The Big Interview: Escape from the Dragons
For this month's Big Interview, CN meets brother and sister Julia Charles-Wiginton and Michael Charles, directors of Milton Keynes-based agency Julia Charles Event Management.*
How did you both come into the events industry?
Julia Charles-Wiginton: I was originally a podium dancer and I toured the world dancing at VIP events, major nightclub launches and theatrical events. I even danced at a birthday party for a member of the Royal family in Egypt! I was working for an agency and I didn’t particularly like the way they ran things and the way they treated their entertainers, so I started up my own entertainment agency – Dance4Me Promotions.
We offered some amazing and never seen before acts – they were all high end, creative and very unusual so it wasn’t long before we were being approached by corporate clients who wanted to bring some of our high standard of entertainment into their corporate events.
As we started to get more corporate work, it made sense to rebrand the company to D4M Ltd and we were then asked to take on event management too. However I lost D4M in the recession, so started Julia Charles Event Management from scratch with my Brother Michael.
Michael Charles: I fell into it too – after Julia lost her first business, I literally picked her up off the floor and told her we could rebuild it together. I have always had a creative streak. I was keen to be involved in a creative business. I saw the opportunity and grabbed it.
Julia, you were on Dragon’s Den, tell us about the experience.
JCW: I appeared on Dragons Den in 2008 – I was there to pitch a new idea I had for a start up business, but the Dragons weren’t interested in my new idea, they wouldn’t even let me speak about it and I got corralled into pitching for investment for D4M, my events and entertainment business.
This should have been my first warning shot, but I ignored it and got through the 90 minute intensive interrogation and was then offered investment from four of the five Dragons. I should have been happy but I just couldn’t shake the feeling that it was just wrong.
What followed was months of doing things that just weren’t me, wearing clothes that weren’t me and being told to act in ways that weren’t me. I tried to ignore it, but in the end I took a step back and listened to my gut instinct and managed to fight my way out of the deal.
But, I’d taken my eye off the ball and the recession had hit, and so my business was collapsing around me.
What were your first impressions of the events industry, and what did you think you could bring it?
JCW: Coming from an entertainment background, I first found the corporate events industry to be very formal and a bit boring. It really wasn’t my cup of tea and the entertainment on offer seemed to be very staid - harpists and walk about magicians.
This was before Britain’s Got Talent so corporates weren’t aware of, or had easy access to acts that were unique and different. The entertainment that we offered was of a really high standard so we easily adapted to the formality of the corporate world.
Although much of what we offered has since been copied, back then what we provided was really very different; girls serving champagne while hanging upside down on a trapeze was really unusual. We have brought that approach with us into event management; we always strive to create something genuinely unique, to make our events bigger and better than the year before.
MC: While I was aware that I may not have the experience of other people in the industry, I knew that I would work harder than them. I could do more in two weeks than most people could do in two months – simply with pure hard graft and putting the hours in. This meant that we prospered faster and I gained experience very quickly but it also meant that I made mistakes quicker too.
How has the company grown?
MC: We have increased our client base, grown the team, moved offices a few times and grown financially too.
As with every company, it is a juggling act to ensure that all the different elements grow together.
What are the biggest challenges you face?
MC: Looking forward, we will have to make sure we stay on top of our game. We are pioneers so we need to keep innovating and looking for new ways to improve, to make our working lives easier and to continue to deliver amazing events. We have recently brought in new processes, a new website and new technology to help the team but we can’t stop there, we can’t stand still, we are always looking to improve.
What is the secret to you maintaining a good relationship with your clients?
JCW: Customer service comes first; 75% of our business is from repeat clients and we work on creating and nurturing those relationships.
There are no barriers to communication; if one of my clients needs to speak to me they can call me at any time. Each one of our clients works with their own dedicated account manager – they don’t get pushed from one department to the next so they build a rapport and develop a continuous relationship with us.
One of your services is venue finding, how do you find the commission model?
JCW: We work with many venues and the commission they pay is a paltry amount that doesn’t even cover the management time we have to invest to just liaise with the venue. Venues are notorious for having a high staff turnover, so we constantly have to brief and re-brief their staff.
This all takes time and I’m appalled at how awful their service is because of this lack of continuity. Ultimately I see it as a benefit for the independent venues who are more than keen to develop relationships with agencies and venue finders.
How do you spend your free time?
JCW: Balance is key. I enjoy being active outdoors – things such as hiking and competing in triathlons. Earlier this year I took a few weeks off to hike to the base camp of Everest and this summer I’ll be taking part in a Spartan race and a few other mad challenges.
MC: What spare time? I like to spend time with my daughter, my family and friends. I enjoy the odd game of golf and going to festivals and travelling. I’ll try to leave the country at every opportunity – it seems mad not to take advantage of all the cheap flights available now.
Can you name-drop any cool clients?
MC: Many of our events are confidential but recently we’ve created conferences and events for Signature Flight Centre, Gallo Wines, Opus, Amazon, John Lewis, O2 and Thomas Sabo. We also create many private events and parties for celebrities – but we obviously can’t talk about who those clients are.
JCW: We have a five year plan and a clear direction of where we are going. We are aiming to be in the ‘agency top 100’ very soon and to continue to grow. Much of this growth will come from further streamlining our way of working.
We have realised that we do things quite differently from the competition.
MC: I want to make sure that we offer a really great quality of life for our teams; that we have a creative environment that inspires and motivates them, and for them to love coming to work. Work takes up so much of your life that you have to be happy.
*Correction: In the June 2018 issue of CN, we mistakenly referred to the agency as 'Julia Charles-Wiginton'. The correct agency name is 'Julia Charles Event Management'.