Bold vision is reality

The present: Ribby Hall continues to grow
The present: Ribby Hall continues to grow
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A well-known Lancashire leisure attraction has just celebrated its 20th anniversary. DAVID NOWELL reports on an award-winning family venture.

According to the old saying, you have to speculate to accumulate – and one Lancashire business is living proof that if you get it right, you will get the growth and the rewards it brings.

Ribby Hall Village at Wrea Green, near Preston, has just celebrated its 20th anniversary.

The story of how one family took a run-down caravan park and turned it into a £25m a year turnover business is remarkable – as is the ambition and courage it took to invest millions in the hope that their plans would work.

The site was bought by Fylde businessman Bill Harrison in 1994. He then owned the Marton Mere Caravan Park at Blackpool, which he eventually sold to Bourne Leisure to help fund the new venture.

Back then, Ribby Hall was sparse with a basic sports club, 50 stands for touring caravans, a pub, a cafe and a few cow sheds.

In 1995 Mr Harrison brought in his son Paul – now chief executive – to help develop an ambitious business plan. As the project developed they managed to secure a £6m loan from RBS – which is still the business’s bank today.

The gamble paid off – and the construction of a swimming pool and leisure club brought in more visitors and would-be holiday home owners.

Now the rebranded Ribby Hall Village is a multi-award-winning, five-star holiday village still privately owned and run by the Harrison family and their 435 staff.

The 100-acre site offers 175 self-catering cottages, six pine lodges, three large luxury self-catering properties in their own grounds, and a health club – which was Awarded UK Health Club of the Year at the 2013 ukactive Flame Awards.

The health club now has a massive 4,000 members, most of them from the Preston and Blackpool areas.

The Village also has a dedicated weddings, conference and events centre and more than 250 families own a holiday home within on site.

Prices range from £17,995 for a static caravan to a whopping £300,000 for a luxury lodge.

In 2011, Ribby Hall added the four-star The Spa Hotel – giving adults an away-from -it all experience.

The £6m hotel has already been voted the best Spa in the North of England and its Brasserie restaurant has two AA rosettes.

As well as Ribby Hall’s continual reinvestment, it also likes to nurture staff and promote from within. Several key staff members have worked their way up through the ranks .

Mark Leech started poolside as a lifeguard 15 years ago. Now he is senior manager of sport and leisure inn charge of around 130 staff. He has recently seen more than £1m spent on the gym, with state-of-the-art equipment that most leisure club managers could only dream of.

Said Mark: “I’ve done most jobs here and it gives you a good foundation. In 1999 the business really took off.

“We’ve now got almost 4,000 members and the investment into the business has been fantastic. We have had more than £1m invested in the gym – I am sure there are gyms out there just as good but I haven’t seen one yet!”

Paul Green joined the business as a chef in 2003 - now he is senior manager of food and beverages.

He said the business originally worked closely with BAE Systems, who asked Ribby Hall to develop conference centre facilities. It proved a winning partnership, but Ribby Hall chiefs realised they could cast their net much wider. Instead of tightening its belt when the recession started to bite, Ribby Hall reinvested once more, improving its corporate facilities and then adding weddings.

The venue also works with Preston’s College, with drama students helping out with children’s events. This year two students have joined the entertaintments team.

Andrew Scott started working for the Harrison family at Marton Mere as a entertainer in 1988. Now he is manager of The Spa Hotel. The 42-bed hotel has 107 staff and is the most recent addition to the attractions at the 100-acre site.

Andrew said: “The whole thing is about being informally welcoming. We want people to relax.

“We are proud of what we do and want to keep improving the standards.”