Sandra Barnes-Keywood takes part in European Social Fund training course and learns how to better market her eco-friendly bed and breakfast.
The tiny 17th chapel at Lagness, near Chichester on the south coast of England, looks over rolling hills, wide pastures and distant horizons. It now houses four comfortable double bedrooms with en suite bathrooms. Sandra Barnes-Keywood and her husband Charles have lovingly restored the former ruin as the centrepiece of the bed and breakfast business they opened eight years ago.
Little did they know then that a training programme co-funded by the European Union through the European Social Fund (ESF) would set Sandra on the road to becoming an award-winning pioneer in ‘green tourism’ and a recognised “maker and shaker” in promoting environmental business practices.
Sandra was born in west London. But she always loved the country life, and set her heart on moving to Chichester. This part of West Sussex is known as an area of outstanding natural beauty. The windswept river estuary at nearby Pagham harbour – a haven for wild birds – and the hills of the South Downs, are favourite destinations for ramblers and nature lovers.
With a Higher National Diploma (HND) qualification in hotel catering and management, Sandra bought a run-down public house and turned it into a restaurant. However, after the couple's daughter Jasmine was born 16 years ago, the long hours proved too hard to combine with childcare, and they sold up. “When Jasmine was about eight I decided I really wanted to get back into the hospitality business,” recalls Sandra, and a B&B seemed a flexible solution.
Continuous learning - an attitude
As a qualified restaurateur, she was sceptical about the value of further training. But then an outbreak of foot and mouth disease among cattle in the UK left many small, rural businesses struggling. With ESF support, Tourism South East launched its Rural Welcome scheme and in 2004 Sandra signed up. “I was really surprised,” she admits. “I realised you never stop learning in life.” It showed her that while she was already running the B&B on environmental lines, she wasn’t getting the message across to her visitors, and that highlighting her green ideals could make a huge difference. “I had a story to tell, but no-one was hearing it,” she says.
The course gave Sandra the boost she needed. When Jasmine was born she had been quite ill, suffering from high blood pressure, and undergoing a caesarean birth without anaesthetic. Afterwards she spent three months in hospital recovering from post-traumatic stress, and gained a lot of weight. So getting back to running a business was a challenge. “You lose confidence as a mum,” she explains. “But that training changed my career. I never looked back. Now I have got the tools to do what I want to do and I feel confident. I don’t feel like that little housewife who gave up work. It has helped me to get my life back on track.
Green Tourism - a philosophy not a product
“We are completely involved in the environment,” continues Sandra. “We believe that green tourism is a philosophy, not a product.” She grows her own fruit, to put in guests' rooms or make jams for breakfast. She buys organic produce from local farm shops, and makes her own natural cleaning materials. She encourages guests not to waste power or water, cutting the laundering of towels by 43%. All 'grey' wastewater is recycled for the garden. Solar panels heat the water, and ‘light tubes’ funnel daylight into windowless bathrooms.
Sandra also tries to “give something back” to the local community, by mentoring underachieving 16-year-olds and coaching local university students. Her Green Tourism Payback Scheme has raised money for cycle racks in Pagham Harbour, and to repair hides for bird-watchers. Charles now combines his blacksmith’s business, creating wrought iron furniture and fittings, with environmental auditing, inspecting hotels around the country.
A Gold rating
Sandra's work has won her wide recognition. Old Chapel Forge has a gold rating from the Green Tourism Business Scheme, the UK’s leading sustainable tourism certification scheme. “That gave me credibility, because I had been independently assessed. I became a business champion for the UK, helping others to get accredited. But I realised the advice on offer was outdated, so I wrote my own training programme.” Now through her Green Training Company she assists regional departments and tourist organisations around Britain. Among a series of awards, Sandra and Charles won a Green Apple Award for architecture in 2006, for their environmentally friendly chapel renovation, Arun Business of the Year Award in 2007, and the Sussex Sustainable Business Award in 2007-8.
Sandra is now an enthusiastic advocate of training, and has taken further courses. Networking is just one of the benefits. “You can get isolated in the B&B business,” she points out. “That's what's nice about going round the country and talking to people. You pick up tips from one another.” Last year the Old Chapel Forge notched up an 89% occupancy rate, compared with an average of 54% in the region generally.
“I have been on a long journey. When I first did green tourism here, most people thought it was really cranky. They were afraid they were just going to get muesli for breakfast or something!” she laughs, adding that market research shows visitors actually expect higher all-round standards from green accommodation.
What the customers say...
Her guests clearly appreciate Sandra’s philosophy. John and Eunice Yates from Gloucester in the west of England found the Old Chapel Forge on the internet. “We thought: ‘this is just us’,” says Eunice. “We haven’t wanted for anything.”
“The Rural Welcome project was very successful,” confirms Sue Gill, from Tourism South East. The organisers hoped to reach 485 small businesses, and ended up with 622. More than 350 participants went on to further training. “It was something they needed,” she concludes.