Running a Lifestyle Business in a Pandemic

We started our lifestyle businesses out of a passion to do something better than anyone else. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected a lot of businesses particularly those that rely on non-essential arts, events, and hospitality – which sounds absurd given a life without these isn’t one at all.

Sheffield has been an ideal place to start a business with its cheap cost of living. I’ve always felt lucky to live here and I love my adopted home. While it’s not as slick as Leeds and doesn’t have the hullabaloo of Manchester, it’s always grown with me. From smoky nightclubs, free parties, sitting in parks with my mates to running after my kids in parks, exploring the many green spaces, and putting tents up in the Peaks. A welcome addition to the city has been an Antipodean-Esque café culture and street food scene. Places like Peddler and Kommune bringing independent small food outlets together under one roof. Like these businesses, we as a marquee hire business rely on bringing people together.

Around early March the sense of foreboding was building. We had a couple of cancellations and postponements but bookings were still strong for the summer. We had over 40 weddings and events booked for 2020, and many more in the pipeline for the year. We went for breakfast at Kommune for my friend’s birthday on Sunday 13th March. Coronavirus had dominated the news that week, handshakes were gone but social distancing still wasn’t a thing. It was busy but there was a sense that people knew it would be the last time we would be in a crowded place for a while. I felt sick. We walked home and I began putting a cash flow forecast together with no events running for 2020. The following day my fears were realised with Boris telling us not to visit pubs, restaurants, or theatres. The postponements then really started to come thick and fast. Another week later and we were in official lockdown with non-essential businesses shut and schools closed. Again more postponements and cancellations.

We started Milestone Marquees as a part-time business in 2014 whilst still working full time in marketing at The Sheffield College. From storing marquees in our cellar to a 100 sq ft broom cupboard to the 3000sqft we now occupy – the business is still a lifestyle business. It’s been hard as it’s a very capital intensive business and hours in the summer are long, which can be a point of friction in the house. We currently don’t work through the winter which has enabled me to focus on other projects and spend time with my 2 young children. Winters are spent drinking tea in church halls, eating digestive biscuits at playgroups, and getting covered in Victorian soot bringing our terrace house up to date!

As a business, the pandemic and subsequent lockdown has been terrible timing for us. We were weeks away from the first job and a record year. We haven’t worked since last September and we have overheads 12 months a year. We swung into full crisis mode – cut expenses to the bone, reduced rent payments, paused advertising campaigns, and took vehicles off the road. Comparatively, our overheads are fairly low and we don’t have any full-time staff so in that sense we are lucky. But we’re not alone. There are thousands of small businesses that rely on events that are looking at zero revenue for the summer, and with the furlough scheme ending at the end of October, it’s going to be a cold winter. 

My wife’s job relies on retail so the early days of the crisis were the most difficult and worrying. As much as we tried to make plans, details were taking a while to come out and we wondered how we were going to keep a roof over our heads, and food on the table. Like most people, we watched the briefings in the early days. Rishi Sunak dished out £10k grants for businesses who had a rateable value on their premises, unfortunately, we don’t pay rates as we’re in a rural location on a farm, so weren’t able to claim. I don’t think dishing a flat £10k was the right way to allocate money, regardless of turnover. I’ve heard of people renting tiny units similar to our first broom cupboard being able to claim and owners of holiday cottages cashing into the tune of £10k a property. 

Next, we applied for the Corona Virus Business Interruption Loan (CBIL) spending days pulling together accounts and information. This turned out to be pointless as after a few weeks the 80% government-backed CBIL was replaced by a Bounce Back scheme. To be fair the application was quick and the money in our account within days. This was a positive – you don’t expect things to be right straight away but things with this crisis have taken far too long. Anyhow it was a weight off our mind although we are saddled with a sizeable debt. 

Most people have written off the 2020 season. We are getting a few inquiries as to whether we can help charities, schools, and other 3rd sector organisations with shelter, but it’s not something we can do. We have a relatively small number of tents set up to serve weddings and parties on short term rentals over a weekend. With the news that pubs are to reopen perhaps, we may get back into the field but I remain skeptical as to how events can run with social distancing in place. However, I will remain open-minded and hope we can get back on our feet soon.  

We want to come back bigger and stronger than before, so we have had to diversify. We’re going to push our furniture offering more. Even further to the left, we’ve launched a cleaning business – Seven Hills Cleaning. Not as big a leap as you may think. Much of our work behind the scenes in marquees is cleaning, and we already have many specialist cleaning tools in place. There are heaps of domestic cleaners in place so although this is on the website we’ll be primarily aiming at end of tenancy cleans, commercial and outdoor work jet washing, and cleaning windows. I’m used to being wet and covered in mud doing marquees so not too much change there. 

The hit to the economy is going to need paying back. I just hope it’s away from businesses like ours which have suffered the most. It’s been a tough time for lots of people and we are in a very fortunate place. In some ways, things haven’t changed so much. We’re hanging around the house, walking to Heeley City Farm, Norfolk Park, and Cat Lane Woods. I also get to be home more but as people know it’s hard to balance working from home at the best of times, even more so when you chuck in some kids and homeschooling. The next 12 months will be tough. Safety is the most important thing. Hopefully, things will get back to a (new) normal sooner than I imagine. Those who rely on arts, culture, and events have been hit hard by the pandemic. And whilst not essential, getting drunk with your Nan at a wedding, meeting your mates for food, and raving it up in fields is what we look forward to. So hopefully, we can get back to helping people do it and get a few quid in the bank at the same time.