Published: 10:00, 15 April 2014
Long hours, small profits and unpredictable weather can blight tourist attractions in Kent.
Chris Price saw how summer preparations are going at the War and Peace Revival and the Hop Farm.
In the middle of the night at his countryside home, the light is still on in Rex Cadman’s office.
“There will be a point in the week where you will still find us in the office at 2am,” said the military enthusiast and collector, who organises five-day festival the War and Peace Revival.
“We have at least one long day a week at this stage. By May, we will be in here very late for a large portion of the week.”
Preparations are gearing up for the second Revival, held at the former Folkestone Racecourse in Westenhanger, following a successful rebirth there last year.
The scale of the operation is astounding, considering all the work is done by Rex and a few close allies.
After years of difficult relations with show owners the Hop Farm, near Paddock Wood, the care-home owner was close to quitting the event in 2012.
Instead, he moved it from its base of 25 years and installed a three-year plan to get it back to profitability.
“Even in the middle of the night, in the office, we keep telling ourselves that come July, when it is all done and everyone is happy, it will have been worth it,” jokes Rex, 57.
Yet the last two years have been far from a laughing matter.
“It is only when I look back now I realise what an enormous uphill race it was,” he said, remembering when he first clapped eyes on the racecourse, owned by Arena Racing Company.
“The racecourse had been closed 18 days when we got our hands on it, but it had been emptied of everything for the other courses in the Arena portfolio.
“They took all the tables, chairs and even the hand dryers off the walls. From that moment, the battle was on.”
After buying a lot of furniture at auctions, the Revival took place in July. It made a loss, as expected, but was seen as a success considering its rapid move.
Rex became unhappy with the owners of the Hop Farm in 2012, and word started to spread that he was looking for an alternative site.
Chris Yates, Rex’s friend at the Hop Farm, put him in touch with Arena Racing, and set up a meeting with its operations director.
“We outlined the plan, and within five minutes he said ‘yes we can do this’,” said Rex.
“It was so nice to work with someone who made a decision, and we were on our way again.”
The fact was, the Hop Farm itself was in dire straits at that time. Not only did it end up losing the War and Peace Show after 2012, it also lost the Hop Farm Music Festival run by promoter Vince Power, and a series of investments went south.
In March last year, owner Hop Farm Trading went into administration.
“There were risks taken and investments made that were not necessarily well thought out,” said communications manager Miguel Fenton, who has been at the attraction for two years.
“The economy at the time didn’t help – or the weather.”
The commercial side of the business was bought by Kent Entertainment Ltd in April, who took over with a new vision, streamlining costs and making admission free.
The Hop Farm went on to enjoy a profitable summer in 2013.
Miguel added: “There were a number of sweeping changes and with change there is risk, but the decisions have been very successful.
“We are coming off the back of an extremely good trading year.”
Last year’s profits have been reinvested in refurbishments.
Rex could not be happier for his show’s former base. He said: “It’s an incredible site.
“The management we couldn’t work with in 2012 have all gone.
“The current owners have realised it was not working and made big changes.
“In this business, you have to live and breathe it.
“You cannot operate as part of a corporation. It is very tiring running a business like that. It starts to grind you down.
“But I still love the Hop Farm, and it will come back to where it once was.”
Despite settling into its new home in double-quick time, the War and Peace Revival faces an uncertain future.
It only has a five-year lease at the site, at which point Arena Racing is free to turn it back into a functioning racecourse or sell it to housing developers.
Rex said: “That’s a bridge we will cross when the time comes. I don’t think Arena are sure of their plans for the racecourse.
“We are keeping our options open. We know we are good for the next four years.”
If the show is forced to move, Rex is adamant it will continue to serve the Kent economy.
He said: “We haven’t got plans to go anywhere, but if we did it would have to be in Kent. It is important that the show remains in the county.
“We are very conscious of the financial impact on the local area. KCC and Shepway council have supported us, and we have a duty to respond to that.”
The Hop Farm’s new owner, Kent Entertainment Ltd, has a small board led by director Ray Grant – a worker at the attraction for many years.
Hop Farm communications manager Miguel said: “He’s gone through the experiences as an employee and observed the good and the bad.
“Making the attraction free opened the doors for a lot of families in the South East to come and have a cost-effective day out.
“Everyone can come to the family park and not spend a penny. We are not Chessington or Thorpe Park, and we cannot charge high ticket prices when we are not that product.
“Rather than extracting maximum spend out of a low number, we began looking at building quantity of visitors.”
The park has just reopened for the summer.
The War and Peace Revival takes its roots from a club show run by the Invicta Military Vehicle Preservation Society, or IMPS, at the Kent & Sussex Railway at Tenterden.
Launched in 1982, it had outgrown the site by 1986 and moved to the Hop Farm, then known as the Whitbread Hop Farm.
It was known as the IMPS Club show until 1996, when it became known as the War and Peace Show and began to attract a wider public audience after husband and wife team Brent and Fiona Pollard took over the site in 1997.
By 2000, Rex had become a co-owner of the Hop Farm with the Pollards.
But the situation with the show changed in 2006, when the couple told Rex they wanted to sell the site and emigrate to Australia, which they duly did.
Then the War and Peace Show became the property of new owner Simon Hume Kendall, who then sold the site to Peter Bull in 2009.
Rex ran the show on their behalf until 2012. He owned the web domains and radio station, and took them with him when the show relaunched as the War and Peace Revival in 2013.