How to start up an outdoor activity centre

Outdoor activities are particularly popular with corporate groups and young adults and many centres target stag and hen parties. Our guide gives you all the essentials for starting up and running your own outdoor activity centre.

Research your target market

How much competition will you face?

It's tougher to get established if there's lots of local competition, so it's a good idea to make a survey of your area to count the number of potential competitors. You can do this by looking on Yell.com and similar directories, looking online for competitors' websites or driving around your proposed area to get a feel for where your competitors are located.

You may decide that your competition will come only from businesses that offer the same activity or activities as you do, or it may be that all businesses in your area that offer outdoor - and possibly indoor - leisure activities of any type will be a threat to your business. (For example, it may be that for a climbing centre, competition will come only from other climbing centres. On the other hand, a centre that provides a variety of different outdoor activities may be competing against a broader range of businesses.) It may also be the case that you will be competing with centres from all over the UK and not just in your local area, depending of the type of customer you hope to attract.

How strong is your competition?

Once you have established who your competitors are, it can be useful you to take a closer look at what they offer their customers. Try to establish:

  • what range of activities they offer
  • who their target market is - for example school children and youth groups such as Scouts and Guides, or maybe adult groups such as stag and hen parties and corporate clients, or perhaps they have no particular focus and aim to attract anyone looking to try a particular outdoor activity
  • the prices they charge
  • which other services they offer - for example, specific team building events
  • how well trained their staff are
  • whether they attract visitors from all over the country or just from the local area
  • what the general atmosphere and feel of the centre are like - is it friendly, in good repair and so on

How much demand is there?

You will also need to establish how much demand there is for businesses such as yours that serve the leisure market. As it's likely that you will have customers both from your local area and from further afield (stag and hen parties, for example, often travel to an area for a weekend away and outdoor activities are often popular with holidaymakers), you'll want to know the level of both national and local demand. The Outdoor Industries Association (OIA) publishes a range of useful research publications that examine the outdoor sector, in particular 'Getting Active Outdoors', produced with the backing of Sport England and available to download from the OIA website. To gauge the level of local demand you could:

  • visit local activity centres at different times to see how busy they are
  • contact local businesses to see whether they would be interested in using your centre for corporate events and team building
  • find out if local schools, colleges and clubs would use your centre

Why will customers choose your business?

Customers may choose your centre for a number of reasons, including the following:

  • your location - there may be particular features of your local area that are attractive to visitors
  • the range of activities you offer may be better than your competitors, or even unique to your area
  • your prices may be the cheapest
  • your staff may be very highly trained and so can offer reassurances over safety concerns
  • your contacts. You may have established a list of contacts, perhaps from previously working in the sector, that guarantees you custom from schools or businesses
  • you may be aiming for a specific market, for example stag and hen weekends
  • you may offer attractively-priced packages, for example combining outdoor activities with meals and accommodation and so on

Research current trends, plus legal and tax issues

Establish your customer profile

Your market

The exact nature of your customer base will depend to a large extent on the type of business you intend to run but might include:

  • children, who may attend as members of a school or other youth groups (for example the Scouts). If you offer caving, climbing, trekking and watersports to children, you will need to be licensed by the Adventure Activities Licensing Authority (AALA) - although the licensing regime will be removed in the near future, until then the current licensing requirement remains in place. Many centres that offer outdoor activities to children choose to be accredited by the Council for Learning Outside the Classroom - many local authorities recommend that schools and other organisations should only use centres that hold the Learning Outside the Classroom Quality Badge Site Provider Award or Resource Provider Award
  • employees of local and national businesses. Many organisations use outdoor activity centres for team-building exercises
  • stag and hen parties. Outdoor activity centres are popular venues for stag and hen weekends, particularly amongst younger people
  • groups celebrating a birthday
  • family groups and holidaymakers looking for an enjoyable activity

You may decide to ask customers for a deposit or even full payment up front, especially for bookings that will fill your centre on their own. These may be non-refundable to cover you in case of late cancellations.

Pricing

You will need to give some thought to your pricing policy, taking into account such things as:

  • will you price in line with your competitors
  • will you have a sliding scale of prices, depending on the age of the participants, length of stay or activities booked
  • will you be flexible in your pricing so that customers can put together their own packages
  • will you offer discounts or special offers, for example to groups of students and maybe during quieter periods
  • how often will you review your prices

Activities and services

The range of activities offered will depend on the location of your centre, the natural resources available to you, your personal preferences, your skills and experience - and that of your instructors - and what you feel that your market wants. They may include:

Packages aimed at school-age children

These packages may include activities that follow National Curriculum guidelines in certain subjects and combine being outdoors with an educational element as well as activities that are just for fun. These packages may include studying local geographical features, hill walking, water sports, rock climbing and so on. They are generally residential, so you would provide accommodation and all meals, drinks and snacks.

Corporate packages

Many businesses like to send employees on team building and bonding trips and you may decide to offer these. The activities included may focus on problem-solving and team-work. You may adopt a flexible approach to the structure and pricing of these events so that a package can be created that best matches the needs of the business and its employees.

Stag and hen packages

Outdoor activities are always very popular with stag and hen parties, in particular paintball, quad bikes, karting and water sports like coasteering. Many centres will offer a weekend package including accommodation and full or half-board plus transport to and from a local pub.

Skills packages

Customers may want to learn a new skill and have a qualification that can be built upon. You may offer skills packages in water sports, climbing and so on. In recent years, surfing has become extremely fashionable and large numbers of people are taking up the sport with many first-timers keen to take lessons.

Other activities and services

There are many other activities not mentioned specifically above, such as archery, abseiling, coasteering, golf and so on which you may also decide to offer your customers. Some centres offer 4x4 vehicle driving, motor car racing and even tank driving. If you do not provide accommodation and board yourself, you could establish links with local bed-and-breakfast establishments, hotels and guest houses.

About the business

Premises and land

Depending on the nature of your business it is possible that you will need to spend a considerable amount on your business premises. An outdoor activity centre that offers accommodation needs to be housed in a fairly sizeable building - some existing centres are based in old country houses - with a certain amount of land attached as well. Setting up an outdoor activity centre can be an ideal diversification project if you are a farmer as you are likely to already have the necessary land and possibly the buildings.

You may be able to minimize expenditure on property by setting up a centre that exploits local natural resources to the full. For example, a water sports centre based by the sea or a river may only need to consider buying or renting a suitable building and not require extensive grounds. (If accommodation is not offered then property costs can be reduced still further. However, consider whether having nowhere to shelter or to store their belongings would make your activities unappealing to potential customers.)

Seasonality

You're likely to find you are busiest during the summer months when the weather is best and when schools and colleges are on holiday. Most sports and activities are more fun to participate in when the weather is nice - even water sports - so you may find your income significantly decreases when it's cold and wet. You may even decide to close for a period during the winter months if demand is low.

Advertising your business

Whatever the nature of your activity centre, you must make sure that your potential customers know about you and the activities and services you offer.

There are a number of things you can do to promote your business:

  • launch your own website, showing all the features that will attract customers to your centre or become an active contributor to an outdoor activity forum
  • write an article for, or advertise in, your local newspaper and any local directories
  • advertise in specialist magazines, such as those aimed at cavers, kayakers and so on
  • organise competitions or sponsored events
  • advertise in an online stag and hen event directory
  • contact local schools and colleges, possibly offering them favourable rates
  • contact local businesses and tell them how your services could benefit their employees
  • form links with related businesses, such as outdoor equipment retailers - and with tourist information centres, hotels and guest houses where you could ask to display leaflets or posters advertising your activities

Buy an existing business

You might decide to buy an existing outdoor activity centre rather than start your own venture from scratch. Buying a going concern can mean that the products, customers, regular sales, staff, premises and equipment are already in place.

But buying a business can be a hazardous, expensive process unless you have the right skills and experience on your team, including legal and financial know-how. Establish the genuine trading and financial position, so that the price you pay for the business is not too high.

 

What does the * mean?

If a link has a * this means it is an affiliate link. To find out more, see our FAQs.