Bridgette O’Sullivan and husband, former jockey Lance O’Sullivan
Red Barn’s Bridgette O’Sullivan on the diversification and expansion of her and her husband’s wedding and events business, launching into the tourism sector and catering to group tours and the luxury market.
Located on a hilltop within 500 acres of a Hinuera Valley dairy farm, the Red Barn is a recently renovated and refurbished wedding and event venue that we have been operating for the past 10 years.
My husband, ex-jockey Lance, and I own the farm and the business. The Red Barn was on the land when we purchased it 12 years ago and we didn’t do anything with it for a couple of years but then decided we would turn it into a commercial venue.
During the last two seasons, we’ve expanded the business into the tourism sector, taking group bookings through inbound operators for morning and afternoon teas, lunches and farm tours. We’ve recently launched a whole new high-end experience which will grow our business further.
Taste of Waikato came about as a result of the relationships that we’ve built over the years with many local producers. We have some amazing food and wine producers in the area who are incredibly passionate about what they do, and we felt we could bring this all together to tell the Waikato food and wine story.
Keeping it local and authentic was important to us and the pasture to plate theme is something that is very on trend at the moment, so we incorporated that and put together a six-course degustation with wine matches. We showcase some of the finest artisan food from around the region and can cater for groups of 20-50 people.
We’ve also created some interactive experiences which give tourists the opportunity to roll up their sleeves, get involved and have some fun. Visitors can have a go at butter churning, plating a meal and can test their culinary skills guessing meal ingredients.
Most of our customers are locals for the weddings and corporate events, and The Taste of Waikato is aimed at the group tourism sector, and we have international visitors booked for this summer from the cruise ship market.
Going forward we hope to grow the international visitors via the food and wine experiences and farm tours. It’s a high-end product in a beautiful setting as well as being fun and interactive. The aim is to give international guests a glimpse of our culture, who we are and what we do.
Our business is growing: the weddings and events side of the business is always fully booked throughout the summer, and we will be again for next summer. And we’re really pleased that our tour numbers have doubled from last year.
We’ve recently employed more people to accommodate the growth and we’re ramping up the team and hiring a new chef to work alongside our two existing chefs, as well as a projects, operations and business development manager, and additional wait staff. In summer, we employ up to 20 people and in the off-season, we have five full-time staff.
Business growth can be quite scary for some people within an organisation. I think it’s really important to communicate the vision and plan for growth to our team. If we didn’t do a good job of that we would risk ruffling a lot of feathers with bringing new people on board. There are always challenges with growth, but I believe that it is all about effective communication and keeping everyone in the loop and heading towards the same goals.
We did our first year at TRENZ this year and that was very successful in helping us grow the tours, especially to the cruise ship market. Building connections, word of mouth, direct marketing and a little bit of social media marketing have been successful marketing channels for us.
I haven’t been in the tourism industry that long, but I think that a successful industry future relies on us providing quality experiences – and the love and care that visitors receive is really important. Also being able to provide high-end experiences is important as we’re getting more and more visitors that can afford and want luxury experiences.
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