The Davies family bought Lickleyhead Castle in August 2019, and since then have renovated the castle room by room. Below we hear from mother and son, Kathy and James Davies, about what drew them to Aberdeenshire, their experiences getting the castle ready for guests and what they’ve learned along the way. They also share the impact that taking part in the latest Game Changer for Tourism Business programme* has had and how it has helped their business planning.
Can you tell us what drew you to Lickleyhead Castle?
Kathy: My husband and I have been renovating properties for the past 20 years and, prior to coming up to Scotland, we bought a four-story building on the Wirral that was part residential, part café, which we then turned into flats, and after that I wanted a new project. We were looking all over the country, and almost ended up buying a place in Wales, but it turned out to need too much work. We then started looking in Scotland and the Yorkshire Dales, so we moved north. I actually grew up in Scotland, so I always felt that I had a connection with Scotland, and then we saw Lickleyhead Castle.
James: For me, my degree was in medieval history – I've always been fascinated by interesting stories, and I’m a Game of Thrones fan, so the Rose Leslie connection was another draw. I was looking to move my family to a quieter part of the world as well. We were in Korea for 10 years before that, so we were just looking for a nice place to bring up our boys.
Kathy: We love it up here, I think Aberdeenshire gets into your heart. I've spoken to lots of people who've made the move up here, and they all feel the same way about it. The quality of life so good, no traffic issues and it's just a simpler means of living isn't it! Getting from A to B is just so much more straightforward here.
James: And there’s so much to do as well – so many things to see and fun places to go. There are so many beautiful beaches and stunning stately palaces, all sorts of things that you can see and do.
You purchased the castle in late 2019 and had to deal with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic a few months later. How did this affect your plans?
Kathy: It actually worked in our favour because we were renovating. We spent 18 months – 2 years working on the castle. We couldn't go anywhere else or do anything, so we just worked constantly on the castle.
James: It affected us a bit, especially during the worst parts of the lockdown because a lot of the shops were closed, and we couldn't get materials.
Kathy: We did have a few cancellations at the very beginning, because of COVID and the restrictions on the number of people that could stay at one time. But on the whole, we were lucky.
You took part in the latest Game Changer programme*, delivered in partnership with Opportunity North East and Scottish Enterprise. How has the programme helped you?
James: I'd say it's made me think more about the customer journey: thinking about it from the customer's perspective,how are they going from finding out about us, to wanting to learn more and then on to considering when they're going to book with us, how they pay, each step of the journey. It's made me think about that process a lot more, so I think we've put pretty good systems in place to help people make that journey and iron out any bumps they may have. I'd say that was one of the main things that the Game Changer programme helped me with.
Also, it helped me think about better ways for us to market ourselves, using our social media, laser focusing on our audience, our market, to maximize the number of people who’ve seen the marketing material and then come to us. I think before Game Changer our approach was a little bit more scattergun. It’s helped in various ways, but I would say those are the two main benefits for me.
I’d definitely recommend taking part in the Game Changer programme – it was fun! It was really useful and a great opportunity to get to know people and businesses who might be able to help you, or people who are in a similar field who already have experience and can give advice.
What sort of reaction have you been getting from people that have stayed?
Kathy: We’ve had really positive reactions. I think we've only had one 4.8 and the rest have all been five star reviews, so it's great!
James: We took over the profile of the castle when we first got here. So it started at four stars. It was probably a bad move with hindsight, we should’ve just started afresh. But we took it over anyway and it's been climbing up ever since.
Kathy: Guests seem to think it’s much more than just a holiday stay, it's more of an experience because there's so much to do! We've got dressing up clothes so people can dress up in medieval or Game of Thrones costumes, we've got a games room with snooker, table tennis and darts. And there's the piano that people can play. Also, the fact that it's so big and you can wander around.
James: Lots of people have been doing the paid activities that we're offering now as well. We've had lots of people do the mini–Highland Games, for example, it’s been really popular.
What does the next year look like for Lickleyhead Castle? Do you have any plans for the future that you would like to share with us?
Kathy: Weddings! We’re getting a lot of enquiries for weddings. At the moment we're trying to keep it small. We're going for micro weddings because anything bigger would entail getting a marquee and then we'd have to get various licenses. So, we thought to start with, to just keep it small.
James: It seems to be something that's growing in popularity, having a micro wedding. We're tapping into a market that's maybe not being fully accommodated for at the moment. I think it's quite a good business opportunity to specialise in that.
Kathy: We've also started offering complimentary golf at the local golf club, which means that our guests can go to eat there and up to six of them can play for free, and then anything above six they can play for half price. It also gives access to four other local courses, where they also pay half price green fees so it’s great for golfing holidays.
We've also split the castle into two distinct wings and can give people the option of staying in a wing. You can have the whole castle, you can have the small wing which sleeps up to six, or you can have the large wing which sleeps up to 12. We thought we'd coverall the bases, because smaller groups who are looking for something last minute could book the east wing, the small wing. Then people who don't really want to spend as much as it costs to rent the whole castle could, if there'sup to 12 of them, stay in the smaller wing. We thought we'd be a bit more flexible.
Do you have any final words of advice for anyone considering starting an exclusive use business?
Kathy: I would say that you have to make sure that you've got finances behind you. With the cost of fuel going up and power and everything else, you've got a big mortgage and it would be a struggle to keep afloat.
James: If you’re buying a big, old place like this, however much you pay for the property, you’re going to have to expect a lot to go into refurbishing the building and so on.
Kathy: We had to put a whole new roof on the castle. There were there were lots of expenses in that first year. If it’s going to be your only source of income, then you could get yourself into trouble.
James: Moving away from the finances, they would have to expect to work incredibly hard to make it a reality.
Kathy: We've been doing everything ourselves. We've got somebody now who comes two days a week to do the garden, to do the mowing and stuff. But up until recently, we did everything and it's hard.
James: You'll have to develop a lot of skills that you didn't have before, you're going to have to wear a lot of different hats all the time. From learning how to use a chainsaw, if you've got any woodland, to accounting if you're not used to that already, how to design your own website, all sorts of things. I guess you could get someone else to do it for you, but you're trying to save money. It’s a huge project to take on, but it’s worth it to get to where we are now!
*The Game Changer for Tourism Businesses programme has been designed to help tourism businesses in North-east Scotland grow their business. The programme helps you identify your target markets, define consumer and customer demands and refine your offering to provide the services and experiences that visitors seek. The programme will take place over 6 full day workshops during mid-January – April 2023, a best practice learning journey, with 1to1 mentoring sessions to support your development.Applications for the next programme will open in autumn this year. More details will be announced nearer the time on our website or via our industry newsletter.