"We launched a caravan dealership"
What made you launch a caravan dealership?
“We’d been storing caravans for 17 years, but we always wanted to offer a full service."
“We wanted our customers to store with us, buy from us, service with us and sell through us.”
How long did the process take?
“We first drew up the business plan eight years ago. At that time we had 300 caravans in our storage facility, and we were full.
“The idea was that we would need 500 vans in store to act as our customer base to launch a dealership. We wanted to do things properly. It took us six years to actually buy the extra land to expand our storage site.
“We now have 800 vans in our CaSSOA Gold storage facility, which offers 24-hour manned security.”
What did you have to do, besides buying more land?
“Before the dealership, the buildings were used for warehousing and our other businesses. As each piece of the building became available, we saw whether we could fit what we needed into it.
“Once we established which bits of the building we were going to use, we had to redirect the HGV traffic serving other parts of our business. That meant building a new road down the other side of the facility. Caravanners will never see that, but we had to build 200 metres of road, which wasn’t cheap!
“We finally started developing the caravan business in January 2011.”
How did you build your stock?
“To build a stock of used caravans, we put a request in our newsletter to our storage customers and did some local ‘caravans wanted’ style of advertising.
“We did a ‘soft-opening’ initially, just to our storage customers as they came past. We bought about 30 used caravans for this and had about 15 new models. By the time we got to the proper launch weekend, we had 75 new and used caravans.
“A year on, we still have more new than used product, mainly because we keep selling them! Being a new dealership in a new area, we seem to attract a lot of new caravanners, and they don’t have caravans to part-exchange.”
What was the first van you sold?
“I remember it well. It was a used caravan, an Elddis Wisp, sold by Tony Rodwell. It was also the first caravan we bought in.”
Which manufacturers were the first to support you?
“Adria and Coachman agreed to come on board first. The question was ‘what day do we open fully, and what do we offer people at that point?’ You need a decent offering to draw customers in. The manufacturers don’t send you 20 vans in one go, they arrive in dribs and drabs over a period of months.”
Who was next?
“Bailey came on board in July. Initially we had just the one showroom, but when Bailey signed up, we had to knock through to another warehouse, paint it, put heating in, etc.
“At that point, we had three manufacturers, but we still only had a small service bay. We had to knock down more walls to create bigger service bays and showrooms.
“We wanted to do it properly, so we joined the NCC straight away. We got our workshop accredited before our main launch.”
How much thought went into the layout of the buildings?
“We always envisaged moving the customers through the facility in the best way, so that they could see all of our offering. To get to accessories, you have to pass the new vans, and to get to used vans you have to pass affordable new vans.”
Did people think you were mad, setting up a caravan dealership in the middle of a recession?
“We had been to the NEC shows during the preceding 18 months, to visit manufacturers and suppliers, and everybody we talked to there said – in a very jovial way – ‘you must be crazy!’ However, our investment and effort shows that we have faith in what we’re doing and in the long-term future of the industry.”
What are your unique selling points?
“The biggest advantage for us was the access we had to a large indoor facility right next to a large outdoor storage space. We could offer an extensive covered area so customers would be comfortable and warm and we could show the product in its best light. That was our main USP.
“Today, all of our new touring vans are viewable in a warm and dry showroom.
“The outdoor canopy was put in for the September launch event. That was our one purchase from the demise of the Discover Leisure group. It was another part of our efforts to keep customers sheltered.”
So, the project grew organically as you were setting things up?
“Absolutely. This project is much, much bigger than the original plans. It’s evolved and expanded along the way. Adding Swift and Bailey caravans really accelerated things.
“It was always meant to be a phased development, but we’ve managed to reach phase five or six in about a year.”
Are you close to the caravan manufacturers?
“We work hand-in-hand with the manufacturers. They supply us with great product, that improves in quality and value each year, and we display that product in its best light. It’s a symbiotic relationship in management speak!
“When Bailey made the phone call in July 2011, telling us that they wanted to ‘join the party’, we were able to create a new showroom very quickly.”
Did they ‘bite your hand off’, when you approached them at first?
“No. They have to ensure they’re looking after their dealers and not flooding the market in any region.”
“In 2011, three of the remaining five Discover dealerships were in the north-east, so, when it looked like they were on the edge and finally did go under, we were in a decent enough position with a good enough offering that the manufacturers could then keep their exposure to the general public in this area without too many problems.
“I’d like to think that every manufacturer who has visited us here – Coachman, Adria and Bailey for example – has been impressed by what we have created. Everything we said we were going to do, we have actually done. In fact, it’s actually bigger and better.”
What was the biggest obstacle to launching?
“Convincing the manufacturers, initially. We had no history, and we heard things like: “Sell used vans for a couple of years and then we’ll see.”
“But we’re not a start-up business, we have a strong group of companies, we’ve been in caravan storage a long time and we know how to run a business.
“Once they’d seen who we are, what we do and how we do it, they all wanted to get involved. We now have four of the six main players, and we are very comfortable with that.
What promotion did you do?
“On the marketing side, we embarked on a quite intensive regional TV advertising campaign. We wanted to create the biggest impact just before our launch event. We had 30 slots over 10 days on shows like The X-Factor, Coronation Street and Red & Black. We also did a Christmas TV campaign where we got a slot between Coronation Street and Downton Abbey on Christmas Day.”
What future developments have you got up your sleeves?
“Our immediate plans are to expand the accessory store and the caravan storage facility. We also plan to grow the service centre to increase capacity. After all of that, we might just relax for a while and take stock!”
For more information:
Teesside Industrial Estate
Stockton on Tees
E [email protected] caravans.co.uk
T 01642 764 455