How did farmer's wife Pat Bendall become the creator of Woodlands?
QHow did you come to set up the company?
A We brought our family of seven children to a dairy Farm in Blackawton in 1971. As a second income was important, we used the large house for farmhouse holidays providing a farm experience for families. Our children helped in both enterprises and were excellent at entertaining the children on the farm.
At that time few families holidayed abroad, Devon was a major holiday destination. Using mainly the Farmhouse Guide for advertising, we had 89 per cent occupancy from Easter to October. In 1986, with the demise of the Milk Marketing Board, Graham became concerned the farm income would suffer.
Listening to the requests of our farmhouse guests for something to do, he believed an attraction was the answer. Extensive research and feasibility studies for a family attraction and touring caravan park were positive. Despite both being in our 60s and family and friends thinking we were crazy, we took the plunge.
Q What was the company like then?
A In 1989, we opened Woodlands Leisure Park comprising café, shop, action tracks, rope swing complex, pedal boats and a small animal farm. Our family designed and built all the attractions, including the very complex triple dropslide. A nature trail through the woods was created by the Wildlife Trust.
Without formal marketing training I organised the PR and opening ceremony by Anthony Steen MP. An artist friend drew the first Woodlands logo for the A4 leaflet and my brother took the photographs using my children and grandchildren as models. With our creative and hardworking family's assistance 64,000 visited Woodlands. Enthusiastically our sons Phil, Chris and Mike took up the challenge to work in the business full-time.
To research the requirements of camping families, we visited numerous parks and were disappointed to see units set in lines. As an ideas person it also seemed I had a flair for design and Graham suggested I try to produce plans myself. As a mother, I knew how important it is for little ones to play close at hand, I created hedged terraces for 10 units with space for the little ones to play safely in a village green atmosphere. The high-quality facility building was built in natural stone with extensive landscaping to blend into the beautiful countryside.
The up-market caravan park opened in 1990 as a package holiday with free use of the leisure park. The following year we won the AA campsite of the year, unprecedented for a new park.
Q How has Woodlands expanded?
A Ideas were no problem but we needed to gain knowledge of marketing, rides, attractions, catering and the complexities of running a sustainable attraction.
We visited parks all over the UK and the United States, speaking to attraction owners and joining tourism associations.
As committed conservationists, it was essential rides and attractions blended into the beautiful woodland and countryside.
Our first ride was the toboggan run which we bought from Windsor Great Park.
Mike redesigned it to give it a 'wow' factor. Chris, on his machine sculpted out the steep hillside to accommodate the 500m track into the hillside and Phil worked incredible hours on the infra-structure. I called it the Tornado, planned the landscaping, PR and marketing, it was a huge success.
We were probably the first in the region to use Playzones, an area comprising attractions and rides to entertain a wide range of ages.
We have created five play areas for small children which are enclosed to make them safe and deter older children entering. The park has grown to more than 120 acres with 16 rides, 11 playzones, 12,000 sq ft of indoor play, the first zoo farm in the South West and an excellent falconry centre. Woodlands has grown into a Family Theme Park.
Q What other attractions do you have?
A Woodlands is very dependent on the holiday trade, we needed a location with millions of chimney pots which Mike found near Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire. We had become a professional and highly experienced team when we opened Twinlakes in 2003. Moving further north we then opened Wheelgate. Mike and Phil moved to the Leicestershire Wolds. Mike is managing director of both parks and grandson Matt runs Wheelgate.
Q What has been the company's greatest achievement?
A Using our own ideas we design attractions, theming and projects ourselves, making them unique. Chris is an excellent business man, rigidly controlling costs and time scales to cut budgets. We have an excellent team of chippies, metal workers and experienced mechanic to call on. Indoor play is enormously important and we wanted a massive building with a 'wow' factor. In 2000, we created the largest indoor venture centre in the UK on five levels, giving scope for extreme slides and high challenges. The Sea Dragon theme I created was different, we introduced a unique sea dragon mascot which has become a favourite. We installed three rides, two for smaller children and the 50ft Trauma Tower to supply thrills as it shoots up the centre of the building. The air conditioned café, and four themed birthday rooms, each with a birthday throne increased our sales.
Q What's next for the attraction?
A Now the major investment in our Midlands parks is receding, we are buzzing with ideas for new experiences, just watch this space!
Q Tell us something about yourself?
A Being a farmer's wife, bringing up seven children, and running a farmhouse holiday business has made me a hard working, multi-tasker. I have a passion for the theatre, art, music, dance, architecture and travelling to historical places around the world. With 13 grand children and four great-grand kids, children are a big part of my life. Before we opened Woodlands I loved getting youngsters up on stage, designing sets and producing plays for young farmers, I am proud to still be a national drama judge.
I have a non-stop font of ideas and folks tell me at 78 years old, my enthusiasm is boundless. I write children's books in my spare time. Woodlands is still my passion and I work four days a week as marketing and design director. Chris is the managing director which leaves me to concentrate on the jobs which I love and am best at.
Q Who has been your most significant mentor?
AWhen we first opened Woodlands I soaked up knowledge like a sponge, I gained experience on many committees and was a director at South West Tourism. Cairns Boston the chairman gave me the brilliant advice to target all my marketing at a mythical 14 year old. It has certainly worked for Woodlands. The head caravan park inspector from the AA was a marvellous mentor to myself and Chris giving sound, practical advice and telling us things as they are with no frills.
QWhat major challenges have you faced?
A Most tourism operators agree obtaining planning permission is a challenge. Also the lack of government investment in tourism in the South West which has poured into other parts of the UK (particularly Scotland). Competition in Devon is high, holidays abroad, the recession, children not being allowed out of school during term time, the poor road network through Totnes and the aging population in this area are some of the challenges we face.
Q How do you keep enthused and keep things fresh?
A No problem. As an ideas person it may be a view from a car, a mum interacting with her child on a balance bar. An ancient Roman villa, a colourful cartoon can all spark the latest theme for an attraction or a ride.
QWhat awards have you won?
AWe have proudly received more than 100 national and even international awards. Our greatest caravan award, besides winning the AA Best Campsite of the Year twice, was the Cades Best Family Campsite in Europe. The SWT's Chairman's Award for the Best Family Attraction in the South West was a great accolade. It is the gold award from South Hams which I believe sums up the Bendall family's achievements at Woodlands. "For providing excellence, service, quality and value for all seasons."