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Go Ape swing to success: A tale of evolution, the great outdoors and family business

After Go Ape founders Rebecca and Tristram Mayhew claimed the accolade for Rural Business of the Year at the 2016 Amazon Growing Business Awards, we caught up with the latter to find out how the company achieved success – and what lies ahead.
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The story of Go Ape is a great one. After a trip to France, Rebecca and Tristram Mayhew witnessed a family swinging through the trees Tarzan-style. One thing led to another and after quitting their London jobs the duo set up a UK business with a similar concept in mind.

After all, according to the company’s website: “You’ve only to consider Darwin’s theory of evolution to see why mankind loves spending time in treetops; it’s part of who we are and a lot of fun, too. Of course, evolution has meant today’s humans need a bit of help – and that’s where Go Ape comes in.”

It’s no wonder then that Go Ape reported a record turnover of £1.2m at its Scottish centre in 2016 – which is known for having two of the longest zip-wires in the UK. This was followed a few months after by the company scooping up an award at the inaugural Amazon Growing Business Awards. But its growth can’t all be chalked down to our want of communing with nature – or tapping into our fantasy of being the “noble savage” such as Tarzan or someone from the Na’vi tribe in Avatar.

Who wouldn't want to do the Tarzan scream swinging through these trees?

Who wouldn’t want to do the Tarzan scream swinging through these trees?

It’s a question we put to Tristam Mayhew, who explained that any business could gain success by sticking to its values and mantras – something Go Ape does incredibly well.

“We aim to be the best adventure leisure business on the planet, where you can be home in time for tea,” he said. “We want to challenge, surprise, excite and seek to be two steps better in everything we do. By being bold from the start we created a momentum for growth, which attracted great talent and keeps the momentum going.”

Growth, Mayhew explained, was therefore simply in the company’s DNA, with Go Ape setting itself big, hairy goals, before working out what needs to be done to achieve them.

“That becomes our ‘to do’ list,” he explained. “Simples! It’s about the journey not the destination, but we share any success along the route. It’s a family thing. And it’s the right thing to do.”

Family seems to be a key element of the company, with the two founders also being husband and wife. But while some immediately claim they’d kill each other, Mayhew stated that had one of them done it alone they’d be so obsessed the other would reach for the booze, the axe or a divorce lawyer.

“It reminds me of Winston Churchill’s answer to the question of what he thought of democracy,” Mayhew explained. “Churchill replied along the lines of ‘It’s the least worst of the alternatives’. There is a danger it can lead to deeply unromantic pillow talk but overall it has been a great blessing. We have been fortunate to have been able to design the perfect work-life balance for us and our children. As a family we have shared a tree-mendous adventure for the last 14 years, with huge highs and lows.

“In the early days we would travel round our Go Ape courses with our three kids in a campervan so that we could really breathe the culture of the business as it grew. We have had very different roles within the business but this Spring we moved to a joint chairman role, both three days a week. That will allow us to visit all our teams regularly, together, and work on the business strategy rather than the day to day detail. It also allows room for other interests and for our family.”

Of course, there are more characteristics aside from working with someone you trust that separate successful fast-growing businesses from the rest of the pack, from understanding the market to acknowledging that becoming an industry leader won’t happen overnight. But one thing that can prove both your lucky charm and downfall, is marketing. Done right, it can become the best tool in your survival kit box.

And when you’re in an industry so directly linked to what makes Britain, well, Britain – MP Rory Stewart once said, “when people think about Britain they think and dream about the great outdoors” – the success of your marketing endeavours becomes all the more important. In this case, word of mouth is your best friend.

It’s a concept Mayhem stands by, saying: “We know that if we design in ‘wow’ and challenge, surprise and delight customers they will tell their networks.”

He further added about the company’s marketing tactics: “We try to encourage our customers to live more adventurously and hope they will become de facto brand ambassadors. And the campaigns that our marketing teams deliver are not centred just around Go Ape activities but encourage our customers to create their own adventures, share adventures with friends and family and get out there and try new daring deeds as a result of doing Go Ape.

“The most important thing is that our marketing is fun and engaging and that our tone of voice and look and feel represents who we are as a brand.”

Go Ape wins Rural Business of the Year at the 2016 Amazon Growing Business Awards

Go Ape wins Rural Business of the Year at the 2016 Amazon Growing Business Awards

With such tactics up their sleeve, the growth journey isn’t over for the couple. And with 2017 upon us, Mayhew unveiled a little about the opportunities that lie in wait.

“There are so many possible opportunities to grow the existing business, so we need to be careful,” he said. “We need to be able to see the wood from the trees. Currently we are focused on expanding in the UK and in the US, with new locations. We’re also finding new innovative adventures to add to our existing activities.

“Beyond that there is of course a big world out there with plenty of beautiful forests. We enjoy star-gazing about brand stretch. Essentially it will be down to the appetite and ambition of the team in years to come. I look forward to finding out where the future will take us. I know it will be one heck of an adventure.”

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Shané Schutte

Shané Schutte is a senior reporter at Real Business, with a particular specialism in employment and business law, human resources, information technology and sales/marketing.

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