Louisa Castle speaks to brothers David and Michael Irlam as they explain how they made a successful business transformation from haulage to nuptials.
Colshaw Hall is one of the most sought-after wedding venues in Cheshire and clearly, the pride of David Irlam and his family.
"It took many years to build up Colshaw Hall, but we were able to do so thanks to our success in the transport business", explains David. "Our family were all born in the Parish of Peover Superior and The Colshaw Hall Estate is pretty much at the heart of it (David’s three brothers and sister’s homes all border the estate). We are very fortunate and very proud to still live in the village we grew up in. My wife Heather and I always said that Colshaw Hall was a great place to raise our children, Lucy, James and Georgina. When they flew the nest, we felt it was too big for just the two of us and whilst we wanted to move to something smaller, we knew that we were not ready to let the hall go. That left us with the responsibility and the cost to consider as guardians of this grade II listed building.
The decision to go into weddings wasn’t taken lightly. We tirelessly researched what couples planning to marry were looking for from a venue; exclusive use, a country manor house, the ability to get married, celebrate and stay the night in one location, a building with heritage but with bright, fresh interiors. After that, we knew we had something to offer the more discerning couple. That’s not to say it wasn’t terrifying when we took our first booking in 2011 as we knew that 18 months later our first wedding was to take place come what may, so there was no turning back.
My youngest daughter Georgina had been studying event management at college and so she took the reins beautifully, handling the events and making the wishes of couples come true. At the time, my eldest daughter Lucy was running her own beauty business and she also stepped into the wedding arena, using her people skills and exceptional attention to detail. Lucy now works alongside me taking care of the operational side of things and to keep it all ship-shape.
When we opened Colshaw Hall to the public, my son James launched an upmarket personal training gym on site (Colshaw Fitness) so we could we offer couples their dream venue and also get them in shape for the big day! In fact, our fitness clients really supported us, falling in love with Colshaw Hall too and booking it for their own corporate events and private parties. And to complete the family set up, my wife Heather was the brains behind keeping the interiors modern and fresh. She has a real flair for design which plays out in the expressions of the faces of those that come for a look around."
Whilst it is plain to see that Colshaw Hall is a family business through and through, David is keen to point out that theres more to it.
"It’s really important to say that we’re not just a family business ‘having a go’. We work with structured business plans, hold regular planning sessions and monitor feedback daily. We realised early on that we should supplement the family team with expertise from the local community, so we have people on site to take care of the marketing, accounts and more. We have handpicked our team and our superb suppliers who are like an extended family. A good team is the best route to success and they help to take the pressure off!
The support of the local community has been great too. The favourite thing about the job though is showing people around and seeing their reaction as they step through each part of the estate for the first time. I’ll never tire of that and also to be working with Michael and Suzanne again on Merrydale Manor. It also gives me a buzz that you don’t know who you’re going to meet each day. It could be a TV celeb, an Olympian or a local family – each one is special.
One of the things that I didn’t account for was running out of dates to book. It was heart- breaking for couples and me when we had to turn people away. When word spread, there were simply not availability left. This is where after chatting with my brother Michael that we realised there was a potential for another venue. Michael and I worked together really well in the haulage company. I was in charge of the customers and he was in charge of operations. Once I had promised the earth then Michael did really deliver, so we knew it would be good to work together again!
Michael tells us more about the concept of Colshaw Halls sister, Merrydale Manor.
"When we first viewed Merrydale Manor it was in a sorry state. The house was a derelict farm building which had seen better days. But this did not deter my wife, Suzanne and I as we could see the massive potential of this stunning site. The house was situated in the most beautiful setting with sweeping driveway, an abundance of natural features in rolling countryside and the focal point was a spectacular lake. It took three years to transform but we knew that we had created the perfect family home.
During our time there we formed Peover Polo Club (Merrydale Manor has its own HPA registered pitch) and the grounds really lend themselves to this. Over the years, we have hosted many charity, corporate and team building events with Polo at the centre. When people attend, they often comment on the ‘wow factor’ that Merrydale Manor has, so opening it as a wedding venue, alongside the corporate side of things was an easy decision. When I spoke to David about this, it just confirmed that corporate/polo events alongside weddings, was the right way to go."
The brothers agree that working together again was the ideal way forward. Michael continues, "Working with David again really was a no-brainer. He had created a great team at Colshaw Hall, so when we did venture into weddings, we were able to hit the ground running as we had experience at our fingertips. Plus, we were able to avoid the pitfalls when you’re starting a business from scratch. As our wives will tell you, work has never been a chore for us! Both David and I love it and are proud of what we have generated. Suzanne and I also worked together in the transport business in the early days and working together again is great. You spend so much time at work that to do so with your family is a dream come true. Suzanne has a nice way with people and likes to keep everywhere ‘just right’, so we do most of the viewings of the estate and we’re so proud to show couples our family home. [The family are moving to another home at Easter so that guests can now stay in the manor house as an option.]
It’s great to see something that you’ve created through their eyes. I like making people happy so delivering to them what we’ve promised is important to me and working alongside my family is important of course! After we transformed Merrydale Manor into an event venue, I feel like Ive got my ‘buzz back’. My daughter Hattie is also really loving working in the industry. She had a good grounding as she studied business at Macclesfield College in order to apply herself to our family businesses but I think that it’s in the wedding and event industry that she’s finding her niche. Hattie is currently working with the team over at Colshaw Hall to develop her role in event coordination and marketing.
Part of the success of both wedding venues is that we are all normal, approachable people. As a family, we are really hands-on too. We also treat every wedding as individual and as important as the last. I always think to myself would I be happy with that for my own daughter? For the future, I see us consolidating for now and perfecting what we have. We are so aware that there are many other high-quality wedding venues in Cheshire, so we will not be complacent going forward. I love having a vision, making it happen and then being the best in class."
David concludes my interview, We’re now seven years in and, to be honest, we’ve never looked back. Yes, it’s been hard work and we still work hard to keep it at the top but it’s a nice industry to work in because you’re constantly meeting people with a smile on their face and sharing arguably the most important day of their life. Time moves on, of course, and the Colshaw Hall business has spawned another couple of its own. Georgina has teamed with life-long friend Megan Warburton to form Irlam Warburton Events (they now plan events at both venues and beyond) and Colshaw Hall Fitness led to James opening a second venue, Knutsford Gym.
It wasn’t always easy but we do consider ourselves lucky and we know we had a head start. We get to keep our family home and have set up a business for the children and the next generation. Rather than blood, sweat and tears looking after the house, it’s now looking after me! But above all we really like the industry and believe we’re in it for life. Our plan for the future is to simply stay in the premier division for weddings."