The tranquil surroundings of the Oaks Demesne deep in the Faughan Valley is an unlikely setting for a thriving visitor experience but a Derry entrepreneur has proven that if your offering is strong enough, the crowds will follow.
Richard Allen established Oakfire Adventures at the grounds of his family home in 2006 after taking advantage of new legislation that permitted paint balling in Northern Ireland for the first time.
Since then, with the support of Derry City and Strabane District Council’s Business Support teams, he has extended his high octane adrenaline fuelled adventure offering to include Zip Trekking and last year over 3,000 spectators and participants attended their annual ‘Hard as OAK’ obstacle course challenge around the grounds of the estate.
While Richard had a firm grounding in the industry having worked as both a tour guide and a Youth Development Officer with the IRFU, he believes a major factor in the success of his business has been his ability to research trends in the industry globally and applying them locally.
“My advice to any budding rural entrepreneurs in the Council area is to have a look around and see what’s working elsewhere and if there’s a gap in the market locally then go for it,” he said.
“I would say effective research has been the key to our success, so much information is easily accessible online, so if you look at trends in behaviour and growth in other countries you can identify new opportunities and reduce the risk of making bad decisions.
“We haven’t been re-inventing the wheel at Oakfire Adventures, we just look at activities that have been successful in other parts of the world and have put them in place here.
“Listen to your customers as well, the reaction we got from people when they first tried our Zip Trekking was overwhelmingly positive so we knew it would work well and it could be worth expanding it”
“Not everything will work out, we set up a zorbing track and swing here but it wasn’t as successful as we thought for various reasons but you shouldn’t be afraid to fail with ideas as that’s how you find the ones that work and how to improve in the future.
Like any new business it hasn’t all been plain sailing for Richard as he navigated his way through the challenges of start-up and growth but he urged budding entrepreneurs not be afraid of some failure early on. “Raising start-up funds was a difficult process for us, we were asset rich with the extensive grounds at The Oaks Demesne but I didn’t have the capital to pay for the equipment, staff, insurance and other infrastructure we would need to launch the business.
“I looked at getting external sources such as Crowd Funding and the Angel Investment Network but I would have essentially been working for someone else in those instances and I wanted to manage my own business.
“It was a long process but I managed to negotiate a loan from the bank and it was worth it to have that control in the business.
“We had to provide a detailed Business Plan and prove that we would manage the risks involved in offering outdoor activities which took some time.”
The expansion of their adventure offering has allowed the business to grow and Richard has ambitious plans for the future which he believes will compliment a growth in visitor numbers in the wider Faughan Valley area.
“The Hard as OAK course has really taken off in recent years, we have a great variety of landscapes in the grounds which allows us to set up a unique physical challenge for those taking part.
“We set up the Zip Trekking course with the support of the Business Support teams at Derry City and Strabane District Council and I can’t speak highly enough of the team there who backed our idea and provided guidance through every step of the process.
“The Zip Trekking is very social media friendly and loads of people are sharing their pictures and videos from it as well which is boosting our profile.
“In the future, we’d like to build an activity centre in our grounds so that we can offer things like changing and shower facilities and a café to our customers.
“We want to expand our customer base to include schools groups and to grow the Zip Trekking aspect of the business.
“The Woodland Trust are developing the Faughan Valley right beside us and the underpasses and pedestrian bridges planned for the A6 will help link up to 20km of woodland trails right beside us.”
“We’re in an area that is going to become more and more visitor friendly in the years ahead and that can only benefit us in the future.”
Full booking details for Oakfire Adventures are available on their website at www.oakfireadventures.com.
For more details about how Derry City and Strabane District Council’s Business Support & Tourism team can help existing, start up and prospective businesses go to http://www.derrystrabane.com/businesssupport.
Picture- Richard Allen
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