CREATIVES IN A TIME OF COVID | FEATURE
John-Paul Davies talks to three Welsh creatives who have developed, adapted and diversified their careers to survive the perils of working in arts and events during an industry shutdown and global pandemic.
Ben Stone [pictured top] is a professional musician and composer who regularly takes up his seat behind the drumkit with Welsh legends Tom Jones and Bonnie Tyler. Alongside a passion for music, Ben is a dedicated foodie and coffee lover who has used lockdown to develop the unique business model behind StoneHouse Coffee Beans.
So what took you from beats to beans?
The passion, and the need to do something once all the music work dried up! We had 60 or 70 shows booked with an Argentinian artist called Semino Rossi – Austria, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland – overnight, all that stuff went.
And that doesn’t just impact the named artist.
No, on a tour like that there are 10 people onstage, a crew of about 10 who travel with us and probably two or three truck drivers and three caterers; about 25 actually travelling with the show and then of course event security etc. You’re probably pushing around 100 people for every show. That’s a lot of freelance people, all around Europe.
But you found something to plug the gap?
I’m a bit of a food snob. One of the things I do when I’m on tour is find the best restaurants, read into it a bit and try to find the best places to eat and drink. Just really great produce, great chefs. I’ve got a passion for healthy food, where produce comes from, sustainable farming, it’s all super important to me. And coffee is on a level with all that – where they grow their beans etc. I’ve grown up with restaurants in my family on my mother’s side. And my sister-in-law, and all her family, are Ethiopian as well, so there’s a link there.
In Wales, there are two or three coffee roasters and those companies service about 80% of independent coffee shops. So within 10 miles of my house, it’s all the same coffee. There might be 30 independent coffee shops but they’re all brewing the same coffee from the same coffee roaster. I’m trying to break down some barriers. It’s not really independent if you’ve got a monopoly on coffee distribution: you might as well, at that point, be going to Starbucks or Costa.
Talk me through the process.
The coffee all comes in from one farm. We currently do two coffees, a Sidama and a Yirgacheffe. These both come from one farm each, so are what you would class as truly single origin – not just one type of bean that’s come from five different farms that someone has put together in a bag – so the crop is consistent, always the same flavour. Most coffee roasters would go through a merchant and do their own blends, pay the farmers whatever they pay them and charge on top. We deal directly with an importer, who is Ethiopian, but the majority of the money goes to the farmer.
We’re working with two coffee growers in Ethiopia that we are going to import from, directly, ourselves. That’s going to be the next step towards being more sustainable, fairer prices for the farmer – hopefully we can pay them even more money on top – and we’re looking into actually schooling families of the farm. Rather than just give the farmers more money, we’re looking at actually paying for the kids to go to school.
That’s incredible. What else are you hoping to achieve with StoneHouse?
In the coffee industry, there’s a lot of snake oil out there, and a lot of misconceptions. Part of what I want to do is break that down. So we’re going to do a whole series of videos on how to brew coffee at home.
And how do you deal with the ethical side of sustainability when selling to consumers?
There’s a lot of companies who say they are sustainable and compostable but, as Wales doesn’t have any industrial compostable sites, compostable packaging will end up in landfill. So unless you want to put it in your garden compost for 10 to 12 years, because that’s how long it takes to compost, you’re going to be stuck with that packaging for a long time. And if you put it in your recycling it will still end up in landfill. So all ours is kerbside recyclable, not compostable. Every local authority in Wales, Europe can recycle it.
How does an events business manage when there are no events to organise? Lottie Wallond’s Rare Events has had to struggle through the pandemic. Here she tells us how you have to adapt to survive.
What’s changed for you since lockdown kicked in?
A typical week in the life of Rare Events would consist of working at a music venue or theatre from Tuesday to Friday, and obviously whenever there was a show on too, as the marketing and events manager. So I would be booking shows, managing the social media, conducting venue show-arounds, planning weddings for our clients, hosting school trips and everything in between! The evenings and any free time would be spent working on freelance client events – mainly launches,
business events and music events – and then I would also be out gigging with my function band at weddings and events most Fridays, Saturdays and some weeknights too.
The pandemic has impacted my business massively. Obviously, a successful event tends to involve lots of people being together in a bar/venue, talking, dancing, networking, drinking… all of the things which we were no longer able to do together anymore. All my gigs were cancelled/postponed due to weddings being limited in numbers and I pretty much lost all of my work. I was furloughed from the venue I worked at and just had to sit tight at home, like most of us.
So, flexibility is key.
It definitely is, and I quickly realised that the lockdown was going to last a little longer than three weeks, so I would have to think creatively about how Rare Events could make a living through this pandemic. A dream of mine was always to open a balloon and party shop. It’s something that I used to do a lot of in my job anyway, and it goes along with my event planning perfectly, but I never had the time to even think about doing it… cue a global pandemic.
Being furloughed from work and having nothing else to do, I thought that it would be the perfect time to start it up. So I did it – I expanded Rare Events to offer party supplies and balloon creations for all occasions. We now send helium balloons across the UK, create balloon towers/installations for all events and stock a wide range of party supplies. It’s a great way to still be able to celebrate safely in lockdown.
With everything that’s still going on, how do you plan to grow the business in 2021?
I have big plans to expand the business. I want to become a one-stop shop for events, whether that’s corporate, parties or music events. We have recently launched our first collection of greetings cards and have plans to expand our product range more and eventually build up our collection of event hire products, things like lighting, backdrops, chair covers etc. I want Rare Events to be the only place that people need to come when they are planning an event. They will be able to get everything they need from the small details like cake toppers and confetti to branded balloons and products for their business launches to a complete event planning service for their baby shower, business conference or album launch.
As Production Manager on the Queen Victoria cruise ship, Jonathan Morgan is used to managing 50 members of staff and almost a dozen stages hosting West End standard performances. Lockdown forced a change of career from the joys of entertaining passengers to the essentials of feeding the needy.
Talk me through a working day on board the Queen Victoria, pre-lockdown.
My largest theatre on board seats almost 900 people, has well over 100 moving lights and 170 speakers. We bring up grand pianos through the stage, while at sea! I’ve got six production shows on board, plus four 20-minute mini-shows, and we bring on guest entertainers. So we never do the same show twice in a week. We’re one of only two ships in the world that have a full production of Top Hat – it’s a cut-down version, so it takes an hour to perform, but the set for that takes in excess of three hours to put up. So everything is done in rep.
There are three or four lectures during the day, a film in the afternoon. As soon as the film finishes we start a dress rehearsal for Top Hat, that’s run once. First show, 8.30pm, gap for an hour then second show at 10.30pm. Half past 11, that comes down and we strip Top Hat and prepare for the next day – which will be something completely different.
And the level of professionalism?
Off the scale. For the largest suites on board for the World Cruise, advertised for next year, the cost is £68,000 per person. So the level of performance is very, very high.
So when did you find out that this was going to all be finished, for the foreseeable?
When you got off the ports in South America, you started seeing more and more people wearing masks. It was quite odd because we were in our floaty little bubble while all this was going on. We got as far as Fort Lauderdale and all the American passengers got off and no-one got on. We couldn’t pick up any new performers and couldn’t go dark. So in March we did a pantomime – it was all we had a script for.
The passengers loved it. We got back to Southampton, I got into my hire car and there was no traffic – it was like getting back to a horror film. Then, OK, what happens next? By 28 Mar we knew that Emma [my wife] and I had lost our jobs.
One of Emma’s clients runs a local charity. She rang Emma saying, “I’ve got a food project, I’ve got the funding through. Would you like to run it?” So, I jumped in and said, “Can we job share?”
Initially I was taking care of the driving – in the first week we only delivered 20 food parcels. But when I got my head round it, I realised the logistics – the skills – were the same. So then they launched another project and I was full time. I had to design the food units to make sure they were COVID-safe, so my health and safety training came in there: the transferable skills are huge. It’s a situation that’s constantly changing, and that’s the environment I come from.
So, from starting as part time I’m now head of food logistics for four different projects. This week alone I’ve got 164 food parcels going out: Tuesday is Llanelli, Wednesday as far as Llandovery and then Thursday, Gwendraeth Valley. Primarily working with diverted food.
Where does this food come from?
FareShare is one of our main sources of food, and supermarkets donate to FareShare, so I never know what I’m going to get. One of my drivers goes up to Cardiff on a Monday, picks up a quarter of a ton, and I pick up a quarter of a ton on Thursday. And now we supplement that with veg from a local farmer and go through about 200 kilos of fresh veg a week.
And what would happen to that food, if you weren’t distributing it?
It would basically be skipped. Supermarkets will divert a lot of their stuff to landfill because they don’t have room for it in their store. So we get it in and we send it out within 24 hours: the window to get it in, and out to our clients, is very narrow.
We deal with all sorts of people: those directly impacted by COVID, people who couldn’t get out to get food or had lost their jobs. There was a different story everywhere we went.
I’ve gone from dealing with five-star guests all over the world to making sure people have food on the table. Total polar opposites but the skill set is so transferable. Give the vaccine to the creatives – we’ll get it done in 24 hours!
words JOHN-PAUL DAVIES