Fay Sharpe introduces Renee Binyon in the 7th of her series on Shero’s. “I’ve known Renee all my life, literally… Her Mum is my eldest sister, 26 years my senior. Renee lived with us when we were children and was really like a big sister to me… Renee and I are so alike. We are always working on the next plan, creating things and making stuff happen. The thing I love about her most is her can-do attitude. If she doesn’t know it, she’ll learn it, if you need help, she’s there, if you’re down she’ll pick you up. She’s one in a million and here’s her story.”

Who is Renee Binyon?

“If anyone had told me, 20 years ago, that I’d set up a niche hen party business I’d have said they were absolutely crazy!

Twenty years ago, I was a very successful management consultant and project director with my own business. My background was people / HR and technology so I was sought-after at the dawn of the internet age. I also set up one of the very first online business networks for other freelance consultants. I ran training programmes for freelancers, assessment services and created work opportunities. With over 100 Associates we had a blue-chip client list and were featured in all the leading business magazines, and as a dotcom TV feature!

Words can’t express how much I loved my work, I mean I really lived for it, but shortly after my 40th birthday, at the peak of my achievements, it all came crashing down. Whilst feeding my horses one early morning I collapsed with no warning. A few days later I had shingles and I just didn’t recover. Those first few years were the worst of my life. Having been tech-savvy, sharp, and able to do anything I set my mind to, I could barely get out of bed and couldn’t work out how to log in to a computer. The frustration was unbearable for someone who didn’t believe in the word ‘can’t’ and attacked every goal like a heat-seeking missile! With me unable to work we almost lost everything.

Three years on I was still virtually house-bound and was finally diagnosed with ME/Chronic Fatigue and autoimmune disease. The specialist said I would most likely never work again, and most certainly never return to my chosen career. I remember reading his report and thinking my life was over. It was a shock, and I realised I was grieving for the loss of myself, my identity was so tied up with my successful career. However, in time I realised it was also a gift as it forced me to re-think everything. ‘We are where we are – what if this is as good as it gets?’ I asked myself. I set about re-designing my life but first I had to change my mindset and accept that I had limitations. That acceptance was the start of a slow and gradual recovery.

It’s a long story, but I’d always had property, having bought my first house at 19, so I decided to use what we had and take paying guests. I had the ideas and my partner (now husband) Adrian generally had to do the work to make it happen! Occasionally we would move out of our house completely into our static caravan and take a weekend whole house booking. It was after one of these weekends that I realised we’d had a hen party and that our proximity to Bath was a killer benefit.

People are sometimes surprised to learn that my company, Weekend in the Country, organises fabulous accommodation and activities for over 2,000 people / 150 groups per year. Our success, I think, has been driven by innovation. We were the first hen party company to offer glamping, the first to offer a unique ‘Go Wild’ activity with a bush tucker trial, and I created ‘Posh Frocks & Wellies’ which sold hundreds of weekends without people even knowing what it was! The business was so successful we were able to buy another property eight years ago, next to the land where we base our activities.

Three years ago, Fay Sharpe asked me (I’m her niece, but I think of her more as my younger sister) to be a Mentor on FF15. I didn’t feel I could manage it then, but a year later Fay asked again and, with some trepidation, I took the plunge. I haven’t looked back. It’s been a joy and a privilege to realise that all my old skills and knowledge can still be useful, and come back to me with relative ease. I’ve absolutely loved helping my Mentees, as well as working with the incredible team of Mentors, and of course Fay who is a total inspiration. I’ve loved supporting Fay with FF15, including hosting a tree planting event at our site in Somerset. We planted 500 trees including 5 fabulous large silver birch trees to celebrate the 5th year of FF15 in late 2019.

I do believe what I’ve been through has made me a much better Mentor than I would have been otherwise. I am still very goal-oriented, but I’m also much more flexible, kind, and tolerant. Saying that, I’m not averse to dishing out a bit of tough love every now & then! I believe goals are there to guide us, but we shouldn’t be slaves to them. Like the silver birch tree, we should reach for the sky, but bend and flex in the wind, so we don’t break, and can spring back with new energy.

Fast forward to 2020. At the beginning of March, I could see the writing on the wall with coronavirus. However, this time I was prepared for disaster recovery! We did a ‘we are where we are – what’s the worst that can happen?’ exercise, and made a plan. I personally rang every hen party group leader of our 2020 groups over a few weeks, and offered a reschedule, temporarily shut the business to reduce costs, and freed up my time and head space to create something new. Within a few weeks I had pivoted and created a new brand, Hedgerow Cottage, which was fully booked over the summer with families. I also turned one of our glamping barns into a food hub for our local community and organised wholesale food deliveries.

Meanwhile, the app we had developed for our hen parties based on our ‘Posh Frocks & Wellies’ activity was rapidly re-branded as My Welly Walks, enabling venues to create & deliver their own self-guided trails, and we also created a platform for bespoke, branded, trail apps called TrailmakerPRO. In many ways the apps are bringing me back full circle, to what inspires me, the relationship between people and technology. What’s different is that I’m now using this to create activities and events and feel I’ve truly found my home in this fabulous industry.”