Eco-Friendly Success: Crafting a Sustainable STR Business Model

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In this podcast, Liam and Emma explore Mill Farm Eco Barns, a sustainable holiday home business in Norfolk. Emma recounts her transition from environmental scientist and charity director to starting this eco-friendly accommodation with her husband. The business offers luxurious stays while prioritizing sustainability, utilizing biomass boilers, heat pumps, and photovoltaic panels. They eliminate single-use plastics and promote local, homemade food. 

Emma highlights the significance of quality and authenticity, engaging guests with eco-friendly practices and the local environment. She discusses their dedication to biodiversity through tree planting and land management for wildlife. Emma also reflects on the challenges and rewards of building the business while raising young children.

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A quick peek

[00:00:00] Liam: If you could have any superpower, what would it be and why?

[00:00:04] Emma: Oh, I'd like to, I'd like to be able to, you know, go around the world. Just go into the, go into my stairs. I could do my, this is what we used to think about when I was a child. Go into my stairs and think of somewhere and then just be able to pop out.

[00:00:14] Just be there. That'd be amazing.

[00:00:16] Liam: Having a blast. Going to get it on the Boostly podcast. Bruce Lee. Like Bruce Lee. because it's so hard and the tea is loosely making up those rhymes. Don't write it, just do it loosely. If you want my respect, you are better. Put direct. Um, here are the words in the podcast.

[00:00:31] That's what comes next.

Welcome back

[00:00:32] Hi, welcome back to the podcast that gives you the tools, the tactics, the training, and most importantly, the confidence. So you can go out there and get yourselves direct bookends on the Boostly podcast. We do the mini-series where we dive into another host's business and, usually we're looking for hosts who have a successful business, a scalable business or something which sticks out as something which the rest of us hosts can learn from.

[00:00:57] And that's exactly what we're doing today. There's an amazing, amazing host going to come on and share her story with us, how the business got started with the focus on sustainability and all the things that you can do within what she's doing in her business that you might be able to think about in your business and to practice some of these awesome things to help draw.

[00:01:18] More guests and ultimately make the world a better place. So I'm excited to do this. Uh, we've got Emma here who is the joint owner of Mill Farm Eco Barns. She's not too far away from me. She's based in Norfolk in a really beautiful part of Norfolk, which, uh, I'm going to do my very best to everyone listening to this, to come and come and stay in Norfolk and, uh, celebrate, uh, my local, um, county.

[00:01:43] So welcome along, Emma. Thank you for joining me.

[00:01:45] Emma: Ah, thank you for having me.

What the business is

[00:01:47] Liam: So first question, can you give us a kind of elevator pitch of what the business is and anything you want to share about the business?

[00:01:55] Emma: Right, so um, we run three, and we have three eco holiday homes on the coast here in Norfolk.

[00:02:01] It's a beautiful part of Norfolk as you say. We're near the beach, we're on the edge of Nature Reserve, near the Broads National Park. So when we set the business up, we were like, right, we need to do something really special. We don't just want to be another holiday home business, which is why we've sort of We kind of focused around the kind of environmental science and we try and offer kind of luxurious stays that don't cost the earth and make our business as kind of sustainable as possible.

[00:02:25] That's kind of what we try to do.

[00:02:28] Liam: That's cool. How did you get started? What gave you the kind of passion for this?

[00:02:32] Emma: Yeah, it's a bit of a funny story. Um, but I was me and my husband were living in Bristol. Um, we had had our first child and I made an off-the-cuff comment like, um, you know, if we're ever going to do anything different other than working, um, nine to five, um, we need to do it now because I was pregnant with my second daughter.

[00:02:51] I knew that on paper we had, uh, we were mortgageable. We could afford to buy somewhere. Um, but we wouldn't be able to, the second child because I was pretty sure I was going to get made redundant. So, um, we started looking in the southwest. We were thinking about setting up a kind of green catering business.

[00:03:06] We're both environmental scientists and ecologists. That's our background. Um, but the southwest, this is going back 10 years, so back in 2012, it was pretty obvious that there was no way we could afford it. anywhere in the southwest of England. It was just, everything was just massively expensive. So we turned our attention to the Norfolk coast and, um, the little bit of Norfolk we're in, it's not too far from Great Yarmouth, so it's not in the really expensive North Norfolk bit.

[00:03:32] And we found this old sort of farmstead, an old cottage with some old buildings, And, um, it was, we could afford it. So we very quickly bought it. And then, um, we decided to, uh, I went on maternity leave and it became obvious that we just didn't need to move here. So I applied for some European Union's leader funding.

[00:03:53] Don't you've heard of that? So RDP funded and got a grant to set the business up as a centre of sustainability. But we had like six months to do the development. So convert the barn, one of our first barns. Um, we had to sell a house in a big hurry. We moved here with two tiny children and he was still working in Bristol.

[00:04:12] Um, so that's kind of what we started. It's sort of in a bit of a cloud of excitement, really not knowing what we were doing. And then we've been here for 10 years ever since. So yeah, that's how it all started.

How your career influenced hospitality

[00:04:22] Liam: You mentioned your kind of career within that just talks through what, what that career is.

[00:04:28] And that's influenced yours. Uh, your stay, your hospitality offering.

[00:04:33] Emma: Yeah, it's interesting because I kind of feel like I don't have a career anymore. And everyone who says, who hears me say that go, you know, what are you talking about? You've got this amazing business. But I used to be a director of a charity, um, in Bristol, which is focusing on organic food and farming.

[00:04:48] So I had a strong interest in children's health and the environment, whereas my husband was in the water industry. So I kind of left that behind when we moved here and set this business up. I've become, so Neil, my husband, was very much on the side of the building and I was very much on the side of the kind of operations and the marketing and all that, so I now do all the marketing, all the guest liaison, all the kind of finance side, whereas Neil focuses more, now he has stopped working, he was working full time until very recently, he's stopped working now and so he focuses more on the kind of landscaping inside of things, so um, it's quite a, For me, it's been quite a sort of, I think I've done very much with my children.

[00:05:30] I've done, I've kind of set this business up with young children. So I'm kind of at the point now where I want to do, to use what we do to do something else if you see what I mean. But, um, it's kept me very occupied. And I always tell people if I'd have known how hard it was to set this business up with two young children.

[00:05:45] probably wouldn't have done it, but before I did it, I didn't know. So, um, but it's been great, you know, in many respects, you know, it's kept us busy, um, and it's a thriving business now. We're very proud of it. So to a large extent, it's worked for us.

[00:05:57] Liam: The thing that I want to speak about today is the sustainability and the hospitality side of things and how those two go hand in hand.

[00:06:06] So I guess my first question is, I think I get why you wanted to make it sustainable, but how has that helped you? Um, and how do guests perceive sustainability when they come along?

[00:06:21] Emma: Well, yeah, it's a really interesting question. You know, um, I think we, obviously it's front and centre of what we do. You know, we are called Mill Farm Eco Bonds.

[00:06:29] Um, so we're quite proud of what we do. Um, we've always tried to make it feel like it's part of, um, a sign of the quality of our business. So it's not that you're having to compromise when you come here, you know that what you're getting is a fabulous quality experience. And I think that's probably. central to what we do.

[00:06:47] We love people to love it. Um, and when they come here and they get it as well as love it, that's even better because we live on-site. So we interact with our guests, we meet them, we see them, we chat with them and we give them advice. So they're often very interested in what we've done. So they'll talk to us about our solar panels.

[00:07:05] They'll talk about, talk to us about heat pumps. They'll talk to us about a biomass boiler. They'll come and see it. Not all of them. Some of them not, not interested, but a lot of them are kind of keen and interested and we can have quite geeky conversations with them about it. So I think it is for us, it's a real sign of quality.

[00:07:23] It's a point of difference. It's a sign of authenticity. We are always trying to push that. push the fact that we're more than just a holiday home, it's kind of an experience staying with us because we facilitate a lot of other things beyond just places to stay, so we'll talk to them, we'll do little nature walks, so we'll, um, we encourage, uh, a couple of days out, so I produce, I've got a walking guide that everybody gets when they first arrive, which is five walks they can do directly from our barns, um, and, um, I'm trying to introduce them to local foods.

[00:07:53] So it's all about adding value to their stay. So I know that it's kind of meeting one of my needs, which is to, um, introduce people and support local food and, um, meet people locally that are delivering great. produce to people, but also I know it's adding value to my guests. So I think it works well.

[00:08:12] Do people book with me specifically for environmental credentials? Increasingly, I'd say yes, not many, but sometimes I get reviews that say, I've been looking for a place like this for years. Finally, I found one. I wish all hosted this too. So we do. And then I have people repeating booking that say, we just love everything you do.

[00:08:31] And it's just, and we use that loo roll too. Or we tell us more about your cleaning products. So I think increasingly it's an opportunity to have a conversation with people, but without trying to force it down their necks. I think that's, it's a delicate balance and you don't, I don't think we'd probably get it right now, but, um, you know, it's been, it's been a bit of a journey, I guess.

About some features offered

[00:08:50] Liam: You mentioned some of the features and the things that you can do. Can you talk us through, um, some of those features and what they are? Why you've kind of put those in for the stats?

[00:09:02] Emma: Yeah, I mean, I think the first thing worth saying is that if you're. So for all three of our units or three of our barns, we've converted them so we've taken an existing building and changed it dramatically.

[00:09:14] So I think when you're looking at the first thing when you look thinking about sustainability is how you heat, and how you power. places, you know, that's by far the biggest impact in terms of climate change. Um, and if you're able to design a way of doing that, which isn't focused around fossil fuels and from the word go, then that's much easier than taking an existing building and converting it.

[00:09:37] So I think it's just worth saying that we were in a sort of. lucky position somewhat because we could start from scratch. So we were able to, um, first, well, where we are in Norfolk, you, there's no gas. So it's either heating oil or you find an alternative. So oil, we can't be an eco barn and be and run on oil.

[00:09:56] That was out of the question. So the first thing we did was look at how we could heat the first two conversions and our house at the same time. And our house is an existing house, which is quite leaky. So we went for a buy my spot. boiler, which is a wood pellet boiler. And then with a second bar or third bar, we did, we've used, um, an air source heat pump.

[00:10:16] So that's electricity. Um, and they are insanely good and use so little power. It's unbelievable. Um, so, um, That was the import. So heating is a biomass boiler and a heat pump. And then we've also included some photovoltaics. So we've got a huge roof with 17, 14 kilowatt hour photovoltaics, which basically in the summer, so from about April to October, now power the entire operation.

[00:10:45] We've also got some. batteries. So, um, what we do is any of the, if we are creating too much energy during the day, we use the batteries to store the energy that we can use in the evenings. So it kind of, it's a very clever system. So they are the sorts of things that we've invested our money in.

[00:11:02] Now the PV, to give you an example, we spent about 25, 000 pounds on that. And the payback period, we think for that is about six years. So. I think from that perspective, it makes a huge amount of business sense. If you've got a big roof and it faces West or South, then it's worth looking out for because you will be able to manage those tricky utility costs.

[00:11:23] Um, and also it's, it's sort of from a tax perspective, it's a useful thing to do as well. So there are lots of reasons why it's worth doing that. So energy. was the first thing we looked at. Um, we looked also at plastic, so single-use plastic use, so we've tried and pretty much eradicated that from our whole system, so we don't buy anything which is using single-use plastic.

[00:11:44] All, all food that we leave for our guests is all homemade, or we seek it from local suppliers. Not without any use of plastic, no plastic in any of our cleaning fluids, we refill everything, so that's been eradicated pretty much. And then the third area is biodiversity, so we've got a bit of land which we now manage for wildlife, and we've planted a huge, I think we've planted 1, 800 sapling trees since we've been here.

[00:12:07] Got a lovely hedge round, which is beautiful. Um, so they're the kind of three areas that we've done the most work on. But, um, there's always more work to do, you know, we could do more, I'm sure.

[00:12:17] Liam: Um, so normally at this stage we'd ask the mantra question, but I know we've covered that. So instead I'm going to chuck out a fun question for you, Emma.

[00:12:24] What, what would be, if you, if you could have any superpower, what would it be and why?

[00:12:32] Emma: Oh my goodness. Uh, if I could have a superpower, so this is about me having power rather than me changing the world, isn't it? Um, God, that's impossible. I've no idea. What would my superpower be? Well, I'd like to, I'd like to be able to, you know, go around the world.

[00:12:49] Just go into the, go under my stairs like I did when this is what we used to think about when I was a child. Go under my stairs and think of somewhere. Uh, and then just be able to pop out, be there. That'd be amazing.

[00:12:57] Liam: Teleportation in a way. That's awesome. Yes,

[00:12:59] Emma: exactly.

[00:13:01] Liam: I like it. Good answer. And good, good thinking on your feet as well.

[00:13:03] Cause it's really enjoyable to talk to people who are passionate about their business, passionate about the environment, and ultimately the environment. Building a product, which brings the two together and allows people, to come and see, um, come and experience it. And to take that kind of positive message home without, you know, people just say, Hey, you should do this.

[00:13:24] You should do this. It's going away, experiencing it, seeing what it's like, creating great memories. And like you say, those moments where you've got gin and tonic at 11 o'clock because, uh, you see in nature around you, that's, that's what it's all about. And that's what I'm going to take away from this podcast.

[00:13:37] So. Thank you so much. What a nice way to end, and thanks again for your time. Well, uh, no, my pleasure. That's, that's it from us. We'll see you on the next podcast. Bye for now. Having a blast. Going to get it on the Bruce Lee podcast. Bruce Lee. Let Bruce Lee 'cause it's so hard on the tea loose leaf.

[00:13:52] Looking up those rhymes. Don't write it, just do it loosely.