• Lockdown saw local whisky bar lose 95% of its revenues
• Investments in new website and casks will grow online deliveries of bottle collections to customers across the UK
• Owner and operator Amy Seton pays tribute to Aston Business School for the learnings that are helping her drive through the crisis
A company which has lost almost its entire income because of the COVID-19 lockdown has used the enforced downtime to get creative and adapt.
The virtual write-off of funds experience by The Whisky Club in Birmingham over the last few months has spurred owner and operator Amy Seton into reimagining her business and extending it online.
This has resulted in finding funds to invest in the development of a new website aimed at driving online sales, plus buying casks to bottle whisky for customers across the UK.
Amy talked about her experiences in the latest episode of a podcast series called ‘Aston means business: SMEs adapting to COVID-19 challenges’, presented by journalist Steve Dyson.
She launched the original Birmingham Whisky Club 10 years ago and expanded by opening a whisky bar and tasting room at The Museum of the Jewellery Quarter on 25 January 2018 – Burns Night.
Amy said the business had grown to three full-time and two part-time staff and was achieving annual turnovers of around £200,000 when disaster struck in the form of the lockdown in March.
She said: “We had to close straight away, with events cancelled left, right and centre, and all tastings had to be postponed. From that point until early July we probably shed about 95% of our income.”
Amy said the government’s furlough scheme had been vital, but that she hadn’t qualified for a rateable value business grant as her company was not eligible because of its shared address.
She explained: “It took a long time to unpick that, and in the end I was able to get a discretionary grant of £2,500 which I still think isn’t enough because I have a certain turnover and a certain amount of people to look after.
“But, on the flip side, it meant I looked at other things, and the Small Business Loan has probably been the defining element of still being here.
“If you own a business you have to be highly adaptable. I thought, I could sit on this money and keep drip-feeding into the business while we got back on our feet again. Although that would have been quite secure, I thought this was our time to do something with it.
“So we have put a lot of money into a new website which is great, something I have wanted to do for a while but didn’t have the funds. It now means we can do these exciting things that really underpin what we are about, and put our imagination back into the business.”
That imagination has also seen The Whisky Club start investing in casks of whisky and creating collections of mini bottles for the first time, offering something new to customers.
Since the hospitality industry re-opened on 4 July, The Whisky Club has held a couple of trial weekends and is gradually resuming tasting events.
“We are going ahead cautiously but our online offering is going to underpin the physical stuff. We are growing in a different way.
“What it’s shown me is that we can look UK-wide rather than just a catchment area of Birmingham. I think turnover this year has been pretty much a write-off, but we have to remain positive.”
Throughout the whole process, Amy has been grateful to Aston Business School's Small Business Growth programme which she went on a couple of years ago.
She added: “The course material has been really helpful and the emails and advice we get directly from the small business growth programme has been invaluable. A lot of the things I’ve done have come directly from that course.”
Mark Hart, professor of small business and entrepreneurship at Aston Business School, was also interviewed for the podcast and said: “Once you put your business on a website you are global.
“You never know who will come across you. Everyone has been doing things differently in lockdown, searching for stuff online and coming across some very funky niche stuff. The key point is suddenly people have a bit more time on their hands.
“Back in the day of teaching on campus I said to Amy: ‘Think of how big your business can be, think of your geographical reach,’ and she’s been quite innovative in finding a way of doing things online.”
He added: “Yes, revenues have fallen away, but Amy has found a way of keeping the brand alive and that’s the same challenge that all business owners have had, not letting your customers forget you.”
▪ Episode 8 of ‘Aston means business: SMEs adapting to COVID-19 challenges’ can be found at https://www2.aston.ac.uk/aston-business-school/podcast.
- Notes to Editors
About Aston University
Founded in 1895 and a University since 1966, Aston is a long-established university led by its three main beneficiaries – students, business and the professions, and our region and society. Aston University is located in Birmingham and at the heart of a vibrant city and the campus houses all the university’s academic, social and accommodation facilities for our students. Professor Alec Cameron is the Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive.
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