How a private-sector approach by Coventry City Council transformed the financial performance of Coombe Country Park for not only the benefit of its users, but the wider community too.
One of Coventry’s iconic green spaces - Coombe Country Park - is owned by Coventry City Council and attracts tens of thousands of families every year, but it wasn’t realising its potential both in terms of the services it could deliver for visitors, nor commercially so that money could be reinvested into the park, and other public services, to benefit the wider community.
Despite the 500-acre park attracting on average 350,000 visitors every year, it had just one sole loss-making cafe at the main visitor centre where opening times were limited, had a basic menu and pets were prohibited.
Coventry City Council knew the potential was there to reverse this situation for the benefit of not just the park’s visitors, but the wider city too.
The challenge was how could it go about enhancing the visitor experience at the park that would firstly encourage families to visit more often and for longer regardless of the weather, whilst generating revenue for the council that could be reinvested in services at the park and elsewhere in the community?
Coventry City Council worked in collaboration with a private limited company which they own, called Coombe Abbey Park Limited, to take over the operation of the existing catering facilities within the park, while also giving it licence to create new ways of generating income on site.
Coombe Abbey Park Limited already successfully runs Coombe Abbey Hotel, and so combining the operation of the hotel and the park’s catering offer was a seamless fit.
Coombe Abbey Park Limited is spearheaded by Richard Harrison, who with 27 years of commercial experience under his belt, is able to run the park’s catering facilities like any other private company - including adapting the services offered to meet consumer demand.
Examples include providing a warm welcome to all at the cafe at the main Visitor Centre - known as ‘Cafe in the Park’ - by allowing dogs inside, launching tailor-made canine ice cream, offering early morning bacon and sausage sandwiches, and flexing the centre’s opening hours in line with visitor habits and scheduled events.
The decision was taken to open two further permanent catering outlets in addition to the existing cafe at the main Visitor Centre, including ‘Kiosk in the Park’ at the opposite end of the park selling drinks and sandwiches and snacks, converting what was previously a storage cupboard into a revenue generating space, as well as a dedicated ice cream kiosk.
Pop-up food and beverage offers are now a feature of the park with a pizza bike regularly seen serving freshly made pizzas to visitors. The company has partnered with the City Council’s park team - to deliver live events including an outdoor cinema, music concerts, theatre, and for 2021 a festive light trail called Luminate.
Working with the Councils, further partnerships have been forged with external organisations to enhance the site’s offering, including the launch of tree-top obstacle course Go Ape in mid-2019 - this has been introduced because of Coombe Country Park’s unique space and surroundings.
Coombe Abbey Park Limited took over Coombe Country Park’s catering facilities in May 2018. Before then the park’s catering facilities were averaging turnover of £150,000 a year, but in 2019 turnover had soared to £422,000.
Despite 2020 being wrought by COVID restrictions and a two-month enforced closure the park has averaged around £50,000 of turnover a month and is set to exceed 2019’s turnover levels with revenues of just under £500,000.
A storage cupboard situated approximately 1.5 miles from the main entrance earned the park £60,000 of revenue in 2019 after it was transformed into a food and beverage kiosk. Previously, it was earning the park no income.
The Park’s bottom line has also been able to benefit from Coombe Abbey Park Limited’s existing food and beverage controller for the hotel. This ensures that the park’s catering facilities are purchasing items at a reasonable cost and using the broader company’s purchasing power so they can sell items on to visitors for a competitive price, whilst delivering healthy margins.
The nature of the collaboration agreement and ownership structure of Coombe Abbey Park Limited means this benefit helps offset budget pressures on frontline services for the residents of Coventry.
How is the new approach being sustained?
The Coombe Abbey Park Limited team scour the park once a week to observe visitor behaviour, and touch base with front line staff on what customers have been saying, to ensure the catering facilities are responding to the public’s needs. This approach is a crucial part of making the park a popular place to visit all year round.
A public-private sector relationship is built on communication, so regular meetings are held between Coombe Abbey Park Limited’s Managing Director, Richard Harrison, and Coventry City Council’s Commercial Business Director, Grant McKelvie, to review progress and discuss new opportunities.
As such, in a bid to build momentum for this approach further afield, Coombe Abbey Park Limited and Coventry City Council are keen to explore opportunities with other local authority-operated parks to replicate the highly successful operating model that has been introduced at Coombe Abbey Country Park.
Lessons learned: Historically Coombe Country Park has always been a good cash generator when the weather is fair, but a crucial approach is the importance of conjuring up ideas to help the park stay busy all year round.
For example, allowing dogs into the main visitor cafe and introducing longer opening hours sounds simple, but the reality is that if dog walkers know they can catch up with friends whilst there, they are more likely to make the effort to visit for longer, and more often.
The employment model of direct employment, as opposed to being arranged via an agency or other third party, has also worked out better not only from a cost control perspective, but also in terms of recruiting individuals who buy in to the organisation’s desire to provide top class customer service, whilst spotting and adapting to customer trends.
Overall, the improvements made at Coombe Country Park shows that the private sector has a crucial role to play in supporting the public sector, and that the two should go hand-in-hand when it comes to maximising the potential of public spaces.
Grant McKelvie, Commercial Business Director at Coventry City Council