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Escape to the country?

New Forest

Middle Lee Farm came with two Exmoor ponies

Running a holiday cottage business in deepest Devon looked just the job for a high-powered oil industry executive looking to de-stress. James Baron has been finding out if it was as idyllic as it sounds

In March 2008, the financial crisis was gathering steam. Starting with Northern Rock, the banking dominoes had started to fall and there was a great deal of uncertainty. Not the obvious time, then, for Phil and Christine Brown to embark on an adventure into the unknown.

Phil, then 57, was one step away from director at a major American company in the oil industry when he decided that, recession or no recession, the commercial world wasn't for him any more. Using the money from the sale of their own house in Oxfordshire, Phil and Christine bought a self-catering holiday business based on a converted 18th century farmhouse in secluded North Devon.

Why do it? "Good question!" laughs Phil, as we sit in the garden overlooking their pleasant green meadow and the stream beyond. "We'd talked about doing something in this line for a while and we wanted a new challenge. The kids had left for university and we realised that if we didn't do it now, we never would."

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Location, vocation

Making this new challenge work depended on Phil continuing in his job for two seasons, commuting to Reading and staying there four days a week. It was tough but the right thing to do, as it allowed a financial safety net and an option to cut their losses if things didn't work out.

Although the converted farm in the sleepy village of Berrynarbor is clearly a beautiful setting, some of the buildings on the complex are more than three hundred years old and must be a handful to maintain, so I asked why they chose this particular property.

"The starting point was finding a place where tourists like. Without the tourists, there just isn't a business, so in that sense it was easy to rule out large parts of the country."

"North Devon appealed to us as it was attractive, near the coast and had lots of character. When we visited Berrynarbor, we fell in love with the place and it fitted all the criteria we had set originally."

Christine adds: "Middle Lee Farm had what we wanted but at a more affordable price than more expensive regions like South Devon or Dorset."

The other great bonus was that the property was functioning as a holiday cottage business already, with its own reputation, repeat customers . They'd thought about buying a property and converting it into a holiday rental business as it would allow them to stamp their own mark on the project, but wisely decided the twin demands of a job and project managing a renovation would prove too much.

One long holiday?

If they'd ever been under the illusion that running their own holiday business would be easy, jumping in at the deep end soon brought the reality home. Living in a beautiful area in a period property with three acres of meadows and gardens is obviously very appealing, but the demands are equally strenuous.

"Everything takes longer and costs more to do than you think," says Phil, "and as you start a job, something else is uncovered. But that's part of the fun," he adds.

They've added a new play area for children, which they hope will encourage more young families to stay. There's a new barbecue area and they plan to re-roof the open barn which acts as their games room

They quickly learned the value of having spares when, in the first few weeks of hosting guests, a number of electrical appliances failed. More serious was a boiler failure which, if it hadn't happened in the summer, could have led to a lot of reputational damage if not tackled effectively. A quirkier challenge was presented by the two Exmoor ponies that came with the business; friendly neighbours came to the rescue with advice and help.

Phil and Christine had to hit the ground running with weekly changeovers. Cleaning and stocking five cottages to an immaculate standard in one morning is a hard task for two people, especially when you haven't had the experience of doing it before.

Running the cottages requires the couple to slip into many different roles. Although some of the more specialised tasks are delegated to builders, plumbers and electricians, there's no one but them to be hosts, marketers, maintenance personnel, cleaners and lots besides. It is, they say, "a lifestyle business."

The sheer breadth and volume of the daily tasks could overwhelm those who aren't versatile or willing to learn new skills. The alternative would be to hire staff to help in the everyday tasks, but that's where hard economic reality comes in. "The business doesn't generate enough income to be able to take on staff as part of the business," observes Phil, in a comment that serves as a warning to prospective holiday let owners.

It's an all-consuming life. "There's no time to be ill," smiles Christine, who continued to work just weeks after she broke her shoulder. "And holidays have to be taken out of season, unless you can trust someone else with the business while you're gone."

Compensations

Four years on, with Phil now working full-time on the business, the couple have achieved much, but at the cost of a huge amount of work. And though the business has done well, much of the money they've earned has been reinvested into improvements and refurbishments.

They've added a new play area for children, which they hope will encourage more young families to stay. There's a new barbecue area and they plan to re-roof the open barn which acts as their games room.

So anyone expecting a holiday cottage business to provide big profits and a leisurely lifestyle is likely to find themselves disappointed. Phil and Christine also point out that the income is very seasonal and a sharp eye must be kept on cash flow at all times.

But the perilous financial climate has created one small bonus: in 2011 there was a 12 per cent increase in Britons staying at home for their annual vacation. The couple have seen even greater improvements, estimating a huge 30 per cent improvement in occupancy rates in the past two years. Peak-time demand has become so great that they are thing about also renting out an en suite bedroom on a bed and breakfast basis.

But the real positives to them are not money-related. "It's just so nice to be able to work outside in the fresh air," enthuses Christine. "We're our own bosses, with absolutely no commute," adds Phil, with the air of a man who's seen a fair few business miles in his time.

And of course they live in an almost idyllic location, with a strong sense of community. When the local Post Office shut down, the villagers of Berrynarbor chipped in to build their own community shop.

The property itself lies just a mile from the nearest beach, with picturesque seaside villages like Combe Martin nearby. Half an hour's drive away lie the heart of Exmoor and Lynton and Lynmouth.

As I'm about to leave, I ask whether they ever regret the decision to abandon the rat-race and enter the unknown, but I've already learned enough to know what the answer will be before it comes: "No, not a bit."

In the words of the owners:

5 Top Tips for running a holiday cottage business

  1. Establish the market you are aiming at. Is it family oriented or for adults only? Are you trying for the top end or middle of the road, for example?
  2. Marketing is crucial. Any good business should have a good website, and this needs to be up and running quickly. You must also decide what advertising is effective, both in print and online.
  3. Cleanliness is key. Nobody wants to come in to dirty accommodation. Finding a clean cottage on arrival encourages customers to leave it in a good condition when they leave.
  4. Be accommodating to guests' needs. They are spending a lot of money on what is perhaps their only holiday of the year. Be friendly and listen to them.
  5. Get the price right. If you under-price you will fill up, but make little to no margin. Alternatively you price yourselves out of the market. Look at what others are charging in your area, by season, and talk to letting agents for their experience.

Visit here the website for Middle Lee Farm