From hospitals to hospitality

From hospitals to hospitality

Have you ever thought about the company behind the corporate hospitality you occasionally enjoy at the races, the rugby or the Premier League? John Duckers meets Denise Sheasby to find out more.

Once a senior sister at Birmingham’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Denise Sheasby has been managing director of Eventmasters, the Birmingham-based corporate hospitality agency, for the past decade. This has meant ensuring that corporate clients can experience the thrill of top events including the likes of Royal Ascot, Cheltenham, Twickenham and great football matches.

Sheasby says: “Once I was hands-on with patients and now I am hands-on with clients.
“Clients have their own jobs, stresses and strains to worry about. Our role is to look after them. So much so that all they have to do is choose their guests and distribute the event documentation. We handle everything else.

“Whether larger corporations or SMEs, they all need a return on their investment. We need to provide a high standard of event. They are purchasing packages from us to both impress and spend time networking with their VIP customers. It is about communicating to them that what we are offering is exactly what is going to happen. That means we must provide very personal attention to detail. It is what singles us out from our rivals – we deliver on our promises.”

Eventmasters, located on St Paul’s Square on the cusp of the Jewellery Quarter, has gone from under £2m turnover in 2007 when Sheasby and her management team secured the business, to a forecast £5m in 2016-17. The team has risen from nine to 16 and it has all happened as a result of innovative thinking – making the most of social media and thriving in the 2008 recession when most were floundering.

But back to basics... like so many entrepreneurial figures that today’s Birmingham attracts, Sheasby isn’t from the city. It all began in Sheffield 52 years ago, when she was born as Denise Blaker. Her father was a hospital administrator and it was a job which meant moving around.

When Denise was aged 11, the family arrived in Derby. Her dad was looking after no less than five hospitals, and her mum was an usher in the local magistrates’ courts. Both their children – Denise and brother Paul – were to end up in medical nursing. He went into psychiatric nursing and has been latterly working in a secure unit looking after some of the most vulnerable members of society.

Like many of us, little Denise enjoyed an upbringing which she didn’t fully appreciate at the time.  “I had really supportive parents who were not stifling,” she says. “They allowed us to make our own way. A bit naughty I know, but I was going to Derby nightclubs at 15 – so long as I had the money to get a cab home … but Dad was always happy to pick me up if needs be. Different times, I suppose!”

But there was a downside to this openness: “I did not do as well in school as I should have, because I could get away with it. I had ambitions to be a teacher but at Sixth Form College I realised that my approach to study wasn’t where it needed to be for me to pass my A-levels.”

Denise Sheasby 02

And she didn’t. The blow came as another potential avenue closed: “My passion was ballet. I attended ballet school in Derby right up until I was 18, three classes a week, financing it by teaching tap dancing. I had been tap dancing from the age of two. We did performances at the Derby Assembly Rooms and at the Derby Playhouse, perhaps a couple of times a year.”

Sadly a career in ballet wasn’t to be: “I loved performing and I was asked to audition for the Ballet Rambert, but I knew deep down that I just wasn’t good enough.” And a role behind the scenes, teaching choreography and dance, was never to materialise either.

“Reality hit hard – I had to earn money,” recalls Sheasby. “The dreams went out of the window.”

However, by then she knew she was a “people person”. She says: “I could always connect with others.” So, more or less by default, she opted for nursing and a big move to Birmingham.

“In those days to get into nursing you had to sit your A-levels but you didn’t have to pass them, so I got accepted. I knew nothing about Birmingham and it was the first time I had ever been away from home.”

It was November 1982 and she was part of 100 new entrants – all girls; not a male in sight. Hard work, low pay, but the start of a rewarding career which saw her specialise in oncology – cancer to you and me – and eventually rise to senior sister in the haematology and bone marrow unit at the city’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital.

And early doors, that dearth of men on the course had to be dealt with as the girls hit the town on nights out. The nightclub of choice was Faces, at Five Ways, one stop away on the train line, and there were cheap nights on offer for the likes of nurses, police, fire and ambulance staff.

This was where she met her long term partner, Mark Sheasby. Although it was perhaps not the most propitious of introductions. “He asked me to dance and after that if he could put his glasses on so he could see what I looked like. Hardly a case of being swept off my feet!”
The relationship blossomed, sufficient to get Sheasby thrown out of the nurses’ home after her new boyfriend was found there after what was then a 10pm curfew!

All couples go through ups and downs, and with the Sheasbys this has included spells of marriage, divorce and then getting back together, but more than 30 years on and two children later they are living happily together in the Staffordshire village of Alrewas.

Their sons Elliot arrived in 1991 and then Edward in 1999. The former got an economics degree from York University, followed his ambition to go to London, went into recruitment, and then, to his parents’ joy, asked if he could join the family business. He is now a director of Eventmasters and runs the recently opened London office, targeting the firm’s many clients in the South-East.

Edward is still at school – Repton – and hoping to go on to university, but is already steeped in Eventmasters’ ethos, being voted best glass collector and bottle washer in the northern hemisphere!

Sheasby left the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in 2002 to look after Edward who was then still little, taking a part-time job in St Giles Hospice, Whittington, near Lichfield. If becoming a Sister had removed her somewhat from the sharp end of patient care, the hospice took her back there.

Denise Sheasby 03Husband Mark, meanwhile, was in corporate hospitality, had become part of Eventmasters, and also, at the same time, acting for a short period as commercial manager of Moseley Rugby Club. Then in 2007 the opportunity came to buy out the company, and Sheasby left nursing to step up to the plate as managing director.

“It was a huge learning curve,” she admits. And it came just as the world was heading into financial crisis accompanied by recession. For many companies across all kinds of sectors it heralded a battle for survival. For Eventmasters it represented a big opportunity.

Sheasby says: “It allowed us to approach venues who were struggling to sell packages directly, who previously had resisted working with agents. It was not a struggle to persuade them to let us take our own exclusive facility with them, which we would promote on their behalf.

“This allowed us control, to add to the package where we could, personally interact with the client attendance and manage the event in our own way.”

Eventmasters works in horse racing, rugby, football, cricket, tennis and other sports. One of the core events is with the Rugby Football Union at Twickenham – set to grow further after an exclusive deal with Harlequins to utilise the club’s purpose-built corporate facilities at the Twickenham Stoop on England International match days.

They also operate at Cheltenham, Chester, Royal Ascot, York and, after a successful launch this year, the Henley Royal Regatta, with facilities located directly beside the River Thames. The operation at Henley has allowed Eventmasters to further develop their own independent catering business. In addition there are relationships with Trent Bridge, Headingley, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and the Lawn Tennis Association, providing options around the Aegon British grass court summer series prior to Wimbledon.

This expansion has gone hand-in-hand with Eventmasters’ overall e-commerce strategy; the clever use of social media and search engine optimisation (SEO) expertise, placing the company onto the front page for many relevant Google searches.

Sheasby says: “We have our database of clients who have utilised our services in the past and our account managers keep in close contact with them. But all the time you need new business too.

“Once, it meant cold calling and sending out masses of emails. But people are sick of all that, businesses rarely take that sort of call anymore, and we all delete unsolicited emails, don’t we?

“Instead, our extensively developed website, the recognition via social media and search engine positioning sees people contacting us directly. We can also identify visitors to our site for our account managers to reach out to.

“We are always looking for fresh ways of getting new customers. We are still selling a product and the bottom line is about bums on seats. This is our preferred way of selling, but as always, if we are providing the customer with a return on both their experience and their investment, not only will they will keep coming back but they will be happy to recommend our services to others.”

So successful has Eventmasters’ e-commerce operation been that it has been launched as a spin-off company, Soar Enterprises Online, aimed at helping businesses make the most of their online presence.

As part of the overall promotional effort, the Sheasbys have a passion for horse racing and over the years have had varying degrees of success, the highlight being part of the consortium owning Imperial Commander, winner of the 2010 Cheltenham Gold Cup. Their current racing portfolio includes Turanga Leela, trained in Alvechurch just south of Birmingham by Ian Williams, who won at Chester this summer.

For Sheasby, relaxation also involves classical music, and she’s a regular attendee at Symphony Hall with her sons and her mum – although partner Mark is banned for snoring too much! She says: “It is pure escapism – I can focus and forget everything else.”

And, while we are on the subject of escapism, the eventual aim is to hand over to the kids, if that’s their desire, then buy a house with a bigger garden, still in Alrewas of course.
“I love flowers,” she declares. Which perhaps explains, at least in part, why business is blooming!