
“It’s not the easiest of places to get to but that is part of its charm, the fact that it’s so quiet, it’s like stepping back in time.
“I offer my services on a guide-only basis, or with transport.
“I can supply a driver and a car or minibus for groups up to a maximum of 25, although the optimum is anything from one to a dozen people.
“The Solway is a sensitive area, with narrow roads and a fragile eco-system, so I don’t want to encourage large groups. The aim is to be low impact.”
Fiona offers set itineraries or bespoke tours, which might focus on a particular aspect of history, wildlife, or Solway art and lifestyle.
The Secret Solway full-day tour, for example, takes in sacred places, sea ports, World War defences, an abandoned railway and canal, and a lost bridge across the Solway to Scotland.
Transatlantic Connections is aimed at US and Canadian visitors, taking them to sites with connections to the New World including Whitehaven, the only part of Britain to come under attack in the American War of Independence.
Fiona said: “We’ve taken other international visitors including groups of Belgians and Chinese visitors, and they loved it. Carlisle Tourist Information Centre have been very good in sending bookings my way.”
When setting up Solwayconnections, she turned to Cumbria Business Growth Hub and enrolled on our Business Start-Up Support (BSUS) programme, which offers free advice and support to new businesses.
She added: “I did a three-day course for start-ups and I’ve hoovered up as much free training as I can, including help with Facebook marketing and writing content for my website.
“Having been teaching for 20 years, running your own business is a very different beast. It’s a confidence boost to have someone to turn to.
“Both my Growth Hub advisers, Annie Weir and Gail Gravett, have been brilliant. They were so knowledgeable and supportive.”
Long Valley Yurts
Long Valley Yurts provides more than luxury holiday accommodation.
The business helps people escape their stressful lives and reconnect with family and friends.
Yurts are portable round tents originally used by the nomadic peoples of central Asia.
John Maddy and Richard Coulter hit on the idea of using them as holiday accommodation when they were students at the Penrith Newton Rigg campus of what was then the University of Central Lancashire.
John said: “One of our course tutors brought in yurts to run programmes from, and it stuck in our minds what a versatile space they are.”
John was studying outdoor leadership while Richard’s degree was in outdoor education and management.
They ended up working at the same development training company.
“We started Long Valley Yurts in 2008 as a side line, a top-up income for our day jobs,” John explained.
“We put together a business plan, borrowed some money from the bank and started with two yurts in Great Langdale on a wing and a prayer.
“At the time nobody else was doing this on a commercial basis.
“It went tremendously well in the first year, despite the fact that it was the financial crisis and a very difficult time.”
Fast forward 10 years and the business is prospering.
The pair now have 19 yurts across five sites – Great Langdale, Low Wray overlooking Windermere, Moss Howe Farm in the Lyth Valley, Sykeside near Brothers Water, all in Cumbria, and Knotlow Farm in the Peak District.
Each of the 18ft yurts is equipped with a wood-burning stove, kitchen, a raised wooden floor covered in woollen Moroccan-style rugs, futon-style beds with pillows and linen, solar lighting and a games chest for wet days.
A large central skylight allows stargazing when the lights go out, and two of the sites now have Scandinavian-style wood-fired hot tubs.
The average occupancy rate is very healthy at 85%. So what’s the appeal?
John said: “Initially it was novelty, something that no-one else was offering. But increasingly, it has become about disconnecting from our busy lives.
“Life is getting more complicated and stressful. We have to stay connected to our phones, our laptops, our emails. Our work-life balance is out of kilter, which means less time in contact with families and friends.
“In our yurts, people share the same space. They are sleeping in the same room and it has a very positive effect.
“We deliberately don’t have electric sockets so people can’t charge their devices. They have to talk to their families.
“People say it brings their families closer together.”
The plan is to continue to grow the business, adding new sites.
John said: “This can be a fantastic diversification for farmers and landowners. From our point of view, it’s about finding the right site and the right people. If they’re not the right people, it’s not going to work.”
John and Richard make their own yurts, to ensure quality is high.
To comply with planning rules, the yurts are dismantled at the end of the season and re-erected in the spring.
They are working with Cumbria Business Growth Hub adviser Adrian Luckham to secure a grant from Cumbria Manufacturing Service to develop a flooring system that could be sold to other yurt operators.
This isn’t the first time they have turned to the Growth Hub for help. Because the business operates in the B2C arena, rather than B2B, it isn’t eligible for European ERDF funding so instead the Growth Hub utilised funding for business support provided by Cumbria Local Enterprise Partnership.
John said: “It would have been well nigh impossible to get to where we are today without the Growth Hub. The support has been integral to our development and growth as a business. We’ve been able to call on specialists in marketing, strategy and branding. It has been fantastic for us.”
To find out the Growth Hub can help your business, call us today on 0844 257 84 50 or click here to visit the Cumbria Business Growth Hub web site.
The funding that supports the Growth Hub this comes from a range of sources including Cumbria Chamber of Commerce, the European Regional Development Fund, Allerdale Borough Council (Sellafield Ltd’s Allerdale SIIF, distributed by Allerdale Borough Council), Barrow Borough Council (FEDF Coastal Communities Fund Supply Chain Initiative, the Coastal Communities Fund is funded by the Government with income from the Crown Estates marine assets; it is delivered by the Big Lottery Fund on behalf of UK Government), Carlisle City Council, Eden District Council, South Lakeland District Council and Cumbria LEP.
The Growth Hub is receiving up to £2,528,767 of funding from the England European Regional Development Fund as part of the European Structural and Investment Funds Growth Programme 2014-2020. The Department for Communities and Local Government is the Managing Authority for European Regional Development Fund. Established by the European Union, the European Regional Development Fund helps local areas stimulate their economic development by investing in projects which will support innovation, businesses, create jobs and local community regenerations. For more information click here.
© Cumbria Chamber of Commerce