Celebrating 25 years of Ribby Hall Village
PUBLISHED: 00:00 05 June 2019
Rob Lock Photography
Paul Harrison looks back on a quarter of a century of achievement at one of the north's most successful holiday villages.
Picture the scene: it's 1994 and a father and son take a walk around some muddy fields in the picturesque village of Wrea Green in Lancashire. Despite being described as a partly developed site, all that can be seen is a handful of neglected caravans and a couple of sorry-looking cowsheds, a reminder of the recession from which the UK was still emerging very cautiously.
Now, imagine the conversation: 'Let's buy it,' says the father to his incredulous son. 'People will think we are mad,' replies the son, knowing that several previous attempts to redevelop the 100-acre site had ended in failure.
Twenty-five years later and that same muddy and derelict site has been transformed into one of the country's most successful holiday villages, attracting over a million visitors a year and winning countless industry and consumer awards. Ribby Hall Village is still owned by the Harrison family and Chief Executive Paul Harrison remembers vividly that first visit.
'My father was so determined. He was 72 at the time and he clearly wanted one more business challenge,' he says. 'So, despite the numerous unknowns, concerns and raised eyebrows, he bought it within days!'
Planning permission was sought immediately to build 175 cottages, 350 holiday homes, a hotel, sports facility, shop and restaurant. Once approved, construction began July 1994 and continued for ten years. Paul joined his father in the business in 1995 and together they set about turning their dream into a reality.
'We had a vision to develop an independent and award-winning holiday village with an unrivalled choice of luxury, self-catering accommodation, and a variety of leisure and dining facilities,' says Paul. 'It was ambitious and risky, and at the time we had no idea how it would work out, but that was I suppose, part of the excitement.'
As it happened, it all turned out well. The first cottages were opened in 1997, located around the largest pond on the site and becoming known as Fisherman's Reach. Further cottages and holiday homes followed, alongside the larger, private Coach House in 1999 and the site's original hotel, The Manor House, which opened in 2001.
Meanwhile, the original sports centre opened in 1995, along with a nine-hole golf course. While these, and other on-site facilities, provided entertainment for holidaymakers and holiday home owners, they were also a welcome addition to sporting facilities in the local area.
'When news of the purchase and potential development of the site began to filter through in 1994, there was naturally some concern among neighbours about the impact on the local area,' says Paul.
'However, these concerns were soon replaced by excitement and the beginnings of what turned out to be a long-lasting and mutually beneficial relationship with the local community, and the enthusiastic take-up of what The Village had to offer.'
Ribby Hall Village was awarded 5-star status as a holiday destination by Visit England in 2009 and has retained its top-tier rating ever since. Although the main construction of The Village was completed by 2004, representing the successful fulfilment of the initial ten year plan, the desire to keep improving never diminished.
In 2005, luxury pine lodges were added, offering an alternative to the existing cottages. Starbucks opened and in 2011, following a multimillion-pound refurbishment, the original hotel reopened as The SPA Hotel.
To create a multi award-winning holiday and leisure business, and to sustain the on-going success for 25 years, is no mean feat. Open 365 days a year, it now employs almost 600 people, mostly from the local area and, for Paul Harrison, it is his role as an employer that he takes most seriously.
'My background and training are in the building industry, so creating the physical structures was in a sense quite straightforward,' he says. 'But being such a significant employer carries a huge responsibility and I had to learn quickly.
'From the start I have been determined that Ribby will be a place where people enjoy coming to work and I think the fact that most of my senior management team have worked with me for over 20 years reflects this. Together, we work hard to create an ideal working environment because we believe that if people are happy in their work, it will shine through everything that they do and will have a very positive impact on the business.'
All year round, holiday guests flock to Ribby to escape, unwind and throw themselves into the vast array of indoor and outdoor activities on offer. The impressive Health Club, home to a state-of-the-art gym, fantastic family pool, sports hall, fitness studios and 25m adult only pool, also has a huge and loyal list of members from the local area. The restaurants, nine-hole golf course, Wild Discovery Zoo and luxurious SPA facilities are also in demand. However, even with so much on offer, the business is not ready to plateau just yet. In an ever-changing world, Paul and his team see no reason why the next 25 years can't be as progressive as the last. Although still in their early stages, there are plans to develop the site further to create yet more choice.
While many are shying away from making bold plans during these Brexit-dominated uncertain times, that is not the case at Ribby. Says Paul: 'We have made some of our most significant business decisions in times of recession, and looking back these decisions have been successful.
'While this has not made us complacent, it has instilled a confidence in us that, if we plan well and take all factors into consideration, we can achieve what we expect to achieve. We set clear objectives and work very hard until we achieve them.'
Paul's father, Bill, died in August 1999, before witnessing the millions of happy faces enjoying the holiday village he was determined to build. What would he make of it today?
'He'd be surprised to see how far we have come, but I like to think he'd be delighted at how we've exceeded his original vision,' says Paul. 'I'm sure he would approve of the high standards we set throughout The Village but, mostly, I think he would be astonished that we employ nearly 600 people.'