Tara Johnson of Tailored Leisure

Hi Tara, tell us a bit about your business
Tailored Leisure has been set up to offer short breaks and specially-designed leisure services for people with a range of disabilities. It’s early days for the business but we have big ambitions to help encourage social inclusion by bridging the gaps in what’s available in a number of different ways.

I was inspired to set up the business because of my own experiences as someone with cerebral palsey. There are often insurmountable barriers to taking a holiday or accessing a simple leisure activity such as swimming. I’m supported by a team of people who work in the social care sector. Before starting the business, we carried out some key research within South Tyneside that has helped shape the type of services we want to offer. There’s been some key learning along the way that has helped us refine our ideas and shape plans to build a bespoke short break service within the North East. We are now in the process of identifying some suitable land.

What problems does your business solve?
As a mother of two young children who uses a large powered wheelchair, I’ve found it almost impossible to find a short break that meets all our needs and does not break the bank. We’ve often paid astronomical prices for breaks that have been advertised as fully accessible – only to get there and have the holiday completely ruined because I couldn’t use the facilities. I’ve had to miss out on so many experiences and have got used to that sinking feeling when I realise I can’t enjoy the same experiences as my husband and children such as enjoying a cottage break or time in a hot tub. It doesn’t have to be that way. But the answer doesn’t have to mean a holiday in an environment that feels like a hospital or a separate respite break away from your family. We want to go on a holiday with our husbands, wives and children and, just like everyone else, we want to go somewhere that feels like a home from home. Holidays are all about the chance to escape and disabled people deserve that experience and that respite too.

Another gap in services is a lack of suitable swimming and therapy facilities as water is often too cold or two busy. We’ve spent the last 12 months fitting a hot tub in my garden area which is fully accessible with a ceiling track hoist and a heated garden room for changing and a fully accessible seated area. We plan to pilot this service to run one-to-one therapy sessions, family sessions and even swim spa parties.

We also aim to develop a volunteering programme to provide valuable work experience that helps to bridge inequality gaps in employment for disabled people. We want to make better links with training providers and employers. This would be a win-win for the business and the volunteer as we can learn from each other, with disabled people helping to shape the services we offer.

Why did you become an entrepreneur? What was your drive?
My drive comes from my determination to make a difference to other disabled people who face similar challenges. My family have seen me helping other people to organise holidays and overcome the hurdles that are put in their way and have been asking for years when I’ll finally put these skills to use properly. Sometimes you just have to put your money where your mouth is. When you work for others your hands are often tied with what you can do and the difference you can make. But when you work for yourself and feel so passionately about something that you have experienced for yourself you can follow your instincts. It’s an exhilarating feeling when that really makes a difference to other people’s lives.

Why have you chosen to set up a social enterprise and how is this different from a ‘normal’ business?
I really wanted to make a social difference to benefit others. There are so many companies out there just thinking about what’s in it for them, rather than the bigger social impact they can be having while running a successful business at the same time. A community interest company allows you to think about what’s in it for others. It’s so much easier and more enjoyable to promote a business you believe in and that makes a difference to others. The drive is so different. By being set up this way I can access grants and other funding streams. I can attract likeminded people who share the same common goals and belief in improving access to activities for all and preventing social isolation.

Who has helped you to get where you are today?
This business has been a pipedream of mine for a long time and last year I decided to finally make it happen. I got in touch with the North East Business and Innovation Centre (BIC) when I decided to set up because although I’m full of good ideas, I know I’m not the strongest when it comes to business stuff. Their social enterprise expert Kevin Marquis advised me on the structure I needed and helped me to get the business registered. He has continued to give me amazing support ever since with my business planning and funding applications. Sometimes it’s just having that sounding board so you know you’re on the right track because starting out can be daunting. Having Kevin by my side has given me the confidence I’ve needed to believe in myself. When I got my grant from UNLTD for my swim spa pilot project I realised there’s no better feeling than other people believing in your ideas.

Recently I joined the BIC’s social enterprise incubator programme Innovate for Good, to really drive the business forward and it is working brilliantly. My ideas are really being challenged so I am constantly making improvements and gaining validation on the things that work well. I’m surrounded by a group of people who have instantly become good friends. We have a cross-over of experience and by coming together we have created a powerful pool of knowledge and skills. It’s so important to have a network of support around you when you’re going out on a limb to do something like this because it can be lonely. Sometimes you can start to doubt why you’ve given yourself such a challenge. Innovate for Good is a constant reminder of why this is so worthwhile.

What’s your mantra for business?
Don’t assume anything. In this sector we see all too often facilities and services that have been designed without any input from the end users. My business is always going to be steered by the input of other disabled people to help shape services they want and not what others think they need.

How can we find out more about you?
You can find is on Facebook by searching Tailored Leisure. All information about our swim spa pilot and 12 week fitness programme will be published on Facebook. You can also email us at tailored.leisure@gmail.com

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