Go Ape: Tristram Mayhew

Go Ape's 'chief gorilla' gives Growing Business the view from his treetop empire

Less than a decade ago, Tristram Mayhew was descending into madness – well, according to his friends at least. They couldn’t understand why he wanted to shed his sensible communications job and start frolicking around in the forest, with a treetop adventure business which seemed fraught with risk – both physical and commercial.

Ten years on, Mayhew is having the last laugh. His company, Go Ape, currently turns over around £11m a year, with profits of around £1m. More than 2.5 million people have flocked to his 25 sites, which offer the chance to escape the tedium of urban life by shooting from tree to tree on zip wires and tyre swings, and now the business is eyeing the massive opportunities represented by the US and beyond.

From corporate jungle to treetops

After serving in the army for ten years, Mayhew earned a glowing reputation at General Electric, where he was offered the job of head of communications, based in Barcelona, in early 2002. Instead of taking it, Mayhew quit the company – he had been planning his treetop adventure business for months, and it was nearly ready to launch.

Against the advice of their friends, Mayhew and his wife Rebecca pitched the idea to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents and the Health and Safety Executive in late 2001, and the authorities loved it. Mayhew says “they were fed up of being branded boring, and they thought the country was becoming too safe. So they said we could do it, provided risk was managed.”

With the safety authorities on board, Mayhew took his pitch to the Forest Commission (FC), and found them equally receptive. On the back of this meeting, Mayhew signed a deal to open his first Go Ape site on FC land in Thetford, East Anglia. If the site took off, the contract made provision for five further sites – ensuring the venture enjoyed stability, and exclusivity, right from the outset.

Mayhew agreed to pay the FC a basic guaranteed rent, and hand over a share of any profits – giving the FC an incentive to take on much of the expense of marketing the new venture. However the start-up costs remained considerable: around £350,000 for equipment, incorporation and accountancy costs, and the construction of a new on-site staff cabin.

The husband-and-wife team threw everything they had at the venture, and by March 2002, only a few weeks after the job offer from General Electric, Mayhew opened the Thetford site.

Growing the business

Instantly, Mayhew knew he was onto a winner. He says that “our staff were having to rip the harnesses off customers at the end, and people were coming back three days on the trot.” Suitably buoyed, he decided on a rapid growth strategy; three additional sites were swiftly opened, and marketing bases were opened nationwide in FC visitors’ centres – prime locations for Go Ape’s target audience.

Yet, in the rush for growth, Mayhew admits some important details may have been overlooked. “Funding growth was a problem, the initial pricing plan was wrong. We’d forgotten about VAT, and cash flow forecasting had been omitted from the business plan.”

Things came to a head “when one of our courses opened late because of planning permission delays. Suddenly, my accountant was on the phone saying we weren’t able to pay the wages. If the problem had escalated, the banks wouldn’t have lent us money and all our instructors would have left.”

To make ends meet, Mayhew swallowed his pride and borrowed money from his mum, paying it back two months later. “If I hadn’t done that, we’d have gone under. That experience forced us wise up; we brought in a finance director and started to think about cashflow forecasts, best/worst case modelling and things like that.”

Turning profits

As the company tightened its administration and business plan, the finances improved. By its fourth birthday, Go Ape was turning profits and new sites were opening up everywhere. Each partnership was based on a leasing agreement, and all sites were carefully selected. Mayhew says:

“Firstly, we looked for the team who run the premises, because we need an open door policy with landowners and senior managers. We also looked for landscapes offering genuine fun – if we do that, customers will think it’s amazing, so the aesthetic quality of a wood or park is crucial. And we have to look at boring stuff, like car parks, toilets, and existing power supplies.”

While the key equipment used on Go Ape’s courses – ropes, zip wires, safety harness, walkie talkies, computers and recon equipment – has remained largely unchanged, the company’s safety strategy has evolved over the years. Mayhew and his team have honed a rigorous staff training programme, with a strategy based on “thinking carefully about worst-case scenarios, and looking to employ experienced climbers who’ve seen accidents in their private lives and have a sixth sense when it comes to proactively monitoring risk.”

Diversification

Despite the emergence of several competitors, Go Ape’s success has continued almost unabated. Profits hit £1m in 2009, and have remained in seven figures ever since, while the staff roster has increased to 450. Mayhew says he and his team can now “roll out Go Ape courses in our sleep,” so, after focusing on the same basic course for the last nine years, they are beginning to diversify.

The UK naturally poses some limitations in terms of the number of Go Ape sites he can feasibly open. The US is a very different story, and the first American site was opened last year. Mayhew and his wife were initially approached by another husband-and-wife team, living in the UK but originally from America, who wanted to take their idea stateside. The first site is already proving successful, and Mayhew says he’s planning on opening five or six more sites in America, because “it’s physically close – we’re only about five hours away from the East Coast – we have the same language, and we think it’s a fun place to work. There are lots of similar ideas to Go Ape in Europe, but not so many in America.”

Meanwhile, the company is building on its core tree-top climbing operation; Mayhew has purchased a fleet of Segway scooters for visitors to tear around the forest floor, and mountain bikes are now being provided for those who prefer to stay grounded. Go Ape has even opened its own café near Kidderminster.

Exit strategy

Mayhew says that, at the moment, there is no exit strategy, although “since we started winning awards we’ve had at least two enquiries a month from venture capitalists and private equity firms. We’ve got big plans ourselves, so we don’t want to sell.

“But we’re always trying to run the businesses as professionally as possible, so if we were to sell tomorrow, it would be in good shape.” From an external vantage point, it seems Go Ape is in very good shape indeed.

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