Paxton Trust unlocks tourism potential

Historic Paxton House in rural Berwickshire has been developing its tourism strategy and visitor offer with the help of South of Scotland Enterprise (SOSE). As a charitable trust with a tiny staff, they need to make the very most of available time and resources.

SOSE has helped them focus their efforts for maximum impact, with up-to-date tourism market research, in-house expertise, funding and practical advice. Paxton House has made big strides with its business plan, aimed at safeguarding the future of one of Scotland’s finest 18th century Palladian houses.

From ambitious plans to manageable actions

Before coming to SOSE, Paxton House had already carried out a feasibility study. This led to the development of a new business plan. Paxton House General Manager Hermione Hoffman explains: “The new plan is really ambitious and forward-facing. And in order to progress the business plan and action it, we needed to find support. So one of the places that we looked for support was SOSE.”

The Paxton House team were paired with Community Development Specialist Julie Hogg, and the first step was to talk through their business plan. “Our main aim is to reach a sustainable level, and we needed to work out what to focus on as a priority. Julie helped us to chunk the business plan into achievable sections, and advised us on which parts to prioritise. She was then very active in supporting the parts she felt were the easiest and quickest returns on investment in the economic climate at the time. This focused initially on expanding and upgrading their visitor accommodation offer.”

Off the blocks with quick caravan hit

As part of their research, Paxton worked with SOSE’s Economic Infrastructure Development Specialist, Kate Dagg, who made sure the business proposals were a good fit with South of Scotland strategic tourism goals, as well as up-to-date market research, and putting in the right service facilities such as showers.

“We knew that a lot of caravanners were coming to this area, and this was increasing significantly as the UK was in various states of lockdown during the Covid 19 pandemic,” says Hermione. “So, extending the caravan site increases the number that we can host as a base for the South of Scotland and also complements our wedding and events offer at the House. Kate and Julie were really helpful in identifying which market would work best for Paxton and for our area. They recommended that families and couples were the main two areas we should be concentrating on.”

SOSE then helped Paxton to shape their development, and also signposted further funding streams for the next phase. “We're looking at the whole visitor accommodation aspect. We have two self-catering cottages, which we're upgrading, and are also looking at glamping and seven new pods. So, we've also applied to the UK Government Levelling Up Programme with advice from SOSE as well as Scottish Borders Council”.

Funding support for sustainable growth

As part of the support, SOSE provided £310,000 of funding towards the extension of the caravan site and improving the onsite services. SOSE recognised the potential of Paxton House as a key visitor destination for East Berwickshire but were aware of the financial challenges that Paxton Trust were facing and the small team seeking to make progress on ambitious plans. As a result, SOSE recommended and offered support for an additional role over a two-year period to help increase their commercial income and viability of the Trust. Says Hermione: “The proposal came from SOSE, as they identified that our team is really, really small. As well as having the new caravan pitches, we’ll also have someone who's dedicated to really pushing forwards on that commercial aspect.” The role of the new team member will support the overall business plan, which covers the wide spectrum of activities typical of an historic visitor attraction such as Paxton House. However, they will be particularly focused on maximizing income from the new and upgraded visitor accommodation as well as extending the commercial events activity.

Hermione says it was important that SOSE recognized the nature of work at visitor attractions. “In a day-to-day situation, I might be cleaning the toilets, or sorting out the internet, which takes you away from the actual business side of the role. They recognized that, and recognized that my area of expertise is not commercial. My passion is the heritage side, the visitor attraction side. The board felt that we would really benefit from additional support there, and helped us to frame that. That was a surprise benefit, and shows that they understand the journey that we're on, and are championing us.”

Bigger picture & cultural heritage

Hermione explains that the accommodation development is just the start. “The business plan covers several major areas, including redevelopment of the designed landscape; marketing and branding to highlight the location on the Scottish-English border; events, weddings, community and family-oriented activities; infrastructure including paths and children's play areas, linking with Destination Tweed and the Union Chain Bridge projects. And then working with national partners such as Museums and Galleries Scotland, National Museums Scotland, National Trust for Scotland, and National Galleries of Scotland.”

Paxton House is home to beautiful artworks of national importance, making it a draw for cultural visitors. “We want to reorient our collections with the opportunity to showcase other national touring exhibitions, as well as digitization of the collections to widen the profile of our unique cultural heritage. We want to tell new stories with the collections, as well. As part of this, we plan to redevelop the East courtyard section of the house to create a significantly larger catering option, and event space for larger cultural events and activities.”

Strategic & practical expertise

Hermione says SOSE’s Julie Hogg was a great help in pulling these ambitious plans together. “Julie's really fully understood the broad picture. She was able to support and offer guidance throughout, and helped us identify realistic and achievable goals. She has expert knowledge of our area, but also of our attraction and what we are, which helped us quite a lot.”

But SOSE advice wasn’t just about the bigger picture, says Hermione. “It was also little silly things like with the caravan park, do we put showers in or not? They used their knowledge of the tourist industry to say “yes, you definitely need to put showers in. That’s what people will be looking for. Another recommendation was on the glamping village.”

“We have small bespoke weddings down in our boathouse, and the glamping pods will be close to that. It links really beautifully with rustic style, and you can hire the whole area. It’s quite a good plan, but SOSE really helped us home in on what parts we needed to focus on and what we needed to attract. We could have done seven family pods, and not looked at couples. But they said that that was key, especially with the Destination Tweed link – the planned ‘source to sea’ walkroute.”

“Obviously, we're on that route. So having accommodation that people can stay close to the river is a key selling point. SOSE came and looked at the site with us, because we had some glamping units already at Paxton, but they were canvas tents, and sited in the wrong area. They helped us identify why it hadn't worked well there, and where we should move it, to make it more successful. So that was highly practical advice, based on different glamping sites that they've been to.”

Tapping into SOSE expertise

Hermione says her SOSE adviser Julie has been “phenomenal – very, very good at her job, and so easy to talk to”. And she advises businesses in the South of Scotland who haven’t yet been in touch with SOSE:

“Just pick up the phone. I just say phone them up and ask a question. Just ask, you know, get in touch. They're really friendly, really easy to speak to. And even if they don't have the answer, they'll know someone who does. So they'll be able to put you in the right direction.”

SOSE Community Development Adviser Julie Hogg said:
“I was delighted to be able to work with Hermione and the Paxton Trustees. Paxton House is just such a magical setting and has so many amazing elements to offer to visitors. With their business plan, you could really see the potential and ambition to build on and enhance what is already a really strong asset for the local community and Eastern Berwickshire.

Hermione and the team were fantastic to work with – very open minded on development opportunities but also very keen to ensure the integrity of the House, its cultural importance and operations. Hermione, in particular, is so passionate and positive about Paxton so it has been really enjoyable and rewarding working with them to achieve their initial aims. I am excited and look forward to the next steps of the journey with them.”

SOSE Chief Executive Jane Morrison-Ross said:
“Paxton House is an important and popular attraction for both tourists and the local Berwickshire community alike – and as such, it is fantastic that SOSE can play a part in Paxton Trust’s ambitious regeneration plans.

“Having quality accommodation for visitors in the South of Scotland to stay in is hugely important to increasing tourism and promoting the culture and heritage of our region.

“As such, we hope our support for the extension and enhancement of the caravan park at Paxton House will prove beneficial not only to the attraction, but also to Berwickshire as a whole.”

Find out more:

Visit the Paxton House website

“I would just say, pick up the phone and ask a question. They're really friendly, really easy to speak to. And even if they don't have the answer, they'll know someone who does. So they'll be able to put you in the right direction.”

Hermione Hoffman, Manager, Paxton House