IT is with a sense of immense pride that Steve Richardson looks back on the growth of his adventure pursuits business – just as it enters its fourth decade of trading.
The 30th anniversary of Adventure Sports in Warwick marks a huge milestone for the site where a 40-strong team instruct on more than 50 activities, from driving and shooting through to corporate teambuilding.
And it all evolved from humble beginnings.
Formerly a farmer, Steve, from Leek Wootton, was inspired to change direction when he spotted an advertisement appealing for a paintball site.
And so the first paintballing business in the Midlands was launched.
Following this activity’s increased popularity, in 1990, Steve identified his next opportunity to develop the business when the site was sold to Warwickshire Golf Course at the same time as a 100-acre Ministry of Defence rifle range was put onto the market by King Henry VIII Endowed Trust.
Adventure Sports was born.
He said: “I had been looking at ways of diversifying from farming and when I saw the rifle range had gone up for sale I quickly realised it was the ideal venue for me to expand to my business. We brought the business over here to Wedgnock Lane and started off with paintballing and clay shooting and expanded from there.”
As word spread and the local appetite for adventure grew, a menu of new activities soon began to emerge and, after acquiring six vehicles from the MOD dispersal sales, tank driving experiences were introduced. However, this was only to last 10 years before demand waned.
Steve’s longstanding business partner Matt Hill explained: “It fell out of favour during the first Gulf War when a lot of companies wouldn’t go near military stuff, so that marked a change in tide. It was no longer seen to be very politically correct to be sending your colleagues out on a military theme day when there was a war going on! Also getting parts for the vehicles became very difficult as they got older and became more unreliable.”
Other driving activities followed on the back of its earlier success, including 4×4 and, still one of Adventure Sport’s most popular choices, Quad Bike Trekking.
Matt, also from Leek Wootton, first started working with Steve at age 14 when after school he’d clean paintball guns and do odd jobs around the former site for pocket money. Thirty-three years later, he’s credited by Steve for playing a huge role in the company’s long term success.
Matt said: “We used to contract in a lot of stuff, such as archery, because we didn’t have the kit ourselves but, after a few years – and seeing how popular it is – you realise we can get qualified ourselves and deliver it ourselves and that’s very much the pattern for a lot of the activities we introduced over time.”
But, with a learning curve that has, at times, been as steep as some of the 4×4 course, the pair reveal a big part of the secret to their success has been responding to customer trends and demands.
Come and gone has been all manner of activities and workshops, from chocolate-making, perfume-making and even ferret racing right through to zorbing, helicopter rides and an off-roading activity called Mad Tracks.
Matt said: “This was head to head off-road racing which was massively popular but we just couldn’t keep the karts running because they were plastered with mud. We didn’t want to keep letting people down as reputation is hugely important to us, so it was with a heavy heart that we called it a day on that one after 18 months.”
Steve, himself an Advanced Clay Pigeon Shooting Association Instructor, said: “Things very often come and go because they are fads. Ultimately, it’s about sticking with what works.
Matt added: “And teambuilding challenges have to be a lot softer these days because people are more risk-averse due to Health and Safety regulations. For example, we can’t lead any activities that involve water anymore. All the activities have always been safe but it’s people’s perceptions that have changed over the years.”
There is also a heavy focus on the company’s inclusivity policy, working frequently with Sportability (www.sportability.org.uk) – a national charity which provides sports and adventure pursuits for people with paralysis. The only barrier to disabled visitors taking part, says Matt, is themselves.
“From our point of view, the fact that they’re disabled is an irrelevance. It’s about proof that you can ride or shoot. They’ve only got to prove themselves in the same way anyone does.
“If they are willing to give it a go we will do our best to get them involved, whatever the activity. It may be awkward, and not terribly dignified sometimes, but we’d never turn around and say ‘no, you’re in a wheelchair so you can’t take part.’ We’ve even had blind people driving around our 4x4s course!”
So what is it that really drives the company’s success? According to its founder, the answer is simple – its people.
“The core to any successful business is to find the right staff, staff that clients can relate to and talk to on their own level.,” said Steve.
None more so than his longest serving team members, including 70-year-old Shooting Ground Manager Piers Helps who, as Steve says, was ‘inherited with the rifle range’ all those years ago.
Piers said: “After all this time the most rewarding aspect of the job is still helping people to do things they have never done before. Seeing that smile on their faces is wonderful.
“For example, a gentleman came for a lesson about a year ago because shooting was part of his bucket list – and he was 97! He hit his clays and he was very happy.”
Others include site manager – and former tournament paintballer – James Sanderson and engineer Josh Baker, who have both chalked up more than 14 years at the company. Plus there’s vehicles instructor – and former movie stuntman – John Hollis.
And when John’s not around to share his showbiz stories, that sense of celebrity is still never far away with a line-up of visitors that have turned heads over the years, including TV presenter James May and seven-times World Superbike champion Carl Fogarty. The site has also acted as a set for TV shows such as CBeebies’ The Twirlywoos, The Gadget Show and even Blind Date.
Matt said: “The couple who were paired together on the show, were due to go to a health spa for some pampering but they weren’t those types of people so came along here, at short notice, to do some clay shooting and tank driving. It was very funny because they clearly didn’t like each other at all!
“For the Twirlywoos it took them literally the whole day to shoot one 20-second scene of a character falling into the mud but it was interesting to watch.”
Steve added: “Sometimes we’re surprised by people. The Leicester Tigers First team came here one day and, without wishing to name names, one of the props could not ride a quad bike to save his life. In the end the poor instructor just had to tell him to get off because he couldn’t coordinate himself. It doesn’t matter who you are, if we don’t feel you’re safe or in control of a vehicle, you won’t be allowed to continue. But the vast majority of people have no problem.
“Conversely, we once had a granny who came paintballing. She really got stuck in and very much enjoyed shooting her grandsons!”
Today the site offers a huge range of outdoor activities, including Mixed Activity events, Karting, Junior Karting, Clay Shooting (including 20 and 50 Shot Experiences for novices, Lessons and an extensive Sporting layout, Sportrap, Skeet and DTL for regular shooters, Quad Bike Trekking, Mud & Mayhem, Axe Throwing, Hovercraft, 4×4 Taster Sessions and Safaris, Rally Karts, Powerturn Karts, Reverse Steer Jeeps, Archery, Segways, Digger Driving, Treasure Hunts, Junior and Compact Paintball, Pistol and Rifle Target Gallery, as well as Team Building packages.
With current economic uncertainties still hanging over businesses, what does the next 30 years hold for the man whose project of passion has already overcome – and achieved – so much?
Steve said: “It’s been tough in times of recession because our overheads are very high. We have to pedal like mad to break even here so we weathered a couple of recessions and the uncertainty around Brexit has been the same for us again. It makes life very difficult when the corporate markets are so uncertain so I’m hoping that the confidence will come back now that everybody knows what’s going to happen.
“Brexit is not the result I would have wanted or chosen for the business but it’s the result we’ve got and so we’ve got to make the most of it and I hope that the confidence on the corporate market will come back because obviously corporate entertainment is the first thing to go in times of cutbacks.
“That said, the weekend work has continued to grow across the whole site and that’s why we added the go-karting circuit last year, to replace that lost corporate turnover.”
He added: “I’m very proud of the reputation we’ve got. Everybody who has been here has always said they’ve enjoyed it and has taken away good memories about their experience.
“I count myself as being very lucky to work in the great outdoors and the countryside looking after people who are having a great time and enjoying themselves. It’s very rewarding.”
In the short term watch this space for news of exciting plans for Adventure Sport’s next project – the county’s longest zip wire!
Longer term, the ink is still wet on an 18-year lease extension that’s just been signed for the site.
But now 58, is Steve privately eyeing up an early retirement before that lease expires?
“I would happily retire whenever as long as I was happy that the business would continue in the way it is and continue to grow. But I don’t have any plans to at present,” he said.