Stuart Thornell, owner of Auckland wedding and events venue Allely Estate, talks booking cancellations, postponements and the financial position of his business following the downturn brought about by Covid-19.
What does your business do?
We are a functions centre located in Kumeu in West Auckland, we do mainly weddings, the rest are corporate functions, birthday parties, anniversaries. The venue is English-style grounds and a purpose-built marquee which means we can cater for larger events.
What was the motivation for starting it?
I'm not the founder, I bought the business almost two years ago. The actual building itself was originally a residential house in Henderson that was converted to a restaurant and then got shifted over to the current site, where it has been a restaurant and more recently become a functions centre. It's a historic-style villa; it's amazing how many people have a connection to the place because of the weddings or having worked here at one stage.
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Before this, I owned a childcare centre in Henderson, that was part of a franchise, so really the motivation of leaving childcare was my three children finishing there and graduating to primary school. I was really looking for a business and I'd been here a few times for events, and this being a new challenge was one of the main reasons for taking on this business. I really liked the English style and history.
How different is it running a wedding venue vs childcare centre?
It has been a bit of a learning curve in terms of the hospitality side of things, it's a very specific industry, but we have lots of people here that have helped me through that. Both are very customer-focused with transferable skills so it has been pretty seamless. As long as you provide good, quality service and food then you can't go too far wrong.
With a wedding you don't get repeat business and it is such a big day for everyone that it has to be right first time - reputation is everything, and that's the same with childcare.
How big is your team?
There's four key people and then for events we bring in a whole team of waiters, waitresses and bar staff. When we have events we swell to about 25 people.
How many events are held at the venue each year?
We do about 80 events per year, of those 65 are weddings. In the peak of the wedding season, some weeks, it can be five a week - that's full on. The busy period is September to May, but the busiest months are November to February.
Every day is different and you're with people when they're having fun, contributing, and you get a lot of positive feedback; it's rewarding when people come back to you at the end of the day and you've exceeded their expectations.
You've arranged a wedding open day to help small vendors in the industry - talk me through this and why you're putting it on?
It's on July 4 from 9am to 4pm. Basically, on site we're opening the venue up and we're going to set it up so people can imagine how weddings would be if they were to have their wedding with us, different areas will be set up and we've invited a lot of our key suppliers. We've got styling companies, florists, cake companies, DJs, photographers, marquee and lighting people, photo booth operators; these are all businesses who have gone through tough times with Covid-19 and uncertainty so it's kind of about giving them a boost as well so they can make some connections as well and maybe getting some bookings and deposits as well. People can come along throughout the day, they don't have to book, and we'll have some food and drinks on and they can talk to suppliers and us.
How has Covid-19 affected your business?
Initially we had a lot of events we had to either cancel or postpone so in total there were about 15 events that were booked for April/May - some were cancelled, some postponed. There was basically no revenue whatsoever during lockdown - end of March, whole of April, whole of May there were no events. June, no events as well.
Now that we're at level 1, a lot of people are relying on friends and family coming from Australia, India and China, all over, so some have been cancelled. Even for September, we had about 10 bookings in September and about four of them are pushing it back until next year when they can fly people in - there's a lot of uncertainty; every day people are emailing asking to postpone. We've gone from having what was looking like a good packed season to a very uncertain one.
We've had no weddings or events since the middle of March. Our first one is July 9, the first one since March 24 - getting on three and a half months. July, we have two weddings booked and August we have three. It's quiet; we certainly would have a lot more than that. Normally we'd get some mid-winter parties from corporates but that's all dried up as well.
Is the business in a strong financial position to get through the uncertainty?
Yes, touch wood. We had a good last season. Covid-19, if there was a good time, it came at the best time on the back of a good season. There's finances in place, we're certainly not on the edge of collapsing; I'm sure some companies may well be. We're not in that situation.
What shape is the wedding industry in, has it bounced back?
Bookings have been promising, I think a lot of people must have done their research over the lockdown period. June bookings have been fairly similar to last June, May and April were down, but we are definitely now getting inquiries. There seems to be a reduction in wedding numbers, where people may have been looking at 100 guests are now looking at less, maybe because people can't fly in, so that has definitely affected business as well.
What are you focused on for the rest of the year?
We're looking at how we can add our own style events for the venue as well, we're looking at our own music events and maybe some charity fundraiser events; events we organise and get people to buy tickets to, so we're not so reliant on the wedding side of the business. We hope to have our first music event in September.
What advice do you give to those who want to start or buy their own business?
Do your research; research the field you're in, or field you'd like to go into, and cover every angle and get advice - don't rely on your own gut.