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Pamper The Camper: The festival industry, impact of covid-19, pushing through and making memories

Summer and festivals go hand in hand. The music, the friends, the atmosphere, the holiday vibe, the feeling of escapism from the norm for a few short days – it’s what we all look forward to.

The part that we may not find the most appealing is hauling the supplies from car park to campsite, setting it all up and hoping you’ve done a good enough job to have the tent survive the weekend.

Enter the Abbeyleix-based company – Pamper The Camper – run by husband and wife duo Wendy Riordan and Shane Ó Ciardhubháin.

They’ve built their business from the ground up – literally pitching tents and providing all the necessities for festival goers at nearly all of the main festivals around Ireland, including Stradbally’s Electric Picnic.

Covid-19 and the cancellation of all mass gatherings until September has had a massive impact on the festival and event industry including Pamper The Camper.

Recently, we got to hear a little bit more about the business, how it all began, their impressive record in tent pitching and how having the right outlook can get you through the tough times.

So, for those that may not know, give us a little synopsis of what Pamper the Camper is, the service/products you provide and where you are based.

Pamper the Camper is effectively a camping supply business that is geared towards festival goers.

We stock a range of tents, chairs, sleeping equipment, toiletries and essentials that festival goers can order on our website and collect from us at a chosen festival.

We also offer a range of services such as airbed pumping and chair rental for customers over the festival weekend.

Over the last number of years, the demand for our services has exploded and our shops can now be found at almost every festival in Ireland.

This growth led us to moving our family and business to Abbeyleix where we have lived for over a year now.

How did you get into this business/where did it all begin?

We got into this business by accident, we didn’t have a background in festivals or events.

My background was in retail management and my wife was an operations manager for a telecoms company.

I was inspired to set up Pamper the Camper after a friend had told me of how he walked for miles from the carpark of a festival to the campsite, laden down with camping supplies and “provisions” and described that he was nothing short of a sweaty ball of stress when he got to his tiny patch of grass which was left remaining for him to set up his temporary home for the weekend!

Not to mention that on route, himself and his girlfriend had more than a few words and were not exactly loves young dream by the time the tent was pitched and all paraphernalia unloaded!

The idea hit me like a bolt of lightning, wouldn’t it be great if you could just order your camping stuff online and pick it up in the festival.

A few weeks later, my wife and I set up Pamper the Camper and began trading at Body & Soul in the summer of 2016.

In 2017 Body & Soul approached us to ask if we would run their pre-pitched campsite as well as providing the Pamper the Camper service.

We had no experience in this area of event management but decided to say yes and figure out the details as it unfolded.

Pitched Perfect was set up in 2017 and at our 1st event we pitched over 300 tents and accommodated over 900 people at the festival and we have never looked back.

It’s always important to get a clear picture of what the business is but of equal importance is the “who” behind the business. Who’s involved in keeping the show on the road so to speak, is it a family business?

We are very much a family business. Both myself and my wife Wendy run the day to day aspect of the business.

Our nephew and niece Sean and Aoife are also heavily involved in running the business.

Sean is one of two crew bosses we have whilst onsite at the festivals. He manages the crew that sets up, strips down and books in the hundreds of customers that stay with us over the weekend.

Aoife looks after the administration end of the business for us and works very closely with the crew bosses to ensure that the right people have been allocated the tent they have booked to insure a smooth booking-in process over the weekend.

In addition to this our site crew consist of anything from 20 up to 50 people depending on what event we are at.

Was it a difficult task initially to source the equipment for your business?

We took a long time to source suppliers for the simple reason that we wanted good quality tents and equipment at the right price.

There are a lot of tents people can buy cheaply from nearly every major retailer but the problem with these is that they are only shower proof.

We don’t get “showers” in Ireland and we couldn’t have people’s tents getting flooded out over the weekend so we stay clear of these tents in the interest of our customers and our reputation.

It’d be fair to say that the summer period would usually be your busiest time of year with the popularity of festivals including The Electric Picnic. When did you realise the impact that Covid 19 was going to have on your business?

In January the Covid 19 reports started to appear on the news, like everyone else we thought sure … it will never come to Ireland. That kind of stuff only happens in the movies!

When the “lockdown” started, we knew our industry was in serious trouble.

All along we hoped that the events would be just moved to a later date, but when the announcement came that all mass gathering were cancelled until September, reality hit home!

In just a few short weeks, everything we had worked towards achieving over the past 5 years had vanished. We were devastated.

Not only for the loss to our business but for all the promoters, independent festival organisers and the thousands of people, who were working in the event industry who suddenly had no jobs!

A lot of businesses have had to pivot their offering in response – tell us about the approach you took with your own business.

Like all businesses affected by Covid-19 we have had to adapt and change to what was happening.

We had two choices, we could take the summer off and wait for festival season to roll back around or we could use this time to move our business to an area we wanted to explore but never had the time to do.

We sat down as a family and looked at our business and what we could offer people in the current situation.

We knew, that like ourselves, families were stuck at home with bored kids, and the chance of getting on a plane for a holiday were zero.

One weekend, we popped one of our tents up in the garden for a sleepover with the kids and woke the next morning and realised that everyone was going to have to have a “staycation” this summer and how nice it was to be out of the house, with a bit of extra space and to do something different, even if it was for just a few nights.

We quickly sourced a new range of “Staycation” bell tents and accessories geared towards this market.

The new range has really struck a chord with people and the sales have been amazing since we launched it.

Our clients are using the tents as an extra room, not just for sleepover, but as playrooms, home office and for movie nights.

Also, in response to the demand from our customers we are considering providing a rental service as people are looking to hire to host family birthday parties and anniversaries in.

We liaise with customers every step of the way on what sort of set up they are looking for and what size tents they need?

Do they need lighting, stretch tents or showers for the event? After we have established their needs, our team arrives on site to build.

Our team all live together in the same house and the customer is advised beforehand that they are to social distance from us whilst we are onsite.

After the tents etc have been put up we use a fogging machine that sprays nontoxic disinfectant into the tent before the customer is allowed to use it.

What type of reaction have you been getting so far?

The reaction has been phenomenal!

Our Staycation range of tents have been flying out and we are struggling to keep up with demand for the range.

We have had to take on more of our crew to help this summer pitching tents for people across Ireland.

We have received a lot of bookings for birthday parties and anniversaries etc.

Initially when we brought in the Staycation range and the rental option of our tents, I was under the impression that it would keep us ticking over for the summer but we are as busy now as the years gone past.

Have you found it easy to access support for your business during this time?

At the moment accessing support is easier than ever.

There are a number of supports for businesses out there who have been affected by the pandemic.

Your local LEO offices are a great resource for people who are looking for support services such as mentoring, training or access to financial support.

Pamper The Camper will be one of the first businesses to feature on Virgin Media’s #BackingBusiness initiative –  a €1 Million support fund to boost Irish businesses nationwide, with free on-air advertising including creative, production, profiles in relevant TV programmes and social media promotion. What was this process like?

The Backing Business campaign with Virgin Media was a massive boost for us and our business. We had a weeklong campaign across all their channels and social media showcasing our business.

The process was really simple, you record yourself talking about your business and how you changed during the pandemic and send it into them by email.

I would encourage any business to avail of the campaign as we picked up a lot of business and contracts from people seeing us on TV.

Also, off the back of the campaign we had quite a bit of uptake up on the story from other media outlets and we have featured in The Journal, VIP magazine, The Sunday Business Post, The Irish Times as well as on the radio.

What’s the record number of tents you’ve pitched at any one time?!

About 740 give or take. It equated to over 1600 people being booked in over the course of a few hours. Not too many hotels in the world book in that many people in a day!

What’s your favourite aspect of your business?

The start and the end of the festival.

Leading up to the weekend is highly stressful as there is a lot of planning that goes into the set up and when you arrive on site your battling time constraints and the weather to get everything in place before the weekend.

I love it when we check people in at the start of the festival as there is a great feeling of excitement in the campsite from the festival goers in anticipation of a great weekend.

When the weekend is over its lovely to talk to people as they leave knowing they had a great time and you were a small part of that memory they were leaving with.

What are your thoughts on the future of festivals and large gatherings?

I firmly believe that we will be back to work at festivals next year.

Its very hard to see what changes need to happen and will depend on how it all pans out over the coming months.

The danger with continuing the current lockdown is how do we ensure that the entertainment and event industry survives if this rolls into next season?

Its not just festivals but all gatherings such as cinemas, parades, theatres, confirmations and even Christmas plays that are affected.

Humans by nature are sociable and strive on interaction with each other, I would hope that a vaccine is found or we reach some level of herd immunity so we can continue to meet our friends and loved ones and experience events in our lives that make memories.

Any advice for other business owners facing challenges at this time?

I would say to anyone facing challenges at the moment to ask for help from your bank in the form of payment breaks or contact your Local Enterprise board and see what support is available to both you and your business.

The fact of the matter is we cannot change what’s happened but we can influence what happens going forward.

You can decide to wallow in the negative of it all or you can push on through it.

I have always believed if you change the way you look at things the things you look at change.

So, I would urge businesses to look at their current situation and seek out the silver lining.

That may be in the form of changing things that didn’t really work before, it may be training you wanted to do or other areas you wanted to bring your business into but never had the time.

Its also important to look at what other people are doing in your industry to pivot and change during the pandemic and apply them to your own business.

Have you anyone/any business within your industry or indeed outside of it that you find inspirational or admire?

My family and in particular my wife Wendy. She has been amazing throughout this year and the previous years of the business. I would be lost without her input or support.

Within the industry there are a number of people who are amazing in pushing the whole event industry forward.

The team at Body & Soul in particular Corinna Flood who has been a champion of us since day one.  Elaine in Magnum Event would also be someone we admire and respect. She has given us so much support when we started the business and continues to be a great help to us on this journey.

Running your own business can be full on at times – what do you like to do to unwind?

I try to get away with Wendy or my friends as much as I can during the off season.

We try to balance our time between that and spending time with the family to do things we cannot do during the summer.

At the moment the kids are too young to come to the festivals but I’m sure that will change in a few years!

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