Tipis and teamwork make Events Under Canvas 'One To Watch'
PUBLISHED: 07:00 19 September 2017
It all started for Jenna Ackerley, founder of Suffolk-based Events Under Canvas, at her cousin's wedding back in 2013.
“She had hired in tipis and it was something I had never seen before,” she remembered.
“When I saw them taking shape in this beautiful meadow I was awestruck.”
It was a moment that would lead to Jenna launching her own venture, which in the space of four years has grown into an award-winning business.
“My cousin had paid a lot of money to bring the tipis across from the other side of London because there wasn’t a business in this region that offered them,” she continued.
“What started as a casual pub conversation, initially about how great these tents were, evolved into the idea of buying some and trying it out ourselves.”
The seeds for Events Under Canvas were sown.
The business, based at East Bergholt, hires out giant tipis, sailcloth tents and bell tents for weddings, parties and festivals.
That conversation in a pub has grown into a business that four years later has 180 events booked in 2017- most of them already completed - which is a 30% increase on last year. Jenna expects the business to turn over £650,000 by the end of this year and has set an ambitious target for Events Under Canvas to be a £1million concern come 2020.
It’s a great success story, one that obviously impressed the judging panel for the recent EADT Business Awards where Events Under Canvas picked up the One To Watch Award, which recognises businesses that show a pioneering approach and demonstrate the potential to flourish and deliver impressive results in the future.
Feel for customer service
As with many successful business launches, timing is important and Jenna’s epiphany in that East Anglian meadow came at the right time in her life.
“It coincided with the recent birth of my son, who had been born three months before the wedding,” she continued.
“I was on maternity leave, so had a year ahead of me, without any major work commitments, to focus on growing the business. We also had some money that we had originally put aside to pay for an extension on the side of our house.”
She continued: “I had known for some years that I wanted to start my own business and believed I had a good feel for customer service and quality and sales. I also had a great team of people around me who I could go to for advice: my brother was a real mentor, as he worked in the City at the time, my parents really supported me with child care and finance and my husband was very supportive. I think he knew deep down that I wasn’t going to be a stay-at-home mum.”
Prior to launching Events Under Canvas, Jenna had been a manager at Ipswich Hospital where she had worked for five years, and before that she had run a business in Europe recruiting seasonal holiday reps and nannies.
“It was quite small fry but it gave me a real insight, and a passion and interest in running my own business,” she added.
With the money that had initially been earmarked for the extension and a bit of help from the bank of Mum and Dad, Jenna bought a number of tipis from the manufacturers in Sweden and set up a website and a Facebook page.
Enquiries soon started to come in and an early success gave the business some good kudos.
Jenna contacted Jimmy’s Farm at Wherstead suggesting that they use her tipis instead of traditional marquees at some of their events. In that first year they were used at the farm’s Christmas fair.
Jenna said: “It snow-balled from there - 2014 was our first summer and we set ourselves a target of doing 12 events. But we ended up doing 56. We stunned ourselves with what we managed to do.
“The way the model works is we collect a deposit in advance and because people planning a wedding often work a year ahead, they often give us the deposit far ahead of their big day. This has meant we have been able to invest in new tents and to grow the business much quicker than we had anticipated.
“Other than the first tents, every bit of growth has been achieved through investing our profits rather than having to go out for external finance.”
Today Events Under Canvas has built up an impressive stock of 14 tipis, one sail cloth tent and 23 bell tents.
Cashing in on the glamping trend, the bell tents offer an additional revenue stream whereby they can erected near the tipis and decorated as a honeymoon suite for a newly married couple or rented out as overnight accommodation for guests. Events Under Canvas has developed an online booking system, so guests can reserve and pay for their stay directly with them, removing the hassle and cost from the hosts.
A good team
With the outdoor nature of the business, summer is the busy time of year for the company, which tends to cater for multiple events in one weekend during this peak season. This means Jenna has to trust her teams to get the job done and deal with customers in the right way.
She says, this is exactly what they do and attributes much of the business’s success to the people she has gathered around her.
She added; “In order to offer the best customer service we have to give our teams the autonomy to go about doing the job as best they can. They are often on-site for hours on end and we let them get on with it. We encourage them to have fun, and to take responsibility and make decisions.
“The growth of the business has been staggering and that links back to the way we look after our team and the way we are a family.”