A wedding and a country house go together like a horse and carriage, which is why the wedding-rental market is an important source of income for many owners. However, tapping into this potentially lucrative business takes more than a grand property-it also requires planning, flexibility and considerable flair.
Every wedding venue has to be picturesque, smart and spacious, and this can often require significant investment to meet the needs of both brides and regulators. Hill Place, a roomy Georgian country villa in Swan-more, Hampshire, is let as a wedding venue by Will Dobson and his wife, Rebecca (01489 878583; www.hillplace.co.uk). The house has some wonderful features, such as a large entrance hall and a magnificent sweeping staircase, and the attractive grounds (very important for wedding photographs) have uninterrupted views to the Isle of Wight. There is also ample room for parking.
However, Hill Place wasn’t always a Georgian beauty, and considerable refurbishment was carried out prior to opening it to the wedding market. The woodwork in the five reception rooms was repaired, the paintwork on the walls touched up and the curtains cleaned. ‘We had to comply with fire regulations, so the curtains had fire-retardant linings added,’ says Mrs Dobson.
The house also had to be able to handle up to 60 guests (200 if a marquee is used), so three new lavatories were added, as well as a new bathroom. The Dobsons estimate that the repairs, including rewiring, plumbing, paintwork and new windows, cost more than £140,000.
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By far the most important improvement took place in the two-acre garden, which the couple had re-landscaped at an additional £50,000. The lawn was levelled to accommodate two possible positions for marquees and new flowerbeds were added, with hydrangea, lavender and roses planted to complement the house and the bride. ‘We also put in points of interest for the guests, such as a tree swing and benches,’ adds Mrs Dobson. Hill House is now hired out, on average, for 24 weddings a year the Dobsons currently take on no more than one wedding a week-and earns about £3,000 per ceremony for the venue only.
Although most of their business now comes from word of mouth, the Dobsons have also invested in a website with quality pictures. ‘I can’t recommend a good website highly enough,’ says Mr Dobson. A simple but effective one starts from about £500, although you can spend considerably more than this. You need make sure that the content is kept fresh and establish a presence on social media such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.
Listing your home with internet wedding directories, such as www.WeddingVenues.com, www.hitched.co.uk and www.guidesforbrides.co.uk, also provides affordable marketing. Fees are generally between £100 and £450 per year. The Dobsons estimate that directories generate about 40% of their business, and word of mouth and their own website produce the other 60%.
A local profile is invaluable, and hosting a wedding fair is good way of introducing your venue to the market. ‘If you do a tie-in with a marquee contractor, it will draw attention to your home and you may get bookings,’ suggests country-house consultant Simon Foster (01531 885405; www.simonfosterassoc.co.uk).
Obtaining a licence for civil weddings, so they can be conducted in a designated ceremony room within your home, will also attract bookings. Local councils list registered ceremony venues
on their websites. However, a charming old Anglo-Saxon church within walking distance will appeal, too. According to Mr Foster: ‘A vicar who’s relaxed about marrying people from outside the parish really helps.’ Another huge plus is being able to offer overnight accommodation for at least some of the guests.
However, wedding venues don’t always have to be grand. Simple but pretty buildings, such as rustic barns, are just as popular. ‘Without a doubt, wedding venues are becoming very price-sensitive,’ says Mr Foster, so a location such as Cripps Barn (01285 740035; www.crippsbarnbibury.com), a converted 18th-century Cotswold-stone barn near Bibury, Gloucestershire which also offers a field for free camping-is bound to be especially attractive.
Whether your house is large or small, your personality plays a crucial part in the wedding-venue business-you absolutely need to be a people person to succeed. After all, hosting a wedding, notes Mr Dobson, is all about customer service ‘and being able to realise someone else’s expectations’.
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