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Ep.1 Hudnalls Hideout with Sarah Orchard

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2 Feb, 2022

About Episode 1

Hudnalls Hideout – Sarah Orchard speaks about building the tree house and running a luxury glamping experience

“I do feel very proud that we’ve gone from a standing start, to within 19 days having 50 bookings, which is a third of our first year of occupancy booked. And that was because we’d invested a lot of time and energy in terms of building the brand, building an email list and getting people to know about us on social media.”

Sarah Orchard is the owner of award-winning luxury treehouse ‘The Hudnalls Hideout’ in the Forest of Dean and Wye Valley, Gloucestershire.
We chat about:

> The reasons why Sarah and her husband Adrian moved to the Forest of Dean and built the treehouse.

> How Sarah Orchard used her background in tourism to launch the treehouse and ensure it was fully booked for over six months in advance.

> Some of the practices coming out of the pandemic that were helpful.

> Tips for launching a new self-catering business

Full Transcription

Kelly Ballard

Over to you basically tell me more about this wonderful tree house business and your background in the visitor economy and what led you to building a treehouse in the Forest of Dean?

Sarah Orchard

There’s a leap from where I started my career as I’ve worked in the travel industry for 16 years and I did the typical corporate thing and started working for some really big brands. For example Kuoni, Hogg Robinson business travel, I also worked at Avis car rental and looked after all of their partnerships across EMEA and the Avis brand was part of my remit as well. So I’ve had a typical sort of corporate background and also worked in some really, really big brands.

In terms of marketing, I’ve always worked in marketing, I’ve been in marketing for 27 -28 years and so yeah I did the typical corporate thing. Then I left corporate land in 2006 and I set up my consultancy, which I’ve been loving working one to one and doing online training with smaller businesses.

It’s been probably the most rewarding thing apart from the tree house, which we’ll come on to. I think the corporate career was brilliant because it gave me such a good marketing, strategic background and obviously got invested in lots of training as I did my CIM Post Grad Diploma and all that lovely stuff. It was definitely a really good grounding. I really have enjoyed being a consultant and working 121 with clients because it’s just so rewarding to see the results that they get and you can have quite a big impact within one month to three months in a small business. Whereas when you work in the big corporations, projects can take a year and it can take a long time. The AVIS industry brand I did took over 18 months. So, you know, big projects take a long time, it can be quite an energy sapping so it’s been great working, 121 with clients.

Then we started dreaming about, a long time ago, moving and finding some way to build a glamping business and we set our sights on building a treehouse. And that’s where we’ve sort of ended up where we are today.

Host: Kelly Ballard

Wow, that’s a dream for so many people. It’s kind of like you are living the dream.

Guest: Sarah Orchard

It has moments of being the dream; it’s really hard work. I think, you know, you alluded to, I mean, obviously we opened but it took us two and a half years to find the house. We had a little bit of help from Escape to the Country TV show, we actually appeared on the TV show and this was house number three. So they helped us find the house after lots of trips, I think 10 trips in the end to this area and we looked at 23 houses but we just hadn’t found anything that we could afford or had the right land. Because we knew what we wanted to build, and, yeah, so they took two and a half years to find the house, then it took us another two years to open – we moved here in 2017.

The tree house opened on the 14th of February 2020, So it took a long time to get all the planning and all of this stuff. Also the build took eight months, so it was a really long process to get to the point where we could open the doors. And then of course, COVID, and the pandemic closed us down five weeks after opening which wasn’t an ideal start to a new business venture when you’ve run out of money and you’ve got lots of bookings in the calendar and it’s quite hard to delay guests and be in that position.

So we had a tough few months but as you said, we’re, they’re fully booked until January 2023, so that’s a nice position to be in. I can’t complain about that.

Host: Kelly Ballard

Yeah I guess, you know, you’ve been lucky in some ways and in comparison to some businesses because of your location. Throughout COVID, the staycation became a big thing in between the lockdown periods, but, the Forest Dean, why did you choose the Forest of Dean?  it’s an interesting place. It’s a stunning place, I’ve realised over the past couple of years. But why did you choose the Forest to Dean and Wye Valley?

Guest: Sarah Orchard

When did we first come here? I think we came back here, the first time in 2014 and we actually came on holiday. We had been looking in Dorset and Wiltshire.I think we always knew we wanted to come west. We were living in Surrey at the time. My family are from my dad’s family from Exeter, so quite a few roots in the West Country and we’d started looking at lots of different places and Cornwall was too far. And Adrian still had his corporate jobs. It was a bit like, you know, Cornwall was too far to possibly go to meetings near London and the other major cities in the UK. So it was a bit like how we’re going to make this work. And we were looking at holiday destinations. And he said, Oh, I’ve always wanted to go fishing on the river. He is a fisherman, he literally got Google up, showed me where it was and I was like, oh, it’s almost Wales, over the Seven bridge, and I’ve never been there. And the Wye valley is stunning. And I’ve heard it’s stunning. And the fishing is meant to be really good on the river.

So we came here in October 2014 for a holiday. And then we just fell in love with it. We came back for several more holidays. Then I think on our third stay here, we started looking at houses. I had the paper open and I was like, oh, look what’s available. Because it’s amazing, it’s an amazing landscape. And there’s lots of really lovely character properties. And obviously, it’s really well placed for Birmingham and Bristol so it doesn’t feel like you’re too isolated. And then Adrian started to say, well, with my corporate job, I could I could work at the Bristol office because they had a Bristol office again, the fact that there was like a smaller office of the company that he was working for was local, it meant we could see that there was possibly a path to being able to make the move, because we knew we were going to have to transition with me moving my work, but also him still staying at that stage in his corporate job until until we had the treehouse open. Obviously the plan was always going to work in the business.

Host: Kelly Ballard

Wow, that’s a big move, isn’t it?

Guest: Sarah Orchard

120 odd miles and moving friends and family behind. Everyone always asks, Did you know people in the area? And we’re like, No, we didn’t know a soul. So it was a big step. And we’ve had moments where we’ve regretted it maybe and you know, we’ve had difficult times when we sort of thought did we do the right thing.

Adrian had lived in Guildford in Surrey his whole life, whereas I’ve moved around quite a bit. My father was a pilot, he’s retired now. So I’ve always been a little bit of a transient child and that I had to sort of move around for things. So I was a lot better at you know, dealing with that, necessarily than Adrian was and we had some difficult times as it is a big move, you know, because that’s the thing with those escape to the Country Programme. They always make it look like a fairy tale and actually sometimes it’s quite hard when you make those big decisions to move away. I’d lived in Guilford for 25 years. I think it was, again, all your sort of friends and your support network is there and it was difficult.

Host: Kelly Ballard

I’m just looking at that picture behind you and thinking wow, you know, somebody like me, the prospect of staying in one, never mind owning one would be amazing. So tell me, tell me a little bit more about it. Tell me what you know who can stay there? I know you’re fully booked but tell me a bit more about it.

Guest: Sarah Orchard

So, it’s the Hudnalls Hideout, and the name comes from the woods that we’re next to, which is called the Hudnalls woods. We’re an AONB here. It’s a Triple SI site; a site of special scientific interest in the woodland below us. So that’s how we came up with the name.

It’s called the hideout because it literally is. We’ve a three and a half acre plot, and there’s three woodlands and the guests have the whole woodland to themselves. So the treehouse is the only glamping structure that we thought was quite deliberate in terms of the experience that we want to pay for and it sleeps two adults, adults only, so sorry, no children. No Pets though, obviously sometimes that causes problems because people want to bring their pets but we have a lot of wildlife. We’ve got a lot of badgers, foxes, it’s more for the deer and the Badgers that we don’t allow pets. And also there’s a four metre drop off the deck so it is very much an adult’s retreat.

It’s a romantic place, we get a lot of people coming for proposals, which is one of my favourites. It’s very exciting when you’ve got people coming either to celebrate honeymoons, proposals or birthdays, so we’ve had 30th, 40ths and we’ve had a 21st that lots of 30s 40s 50s 60s We’ve actually got someone with a 70 year old birthday so yeah, it’s very special to be able to create something that creates memories for people.

Host: Kelly Ballard

That’s nice, I guess there’s quite a high expectation then of that kind of place as it’s so special. The service that you provide has got to be quite up there. What kind of things do you do?

Guest: Sarah Orchard

So yes, it is high end, the costs start at £300 per night, and the minimum stay is two or three nights depending on whether it’s weekdays or weekends, obviously the interiors very luxurious, I mean they have every luxury, in that you’ve got underfloor heating, there’s a wet room with mandarin stone tiles, and it’s copper shower and then they’ve got an outdoor bar, they’ve got an dedicated pizza oven, we’ve got a fully fitted kitchen so it’s very much on grid because obviously a lot of glamping structures are off grid for various reasons.

It wasn’t easy to get the utilities down there. But they have got a proper flushing toilet, you know, rainfall shower, all of the lovely things that make life comfortable while they’re there. And then we provide extra so they can order like luxury food hampers which we’ve deliberately made a decision to work for our other local businesses.

Our ethos really and our business plan was very much around we wanted to not only have a business that we could make viable and Adrian could leave the corporate job that he hated and you know come work outside and you know, run the business. But we wanted to help the local community as well. So we’ve, we’ve get our hampers from our local community shop in the village of St Briavels so that helps because they’ve got we’re open all year round so that you know they reliant quite a lot on the tourist trade and it’s a very small village so having additional hamper orders that come in you know all the way around we do like breakfast hampers we do an afternoon tea hamper we do curry takeaway and I’ve branded it so they can order these curries and and heat them up in the tree house. They have a Delivita Pizza Oven, we have a private chef that will come which is another local business called Harts Barn cookery school. So a chef will come and cook for them in the tree house, which is a real luxurious experience.

We’ve got a private yoga teacher who can give lessons on the deck. And as you can see, the deck is a very nice big special place to be, to be surrounded by the birdsong and the trees and be able to practise yoga. We have a lady who comes and does massages and reflexology treatments. We have a foraging guide that will come and take you foraging and another chap that does forest bathing, so they will take you to connect with nature in the forest. So yeah, there’s lots of little luxuries that they can add on to the experience while they’re staying with us.

Host: Kelly Ballard

Very nice. I saw the programme with Sandi Toksvig and Prue Leith, didn’t they do foraging?

Guest: Sarah Orchard

They did foraging, and weren’t particularly receptive about some of the things

Host: Kelly Ballard

So, a tree house, it’s like something at the bottom of the garden that you play with as a child and it’s just so lovely to have that childlike feeling, but also have all of those luxuries. So why a treehouse?

Guest: Sarah Orchard

Long story really, we went travelling, we quit our jobs in 2004 for a bit and went travelling for six and a half months around the world. And we backpacked for most of it from Australia, we backpacked the rest of the time all the way back to the UK. And we spent time in Australia and New Zealand Cook Islands.

We went all around America and Canada. And it was lovely. And we stayed in some amazing places, particularly, I think in New Zealand, we stayed in some really quirky places, but really, I mean, glamping to go back to those days though glamping wasn’t really an expression that people used. But they weren’t like the hostels that you’d expect. They were people with really good imagination who’d created, like we stayed in one place that was an old building, a church at Ross. They’ve literally picked this church up and moved it from one town to this place by the river. And the guy who ran it was a sheep farmer. And he he kitted out the showers in like Wrigley tin, you know, the sort of sheet metal sheeting, and he had slices of wood that he’d used for the work tops, and really quirky features that just were really individual and also stayed in our first treehouse when we went to Salt Spring Island off of Vancouver. And I think that sort of sowed the seed really that they are pretty magical spaces, and that this was more of a classical child’s tree house, and they do put a smile on your face.

And we just decided when we came back to the UK, we were actually going to emigrate to New Zealand. Because we wanted to set up a backpackers hostel, we thought we could create a really unique experience. And we love the country. So we were going to move there but then we realised that if we did that, we probably wouldn’t see friends and family very often. Adrian’s mum was ill at the time. So we decided that wasn’t the right decision and to stay in the UK, which is when we started looking for somewhere in the UK that we maybe could create similar, like those backpacking experiences.

But in the UK, and I suppose that’s how it started. Yeah, so the seed was sown then and I’ve spoken about how long the journey was to keep searching for somewhere that was suitable. But we definitely had itchy feet, from when we came back from travelling, and I only spent about another 18 months in my corporate job and then left because I decided that I wanted to do something different.

Host: Kelly Ballard

Amazing! When you opened you had a really challenging time in terms of the weather as you built and then you were excited. It was all opening and then COVID struck. Like you say you had a lot of pre bookings that you had to change. And that must have been a real challenge. But I know that there are a lot of challenges, and you didn’t have the personal experience before, of managing an accommodation business. But what do you think has been a positive of COVID things like the processes and the booking systems and things that have come as a result of COVID? Do you think there are some positives for you?

Guest: Sarah Orchard

We have always had self check-in for example and I know a lot of businesses have moved to that in particular for self catering accommodation, which I think for owners has freed them up quite a bit. Owners don’t feel like they have to meet and greet everyone, which can, when you run a hospitality business, be quite time consuming and tie you to the business. Because of the nature of our site, we felt that self check in was always a good option. And obviously COVID forced that, so it’s one of the things that we’ve done and was one of the best decisions.

We went with a digital guestbooks, we had the traditional guestbook and we lovingly put lots of time into creating a guestbook with lots of information and places to eat and things to do and, and then of course, we had to take all of that out with COVID and minimise the touch points. So we then discovered an app that we could use called Touch stay, and we put all of our content into Touch. And I have to say that has been the biggest time saver. It’s so easy to update, the guests love it, and we get a lot less silly questions. It’s more accessible for them and there’s no ploughing through pages and pages of information.

People don’t like reading, we all know that, no one ever reads anything that you send to them, the emails, the pre arrival information, none of it, or very rarely. So actually, the app makes it and they have it on their phone, it doesn’t need WiFi. So we haven’t got Wi Fi in the tree house so they can use it wherever they are. And that’s been a real plus point of the pandemic of having to rethink some of our processes. And it’s definitely helped.

Host: Kelly Ballard

That’s good, I can imagine Wi-Fi wouldn’t be that great or not Wi-Fi but 4G in the Forest of Dean is intermittent. So you’ve got a challenge there. So having an app is really helpful.

Guest: Sarah Orchard

Yeah, funnily enough we’ve got really good 4G at the tree house. It’s actually better there than at the house but not when you’re on site because it’s so well insulated. So they haven’t got WiFi, but they’ve got 4G if they need it. And then as soon as we built it and went inside, we’re stuck with just the phone signal. It’s like there’s nothing and then they said it’s the insulation. So if you scan in a window, where there’s glass, you get really good reception. But if you’re in the middle of building there’s nothing because it’s so well insulated and as it’s built to modern New Home building regulations, and installations it just cuts everything out.

But it’s part of the appeal, really, I didn’t feel bad about it, because it just puts makes people put their phones down and they’re not looking at Instagram or Facebook, they’re actually playing board games, drinking wine and talking to each other which is, I think, the beauty of why people love it so much, because it’s forcing them to switch off and reconnect.

And you know, we had one couple say that it helped them rediscover each other. And I just thought it was lovely. They have young children and they’ve become very distant and have felt locked down. And they just said, we’ve lost ourselves and your place has helped us to discover each other again, and I just thought that was lovely, it sort of helps people, you know, reconnect and have some time for themselves.

Host: Kelly Ballard

Oh, my Gosh, that speaks to me, I can imagine anybody listening to this, that has kids, saying, I need to go there. I absolutely need to go there. So, I’m sorry, I would leave the kids behind. Sorry, you can’t come, they say you can’t come. But the challenge is, I guess for anybody like me that can’t you know, can’t get in there until January 2023. So you’ve done an amazing job at marketing it. So, tell me what are the three key things that have been really important to you in getting it out there,

Guest: Sarah Orchard

The first thing I focused on because of my background, and also I looked after the Avis brand, it’s really important to create a branded experience. And people often skip over that when they’re launching a new business, they sort of get a mate to develop the logo, or they have a go with clip art. And you know, there’s tools like Canva and stuff that people can design stuff themselves. But I actually went to a graphic designer as I knew what I wanted to convey.

So I worked really hard at the branding in terms of and thinking about what we wanted the experience to be like so that all of that was aligned. And even with the things that I had the vision for the website; so typically when you go onto a website, probably the opening shot is an interior shot or a bit like the shot that’s behind me of the tree house. I didn’t, I didn’t want to use that for the website, I wanted to focus on the word hideout and what hideout meant. So a place that you can go to when you want to escape from other people. And I thought that was a very compelling feeling that we wanted to create with our guests.

So it sort of started with the branding and me being a marketer thinking about the messaging and the people we wanted to attract and what they would be looking for. So I invested a lot of time and energy and actually, probably the worst thing about working on your own project is it was quite hard to sign off the logo, because you’ve become very involved.

I find it much easier when I’m working with clients, because I’m not emotionally involved, I can be objective. And I think that’s always the hard thing when it’s your business. We’ve spent a lot of our own money, obviously, our own personal money and our time and energy to get to that point, it felt like a really big decision signing off the logo. It took a few weeks to decide but we went for copper and charcoal grey, which are very premium colours, so very much from the start, wanted people to understand the experience that they were buying into. I can’t take credit for that, it was the designer who did a good job on that for us.

And then number two was probably the website. And knowing that it had to tell a story. And it had to be compelling and make people want to be there because everyone always says to me, Well, the reason you’re fully booked is you’re a tree house, but there are over 100 tree houses in the UK. So we’re not we’re not alone, and yet not many of them, I think we’re in the top five in terms of starting from nothing, when no one knew about us.

I do feel very proud that we’ve gone from nothing at a standing start, going live, to within 19 days and having 50 bookings, which is a third of our first year of occupancy booked. And that was because we’d invested a lot of time and energy in terms of building the brand, building an email list and getting people to know about us on social media. But to actually get out there and there’s lots of competition. And a lot of the other treehouses were fully booked, but not all of them so we’ve managed to get out there and I’d say we’re probably in the top three now in the UK in terms of you look at how in demand we are.

I feel very proud that we’ve achieved that in our first year and a difficult year.

And the third thing really is our email list. I knew from the outset what I needed to do. I knew it wasn’t going to have the photographs or a finished product, to be able to go out and show that upfront so I ended up getting a 3D visualisation of what the tree house looked like, because I suddenly realised I had nothing to market apart from a dream. How do people know what they were buying into, and I couldn’t show interior shots. So I had the 3D visualisation done.

So I had something to put up on social media. So this is what was coming and to tease people with a bit. And then the key thing was, I went out and pushed signing people into our email list. I think when we launched, we had about 500 people on our list, which is not huge, but that was our social following. It was enough to get, bookings, as soon as we literally push the Go button, and had the website live, we were able to get get the bookings in, I suppose that’s one of my big tips is to build your own marketing machine as I was referred to in terms of having your own email list to be in control of that. Because obviously, if you rely on Facebook ads, and social, if you’re building a house or someone else’s land, you know, you’ve got to rely on them to be the algorithm to show you to people, whereas actually, if you’ve got an email list, you know, as soon as you’re ready, you can go out and just run a launch promotion to encourage, bookings, get bookings in fast for the first couple of months. But, we haven’t needed to discount since then. So it’s a good position to be.

Host: Kelly Ballard

That’s interesting you say that, I speak to a lot of people about social media, everyone’s focused on Instagram, we need to get our Instagram account working. And it’s really about the open rates, or the likelihood of them being able to see your account. And Instagram, as much as it works for lots of people, only 3-10% of your followers actually see it. Whereas the open rate for emails is 20 to 40%. So the conversion rate for emails is so much higher. I’m interested to know how you grew your email database? What are your tips for growing an email database?

Guest: Sarah Orchard

Well we ran a launch promotion, and we’re incentivising people to get on the list and I don’t put any offers or cancellations or availability on social media. Most people put it on social media because it’s cheap but I’ll just post that we’ve got a cancellation or we’ve got some late availability, and I have deliberately always said, if you want to hear about it first join our email list.

So we’ve got a signup form embedded into the website. I obviously do promote it on social media, like, we were just about to launch our 2023 pricing on the first of December, at six o’clock so I literally wrote a post and said, If you want to hear about the dates and get first access, you need to go onto our email list. And whenever we get an inquiry, Adrian who is brilliant at this and handles a lot of the inquiries, goes on Messenger and through email and replies, no, sorry, we haven’t got any availability. However if you go on our email list, we do get cancellations and you’ll be the first to hear when there’s new dates.

So of course, the list is now over 1600 people in just 18 months, and that’s not just existing customers but actually, it’s mainly fresh people who are new clients. We’ve got clients pestering us now about when we’re opening 2023 pricing, bookings and dates. I think having your email sign up on your website and promoting it on social media works because you’ve got to give people a compelling reason to get on your list.

So if you constantly put stuff out on social media, they have no need to sign up to your email and if you’re only gonna tell them on social media they might not see it. So your point about open rates is spot on. I mean, our open rate varies between 45 and 65%. We sent an email to prospective guests, because they’ve shown an interest by contacting us and then not being able to stay, so they wanted to sign up to our list.

Host: Kelly Ballard

Oh, wow. And it’s just beautiful content to look at. I mean, as a marketer, I’m like, oh, look at that. Very nice. Very nice. So what’s coming up for you in 2022? Sarah, and not just for the hideout but what’s coming up for you and everything else that you’re doing too?

Guest: Sarah Orchard

We’ve been doing some developments for the tree house as well. So we’re not resting on our laurels. We’ve actually built something new and we’re calling it the Lookout Barn Larder, which is just about to launch which is an honesty shop and it’s, it’s like a sundowner sort of decking area that the guests can go to to see, because we have brilliant views from our location here, but obviously if you went through the trees you can’t see that.

So we’ve created this little area which is a perfect proposal spot so people can lead their partners through the woods and bring them up the steps to this decking area and a little building where they can have a drink, maybe open some champagne and look at the views. So we’ve got that coming.

And we’re planning on also opening a Woodland sauna in 2023 so we’re looking at how we can continue to enhance the experience for the guests, and create somewhere that people want to come to for 2,3,4 nights and actually have an almost, spa-like experience and retreat. And then I’m busy doing a lot of online training with ‘Get Fully Booked’.
I’m helping other business owners with my knowledge, marketing knowledge, and also my experience of marketing hideout as to how they can get more visible online and get fully booked.

Host: Kelly Ballard

Where can people get hold of you? Where can they find out more for the tree house, all of the things that you do?

Guest: Sarah Orchard

All the things that I do are online; on Google. We’re also on Instagram, Facebook, and then I’m also at which is the online training and marketing club that I run.

Host: Kelly Ballard

Okay, excellent, I will put that information in the show notes anyway, for anybody who’s interested. Thank you so much, Sarah. That’s really interesting. And one day I will come and stay. I wish you all the best in 2022 with the course and keep in touch.

Guest: Sarah Orchard

Yes, thank you for the opportunity to come and talk to you today. It’s been great. I’ve really enjoyed it.

Host: Kelly Ballard

You’re welcome. See you See you soon.

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