Farmers who open their gates to holidaymakers are facing more competition than ever before at a time when a profitable diversification has scarcely been seen as being more important.
Ahead of the Farm Stay UK organisation’s national conference in Harrogate next week, Yorkshire’s regional director Caroline Barker warned that the rise of online competitors in the form of Booking.com and AirB&B means farmers have to up their game to promote the value of a stay on working farms in the countryside.
The uncertain politics around the future of farming and how changes could impact on agricultural incomes, also makes the importance of running successful on-farm holiday accommodation all the more vital, she said.
Farm Stay UK was established as a not-for-profit farmers’ co-operative in 1983 and has more than 600 members nationally, including 54 in Yorkshire.
Its annual conference, sponsored by the Yorkshire Agricultural Society, is expected to attract around 90 delegates to The Pavilions of Harrogate at the Great Yorkshire Showground on Tuesday.
Members of the group provide a variety of on-farm holiday accommodation, including bed and breakfast, self-catering and glamping sites, with the latter such as shepherd huts the major growth area in response to rising demand from younger holidaymakers.
Mrs Barker has been a member of Farm Stay for 17 years and has operated bed and breakfast accommodation at Cundall Lodge Farm, Boroughbridge, since 1999.
Despite increased competition, she firmly believes on-farm holiday accommodation remains relevant.
“It is a competitive market so we have to up our game and make sure we are giving people what they want,” she said.
“People seeking out farm stays are looking for value for money and the countryside experience. The likes of Booking.com and AirB&B have massive advertising budgets and we can’t compete with that but we do have a very loyal customer base of people who come and stay.
“There used to be a lot more people who grew up on farms and they are now bringing their grandchildren on farm stays because they have fond memories of what it was like.”
She said there remained a strong appetite for farm stays, quoting how historically viewing figures for the BBC’s Countryfile outstripped Top Gear.
“People have a curiosity of the countryside. For the customer it’s an experience and that’s what people buy into. By staying on a farm they get peace and quiet, fresh air, views and great value for money - for many it is about getting that rural experience - and all our places are unique. If you stay in a hotel all the rooms are identical and it’s a box really, but on farms, every room and every property is different.”
On-farm holiday accommodation is certainly no new diversification but Mary Pengelly, Farm Stay’s national chairwoman, said there were still parts of the country that could be well served by new entrants.
“There is definitely regions that don’t have enough accommodation, and definitely areas where there could be more,” she said, adding that diversification is “absolutely essential” for the smaller, less specialised farms to survive.
“By diversifying to complement what you have got, you are adding value to what you have,” Mrs Pengelly said.
One of the speakers at this week’s conference will be Mike Mack, business consultant specialising in food and farming at real estates firm Savills. He will stress the importance of benchmarking performance in order to drive financial success from on-farm holiday accommodation - a sector which he said had become so much more than a sideline.
Mr Mack said: “We have over 70 per cent of farmers now saying that they are seriously looking at diversifying, so it is a really important thing for them. There is a lot of concern regarding the impact of Brexit so people are thinking about how they are going to mitigate the risk.
“You have businesses busy creating income streams and married up with the current exchange rate and UK consumers are looking at perhaps not going abroad as much and there is a significant amount of grant money available to farms to diversify, and it’s a exciting area.”
He highlighted how recent farm income figures show cereal farmers are making average losses of around £14,300 on their crops, but making £18,100 via diversifications.
This money supplements the largest source of their income (£35,300), European payments which have only been guaranteed in Britain at the same level until 2022, making diversified income “critical”, Mr Mack said.
TIME TO SHINE
An ‘of-the-moment’ consumer trend is that they are looking for experience-based stays that are above and beyond, where they can be looked after somewhere that is a bit special, Savills’ Mike Mack said.
“Where farms can stand out from the crowd is offering a top notch experience that connects consumers with the family farming experience.”
Mr Mack added: “It’s a good time to be in the holiday accommodation sector but it’s competitive and only the best businesses are going to succeed so you need to decide what will make the best business in your area.”