The Camping & Caravanning Club: Sara Merckel
Franchisee Sara Merckel explains how the great outdoors inspired her start up
Name: Sara Merckel
Franchise: Camping and Caravanning Club
After years of executive stress Sara Merckel and her husband Martyn discovered the perfect lifestyle when they took out a franchise with the Camping and Caravanning Club. They now run a busy site at Ravenglass, in the Lake District. It’s been a big change but life is good.
“I was working as a management consultant and travelling away from home about three to four days every week,” says Sara Merckel. “My husband was working as a manager at a restaurant and nightclub but it wasn’t the nicest place to be working in.”
“We have two young boys and we had been talking for a while about doing something else but we weren’t sure what. We looked at the obvious with Martyn being in the licensing trade but we thought that that wasn’t the right environment to bring up the boys in.”
Then the Merckels saw an advert in their local paper for a caravan park, they went along, and got hooked on the idea of running a site themselves.
Their bid for the site was unsuccessful, however their name was mentioned to the Camping and Caravanning Club who invited them along to a presentation.
“To be honest we went along rather sceptically and really didn’t think that franchising would be something that would interest us but thought it would teach us something about the caravanning industry.
“But we came away really excited by it. I think the thing that swung it for us was the people who ran the set up there and we really thought that their values and ethics matched ours and rather than it being a ‘us and them’ situation we felt that we would be working toward the same objectives.”
This was in January 2004 and by the end of the summer the Merckels had handed in their notices, sold their house and acquired a loan from the bank to set themselves up in business.
They bought the park in November and spent the winter getting it ready before opening on March 1 2005. The park cost £460,000 while the club franchise was £30,000.
They also had to make some improvements to bring it up to the club’s standard. This included a whole host of things such as the toilet block, electrical network and the pitches.
The work added an additional £150,000 to their costs. Merckel says that the bank took some persuading and they were considered a high risk.
“A lot of people might feel uncomfortable with taking something like this on but Martyn and I were sure we wanted it and we got quite a buzz out of doing it.
“I actually enjoy the feeling of risk, a lot of people wouldn’t and I can understand that.”
The Merckels might well have been apprehensive as they were one of the first people to take out a franchise with the CCC. However, their franchisor appeared to be able to allay any fears that they might have had.
“It was a learning curve on both sides but they were very supportive. When you take such a big step you would expect their to be a few doubts along the way and a few moments when you wonder what you have done but there’s been absolutely none of that and it has been a completely positive experience from start to where we are now.
“They are there to help you find a site and have a lot of expertise. Although Martyn and I have a bit of business sense about us we didn’t know what to look for when we were looking to buy a caravan park and how to make a judgement on the viability of a site.”
The camp has been very busy and they have been turning people away as they have no room for them to stay. Merckel is making far more than she predicted on her business plan.
“It has exceeded what we expected, we are doing better than what we though we would be on our business plan.” Merckel is confident that she has made a good decision, both in business terms and also for her young sons Miles, four, and Louis, three. She and Martyn hail from the area where the park is and she is happy with their new life.
“We have a really good lifestyle”, she says. “We enjoy the camp lifestyle and we also close for about three and a half months and how many people can say they do that?
“The customers that we have are very respectful and are generally really nice people and I think that this is because they are club members. We hoped that this would be the case and it is the reality.”
Their future is full of promise and Merckel considers there to be a number of possibilities for them.
“We could sell this site and buy another that is more profitable, or possibly buy a lease and improve the site so that the leasehold grows in value. There are a lot of options that we have.”
Merckel has a lengthy business background as well as two degrees food and accommodation and another in psychology. However, she doesn’t think that academic qualifications are relevant.
“You need a certain level of ability to cope with the business side. But also you need to have vision, self-motivation and energy. Personal skills are also very important as you have to deal with so many types of people.”