In last month’s travel trends, we predicted that 2016 would be a strong year for a younger generation to forge their own paths and flourish running special places to stay. We spoke to Kesri Smolas, who runs Drover’s Rest in Herefordshire about the ups and downs she’s encountered so far and why she could never go back to a “proper job.”
What made you want to start somewhere special to stay?
Having kids was the big deciding factor to move to the country and try our hand at living the good life! We both love nature having grown up in South Africa, and although living in London was really exciting, after 10 years it became a bit frustrating with the traffic, the tight squeeze in the tubes and the fact that the living space and gardens were quite small.
We gradually started moving out to the countryside; from Putney to Hampton, to Thursley in Surrey and finally to the beautiful Welsh Hills where we started running the farm.
How easy was transforming Drover’s Rest?
The 5 years of planning was probably the hardest time of my life. That’s saying something as I grew up during apartheid in South Africa!
Unfortunately the farm doesn’t make any money, but diversifying proved hugely frustrating, costly and draining. We worked with the local authorities to ensure that we did everything in-keeping with the buildings and with the environment, but you cannot underestimate the reaction to change, especially if a newcomer is making these changes to the traditional way of farm life. Many people wanted the farm to carry on as it was and did everything they could to stop the planning.
After 5 years we were given the planning permission for holidays, wellbeing and corporate retreats, it took us way longer than we expected so I had to continue my consultancy work, travelling quite a bit to bring much needed cash flow. It has been very hard work. We don’t have a lot of money for staff so we do a lot of the work ourselves, but with the way bookings are going now hopefully we will be able to make our lives easier by employing more people this year.
Featuring on BBC Escape to the Country helped us massively behind the scenes too, they understood what we needed in a property to make the dream a reality.
How did expanding from the cottage to the safari tents with Canopy & Stars come about?
We had one cottage that we inherited from the previous owners. It’s in a spectacular spot on the farm, totally isolated yet close enough if they got too lonely. After furnishing it to our taste, the business grew and we were able to book it out for 48 weeks of the year. Based on this success we then applied for planning permission for the tents.
Why is the “chill out” barn so special?
I love interiors so I’ve really enjoyed furnishing and sourcing for the safari tents and cottages but the chill out barn is my favourite part of the development, it’s great for communal gatherings and hanging out when the weather turns.
I have travelled a lot for work and brought together all of the things that I love from around the world, from polished concrete floors inspired by South Africa, to olive bucket lights and corrugated ceilings inspired by a fabulous restaurant in Bogota, Colombia, to crate bookshelves and quirky coffee areas inspired by an Indian bar in Goa. We won a My Country Business Award for our interiors last year with Country Homes & Interiors.
It’s a great place for communal meals too; everything we serve is grown on the farm or sourced locally and we have 3 food nights a week. We bring a very South African flavour to things so we cook curries in poitjie pots (3 legged pots any South African will tell you about), have braais (BBQ) and are convincing the local butcher to make borewors (a sausage that is long and coiled in a circle) as well as pizza nights and, of course, big breakfasts.
We also run a working sheep farm where we grow our Welsh Black Mountain sheep organically and sell the meat to friends and family. We are now selling it to guests in the farm shop and also using it for our food nights on the farm; the meat is so good that it sells almost immediately!
Do you have any advice for someone looking to start a similar business?
Go for it. So many people dream of changing their lives doing something different and never actually take the risk, but it’s so worth it. We could never go back to ‘proper jobs’ now because we love the flexibility and meeting wonderful people.
What is the best part of running Drover’s Rest?
The guests we meet. They are great and somewhere deep inside us, we still have that good old warm and inviting South African hospitality.
I also love the business side, it gives me a thrill to look at different opportunities that fit with our rural escapes, like retreats that focus on being holistic, recharging and feeding one’s mind, body and soul. This year for me is the year we get to establish our well-being retreats. All-inclusive stays with juicing, yummy wholesome food (plenty of it), pilates, walking the old drover’s routes and meditation.