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Fampreneurs of the Month

Adventurous Family Grows Activity Business Three-fold In The Cairngorms

From offices and family life to adventure and adrenaline. How the Ballams swapped a cosy life for the great outdoors.

The Head Office

Before going into business together Keith Ballam was a Director of a travel agency while wife Jill worked in finance until she became a stay-at-home mum in 2000. When their second child was settled in school, Jill was keen to return to work and Keith had the opportunity of a redundancy. Seeing an obvious window of opportunity together, they decided they were ready to take on the challenge of running their own business as they wanted a fulfilling working life coupled with a better quality family life.

The Ballams, who were living in Sussex at the time, were eager to locate to a place that would be a great environment to bring up their children.

They began their search in 2008 and looked at various businesses on The one that ticked most of their boxes was Craggan Outdoors, an established outdoors sports, activities and accommodation business in the picturesque Cairngorms National Park. They bought the business in October 2008.

Keith says, “Everything aligned perfectly for us, the redundancy, the ages of our kids and the location of this very unique business. We knew we could build on its established foundations to create something personally and financially rewarding.”

On arrival, the business was already a going concern and Keith and Jill focussed on fortifying its established offerings. The couple played to their established business strengths. Keith took on the role of Managing Director, responsible for the day to day management and business development while Jill took care of the administration, accountancy and the running of the on-site café. From day one they had additional staff, some full time, others seasonal and alongside those freelance workers who came in to help on a more flexible basis.

The husband and wife team were both were keen to grow the reputation and extent of the business.

Gradually more activities were added including a mini Highland games and mini quad bikes, both of which were an immediate success. In addition, Keith used his travel agency background to establish partnerships with complementary businesses.

“When we arrived there was a lot more competition in the area than co-operation,” Keith explains, “so rather than add even more we set about establishing partnerships with businesses that had the experience, equipment and know how to offer additional activities like laser tag and art activities. With this approach we have grown the offering of activities from 14 to 24.”

The Head Office

Growth has also been achieved by packaging the business to appeal to distinct markets including schools, families and universities. One target market that was not yet exploited was the corporate sector, which cut spending on outdoor activities almost in sync with the Ballams buying the business. But at the tail end of 2015 this area began to grow and it is one Jill and Keith have an eye on for the future.

The Ballams also invested in a 23-bed bunkhouse in 2013 to add to the 33-bed bunkhouse that came with the original purchase. This has made them able to accommodate more of the big groups they’re targeting.

Throughout growing the business Jill and Keith have held customer feedback paramount and survey all their customers every month to establish satisfaction levels and identify ways to improve. Month on month the results are impressively high, and they peaked at the end of the 2015 with an average 9.96/10 rating. These excellent satisfaction levels are echoed by Craggan Outdoors’ TripAdvisor Rating which is an impressive 95%.

“We believe word of mouth is our best marketing tool and never take our eye off customer relations, customer experience and customer satisfaction. All the staff know how important this is and any potential issue is quickly spotted and sorted. The high ratings we get are genuinely deserved.” Jill says.

The children were seven and four when the Ballams relocated but both mother and father agree it’s been the best move for them both. “Our son is now 15 and loves the outdoor life, last year he worked his first official season and thoroughly enjoyed every minute.” Keith says “Our daughter is only 12 but also keen to help in her own way, preferring to help with the café. Because of the nature of the business both the kids are confident and sociable so even if they don’t take this business on they will be able to harness those essential skills in any career choice.”

In the five and a half years the Ballams have built the business in a variety of ways, these have collectively trebled the turnover making Craggan Outdoors a serious going concern. But the Ballams are not resting on their laurels, Keith is constantly scanning to keep his eye on the market and hopefully spot a good investment.

“Looking back I think our only regret is not having done this sooner.” Jill says.

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