Running a company is a journey of highs and lows, and for many the biggest example of this is a global health pandemic which has seen economies threatened, whole countries locked down, and our way of doing business (and doing life) changed overnight.
But despite coronavirus shutting down the former prisons-turned-tourist-attractions which are run by Joel Campbell, the entrepreneur is confident his company will thrive once life returns to normal.
And that’s because Joel has already experienced what it’s like to be so far down the ladder you’re not even on the first rung, and has built The Campbell Group up from the ground with a tenacious attitude, a ferocious passion for all he does, and a real understanding of what people want when they visit one of his sites.
To understand why the outbreak of Covid-19 hasn’t dampened the CEO’s spirits, you have to look back to 2015. Shrewsbury Prison had closed its doors to inmates two years before and was up for lease. Having had a wealth of experience across the leisure sector, Joel could see the extraordinary potential of this fascinating historic landmark, and decided to take it on.
At this point, his bank balance was so low he had to borrow cash for the petrol he needed to drive to the prison and pick up the keys. And, he found himself having to sleep on site for the first few months because he couldn’t afford even a budget hotel room, and lived on the cheapest meals he could find to try and save money.
‘Broke man tries his hand at running a prison’ really should not be the premise for a success story. But meeting Joel, or even watching the videos he regularly posts on the prison’s social media accounts, you start to understand that if anyone was going to make a success of it – he was.
He now has two sites: the original at Shrewsbury, and a second at Shepton Mallett which was taken on the following year. In ordinary circumstances, they are open for residents and tourists of all ages providing a unique opportunity for a tour around the Victorian cells, the execution rooms, and all of the common areas where the prisoners spent their time. The Campbell Group has taken on former officers to lead their tours, meaning visitors get a real no-holds-barred insight into what life would have been like for the men sentenced to serve their time there, as well as the officers and staff who kept them under lock and key.
Diversifying with ghost tours, escape rooms, axe throwing, and a restaurant means they attract everyone from schools and families, to corporate guests and stag dos / hen parties. And of course, the lure of a real-life prison to film in has proved popular amongst crews from America’s Paranormal Lockdown, UK’s Most Haunted and Coronation Street, with Shrewsbury Prison the frontage of Holby Prison in BBC dramas Holby City and Casualty.
With the rise of ‘dark tourism’ and a morbid fascination for all things a little bit grizzly (as well as the supernatural element of hosting tours in a building where dozens of people were put to death for their crimes), Shrewsbury Prison has benefitted from being the only UK site named of global historical importance in a BBC Making History exploration of the top places of pain, shame and ‘heritage that hurts’.
Ironic, given ‘heritage that hurts’ could be the title of Joel’s past. He says: “I’ve failed, failed, and failed again. And each time I’ve picked myself up, learned what I needed to, and moved on with more enthusiasm than ever. Absolutely, I’ve celebrated very many more big wins, and I’ve gone from £1.57 in my bank account, to managing £multi-million deals for the tourism side of my group of businesses alone. I’ve earned the title of entrepreneur and I wear it with very real pride. Like many who’ve trod their own path before me, I’m passionate, driven, and I’m not afraid to do and say the unpopular thing if it feels right and is right.
“As CEO of the Campbell Group, I oversee the strategic growth of our family of businesses in the leisure, tourism, events, property, technology and health sectors. I’m positively disruptive, completely unapologetic, and utterly determined, and I love every aspect of business. In fact the only thing which brings me more pleasure than achieving my own goals is supporting others in achieving theirs.
“It’s no secret I had nearly £80,000 worth of debt from previous ventures when I started the prison business. Some people would have been put off starting a new company given the lows I had experienced beforehand, but conversely, they gave me the drive and determination to make the prisons a success.
“Learning from your mistakes has become a cliché phrase, but it’s really what I’ve done when it’s come to business.
“I knew if we marketed the prison well, the tours would be hugely popular. And we got a very early indication of this when we sold £24,000 worth of tickets in the first 24 hours. To really maximise the potential of both sites, the team has worked hard to offer a whole range of activities which will appeal to as broad a range of people as possible, without ever detracting from the core offering – a former prison with lots of history and plenty of stories attached to it.
“Of course, it’s not all been fun and games – it never is in business. We’ve had the threat of the Shrewsbury site being redeveloped and used for housing hanging over our heads since day one, and it’s something we’re still looking at – in terms of whether we could buy the site from the existing owners.
“And then naturally the spread of Covid-19 has seen us shutting our doors in line with the Government’s social distancing advice. We absolutely support the need for tourist sites to close during the height of the pandemic, but it does pose difficulties when your business relies on footfall!
“Rather than let it defeat us, instead we’ve challenged ourselves to keep generating content on our social media sites to engage with both local residents and potential future visitors. When everything reopens again and it’s safe for tourism to resume, we want people to remember the prisons as places at the top of their visiting list!”
Joel’s social media followers have the chance to watch a live ghost hunting experience using cameras fitted throughout the Shrewsbury site, his site manager Lauren has been sharing her experience during the pandemic through a weekly blog, and as a team they’re constantly thinking of new ways to communicate with their following.
It’s just yet another example of the creative thinking and determination which Joel has shown to get him through anything life throws at him – something he says he learned from watching his mother run her own business when he was a child.
“I believe my drive to ensure the prisons are successful has come from my experiences as a child and in my varied career – as well as knowledge about how to avoid pitfalls and the life experience to make good choices and trust in my gut instinct too!
“We have put so much work in over the last four years, and we are keeping busy while the sites are shut. There’s no doubt when we re-open we’ll be able to build on the success that we have been enjoying since 2015 and are hugely excited about the future launch of our brand new Team Building Behind Bars experiential and outcome-driven programme – designed especially for businesses looking for something that goes so above and beyond the traditional ‘white water rafting’ approach.
“We understand that businesses want to put on an event with a difference. Which actually engages with their staff. Which has the capacity to deliver on their specific outcomes, whether it be performance-related and sit-down, or simply just for fun to recognise awesome teams. There’s something for everyone and businesses of any size, so despite COVID-19, we see this growing to be another hugely successful string to our bow.
“As well as equipping me with the tools I need to run the Campbell Group, I hope my story can inspire others as I’m hugely passionate about helping young entrepreneurs. There’s little point in building up your knowledge and experience if you can’t share it with your team and with others in the business community too, especially if they’re just starting out. I hope people can learn from my mistakes, but also share in my successes too.”