Cycle Inishowen – Blaise Harvey Returns Home

Blaise Harvey & Michael with their bicycles
Blaise Harvey & Michael

Donegal Diaspora caught up with Blaise Harvey who has been running her business Cycle Inishowen  along with with her partner Michael in Carndonagh.

Name of your business and description of what you do - Cycle Inishowen, we organise cycling holidays of the Inishowen Peninsula, as well as guided cycle tours, bike hire and mechanic services.

What is your connection to Donegal?  

I’m from Carndonagh, and growing up attended the local primary and secondary school here before heading on to Derry, followed by Belfast and Manchester, for my third level studies. Michael is the other half of the business, a bicycle mechanic and my long-term partner. He is from Manchester and had no connection to Ireland before he moved here.

When did you set up your business?

We opened for business in April 2013 for our first season, having spent most of the year beforehand working on our business plan and researching the market.

 Who or what is your main market?

Our market varies with the different services which we provide. For holidays and tours it is an ABC1 consumer, someone who wants their holiday or day planned for them. These customers are generally over forty years of age, and travelling as a couple. They are mainly from the U.K. and America. Bike hire is suited to a wide range of markets, from families with children, couples, or individuals.

Failte Ireland have split the international and domestic markets into segments based on buying motivations, and there are two market segments that make up the majority of our hire and tours business; from the domestic market it was mostly ‘Indulgent Romantics’ and internationally ‘Great Escapers’. Splitting the markets like this gives us an insight into what motivates customers to book and helps us tailor our marketing to them.

‘Indulgent Romantics’ are couples enjoying quality time together and holidaying at home in Ireland. They usually act quite spontaneously while on holiday and our bookings from this segment are usually made on the day, or one day in advance. They are our largest market, with almost every booking coming from a couple.

‘Great Escapers’ are an international segment, busy people who are desperate for a break from work to re-connect. They are usually couples travelling alone or with small children. This segment want to get off the tourist trail and escape from their daily lives, they usually plan their holidays well in advance.

There appears to be no restrictions from age or nationality for bike hire, and while our largest market is couples we do get a wide range of types of consumer availing of our services.

The market for mechanic services are serious cyclists with high end road bikes, people who will invest in maintenance to avoid damage occurring. These are usually men, over thirty years old. While they are mostly in Donegal or Derry there is also a national market for wheel building and repairs, and our mechanic has received custom for this from all over the country.

How do you run your business from Donegal? Give us a feel for how it all works.

Our promotion is split between what we do online and our presence here in Donegal. Online we are aiming for people researching Donegal as a holiday destination, or those making their decisions of where to visit. We have the main core of our website translated into German, as they are one of the largest growth markets for cycling tourism. This not only helps them with their decision, but as they are usually using search terms in their own language, it makes it easier for them to find us.

All of our tourism services are available to book online, which means effectively that we are always open.

Here in Donegal we work on having a physical presence at the local hotels and tourist information points, with leaflets for all our services widely distributed. These appeal to the visitor already in Inishowen, typically browsing the leaflets to decide on their entertainment for the next day.

On a day to day basis our business will be made up of a mixture of those who have booked online in advance, and people who have decided on the day – usually based on weather. Typically I will be out in the morning, delivering bikes to people who are hiring for the day, and then in the afternoon I may take a group out for a short tour. Then at the end of the day I will collect the bikes from the hire customers. If we have a customer on a holiday package I will also collect their luggage and deliver it to the next hotel for them, along with their daily snacks and maps for the following day.

I really like that with this job you meet a wide variety of people, from all walks of life. They typically want advice on routes and places to visit – so I often feel like I’m my own tourist information point. I enjoy being able to help them with their plans and I love hearing what they enjoyed, and being a part of their Donegal experience.

Why choose Donegal as a place for business?

I’m not sure I ‘choose’ Donegal, it just naturally happened! I had been away for about five years – first studying, then living and working away from home. While I really enjoyed my time out of the country I definitely felt ready to return. As a local coming home you suddenly see what visitors to this county see, and you notice the everyday beauty that we take for granted. When I first brought my Michael home to Carndonagh, we came on our bikes and cycled up the coast from Belfast. We got the ferry across the Foyle and as we cycled along the Moville road it was actually his idea that we should move here and set up a cycle tours business.

We never even considered taking our business plan anywhere other than Inishowen. Part of it was that I wanted to be home but also from a business point of view it was so perfect. The fantastic scenic locations, quiet country roads and a great mix of routes from challenging to family friendly all make Inishowen a great location for cycling.

Having researched the tourist market and the predictions for the coming years we anticipated that tourism would grow considerably in Inishowen and that there was a market for activity providers. At this time the plans for the Wild Atlantic Way route had just been released and we could see that with the route starting in Inishowen there would be a great promotional push from Failte Ireland for the area.

Does doing business in Donegal differ from doing business in England?

While I have been self-employed before in England it was in a very different industry so it would be hard to compare directly. What I would say is that other local businesses have largely been very supportive. We try to work with as many other tourism business as we can, and a lot of them even offer discounts for our customers to encourage them to cycle their way.

Describe your work / life balance?

I have very strict rules when it comes to the morning routine. Every day we go cross-training in the park in Carndonagh before breakfast. We don’t talk about work until after breakfast – unless there is a very early booking that really needs attention – and we don’t check our emails before breakfast. Regardless of whether I have any bookings or not I change into my Cycle Inishowen polo shirt, not only is it good promotion as everyone sees the logo, but I find it gets me into ‘work mode’. When I have dealt with the last customer of the day I change back out of my ‘uniform’ and it is nice to take this small step to mark the end of the working day.

During the working day I tend to be out and about a lot – either on the bike or in the car doing delivery services. I always have leaflets in the car and I will usually include stops at hotels on any drive just to make sure they are well stocked with our promotional materials.

As we are open every day from St. Patrick’s Day to the end of September I need my phone with me at all times to receive bookings. It gets a little claustrophobic always being on call and in the off-season I enjoy the luxury of leaving the house without it or letting the battery die. It can also be hard in the evenings to switch off from work – I find I often check my emails during the evening.

Overall I am happy with my work/life balance – it is the constant need to have the phone with me that I find is a bit of a ball and chain. I really enjoying taking people on tours, it doesn’t even feel like work and I love getting to meet so many new people.

What has been the biggest challenge you faced and how did you meet it?

When we first set up Cycle Inishowen it was a big change for me and Michael. While we had occasionally worked together in the past it had never been just the two of us. As we were living together and working together it became important to develop our rules on switching off from work and we try to only discuss work in the evening if it is very important – otherwise the business can end up taking over your life.

We also quickly had to establish our own roles to prevent us getting on each other’s toes too much! As much as possible now I deal with the people, and Michael deals with the bikes. It sounds terrible; we try to schedule as much time apart as possible during the day! It helps us from getting on each other’s nerves too much.

What are your hopes for the future here and for your business?

We would really like for 2015 to move into a shop premises in Carndonagh. We will still do delivery services but I feel like having a physical presence would really boost our business. We have very little storage space for bikes at the minute and I dream of having large premises where every bike can have its own stand and customers can walk in and choose one. While our car is branded and we do try to keep a high profile a premises on the Diamond would definitely help.

We could also sell some branded merchandise, and include changing rooms and a shower. This would be a huge help for our business, and from a personal point of view it would be great to have a physical space which would be a dedicated work zone.

I have also been learning French and Michael has been learning German, hopefully by next year we will be able to deal with customers competently in these languages.

Any advice for someone looking to set up a business in Donegal?

I have found setting up this business very rewarding. I have also been amazed at the amount of support which is available for anyone considering taking the leap. We received LEADER funding as part of the National Rural Development Scheme, through the County Enterprise Board I did a completely free business course, and with the Inishowen Development Partnership I took advantage of a very affordable book-keeping course. I couldn’t believe how much there is if you keep an eye on what projects are coming up.

I would also say that in these economic times people can really appreciate that you are taking the plunge and a lot of people will, when possible, support a local business. We always considered our market to be completely visitors to Donegal, and have been very pleasantly surprised by the amount of local custom we’ve received.

 Bearing in mind the Diaspora audience is there anything else you would like to tell us?

The Donegal Diaspora are the best promoters of the county there are. We repeatedly see people coming home from across the globe and bringing with them new partners, children, friends. Even people a couple of generations away from Donegal will often feel the need to come here and see their ancestral home – a lot of these families will still own a house together here and it will be used by different people throughout the year.

I often deliver bikes to holiday houses owned by families who have moved away, and find that they have given the use of it to a friend who has no connection to Donegal. These are people who would probably never consider the county as a holiday destination if it wasn’t for this offer of free accommodation and it is great to see new people being introduced to the area. There are people who come back every year to stay in Inishowen, and now that we are in our second year we are enjoying seeing customers return to us.

Through our Facebook and Twitter accounts we engage with a wide audience, and it includes a considerable Diaspora audience. No matter how far away people are still interested in how things are going at home and it’s lovely to see that.