Potential opportunity for industry in a post-Covid world *H&H Plus*

  • Although times are undoubtedly very tough, there could be opportunities for the industry as people’s preferences and priorities change owing to the coronavirus. H&H speaks to riding schools, riders and industry experts to find out their views

    THERE could be an opportunity for the equestrian industry in a post-Covid world, it is thought, as people’s lives and preferences are changing.

    H&H has spoken to riding schools that enjoyed huge surges in interest after the initial lockdown, including Lavant House Stables in Chichester, and Wellington Riding in Hampshire.

    Wellington general manager David Sheerin told H&H: “We’ve been crazy busy since we re-opened.

    “Most of our adult clients have been working from home, so instead of riding on a Sunday morning, they’ve been coming three times a week; we’ve seen a big increase in the number of times people ride weekly.

    “The huge increase in interest makes sense, and this has been a dreadful situation but I think the opportunity for the industry is massive.”

    Mr Sheerin said he is an “eternal optimist”, but he believes the rural economy in general could benefit from some of the changes wrought by Covid.

    “We’ve got adults working from home, looking for outdoor activities; health and well-being are a great priority,” he said. “Of course, we are just outside London but there’s been a mass exodus from cities and people are spending more time in the country.

    “The whole nine-to-five, commute thing has gone; a huge proportion of society now has the time and money to ride.”

    Libby Bateman, an advisor at the CLA, the membership organisation for owners of land, property and businesses in rural England and Wales, said it is hard to use the term “opportunity” at such a tough time, but she agreed there could well be positives for the rural economy, including equestrian centres.

    “Since the first lockdown, people have started to learn a bit more about the value of the UK; what’s on offer and what’s nearby,” she told H&H, adding that a key is disposable income, and when previously people might have saved for holidays abroad, for example, this leisure money will be spent elsewhere.

    “I think there’s been a reset in priorities,” she said. “People might always have wanted to ride, and now they can’t go to Spain they can use that money for lessons – or they might not want to go on a plane, and they’ll re-prioritise that disposable income to something healthy.”

    Mrs Bateman agreed about the opportunities provided by more people working from home, not just the extra time for those living in the country, but also because some of those who are not now in offices may be able to move to rural areas.
    But she said marketing is key; to let potential customers know a business is there and what it offers.

    “Maybe pull packages together, discounts on lesson blocks for beginners, but also look at how you’re marketing,” she said. “Are you somewhere with 20 ponies, aimed at children, or a high-class, more adult-focused business?”

    Mrs Bateman said now could be a good time to borrow, to invest in a covered school, for example, or electric car-charging points.

    “You might want to think about what else you can offer,” she said. “The Government wants all cars to be electric, and riding schools are a perfect place to have charging points, and it will be necessary in eight years’ time.”

    Other ideas could be offering accommodation for riding breaks, or perhaps collaborating with local B&Bs or village pubs, working together with other rural businesses.

    Mrs Bateman also advised equestrian businesses to be aware of local enterprise partnerships, the Government’s investment arms, which offer grants and loans to businesses.

    One youngster who proves the theory is Belle Nicholls, from Skegness. Before lockdown, the nine-year-old had not ridden as she spent so much time practising and competing in gymnastics.

    But when indoor sport was out, she started riding, and “fell completely in love with it”, her mother Heather Nicholls told H&H.

    “This was all because of lockdown; finding something outside and enjoying different things; even I love it, being with the horses,” she said. “It’s become a real family affair.

    “Gymnastics was lovely but so much of it is about looking pretty; now, I love the fact she comes home smelly and filthy. It’s so good for a little girl; it gives them a good ethos. There’s definitely no looking back now.”

    British Horse Society CEO James Hick told H&H: “It’s really encouraging to hear some riding schools have seen an increase in demand since the first lockdown. Our priority has been to help those people who ride, to get back to riding and we have been supporting our riding schools and coaches to enable this to happen, while following the current Government guidelines.

    “There is certainly an opportunity for the industry with more people looking at activities they can safely participate in outside, due to Covid-19 restrictions. With so many people working from home now, and not having to commute to work, they have more free time and this is the perfect time to try riding or return to it.

    “We have exciting marketing plans for the new year to help increase wider participation and also to specifically support our riding schools next year. We will also be engaging with people outside of the equine community, which will focus on the horse, the health benefits of horse riding as well as the enjoyment it brings.”

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