Turning a loss into a big win

Show notes (summary)

Village, church and community halls often rely heavily on rental income from those using their buildings to provide services and activities to the community. So if, for some reason, those services or activities suddenly stop, halls can find themselves in a bit of a financial pickle. Finbar Murphy is Chair of Cookham Dean Village Hall in Berkshire, which lost a key tenant just over two years ago. Thankfully, they responded with an idea that’s not only kept everything going for the hall, but is helping local residents and businesses and has even spread to another community nearby. Finbar joins us for a Village Halls Week special episode to explain how it all works…

Transcript: Season 2 / Episode 2

Johnny Thomson 00:00
Hello everyone and welcome to The Village Halls Podcast sponsored by Allied Westminster, the UK’s largest specialised provider of village hall insurance and the home of villageguard. Village, church and community halls often rely heavily on rental fees paid by those using their buildings to deliver services and activities to the community. So if, for some reason, those services or activities suddenly stop, halls can find themselves in a bit of a financial pickle. My guest today, Finbar Murphy is the chair of Cookham Dean Village Hall in Berkshire, which lost its main tenant just over two years ago. Now, thankfully, they responded in quite an innovative way, with an idea that’s not only kept everything going for the hall, but it’s also helping local residents and businesses and it’s even spread to another community nearby. Hi Finbar, thanks for joining me on the show day.

Finbar Murphy 00:58
Hi, Johnny, it’s a pleasure.

Johnny Thomson 01:00
So tell me about Cookham Dean, your involvement with the village hall and what exactly happened back in October 2019 which led to a bit of a rethink there.

Finbar Murphy 01:13
Sure, yeah. Okay. So, in terms of background, the village hall, or the Cookham Dean Village Hall has been in existence for over 50 years. Until recently, there was a long term tenant, a nursery childcare centre, that was operational every day. But unfortunately they closed down in October 2019, which is obviously a dent in the, as you say, the rental revenues for the for the hall. But also, it did give us a little bit of an opportunity in terms of until then the whole was unavailable on a daily basis every morning. So we were sort of restricting the scope of what we could maybe other services we could offer. So it was a good time, just have a bit of a rethink and see what else we could do. And we struck upon the idea of trying a local market, just one day a week to see how that might work as a replacement, and also as something that we thought the village was in need of as we’d lost out our traditional village shop about 12 years prior. So we sort of started planning on that and then we had the situation in early 2020.

Johnny Thomson 02:24
I was just think yeah, timing wise, October 2019. All all good plans laid and then suddenly, something something else happened? Yeah.

Finbar Murphy 02:34
Yeah so we had the big the big C word, in sort of, I guess it was January or February of 2020. So we decided just to put it on hold, because at the time, we thought it wasn’t appropriate to be doing something and we would just sort of wait and see how things panned out. But what we discovered in the next couple of months is that there were quite a few local producers who were living in or near the village who lost their traditional route to market. So we had a market gardener who used to supply all the local restaurants with fresh vegetables. And we had some bakers who had been furloughed by one of the by one of the local restaurants. And we decided we would just try the market on a sort of a small scale to help those those suppliers out and also to sort of test test the waters a little bit. So in about June of 2020, we started a market on a Friday morning in the hall, initially just with three stalls. And we were pleasantly surprised by the number of people that came along to support it. Now, some of that was because it was the middle of lockdown and there wasn’t as much to do as they probably normally had. But I think there was from the off, there was quite a groundswell of people wanting to support local producers, and and doing things locally. So we’ve just really grown from that. We managed to, to trade all the way through both lockdowns and as as the restrictions were eventually lifted, we could increase the capacity and so forth. So you know, we’ve gone from having three stores, which was essentially bread, vegetables and cheese to about 18 at this week’s market actually, I just counted it before. And, and they’re a mix mostly mostly food, but also some can be a bit seasonal sort or local craft and our producers like to come along

Johnny Thomson 04:30
Yeah, you came up with an interesting name for the market as well, didn’t you?

Finbar Murphy 04:34
Well, we did. We sort of had the name Metre Market in mind. And the idea behind that was more to do with food miles or food kilometres and bringing, you know, food or local produce available metres from your door. Now, because of COVID, it sort of got assumed that it’s to do with the two metre ruling that we had for our spacing in during lock downs, but yeah, we, we did think of it before COVID. So we try and try and get it back to what it is. I mean, and for us it is, it is where we can about supporting local producers. I mean, of the ones we’ve got at the moment, I think 12 of them are all small, single person, businesses that have either started up in the last two years, or are just trading, you know, maybe not as their full time jobs, but just something they want to do on a Friday type thing. So we’re quite pleased, though, and we continually get new requests and people who are interested in trying a stall or want to know how to get started. So that’s quite a pleasing aspect of it for us that it’s not, you know, big businesses just pretending to be small. It’s genuinely people who are starting up and producing something themselves and then, and then selling it.

Johnny Thomson 05:52
No complaints from the imperialists insisting that you should call it the Yard Market instead, or anything like that?

Finbar Murphy 05:59
Well, we have to sort of move with the times. So I think we’re all metric now. So we’ll have to stick with Metre plus it rhymes better than Yard Market, I think.

Johnny Thomson 06:09
Yeah. Good one. It’s probably best we don’t even go there anyway, because it could turn into all kinds of interesting debate. How do you promote it Finbar, because it sounds like it’s grown and it’s grown into quite a popular thing, yeah?

Finbar Murphy 06:25
Yes, I mean, in terms of a market, we don’t get 1000s of people turning up, we get we get, we get around 100 people roughly a week would come along to the market. But I think the difference is they do come along to buy and support it more than sort of going somewhere… and then there’s a market. So you’d have a browse around and maybe buy one thing, you know. So yeah, we we do try and pick and because it’s weekly, we are encouraging people to change their shopping habits to shop locally, and, and so forth. So we have some we’ve done various sort of of leaflet drops and banners around the village. But we have quite a lot of social media presence and postings that go out. And we’ve built with the help of a local lady quite a strong sort of Instagram following, and so forth. So we’ve promoted it quite heavily on Facebook, Instagram, brilliant. And we run our own sort of emailing and promotions across a customer base as well.

Johnny Thomson 07:18
Excellent. And with the success of it all, I guess he must feel a lot more confident now about the long term viability of the hall as well, of course, which is really important.

Finbar Murphy 07:27
I think if I’m putting my sort of village hat on, yes, it’s been it has been a godsend. During the lockdown period, obviously, we had minimum rental happening. So, that was that was good, but now we can sort of see we’ve got a steady stream. And and because of the way the market operates, we’ve we’ve pretty well replaced about half of the revenue we’re getting from a long term, five day rental. Yep, just by just by renting the market out for one morning. And we still have four mornings where we can now do other things. So we’ve got a couple of dance classes, as well as things that just want it for an hour that we can now accommodate as well. So it does look like it’s going to be a viable solution for us moving forward.

Johnny Thomson 08:10
Yeah. And that wider support to the community as well, especially with the small businesses that you mentioned. I gather you’ve even had a few new businesses spring up as a result of this, yeah?

Finbar Murphy 08:21
Yeah, we’ve had at least four people that I can think of off the top my head who’ve started a business or tried some business product, you know, a granola or, or a different style of baking through the market. And then they’ve sort of been able to tweak that. You know, we were fairly supportive of people who want to try something. So you know, we don’t, we can we can help them with various things with technologies, and then with some store space and stuff, and even, you know, paper bags and boxes that they might need just to minimise their investment. And it’s quite good to see that they get started and now they’re growing and going off to other markets and have some confidence that their product is good as well. So that’s a pleasing aspect of it.

Johnny Thomson 09:07
Brilliant. Yeah. And as I mentioned in the intro, as well, the ideas also expanded elsewhere, hasn’t it, to another village, which is just the other side of Maidenhead right?

Finbar Murphy 09:17
Yeah, we are trialling one in Holyport, a second village, which is which is only literally 15 minutes away. Yeah, like all village halls, well like most village halls, you know, we’re a volunteer community and to have a weekly activity that is manned by volunteers is quite difficult, or nearly impossible. So we did early on, decide we will try and make this a commercial solution where, you know, over time, we can just say, it’s profitable enough that it that it’s a small little part time business for someone to run the markets on our behalf. And part of sort of having more than one market being operated by the same people was just to see if we get a little bit of economy of scale. And get it to a point where it’s it’s something that can be run and by an independent, and then the hall essentially just become landlords. And that’s, I think the model that we that we will, we need to probably to need to tweak it to make it work better, but that’s part of our expansion into another village just to see how that can progress.

Johnny Thomson 10:29
Yeah, and you’re extending the availability of the produce online as well, so I guess there’s scope for things to grow even further, if that sort of takes off, too yeah?

Finbar Murphy 10:40
Yes, we do. So as part of that, as well as being a traditional market, we also run a website for ordering and pick up where people can order products and pick them up from the market at the door, if you like, or in some cases, some things will run out. So at least they can sort of, you know, have them kept to one side. But we also will do deliveries in the local area, which obviously in lockdown was quite handy for people who were isolating, and so forth. And we do have some people who, who still use the service now just to order stuff when the maybe, you know, aren’t capable of getting up to the market or working that day, so we can deliver to them in the local area as well.

Johnny Thomson 11:21
Excellent. Well, I’ll pop a link to the to the Meter Market site on our website with this episode. It’s it’s a great idea, Finbar, and one I’m sure other halls across the country will definitely be interested in too. Let me ask how much of a challenge it’s been, and also what your advice would be for anywhere else, maybe looking to start their own local market in a in a similar way,

Finbar Murphy 11:47
I think that there is there is a lot more work required to get it up and running and to manage the sort of stallholders and get that momentum going than we thought. I mean, we were probably a little bit spoiled in terms of lockdown encouraged more people to shop locally. So it was the environment was right for starting up. But to maintain a rota of… If you want to have a weekly market to encourage people to change their shopping habits, then you have to have enough stallholders so you can rotate them around and keep the and keep the lineup fresh if you like. And that is a bit of a challenge actually, just in terms of managing all of the different storeholders and making sure that you keep your market full. We’ve invested quite a bit in some technology and infrastructure to make that easier for us. And, you know, that’s certainly something that makes the day to day running of it and the reconciliation of all the money that goes through and so forth, much easier than when we first started, we were pretty well doing it manually. And, you know, we made some investments early on that are sort of paying off now in terms of the speed and the the efficiencies that we can get from it.

Johnny Thomson 13:09
Yeah. I think the thing I really like is the fact that, you know, in essence, this, this all started off with a with a negative, you know, in terms of losing that, that key tenant, but it seems to me, you immediately jumped to the positive and thought, well, that frees up space and time for us to do something else rather than just thinking we’re doomed. It’s all over, you know, and I think that’s great.

Finbar Murphy 13:33
I think, you know, as a village hall you sort of get complacent because you know, this was a it was a shame to lose them. Because, you know, they’d been part of the village, you know, in infrastructure for so long. But, you know, we probably had taken it for granted, they would always be there. So, it was a bit of a bit of an initial shock, but yeah, it has turned out to be a positive thing. And we sort of have to make most most use of it.

Johnny Thomson 13:59
Yeah, I guess you must just all feel very proud to have got the whole thing up and running, especially during that time as well.

Finbar Murphy 14:05
Yeah, and, and we have sort of noticed a couple of sort of ancillary benefits for the village hall or the village community. We find that new people who’ve moved into the village, particularly in the last 18 months, there hasn’t been as much sort of community activity or fetes or things that they would go to to find out more about the village. So we find they turn up at the market. And quite a few the stallholders live in the village, so all of a sudden there’s a connection, they’ll find someone who’s at the same school as their children, you know, they can find out all the various little bits of bits of information about what what day’s bin day and so forth and, you know, what’s the best pub and that those activities. And you know, previously maybe that was a community shop or you know, the village shop would have held that role. And we’re finding the market you know, does become a little bit of a focus. People take quiet long time coming through and chatting to other storeholders, chatting to each other. And that’s sort of been an added bonus for us, I think in terms of in terms of sort of moving the village hall a little bit back to the centre of the centre of the community and making it sort of a, you know, a purposeful bit of the fabric. So we’re sort of pleased we were able to do that as well.

Johnny Thomson 15:22
Yeah, that’s that’s, that’s wonderful. Thanks for taking the time to tell us about the Metre Market, Finbar. It’s always great to hear about, you know, successful local ideas. And in particular, thanks for sharing your story with our listening community.

Finbar Murphy 15:40
It’s a pleasure. Yep. Can I just mentioned one thing, other thing we have done there. As part of it, we just started running at the request of one of our, one of our customers, a weekly raffle for charity, because particularly in lockdown, there’s a lot of fundraising goes on in this area for various local charities. And we found that they couldn’t do their bingo nights and, you know, suppers that they maybe would do. So we’ve just been running a local weekly, weekly, charity hamper raffle with all goods donated by the stallholders, and then the the customers buy tickets in that. And that’s actually turned out to be really successful. I think we’ve raised about nearly £12,000 in a year, just by, you know, having the footfall and having the market and then adding something on top of it. So that’s been, you know, a little bonus for the, for the local charities in our area.

Johnny Thomson 16:32
Yeah, so it’s just a range of charities in the in the local area that the funds go to?

Finbar Murphy 16:35
Yeah, some are small niche ones for here. Others that, you know, we’ve got some palliative care homes here, Sue Ryder, and the NSPCC, you know, so it’s a mix of different ones that are based around this area.

Johnny Thomson 16:49
And isn’t that fantastic? You always get this don’t you with a community idea, there’s just always so many things that then subsequently spin off as you as you’ve mentioned, whether it’s it’s people coming together more or like you say new ideas, raffles and prizes. It’s just wonderful stuff.

Finbar Murphy 17:09
Yeah, and it makes it makes it it makes it an enjoyable thing as well. It’s just you know, anything to do with anything we can make that makes it more community focus, I think is an improvement and and people enjoy it.

Johnny Thomson 17:20
Yeah. Well, brilliant. As I say Finbar. Thanks very much for coming on and sharing your story.

Finbar Murphy 17:26
Excellent, my pleasure.

Johnny Thomson 17:26
Yeah. And and that’s all folks for for this episode. Many many thanks to our headline sponsor and specialist insurance provider Allied Westminster for making our podcast possible and who services you can discover more about at villageguard.com. And to online booking system provider Hallmaster who also sponsor our podcast and can be found at hallmaster.co.uk. Quick thanks also to Kate Meads, Community Buildings Advisor at Connecting Communities in Berkshire, who kindly got in touch to let us know about the Metre Market. Thanks, Kate. Keep them coming! You’ve been listening to The Village Halls Podcast, a unique listening community for Britainss village, church and community halls, and anyone interested in the vital community services they provide. We’ll be back again soon with another episode, so if you haven’t already, please visit the village halls. podcast.com to subscribe, sign up for updates, link through to our social media pages and to find out more. Until the next time, goodbye for now.