Katherine, let’s get the elephant out of the tent – how have you coped with COVID?
I'm 'mothballing' through Covid. As the next 3 months of events have been cancelled or postponed to 2021, my staff are furloughed and all the new enquiries are for 2021 (at least next year will be busy!), so there's very little else to be done in the circumstances.
It is financial pain, but social gain. My day-to-day life at this time is wonderful – playing in the garden with the kids, cooking everything from scratch, feeling more connected to nature, reading books I've been wanting to read, playing my violin, getting through home DIY projects and enjoying being in the glorious Sussex countryside.
It's created a Blitz mentality and promoted so much more community care. I'm involving myself more in a movement called Phoenix Rising which is a global network of change-makers working on a 'time bank' exchange alternative to money which is more in-line with where we need to be, placing less reliance on money.
Are there any positives for your industry at all?
It depends on your perception of ‘positive’. If your perception is bigger, busier, more, faster, then perhaps not. If it's working and buying locally, collaborating meaningfully with co-workers, developing your niche, working smarter and being more agile, then yes, there are lots of positives!
Three weeks is long enough to form new habits so, without doubt, there will be lasting behavioural changes. I'm hoping we'll have learnt that having a video meeting is as useful as a face-to-face one, that working locally makes more sense than travelling hundreds of miles, and making do and mending things is more sustainable than throwing away and buying new.
This virus and the disruption it's creating is both a warning and metaphor for the climate crisis, training us to pre-empt and pay attention, slow down, source locally, travel less, and be considerate to each other's needs.
Before you started The Arabian Tent Company what were you doing?
I was a secretary to the Head of Finance at PPP Healthcare. I couldn't decide what to do at university and didn't fancy the debt at the end, so I went to secretarial college instead and learnt all the touch-typing, book-keeping, shorthand and organisational skills that have proved invaluable for the rest of my life!
A fresh faced Personal Assistant, pre-Arabian Tent days
Have you always had an entrepreneurial streak?
I was the child that would bring in homemade goody bags containing assorted sweets and keyrings I'd made from shrunken crisp-packets to sell to my friends at break times. I also had a good weeze with my baby brother, trading individual crisps with him which were actually the crisps he'd just given to me, but were now 'plain' flavour – as I'd licked all the flavour from them, and 'taxed' them with a perimeter nibble! So I'd say yes, to that!
Your first tent came from Morocco. Do they still?
Although my first adventure to Morocco was just that – a 5,000 mile expedition in an old army ambulance to find blankets, cushions and a tent to bring back to the UK, I didn't appreciate the sharp business practices at work. The man who made the tent – on a Singer sewing machine – made it half the size I'd ordered and I spent a month returning to the village to have it put right, and that was only after a long negotiation with the village elder. Nor was I prepared for the lack of respect shown to women. It's the only place I've ever had to punch a guy in the street after he openly touched me.
I now prefer dealing with the affable Indians and have had a lot of fun taking part in desert festivals and riding camels when not making tent accoutrements. I still collect things – rugs, ornaments, cushions, textiles – when I travel, and am always looking for new ideas, but a lot of manufacturing is now done by my small team here in the UK.
On the road in Morocco with my zebra-painted army truck in 2001
The tent maker, his team and me in Morocco
The first instructions I was given for putting a tent up!
Block printing in Jaipur in 2006
Apart from Arab-style tents, what other themes do you offer?
Oh gosh – lots. After I started the company I went to India every winter for at least 8 or 9 years and made a new tent each year – experimenting with block-printing, applique and different fabrics, usually because I'd thought of an idea that I felt compelled to make. The first one in 2004 was designed around the film Moulin Rouge. We've now got everything from Bollywood to William Morris, Alice in Wonderland, Mexican, Moulin Rouge style and Tea-Party, but also use props, flowers, fabric and lighting to create different looks in our blank canvas tents – that's what I've enjoyed creating most recently.
Bombay Boudoir theme tent with our cocktail table and parasol prop
Do you do lighting and props too?
I've always aimed to keep as much in-house as possible, and delight in having things made – whether it be with fabric, metal or wood. It's about creating a cohesive look with lots of details, and props and lighting are an important part of this.
When creating a look or theme for a tented environment, I think about what furniture would look good outside as well as inside to complement it – perhaps William Morris deckchairs to complement a garden party tent, or white contemporary daybeds for a modern corporate event, or cocktail tables with Indian parasols for a Bollywood theme. Most recently we've been welding metal frames which we then decorate with good quality foliage to make interesting, natural-feeling installations for the ceilings of our white canvas tents.
William Morris-fabric deckchairs
Cherry blossom bespoke décor creation
What mistakes do people make when renting marquees?
One of the biggest is that they think they need a lot of space. Parties are more fun when everyone is forced together, and when there's too much space inside a tent it ends up feeling as though not all the guests could make it!
Another is not getting a hard floor in the winter. We actually insist on these now as you hear horror stories of squelchy coir floors and rivers running through marquees.
Then there's thinking they can do without a heater - even in summer there is a point where the temperature drops at night and nothing is less conducive to the party continuing than being cold!
Should customers haggle on price?
One of the early lessons I learned was to respect the value that I add to an event after being told by an Event Manager who had hired a tent for a Saudi Prince to entertain Prince Charles that I should have charged her double.
I'd been trying to do it on the cheap but realised after working out my costs that she was right, and it wasn't actually enough to thrive. Shifting tonnes of equipment from one place to another, and having it installed and then dismantled by professionals, is hugely labour-intensive and logistical, and to pay people properly there's a lot that needs to be covered. So ... no haggling, not post-Covid, but I'm always up for a meaningful barter!
2020 is pretty much a write-off. What themes will people be going for in 2021?
One thing that this crisis has taught us is that despite the best efforts to recreate parties online, they aren't as good as being with your family and friends in person. After we've recovered from Covid, we'll see celebratory street parties like VE day as the isolation sparks a craving for social contact. Behaviour will be that of indulgent celebration, and I imagine there will be apocalypse parties, clinical themes and sensory-stimulating interactive experiences as people reconnect with 'touch'.
What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made in your 15 year adventure?
I'm very philosophical about mistakes as I’ve usually learned much more from them than when things are going swimmingly. Even the thing I kicked myself for a year for – not buying a competitor business that I'd been offered because I'd just had a baby and wasn't in the right frame of mind for hard-nosed negotiations – turned out to be a blessing when I was offered an even better company the following year and was able to buy it. I wouldn't have able to do so if I'd bought the first one.
And what was your best investment decision?
Leading neatly on from your last question ... buying The Pearl Tent Company.
If you weren't running The Arabian Tent Company, what would you be doing?
I never had an exact idea of what I'd do when I grew up, but always knew it would be something completely different and could feel what I'd feel like doing it. However fashion design, joining the army or farming might be where I'd have ended up otherwise!
Thank you Katherine!