Being the general manager of a hotel in Dupont Circle in Washington, DC, and a hospitality consultant living in Asia before that were more than jobs for Eric Fulton. They gave him the experience and background he needed to start a family agri-tourism business, a bed and breakfast (B&B), and a wedding venue in Culpepper, Virginia.
Fulton is co-owner of Walden Hall, a B&B and wedding venue on 11 acres of land in Reva, Virginia, just outside Culpepper, Virginia. The B&B is named after Henry Thoreau’s “Walden.” The theme extends to the “Poet Suites” of the B&B, five luxury suites named after famous poets. He wanted a family business, and he has it. Fulton’s parents and girlfriend Evanne Allen, a public relations and marketing expert, are also involved.
Looking at it now it’s hard to believe the property was once a single-family dwelling. “It had good bones,” Fulton said, “And I saw its potential. It wasn’t one of the first properties we looked at, but it was zoned for residential agriculture, and the property was just what I wanted.”
He bought the property in 2015 with the intent of just building a luxury accommodation B&B, but while the property was still under construction, and the barn wasn’t even ready, he got his first request from a bride-to-be who insisted on having her wedding there. That convinced him he had something.
“We went from having a B&B to adding the wedding venue aspect to the property that fast,” he said. It was a smart decision. Only a year later Walden Hall was voted “2016 Best Wedding Venue and best B&B” in Central Virginia.
Before Launching Your Wedding Venue Business
Unique, rural, outdoor barn or ranch property venues for weddings, parties, and reunions are in high demand. But being rural doesn’t mean you won’t have neighbors, zoning boards, and property issues to deal with. Before launching your business, do your research.
1. Spend more than a weekend on the computer.
Get serious about every aspect of the search. “I did six months of research,” Fulton said. “I checked every aspect of the idea before even starting my business plan. I went to NAPA Valley in California to check out luxury venues there, I looked at properties, looked at the competition, contacted experts, spoke with friends in the business, and met with every neighbor in the area as well.”
2. Check with the local zoning boards.
Yes, as in plural boards. Zoning can be a complicated business as there will be local zoning boards, state, county, city, township, village, etc. zoning as well. Zoning is rarely a one-stop process. Get a list of all the permits you’ll need before you start, and have a realistic look at what it will take, and cost, to get them all. “I checked with zoning, but I also went to every member of the board of supervisors and met them in person and verbally. I asked for their input, and I started modeling the business based on other people’s reactions to what I was saying.”
3. Meet with your insurance agent.
You’re going to have hundreds of people milling around your property, climbing structures in old barns and sheds, drinking, and doing things that could cost you millions of dollars if they get injured. Add alcohol to the mix, whether you serve it, or they bring their own, and the chances for lawsuits increase exponentially. Find out what your insurance agent knows. If your agent doesn’t have experience with wedding venues or rural properties, find one that does. “Insurance for a venue costs more than simple home owner’s insurance,” Fulton said. “You’ll need to know what the numbers are for your business plan, and those may change as your property changes.”
4. Schedule time with your accountant.
You’re starting a business – one that will ultimately pay huge dividends if you do it right, but it’s going to cost you to do it right. If your venue is a farm, you’re not just investing in the property and buildings, but in the equipment and staff to maintain it. “We had to do a lot of forecasting for the first five years around what our initial investment was going to be, what it would cost to change, improve and maintain the property. When we went to Napa, we spoke with venue owners, and if they were willing to give us numbers that was great, if not, we crunched our own.”
5. Get to know your neighbors.
People live in the country because they like the peace and quiet of the country. Most do not want to see the property around them become commercialized and will fight to the death to ensure your wedding venue doesn’t disturb their lives.
“We had many meetings with the neighbors, and we told them all our plans before we started. One or two objected, but we came up plans to meet their concerns. There’s only one person living near us, so it wasn’t as much of an issue as it could be for some,” he said.
Fulton advised starting off on the right foot by meeting your neighbors, getting to know them, and asking for their input. “We told everyone our plans in detail all along the way,” he said. “We wanted their input and their reaction. It was a good choice.”
6. Meet the local extension agent.
These agents often know all of the farmers and property owners in the area. If they’ve been in that particular office long enough, they can often provide the information and contacts you need to make your dream happen. Fulton was fortunate. Having grown up in the area, he knew a lot of people there, including the local extension agent who was also a good friend.
7. Contact a barn builder.
Renovations to old barns and other property features can run into the tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars. Talk to builders with specific experience renovating barns and bringing old farm buildings up to code for venues. This will include bathrooms, accessible features, lighting, and other safety structures you didn’t even know you needed. Parking will be an issue, as will other things. “We had a good friend, Rusty Robinson, who was a wonderful contractor, had built barns in other places, and had the place structured in under two months.”
It wasn’t a short, fast or easy process, but it’s been a profitable and positive experience. “I love it,” Fulton said. “I can’t see myself doing anything else.”