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Why engaging with a community is key to launching a new service

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To those on the outside looking in it may seem parochial, the thought that local residents would stand up in opposition to the idea of new visitors creating extra income, attracting new business, raising the profile of the area and creating new jobs. But big city businesses looking to expand into rural areas cannot afford to ignore the opinions of local residents, the very people who make a community what it is.

Local communities belong to their residents and they deserve the right to play a part in decisions that could affect the way of life they have come to enjoy. Respecting that is crucial to the future success of any new venture from businesses from outside the area.

At Chillisauce, we specialise in organising events and experiences across Europe. A part of our offering is professionally organised stag and hen weekends and we have played a key part in innovating tourist trade in some of the biggest party destinations, including Budapest, Prague, Newquay and Newcastle. It may not sound the most likely contender to sit next to some of the names in that list, but we are currently investigating options to launch packages in Cheddar Village and Gorge, turning it into our latest stag and hen destination.

But launching a new destination has never been a case of simply turning up with coach-loads of lads and descending on the local pubs. First off, we like to think our trips are a little more refined than that, but most importantly we have always been keen to engage from the beginning with the most important stakeholders – not the team, not the boss, but the local community.

Cheddar has a lot to offer as a destination. Excellent pubs, regular events and festivals, a variety of accommodation options, unusual activities and, with the gorge, cliffs and surrounding caves, some must-see natural attractions. So, after identifying Cheddar as a great option, our first move was to contact various organisations in the area, all of which pointed us in the direction of local paper The Cheddar Valley Gazette. Despite what people say about print media being in decline, local newspapers are still a great way of reaching the heart of a community.

We made contact with the local journalists to tell them that we were considering using Cheddar as a hen and stag do destination and asked if they would be able to help us get feedback from the local community. They had an immediate impact, engaging with their readers, contacting the local MP and going directly to other organisations and businesses in the area to gauge their opinions.

Of course, this has its benefits for the newspaper as well as it gave it plenty of sources of stories to work on, while for us it’s a great way to reach local people. Many people worry when it comes to stories in the press that they are not able to ‘control’ the conversation. But my take on this is that you should just let it happen, share as much information as you can and listen carefully to the varying viewpoints. Better to get them out in the open now than to brazenly set up camp in a new destination and feel the wrath of others later.

Here’s an example of some of the coverage so far. The latest piece raises the prospect of a lap dancing venue being opened and discusses whether or not this would be right for a village such as Cheddar. Of course, lap dancing is at the extreme end of the argument when it comes to stag weekends, but it is clearly still an important topic for the community to discuss, which is why it has been raised early in the conversation.

Cheddar is famous for many of its natural attractions and we are most interested in those attractions and businesses that already exist. But opening up the village to the stag and hen industry and the increased footfall that this would bring is also likely to attract related businesses keen to make the most of the new visitors, so we’re glad that the local paper raised the issue. As I said above, better to have these conversations now than go around apologising to people we’ve offended later.

But engaging with the local community isn’t just a defensive move, it’s not just to try and keep everybody sweet so that you can set up your new venture without offending too many people. We’ve also found through the feedback we’ve collected directly and through the local media, the best ideas come from the people who know the area best. Local residents have helped us with suggestions of specific businesses and events that could be incorporated into our packages, local knowledge that we would never have been able to come up with ourselves. 

Similarly, the broad appeal of the area has led to suggestions of promoting Cheddar as a destination to meet growing trends such as quieter stag and hen do’s, or to cater for older couples getting married or those on second marriages, or even ‘sten‘ and ‘hag‘ do’s – getaways that combine stag and hens in one weekend.

Of course, not all the feedback has been positive, but that’s not to say it hasn’t all been useful. We have received feedback from people against the idea and that is vital because our mission as a company is to help people create lasting memories with friends, and being made to feel welcome in a place you visit is very important to that.

Our feedback-gathering mission is still continuing but raising the idea early with the community has helped avoid problems later on down the line, whether or not we take the idea to the next stage.

But one realisation that has come out of the feedback we’ve been getting, is that companies such as Chillisauce can have a wider impact in helping a destination to reinvent itself, something more places are having to do now to cope with the downturn in traditional trade. We’ve seen reports in the national news this week about how once-thriving seaside towns are struggling to attract visitors and are now among the most deprived places in the country.

But if new business ventures can have an impact in turning around the fortunes of such places, then there is a responsibility  for business owners to engage with the local community to find out how you they can have a wider impact beyond just their own bottom line.

Michael Chidzey is the Head of Digital Marketing and PR at Chillisauce.co.uk.

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