Balcombe Place

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Opening a New Events Venue: The Start

When I decided to write this blog the question, “where do I start?” came to mind. Ironically, that is exactly what I thought when I first walked through the house of Balcombe Place. 

In March 2017, the idea of Balcombe Place becoming a venue was floated to me by one of my best friends from university. I have known her for over ten years now and have visited her and her family in West Sussex many times over the years. We would walk, very occasionally ride, past the impressive architecture of Balcombe Place. Always referred to as the family home from back in the day, Balcombe Place remained a bit of a mystery to me. Given she had never stepped foot inside, I never assumed that I would.

On a skiing holiday together, she mentioned the possibility to me. I have a background in events, specifically weddings and as a close contact, it seemed it was being brought to me to agree or disagree as to whether or not this new venture would suit the house. At the time the house was still leased as a residential home, but the owners of the business were looking to move onto new things and had started the process of relinquishing their lease. This meant the family of the Balcombe Estate had to come up with realistic options as to how the house would be used in the future.

The Music Room - First Impressions

The Music Room - First Impressions

Many options were in play by the time I became involved. Flats, a boutique hotel, re-lease etc. Luckily (well I think so) none of these options were 100% viable. The condition of the house and the outlay that would be needed for any of these options would be a huge risk, not forgetting the family house just through the trees meant disturbance is a vital consideration. The thought was that creating an events venue would not only provide a profitable business but enable renovations to the house and grounds overtime, to ensure its survival well into the future.

It was an extraordinary day when I first walked through the doors of Balcombe Place. I remember distinctly being crouched in one of the bedrooms, head in hands in complete awe of the phenomenal building. My friend turned to me, “we are not even halfway around yet!” It was very intimidating confronting each of the 43 rooms that make up the house, this doesn’t even include the bathrooms or the cellar. I soon realised that with a property of this size knowing what was urgent and what could (sort of) wait was going to be vital.

Following my viewing, various meetings, brain storms and general excited text and picture messages, I set about writing a business plan for Balcombe Place, events venue. This was no easy task. I called upon all my economics and finance classes from school and university (it’s amazing what you remember, or rather what your brain stores for you), asked a couple of friends for pointers and got really over enthusiastic about using the Word referencing system! Building a concept and creating the proposal is the easy bit, at least I think so. I was able to create a structure that I knew would work because I had seen it in action but this time I had the scope to develop it further. I knew the weight this proposal held, and I was not going to get it wrong. Being asked for advice is one thing, being offered the chance to roll with it is another. I still remember the final words of a conversation I had with our founding director, Fo, “ok, go!” Eeeeekkk!

When it came to the concluding meeting that meant the business plan had been read by all, the ideas considered, and the venture scrutinised, the realisation of what was about to happen hit me straight in the face! “We actually have to do it!”

I moved in November 2017. I walked away from a beautiful, finished venue and a wonderful team and moved my life 170 miles to West Sussex. The task began, tentatively at first, but we had to get stuck in.

My business plan was based on a phase structure. Internal and external work was needed, it was always going to be needed, but I wanted to do this in a staged manner to prevent the risk factor and ensure the business, as well as the building, would still be standing the same time next year. We wanted to turn Balcombe Place back into the private home it was until 1954. We wanted the structure and architecture, the decoration and dressing to be in keeping with how Lord and Lady Denman lived. In a grade II* listed building, such as Balcombe Place, we have to be very conscious of any works we undertake, and how best to retain the integrity of the house and its history, as well as creating a fabulous space Hosts today would love.

Me, Emma, looking tiny during a visit in the summer of 2017.

Me, Emma, looking tiny during a visit in the summer of 2017.

When we started we considered the ideal place we wanted to be at the end of Phase One of the renovations. How could the house work for an event, today? What needs to be done to the main reception rooms of the house to get them up to standard and ready for a fabulous party? I wanted to have an event space, one that would bring in an initial income to allow us to reinvest in the building to develop the accommodation. Before we could do too much we had to apply for planning permission for change of use and listed building consent, with a schedule of works for each room. Luckily this was granted in March 2018. Planning permission took almost five months longer than we had hoped for, but we are the lucky ones, I know some who have had to wait years. The delay in getting consent pushed plans and opening deadlines back and back, meaning we have opened our doors at the busiest time of year for the events market. 

As soon as planning came through we set about getting the big stuff done ready for our launch party on 12th May 2018. Setting the date for the launch party was a scary moment. The “let’s do it” attitude was firmly in place to ensure we could officially open our doors on that date. We pushed hard and cannot thank those that were part of it enough, not only for doing amazing work but for generally putting up with us!

One of the four bathrooms undergoing renovations.

One of the four bathrooms undergoing renovations.

As the job list grew and more and more jobs were started, both Fo and I became more and more frustrated at not being either a plumber or an electrician. Curtain making, upholstering and carpentry were soon added to the list of qualifications and abilities we wish we had. In saying that, we have learnt an awful lot and have most essential skills nailed. It was also a joy to work as a team during the renovations, together we had the confidence to knock down walls and discover new spaces and hidden fireplaces. 

Between the months of November ’17 and March ’18 we decided we were going to dip into Phase Two and renew four of the bedrooms on the first floor! I was SO excited about this. It instantly pushed Balcombe Place from an events venue able to do one-off events, to an exclusive use property that Hosts could take for the whole weekend if they wanted, this being the mission for Balcombe Place. It did, however, mean more work, more timescales to push and more investment. Being in the position to be flexible with this sort of decision is a luxury many new businesses do not have but allows us to push closer to the end goal. Once Balcombe Place is finished we will have fourteen bedrooms in total in the main part of the house. It is fascinating to look back at those months now. We haven’t stuck to the renovation schedule, not letter by letter, but the building changed after I wrote it and before we got the keys, so we roll with the times. In doing so we have created a more welcoming home with more diverse options for events and income in the future. 

Tackling a building like Balcombe Place is one thing, setting up a business from scratch, as well as this is quite another. Since May 2017, when the business was approved, I have been implementing the background infrastructure. I do love a spreadsheet! Everything has to be thought of, from finances, contracts, marketing proposals and staff handbooks, we have developed it all and more. I built the website and gently started letting people know we existed through social media, it all has to start somewhere but by the end of 2017 we had already made some great new friends and found incredbile suppliers for out Little Black Book. We have had family parties, networking events and some amazing photoshoots. It is so important to create a solid foundation, one you trust and believe in. 

Setting up a new business is a hugely exciting and slightly terrifying prospect, but if it was easy, everyone would do it...

Until next time, Emma X