Peter Ranscombe charts the journey that took a wildlife tour business in Perthshire and enhanced it with a visitor attraction and boat operator.
Donald and Julie Riddell must be based in the most inappropriately-named village for their business.
The road signs may tell visitors that the hamlet of “Dull” in Perthshire is twinned with “Boring” in Oregon, but there’s seldom a tedious moment at the Riddells’ firm, Highland Safaris.
What began with a single ex-army Landrover in 1992 – taking visitors to the top of hills to watch red deer and enjoy the spectacular views – has expanded to include activities such as forest safaris, four-by-four driving and bespoke events like corporate away-days and incentives, plus hen and stag dos for the more adventurous brides and grooms.
The business now includes its own red deer centre, complete with shop, café, discovery trail for children and the chance for visitors to try their hand at gold panning.
Last year, the company grew again, launching Loch Tay Safaris, which brought boat tours back to Perthshire’s largest body of water on the biggest scale since the days of steamships, 100 years earlier.
That latest addition to the business has pushed turnover through the £1m-mark for the first time, so it’s no surprise that Donald and Julie have had little time to sit and enjoy the glorious summer’s sunshine with which Scotland was blessed during June and July.
“You said you’d hang up your boots if we turned over £500,000 in a year,” Donald reminds Julie as we sit in the sun at one of the picnic benches outside the café and watch visitors panning for gold and getting ready to meet the red deer and barn owl in the centre.
“The business has gone through growth spurts over the years,” nods Julie.
“It was really a micro-business that we ran from our house until about 2000, then we opened the shop in 2004, started adding more corporate activities in 2008 and began working on our own company structure in 2013.
“We now have 42 people working with us and so a big part of our jobs is to give them the framework in which they can operate, so that everyone is pulling in the same direction.”
It all feels a long way from where the business began; Julie grew up in the area and her family still run the Mains of Taymouth estate – which includes cottages and lodges, a golf course, stables, a boatyard and a restaurant with shop – while Glasgow-born Donald grew-up visiting his grandparents in nearby Glen Lyon, developing what’s clearly a deep-seated love for nature and the countryside.
After studying agriculture in Edinburgh, Donald ran his own fencing business and took customers on wildlife tours in his spare time.
He and Julie – who is a midwife by training – met on a badger watch; after taking a Scotland on Sunday journalist on a photo-stalking trip up the hill, the suggestion was made that Donald could run his wildlife tours as a business and so he and Julie took the plunge.
“Farms had less money for fencing and so business was tough, but there was funding available to help rural businesses to diversify,” explains Donald.
“That was really useful to us in the early days.”
Donald and Julie highlight the emergence of television shows like the BBC’s Springwatch as being a big turning point for their business – Bill Oddie and Kate Humble began presenting a live series called Wild In Your Garden in 2003, with the format shifting to Britain Goes Wild With Bill Oddie the following year and finally settling on the now-familiar Springwatch name in 2005.
“But we were using the name first,” laughs Julie, having run seasonal “watch” tours for many years.
One of the most exciting developments for the business has been the launch of Loch Tay Safaris, which takes visitors on tours of the loch to tell them about its history and wildlife.
The Riddells took advice from Tony Hill, who runs Seafari boat tours in Oban, before deciding to commission Iolaire, a rigid inflatable boat (RIB) with its own cabin.
The RIB was built by Quinquari in Wales at a cost of nearly £150,000, with the total project to launch the new business coming in at closer to £250,000 once pontoons and other infrastructure was included in the price.
Yet Donald and Julie agree it was money well-spent because the tours have already gained a five-star rating from tourism body VisitScotland.
“The health and safety aspect of running boat tours is quite different to safaris – you can simply step out of a Landrover if need be but you can’t do that with a boat when you’re out on the water,” Donald explains.
Julie adds: “The boat tours turned a profit last year, which we were delighted within their first year, especially given the bad weather.
“If this summer had been our first then we would have thought it was easy with all the sunshine.”
Having celebrated their silver wedding anniversary and with their two daughters having grown up, Donald and Julie are now taking stock and beginning to think about succession planning, often a hurdle for so many family businesses.
“There’s still a lot we want to do and a lot of places we want to visit,” Julie says.
The couple has already started to explore adding a management function within the business to free up time.
“We’re also starting to think about the legacy of the business,” Donald adds. “We’re very proud that we employ so many local people in an area where there aren’t that many job opportunities.”
Those benefits extend beyond members of staff and their families; the café and shop stock many Perthshire products from local suppliers – including Glen Lyon Coffee Roasters and Aberfeldy Oatmeal Company – and the company gives visitors a “Safari Pass”, which entitles them to more than £50 of discounts to encourage them to go to other local businesses.
While thoughts may be turning to the future, that doesn’t stop the directors from getting their hands dirty – as we say our goodbyes, Julie heads back into the kitchen to help with the washing up, while Donald takes the next group of visitors into the red deer centre, still full of the passion for nature that inspired him to launch the business.
Our BQ Bulletin emails will land in your inbox at 7.30am, Monday to Friday, with a mix of the latest local business news, national news, and features to inspire you. Sign up here!
Click here to read our privacy statement