Sir Edward Dashwood’s 5,000 acre ancestral estate at West Wycombe dates back to the seventeenth century, writes Robert Dangerfield.
As a business the estate has a diversity of complementary income streams from the conventional property and event management offerings to film-location and premium event hospitality and outdoor experience. There’s even some game-shooting. But set aside any preconceptions about judicious commercial management of a costly entrenched asset. In the late eighties Sir Edward took back a 40 acre former landfill-site from the council after it had finished its landfill operations, and has turned it into an international centre of excellence for shooting. The shooting business there turns-over around £5m a year and as many clay targets launched from over 100 appliances around the site. That means 50,000 visits per year. His accessible, consistently high-quality product redefines shooting within the FMCG world occupied by a market with a high disposable income but may be time-poor.
The E.J.Churchill shooting ground is predicated on an innovative business-model for shooting. When he made is initial investment of about £500,000, Sir Edward had already identified a younger, dynamic, and wealthy market. “But they don’t want the straw-bale, thermos-flask and all-day commitment – their expectations are different – they both part with more – and expect more.”
It’s modelled on golf – but the whole experience is unapologetically about shooting
The result is that clients experience a round of shooting over several hours, in a group of 6-8 guns, accompanied by a caddy. They tote up their score-card and return to the clubhouse for a drink, a meal or to explore a shop which supplies the necessary consumables and also a dazzling array of premium and well-branded clothing and equipment. Clients can become members and have coaching from a “pro.” Yes, it’s modelled on golf – but the whole experience is unapologetically about shooting. And E.J.Churchill is a gun-brand which has been re-born thanks to Sir Edward. “We manufacture guns here – we test and fit them for their owners and service them here.” It’s a complete package.
Part of the innovation is the course itself. “Holes” are replaced by many traps interlinked by attractive walkways. This was the first UK shooting-ground to only use automatic traps. In a round a shot can experience single of multiple targets from every possible angle and height. The caddies’ role is to guide and assist in initiating the targets, but they might be coaches too.
“Customers come in three types,” explains Sir Edward. “A large and growing number come for fun – pairs or groups – part of this market are the corporate parties: they can have the ground and clubhouse to themselves – here it’s about team-building or team-reward. This appeals to corporates which focus on objective-setting, calibre of equipment, technical detail, statistics and performance. After the exhilaration of the sport they love to compare data.
“Our second group come for the coaching and gun-fitting. Uniquely, we can specialise in the latter being bespoke gun-makers.” Sir Edward continues, “The last group are the competitors. Next year we’re hosting the World Championships: there will be 2,500 guns from 40 countries – each gun competes over 2 days in a 6-day event. This may be our biggest event, but we host more modest competitions – including the monthly competitions for many classes of gun. Competition is a big allure in today’s market – conventional game-shooting isn’t really competitive at all.”
Commercial shooting has been brought to a new level
Today the provision of sporting venues is not only about setting and sustaining professional standards but also about increasing and improving participation, (“democratisation”) – clearly here commercial shooting has been brought to a new level. Sir Edward is now talking to Sport England about partnership to create the prime location for this sport. “Already here we have Olympic-standard shots – but they are also rubbing shoulders with cadet shots as young as nine years old.”
E.J.Churchill’ is a stand-alone business which has benefited from its association with the main estate. The concept is replicable in various forms, potentially even in franchise. In three stages Sir Edward has made further investment totalling around £5m. “Our key capital investment has been in landscaping the courses, designing and fabricating target-launchers, and in the hospitality. However our most important cost is staff. A venue that is pitching itself to be a centre of excellence to a premium domestic and international market must have not only expert professional employees, but also the right front-of-house. Key to the quality brand is not only image, professionalism and value, but creating and sustaining the right culture. Sir Edward concludes, “I’ve tried to create a club atmosphere which is special – but which is genuinely open to all. I place all my expertise and passion in shooting and this project, but I’m also the one who’s picking-up the litter.”
Tips from Sir Edward Dashwood
- Location: We are near money and easily accessible, but also proximity to the airport and a motorway mitigates the nuisance noise of shooting for local residents
- Culture: Create the right environment for your clients
- Staff: Expertise and service are everything
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