Businesswomen Joanne Russell followed her instincts when she closed her dry-cleaning business to focus on farm and family life. Apart from running the dry-cleaners, she was also working as a florist and says the long hours just were not working for her.
"I knew I needed to make a change. I wanted something more family-friendly and I knew our farm had the potential to be my solution," says Joanne.
Joanne and her husband David decided to dedicate three to four acres of their 97 acre holding to a new agri-tourism business at White Strand near Doonbeg in west Clare.
"Some years back, my father Michael bought land, which was adjoining our land. There was an old farmhouse and two cottages on it, which he renovated and then put up for rent through an agent. In 2017, I took over running the cottages myself. I knew there was also potential for another form of self-catering or glamping accommodation because of the interest we were getting in the cottages," says Joanne.
Wanting something unique and quirky, David came up with the idea of 'camping pods'. These are small, half-moon shaped, wooden structures for guest accommodation.
There was an old orchard on the farm and they reckoned it would be the perfect space for the pods. However, sourcing the materials they needed was not easy.
"We did our research and realised that we couldn't source any of the materials for the pods in Ireland," says Joanne.
But with their hearts set on the pod business, they kept looking and eventually located the right materials in the UK.
David prepared the area for the pods and also put in a large shared bathroom, which would be used by both pods. "The bathroom is huge and well equipped. It was actually a bathroom which was due to be fitted in a hotel that never went ahead. We got lucky with it," says Joanne.
When the pod materials arrived, David, along with Michael and Joanne's brother Michael Jnr, built them. "As well as being a beef farmer, David is an electrician by trade, so he wired the pods, which was great," says Joanne.
Joanne and David then got a local kitchen fitter to fit a small kitchen unit in each pod. They sourced a double bed and a sofa bed for each pod from local suppliers and kitted out each pod.
"With the pods having a double bed and a sofa bed each, they can each sleep two adults and two children," says Joanne.
The nearby cottages are fitted with a solid fuel stove, TV and compact kitchen and each has its own courtyard.
"In times gone by, the cottages were actually stables, however by the time Dad bought the land, they had been converted to cottages.
"They were badly run down and there was a lot of work to be done. We have continued to improve them. They had traditional floors, which we had to level out and we also dry-lined each of the cottages," says Joanne.
The area surrounding the pods and cottages is securely enclosed, making it ideal for young families. It is also situated just 300m from a Blue Flag beach, making Doonbeg Pods and Cottages an ideal coastal staycation destination.
When Joanne and David got the business ready for the public, they faced a new challenge - getting bookings.
"When we opened up initially, we didn't have a website or a definite way to get our name out there. We started using Booking.com, which we thought was great in the beginning, but they actually take 15pc commission from every booking.
"When you have to pay your tax and VAT, and maintain and clean the pods, cottages and surrounding area, that 15pc makes a big difference," says Joanne.
Her solution was to set up her own website with a direct booking engine.
"Setting up the website was essential, but it didn't generate as much awareness or bookings as we had hoped," she says.
"What really boosted our business and got us bookings was social media. I decided to run a Facebook competition whereby people had to like, comment and share our post for a chance to win a two-night stay in two pods for themselves and their family. It really took off and got our name out there and before I knew it, we were booking out."
She estimates that 90pc of her bookings now come from social media.
"It's a great tool, but you also can spend a lot of time replying to people that might never actually be interested," says Joanne. "The pros outweigh the cons though."
Joanne and David have recently built a camper's kitchen for those staying in the pods.
"It was the one recommendation we kept getting from our customers when we asked for feedback. They would often say if there was one thing we could do with, it was a kitchen facility, so we built one. It has all the essentials, like a stove and toasters, and it can seat eight people. This is our first season with it and it has proven to be a good idea," says Joanne.
Expansion is now on the cards for Doonbeg Pods and Cottages with Joanne planning to add three more pods in the near future.
"Expanding will require a bit of work because we need to get planning permission, a whole new ESB connection and a new septic tank," says Joanne.
"We are also planning on renovating an old shed on the land, which we plan to turn into a space which we can use for retreats and events in the near future.
"We hope it will attract the likes of wellness retreats and/or art classes and retreats."
With summer 2020 proving to be the year for staycations, Joanne and David's business is now fully booked until September.
What level of start-up costs did you incur in setting up the business?
Sourcing the materials for the pods and getting them kitted out and getting the grounds ready for them came to about €25,000, and then the refurbishments we did to the cottages cost around €15,000. In total, we spent about €35,000 getting the place up and running and ready for business.
Was financing readily available from the banks for this type of business?
We didn't apply for anything and it's a regret I have.
Was planning permission required?
Yes, we need to get planning now for our expansion. We are going to erect three more pods and we are going to convert an unused shed into a space, which we hope to use for things such as retreats and events. We need a new septic tank and a new ESB connection.
Did you need a licence or permission from any other Government body?
No, our business is private and we didn't need to register with any bodies.
What grant aid or other assistance was available?
I applied to the BMI FLAGS (Fisheries Local Area Group Development Scheme) for grant aid towards the kitchen we installed, but we haven't heard back from them as of yet. The first round was in April, but I know there were delays due to Covid-19.
What supports bodies/agencies were available to help?
I was approved for the ACORNS (Accelerating the Creation of Rural Nascent Start-ups) Programme, which is designed to support early-stage female entrepreneurs living in rural Ireland. It's facilitated by lead female entrepreneurs, who have successfully established and grown their businesses in rural Ireland and you get to meet and learn from other Irish female entrepreneurs. It's advice rather than funding. I've met some great people and have become aware of so many other rural businesses through it. I also went to LEADER for advice - they were good when I was starting up.
Was insurance required?
Yes, and it was expensive. I had to get public liability insurance and what is called 'holiday park insurance'. It covers the cottages and the other buildings on the land.
How much time was needed to get your farm business off the ground?
Getting this business off the ground has been slow. This is our third season operating and we are still constantly developing and making improvements. It's not something that happened overnight.
What has been your biggest challenge to date?
When we started, getting the bookings was our biggest challenge and, as I explained, social media really helped with that.
Now business is going great. It sounds ironic, but the weather is probably one of the biggest challenges we face.
It's not something you initially think about, but the weather plays a huge role in this type of business. We currently only open the pods during the summer months as I just don't think they would be as appealing during wetter, colder seasons.
When the weather is wet, it also makes everything harder to clean, especially the pods. It takes a lot longer to get ready for the next arrival.
Is there anything you would do differently if you could go back?
I would have applied for grant aid to assist in starting up the business and I would have put up more than two pods in the beginning.