Can you tell me a little bit more about the history of Skylark – how does a Fenland farmer become a garden retailer?
Until the early 2000s, the Gowler family (myself, brother, Chris and parents, Robin and Jenny) were classic Fenland farmers, working over 1,500 acres of arable farmland, growing everything from wheat and barley, to sugar beet. However the early 2000s were a tough time, so we recognised a need to diversify and create a more secure business model. The surrounding areas were lacking in garden centre style businesses so spotting this gap in the market we decided to open a garden centre or, to be more precise, a country store and garden centre.
In the early stages it was just a “shed” but we soon built a café – a necessity for us to survive at the time. The plant house was added and has increased in size over the years, and the café has doubled in size.
Chris and Robin still manage the farming side of things, whilst I work with my team, including Bart Woodbine, Events Manager and Greg Newstead, Garden Centre Manager within the garden centre itself, and also the events programme which has become a significant part of our annual offering both as a business and to the local community. The family connection continues with my sister-in-law running the café, whilst my wife also manages the outside catering aspects of the business.
What is your ethos and vision for Skylark?
Our vision is quite simple – to be the best garden and leisure destination in the area by offering an excellent and memorable day out with great customer service.
How have you developed the Maize Maze and how has this affected the reach of Skylark within the local area?
Events quickly became a huge part of our offering, and about five years ago we decided to invest heavily in ensuring our events programme was as good as it could be. This investment was mainly directed at the Maize Maze and Funyard, but it also had a knock-on effect to our wider event offering.
The investment enabled us to offer new attractions such as a zip wire, new go-kart track and tractor rides. We were also able to re-fence all the animals for a better experience. We have also invested in PR consultants, and customer service training, as well as adding a gift shop for more add-on sales opportunities.
The main effect of all of this was that we were able to effectively position ourselves as more than just a garden centre with a Maize Maze added on, and in doing so have now become the Fenland’s largest tourist attraction.
How important has it been to differentiate yourself from other garden retailers?
Differentiation is so important to us. We are a little off the beaten track (as is the Fenland way!) so we have had to offer something that the large multiples often fail to do, which is offer outstanding customer service and added value in every step around the store. For example, we insist on loading customers’ cars. We also offer free delivery to the local area, and pride ourselves on listening to what our customers want, often offering special orders so they can get exactly the right plant, garden furniture or gifts that they desire. For us, it’s the little things that make the difference as well as the big things such as the Maize Maze.
What other events do you run throughout the year besides the Maize Maze? How do these events affect turnover/ profitability?
Our aim is to create a full annual calendar of events, ensuring that parents almost always have something to attend with their little ones, especially during the school holidays.
Once the Maize Maze and Funyard closes in early September, we starting preparing for our ‘Spootackular’ October half-term, when we create a special Halloween themed maze and Funyard. This includes our mysterious magic and balloon show, pick-your-own pumpkins and pumpkin carving. Halloween is quickly becoming one of our biggest annual events. Tickets sales are continuing to grow year-on-year. This is in part due to the fact that there are no other such events in the local area, but also due to the fact that our customers are fantastic at getting involved, helping to make such events a really fun and memorable time.
Once Halloween is complete, we then harvest the Maize Maze and start looking ahead to the festive period, with Santa’s Grotto opening in late November. Christmas is a great time at Skylark, customers are busy buying gifts for all the family, whilst the children are enjoying having their picture taken with Santa and his ‘elves’, or choosing a special gift from the Gift Shop. It’s a lovely way to round off the year.
Once the New Year rolls round it’s back to it, getting the Funyard ready for the Easter holidays. As the Maize Maze is only in the planning stages come Easter, we add additional attractions to the Funyard such as lamb feeding, an all-weather marquee for magic shows, and, of course, Easter egg hunts!
What next for Skylark?
One thing is for sure – we have no intentions of stopping! We’ll keep moving forwards. Current plans include an update to our tractor ride, as well as investing in shade from the summer sun and adding brand new toilet facilities. We have also earmarked 2018 as the year that we complete out latest ambitious project, by adding a new entrance and car park. We’ll also continue to offer everything our customers have come to expect – from a packed schedule of events to a strong product offering across the board. We’ve still got a lot of growing to do – it’s all incredibly exciting.