23rd March, three years on
Remember a time when that word never really existed in common parlance?
Here we are again at the 23rd of March. A date that is burned into the back of my brain for all eternity. It’s the date that my business was forced to close by the government, three years ago now. How long for? I had no idea.
I’d spent the two weeks leading up to this date in a complete, gut-wrenching panic state. I’d been in a tail-spin, telling all my friends that we would be in this “lockdown thing” they were having in Italy. I had literally just returned from Tuscany, and was scared I’d got this disease. I hadn’t. I didn’t get it until the August. And oh boy (or girl, they, etc) did I get it!
And lockdown happened. On this day three years ago. Our first of three lockdowns as it happened.
I had no choice but to close the doors, cancel all of our bookings and stare at my walls, crying. That was tough. Everything I’d worked my butt off for over the last decade, just on pause with no end of a tunnel in sight.
I’d thrown everything into this business for 20% of my life. I genuinely thought that could be it. End of. I assumed, wrongly, that I would lose everything.
Before I go any further, I will state very clearly that I am not suggesting my woes and memories are worse than anybody else’s, they are just my experience. And I’ve chosen to brain-dump as a cathartic exercise (as I often do) to mark the anniversary of a date that I will never forget.
Millions of people suffered way more than I did, but I am the only one who lived my experience of it. So I will share what this date means to me, with the caveat that I’m not asking anyone to break out the violins, I’m just writing, that’s all. Not only have I chosen to empty my head once more, you have chosen to read the debris. Anyone not reading this didn’t get this far, obvs. Free will and all that?
I had nothing else to do back then but write, as my business was forcibly closed. For a total of 227 days in the end. And I wrote. A lot. For the unaware, I wrote a kind of ‘diary’ on Facebook, which ended up at 197,000 words. About three times the amount of a standard novel. Bonkers. Feel free to read it if you ever have a few weeks to kill. It’s on the Woodfarm Barns website.
My only solace during that dark time was riding my bike every day (I rode Lands End to John O’Groats, ‘Everesting’, and raised £1300 for Suffolk Mind) and my twice weekly delivery rounds for Earsham Street Deli. I got to get out of the house and have a laugh with the girls, as well as meet lots of their amazing customers, who were isolated and shielding, but in need of food deliveries.
Clearly all my food drops were socially distanced, but my earliest memory (and one of my fondest) was on my first delivery round. This chap answered the door as I stood back, and he turned and shouted to his wife “Look darling, it’s another human”. It’s weird, but as funny as that was to us that day, it seemed oddly fitting in our new dystopian existence. I felt like I was living in a movie.
I lost a fortune. Well to my little independent business it was a fortune at least. We are talking into the hundreds of thousands of pounds in lost revenue. That hurt. I didn’t think we would survive as a business, but we did. We came back stronger than ever. Because of the way I was able to approach it I guess. My bloody-mindedness, my determination, my stubbornness, my brilliant team, and my incredible customer base, aka the Woodfarm guests.
Another caveat here – I’m not asking for praise, or medals, but I am proud of the way we bounced back as a collective. A lot didn’t. And I feel for everyone who lost their job or business, and of course, so much more for those who lost their lives.
The only good thing to come out of our pandemic experience for my business, was the level of faith we have seen from our guests. We did manage to build our audience as well, which was a good thing.
But from a loyalty and trust perspective, we have emerged from the COVID episode well. Guests tend to love what we do and how we do it, and they rely on it.
I have seen our levels of repeat business rise steadily over the years, bit by bit. We’ve trickled steadily upwards from around 20% five years ago, to 26% in 2022.
That’s over a quarter of all our bookings coming from previous guests. It’s one of the things that I’m proudest of. A quarter of our guests came back for more. That’s a lot. A heck of a lot.
I for one have been to some nice places, with the intention of going back, but rarely do. A quarter of our guests do though. This makes me happy, because it is absolute confirmation that we are doing something right as a team. We put such a stringent additional cleaning regime in place, and informed people of what we were doing.
So what is our 2023 repeat business statistic so far?
Yes, 32!!!! That’s crazy. A third of our bookings so far this year are from guests returning, booking with confidence.
Am I chuffed with that? Yes I flippin’ well am. Am I bragging about it? Oh my god yes! Suck it! Does it make up for all the money I lost? No, but it helps.
So, happy March 23rd to all of us who are still here to tell the tale of our pandemic. And rest in peace to those who didn’t make it.
Featured Image by Gary Butterfield