Less than a decade ago, Tristram Mayhew was descending into madness – well, according to his friends at least. They couldn’t understand why he wanted to shed his sensible communications job and start frolicking around in the forest, with a treetop adventure business which seemed fraught with risk – both physical and commercial.
Ten years on, Mayhew is having the last laugh. His company, Go Ape, currently turns over around £11m a year, with profits of around £1m. More than 2.5 million people have flocked to his 25 sites, which offer the chance to escape the tedium of urban life by shooting from tree to tree on zip wires and tyre swings, and now the business is eyeing the massive opportunities represented by the US and beyond.
From corporate jungle to treetops
After serving in the army for ten years, Mayhew earned a glowing reputation at General Electric, where he was offered the job of head of communications, based in Barcelona, in early 2002. Instead of taking it, Mayhew quit the company – he had been planning his treetop adventure business for months, and it was nearly ready to launch.
Against the advice of their friends, Mayhew and his wife Rebecca pitched the idea to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents and the Health and Safety Executive in late 2001, and the authorities loved it. Mayhew says “they were fed up of being branded boring, and they thought the country was becoming too safe. So they said we could do it, provided risk was managed.”
With the safety authorities on board, Mayhew took his pitch to the Forest Commission (FC), and found them equally receptive. On the back of this meeting, Mayhew signed a deal to open his first Go Ape site on FC land in Thetford, East Anglia. If the site took off, the contract made provision for five further sites – ensuring the venture enjoyed stability, and exclusivity, right from the outset.
Mayhew agreed to pay the FC a basic guaranteed rent, and hand over a share of any profits – giving the FC an incentive to take on much of the expense of marketing the new venture. However the start-up costs remained considerable: around £350,000 for equipment, incorporation and accountancy costs, and the construction of a new on-site staff cabin.
The husband-and-wife team threw everything they had at the venture, and by March 2002, only a few weeks after the job offer from General Electric, Mayhew opened the Thetford site.