Amy Seton spoke to Aston Business Podcast about her company, ‘The Whisky Club’, and how she has adapted during the pandemic. Thank you to Aston Business for allowing us to use this inspiring case study on our Innovation Tracker! You can access the episode here.
Annual Turnover: £200k
FTEs: 2 p/t and 2 f/t
Amy Seton founded a company called The Birmingham Whisky Club (now known just as The Whisky Club) and grew it over several years. Working in marketing and events for large corporates, Amy decided to develop her career and started to bring interesting food and drink people into the city and form events around them.
It was the whisky that worked – it captured people’s imagination, and so Amy decided to focus solely on whisky. At that point, Birmingham didn’t have a whisky bar – so it was now or never. After acquiring some funding, she eventually found a space in the museum of the Jewellery Quarter that they turned into a whisky bar, lounge and tasting room.
The Whisky Club opened on Burns Night in 2018, and focuses on education around Whisky – most famous for their regular tasting events.
IMPACT OF THE PANDEMIC
Prior to the lockdown, they were getting cancellations left right and centre – and from that point until early July they shed around 95% of their income.
Amy cites the furlough scheme as the reason they are still here today – particularly as the relationship they have with the museum meant they were unable get the rateable value business loan. In the end they were able to get £2.5K from the discretionary grant scheme, but this was not enough – so Amy was forced to go out and look for other help.
The Small Business Loans have been the defining element of still being here. “Pre pandemic there’s no way a bank would look at a business like mine in very early stages and go ‘yeah we’ll lend you thousands of pounds’”, says Amy, “and the fact that they were pushed to lend to people like me was great. We were allowed up to 25% of our turnover. Where would you get that opportunity?”
ADAPTING DURING THE PANDEMIC
They are still in the process of bouncing back and Amy anticipates that they will be for a while. But fortunately, Amy is a great believer in being adaptable and decided to pivot. Instead of sitting on this money, Amy decided to invest, putting a lot of money into a new website and investing in lots of new products. They have started to do collections of mini bottles of whisky (which had to be very thought out because of the legislations around scotch).
But the biggest thing they’ve been able to do is start buying casks and bottle their own whisky for their customers and members. “That’s something that had been on my mind at least since we opened the club as a physical space, and now it means we can do these exciting things that underpin what we’re about and give our customers something unique. We’re able to put our imagination back into the business.”
“Yes it’s still an extremely worrying time and it still might not pay off, but it does mean we can be creative and look at how we cannot just be a bar and tasting place but be something much, much broader.”
They have done a couple of face-to-face trial weekends since the 4th of July and have had a few more people coming back every week. “What I love about Birmingham is that there’s a real rallying cry at the moment to support the smaller businesses. I can feel the love of people who want small businesses where they can get to know staff, and thrive. It feels as if the whole city is behind you. “
Their enquiries are going up, and table bookings are going up. They even have a tasting festival next year which they are preparing for cautiously.
Amy anticipates that their online offering is predominately going to underpin the physical. face-to-face side – which is never going to disappear.
Online means that The Whisky Club have been able to look further afield UK wide, and not just local. In terms of turnover, Amy describes this year as a write-off, but they remain positive. People want to go out and are prepared to support.
What other top tips do you have for other SMEs in your sector who are still trying to survive?
“We started looking at what our customers are doing and how they are behaving; we noticed how whisky lovers are going to other events around the country, which made us realise we need think more UK-based. The world has opened up a bit more.
Look at other sectors – look at other companies who are operating in a slightly different way, what are they doing? That’s always given me a lot of inspiration. It’s about constantly adapting and pivoting.
“I’m not a believer in being static.”