James: Morning David.
Digger: Please tell us something of your
background and the background to Over The Moon Tents.
James: My background was pretty standard really. I did
the usual things that you’re told to do when growing
up. Get your GCSE's, get your 'A' Levels, get your
degree and go to college. Somehow things would work
out and you’d get a decent job. So I followed that
route but never really knew what I was doing. I ended
up falling into a recession coming out of University in
1993. The beginnings of IT were just kicking off so I
started to get small temping jobs. The 90's went on and
we all had PCs and I contracted in IT.
Digger: What sort of IT?
James: I started off in Peterborough at Thomas Cook –
one of the three big employers there along with Perkins
Diesel Engines and also EMAP Magazine Publishing. I
worked at all three of those in the time-span between
leaving education and starting Over The Moon. I was just
a graduate trainee at Thomas Cook and they paid a small
amount along with income support and you got a chance to
work. A problem at the time was that loads of graduates
came out, the work wasn’t there and employers would
ask “Have you got any experience?” to which the
answer was invariably “No.” Because nobody would
give anyone a chance with an Arts degree.
Digger: It’s the old Catch 22.
James: Yes. Unless you were lucky enough to get
sponsorship or work experience in University it was hard
to get that first step on the ladder. It is a bit
dispiriting – you’ve done what you were told to do.
And the graduates now must be facing exactly the same
situation and there’s more graduates now than when
I came out.
Digger: They say that youth unemployment is 20% although
I’m not sure what their definition of youth is.
James: I got into the web design side of it and that
pretty much lasted up until I got into contracting. And
then I was doing that for Cambridge Assessment,
where they do all the exams. I got an offer to go
permanent at a web design company in quite a high flying
company and just as I joined they were going through a
whole management upheaval and (laughs) the guy who hired
me just after I started was fired!
Digger: It’s like an Alan Partridge moment.
James: Low and behold about four months later I got the
bullet too. I thought “Right, that’s put the brakes
on things.” It was the summer and I had the impetus to
start my own company – being out of work sometimes
makes you think about things you’ve always talked
about doing and maybe getting on and doing them. I’d
never liked working in offices and had always liked the
outdoors. And the other thing that was running parallel
to that during the whole period of being in IT - I’d also
been into music and DJ’ing and partying and loved all
that culture. I’d started putting on our own nights
and got quite a taste for organising and promoting and
doing fliers and websites for those too. That had always
given me a lot of pleasure. For the millennium we
bought a big old army marquee and that was in 2000, of
course. When I
got made redundant that very same summer we were asked
to provide the marquee for a wedding. As luck would have
it someone we knew – a friend of a friend down in
London who was a City financier. He hired lots of other
things in and we were asked to provide a dance tent for
them. I went to do that and while we were there I met
another company called Bedouin Tents who specialise in
providing Bedouin-style tents and décor. We helped them
and the guy said “I don’t suppose you fancy coming
and working for us?” I was out of work and looking for
a job so said “Yes.” And that was the epiphany
moment. Actually, he was working for some very affluent
people, travelling around to some lovely places in the
country and putting up tents in very trendy people’s
gardens. Being outdoors and doing a physical job in
lovely surroundings and a lot of travel and variety and
I thought “This is the life.” The two things came
together and the push and the pull of those made
me realise that being made redundant was the best thing.
Although, as is often the case, I didn’t think so at the
time. It was a real punch in the guts to where I thought
I was going but a lot of people find in life that these
seemingly traumatic events are actually the death knell
for one part of your life and the birth for a better
Digger: It was the impetus for a great career that
really suits you.
James: Yes, very much so. I modelled this business a
little on how those guys were doing it but we then
researched the market. We went to The Showman’s Show,
where you can see suppliers of tents and others related
to that, and we started to look around. We picked up on
the Tipis – there’s been this whole growth since
2000 particularly in styles of tents, people camping,
how they want to camp. More people wanting to camp. A
lot of it’s been driven by the BBC coverage of
Glastonbury and people wanting to go to that. There’s
always been Tipis at Glastonbury. There’s just this
whole thing going on at the moment.
Digger: There’s lot of other opportunities for you
like historical events, the medieval and wartime events,
anniversaries and celebrations.
James: We did the medieval because there wasn’t
anybody else really offering them for hire. So I took a
bit of a punt and each tent lends itself to a particular
style, theme or type of event. We’ve just tried to
make our USP that we have a range of them. There’s
guys that just do Tipis or just do Yurts. We already had
the military and then we added medieval and the army
tents aren’t actually called that anymore – they’re now
called 'Vintage Military'. That helps a lot because
there’s a big vogue for this whole Vintage thing now.
It picks up on a lot of what you’re commenting on
within your site - that both socially and culturally
there’s a lot of it going on at the moment.
Digger: It’s huge, Retro and Vintage. It’s got so
much bigger since 2001 when I started doing this.
James: Yes, it has indeed. I went to a Vintage Wedding
Fair on Sunday in Leamington and had a gauge of what
people were offering there and was just chatting to
them. Quite a lot of the suppliers are doing crockery
and cakes and many of them started up within the last
year. Three or four of them I spoke to. And they all seem
to be doing quite well. It’s very vibrant and
very 'now', isn’t it?
Digger: Yes. Why do you think there is such a huge
interest in retro, Vintage and nostalgia?
James: I heard on the radio some quite interesting
folk music on Radio 2 on a Wednesday night. They were
commenting on the popularity of folk music as a form of
popular music these days – Mumford and Sons and so
on, and they had someone else from another band talking.
He said “I don’t think it’s just folk music,
there’s just a trend in the UK at the moment for all
things, whether it’s fashion or music, the whole Vintage/retro thing. He linked it to
perhaps people looking back to the past because in times
of great change in history people always look back to the past.
That’s going on at the moment – looking back to the
war years and the wartime seems a good old period of
when we were still very uniquely British. And we look back
to a time when things seemed more local and comforting.
These are things that have seeped into us as we have
grown up, aren't they? Particularly the war
generation loomed large over us. Even with me being a child of the seventies I still was buying the war
Digger: Yes, I had lots of Action Man and other
such toys and we all grew up with those classic war
James: Yes, it’s always been there and these people growing
up now are all buying into it and are well aware
of what happened.
Digger: We’re fixated as a nation with the war.
There’s always something on TV about the war, another
anniversary or documentary or war film.
James: What always comes across is our spirit of who we
were as people – not just fighting the war but the
character of the people. There’s a lot of pride for
our grandparents or people from our youth that we might
have met and that whole kind of nostalgia. The other
thing that’s going on is the imperative to recycle
and reuse. There was a woman at the Vintage Fair and she
said "They call them 'Vintage Fairs' now but we used to
call them Jumble Sales when I used to go with my
Digger: Yes, rebranding and a posh name.
James: They’ve given it a posh name but it’s current
because people are being forced to be more thrifty
these days. That’s the trend, change and being told that we should be better at recycling.
Digger: I went to see the proprietors of Retro Bazaar last week in
Milton Keynes and they take old TVs and
telephones and clocks and furniture, often in major need
of repair, and refurbish and renovate so they’re as
good as new. They get people coming in, normally
of a certain age and they’ll say “I threw all this
out in the seventies.” And they say "That’s why it is rare and
valuable and valued now, because so many people threw it
out as worthless. You didn’t appreciate it but now people do." They’ve made a really good business out of
James: A few years ago a friend wanted an old GPO
telephone and they acquired a bakelite classic one that
was wired up to work on modern systems. My dad has an
old jukebox which has been restored to original working
order. Vintage is everywhere.
Digger: A lot of the people doing phones and jukeboxes
are customers of mine. Who are your typical customers
James: 60-70% are wedding days, tending to be the
lady proactively organising the event and who has got the
vision. The remainder is public or community events –
music festivals and corporate training days or
marketing days. The core is very much around the
Digger: Is there a bit of one-upmanship, particularly at
festivals, where people try to get something that nobody
else has got?
James: Yes, there is very much a fashion at the moment
for tents at festivals particularly.
Digger: At the Bestival we had a VW camper and a big
American camper and we walked through the fields with
tents and I couldn’t believe how close they were all
together and how people could work out which one was
James: Yes, they’re all higgledy-piggledy in there.
This whole Vintage thing and how much the old bell tent
has made a resurgence in the last three or four years.
They are the better tent for camping in the UK rather than the plastic
mountain-style ones which became
ubiquitous in the 80s and 90s. But we’ve gone back to
a tent that you can stand up in and you can air and
canvas. They’re so much more popular now.
Digger: Do you remember a comedy called Nuts In May
with Alison Steadman?
Digger: Please check it out. It was 70s and they were a
very early ‘green’ couple – it’s very funny.
They go camping in their Morris Minor and basically
upset a lot of people with their pompous and priggish
James: Okay. I’ll look out for it.
Digger: Nuts In May. What gives you most pleasure and
satisfaction about what you do?
James: Most pleasure is the travelling around and meeting
people. Trying to work with people with ideas
which are sometimes vague and nebulous. The whole creative
process – with some people you get a broader
remit or they’re open to suggestions. They’re the
fun ones where you’re sketching it all out and adding
colour and putting ideas in their heads. That’s where
photos and the website can help because you can show
people ideas. Mixing and matching and that creative
process. And then getting a lot of good comments or
emails after an event when people say “That was
brilliant, we got what we wanted and were really pleased
with the service.”
Digger: I bet you get a lot of referrals as well?
James: We are starting to now, we are in year five and
that’s happening more and more. We have one client who
we have worked with every year but word of mouth is the
most powerful. It takes the most time to get up and
running really. People are saying they were given our
name from someone else.
Digger: What is it about the British, tents and the
great outdoors James?
James: You mean the desire to do more outdoor stuff?
Digger: Yes, I mean apparently we’ve even got more
sports cars and soft tops in the UK than Italy, Spain
and France combined. Now considering our inconsistent
climate it must mean we love the outdoors and fresh air?
James: I think we’re blessed with a very beautiful
country and we’ve got a lot of diversity packed in a very
small area and it perhaps seeps into our
characters. We only get brief moments to enjoy it. We
dearly hope when we organise our events that we get the
glorious weather for it but it doesn't stop us trying!
You notice how quickly we change when there's a bit of
sunshine in this country? We almost become Latin.
Yes, that was so noticeable last week, wasn't it? The
gardens were teaming. It does lift everyone - when
winter is so dark and grey and without much sunlight and
the switch is switched on and "It's spring!"
and everyone goes mad. (Both laugh)
suppose if we went back the geography and climate change
would have meant this part of the world was basking in
the sun like the Mediterranean is now.
What should people consider when thinking about hiring
out your tents and accessories or planning an event with
your services in mind?
Well... they need to focus on what they're trying to do for the
event. They are normally looking to do something different
but we need to tease out of them what that difference
is. It could just be that they want a certain tent and
that's all we need to provide. The questions I then
usually ask are "What's going on in the tent? Is it
dining, dancing, a mix of the two?" It's learning
what the function is. If they do have a vision of how it
all links up and are maybe looking for a variety of tents
or decor or bands or other accessories then, from our experience,
we have to guide them on what works for a particular
tent. The size and shape is important for the type of
event, what people are doing in it and the number of
people. This may seem obvious but we have to got through
that process. Often people haven't got a clue. Then we
have to match their requirements with their budget.
Sometimes it's not possible to do what people want to do
because of the size of their garden or the shape won't
really work. For example, the army tents can get a fair
number of people in but they're a standard width and you
just keep adding sections on until you get to about 100
feet. Well, that has the effect of a very long, narrow
tent like a corridor and if you have a lot of people in
it that then dictates how it would work for spreading
out after the meal. You need to make people aware of the
advantages and limitations of the option they go for.
That's the expertise that you bring.
Yes, listening mainly. And being able to show clients
photos and examples of previous events. It helps so much
going through the galleries.
What are the most unusual events you have done and what
have been the most challenging?
For me, one of them was a childhood dream come true when
we got to the Sainsbury's TV shoot and it was filmed at
the George Lucas soundstage at Elstree where all the
Star Wars movies were filmed. That was an army tent and
we rigged it all inside. Do you remember their 100
years anniversary and they did a series of ads featuring
the 20th century and one was a WWII setting? We went
there and watched all these guys going to a huge amount
of effort for seconds' worth of footage, for example
creating a brick wall. It was staggering and a thrill to
be where Star Wars was filmed.
The most challenging
was working on the Stretch style tents which were
pioneered by our partners in South Africa and they work
on tension. They have the ability to 'hang' off of the
side of buildings and they're not what you would call
traditional. We did one off of Shoreditch House, a
private members' club. They have this steel terrace
around the building and we then rigged-up the tent over
a swimming pool. We had a terrific view of the 'Gherkin'
and the City of London rising above us. That was a
strange combination of putting a tent in an urban
setting and on the side of a building, so that was
probably the most challenging and unusual.
It beats being in an office in Peterborough.
It's those 'pinch me' kind of moments that are the thrill
these days. Those days of gazing out of the window and
wishing I wasn't there are over!
What about the future James?
It's trying to pick up on the Vintage market, which is
really starting to go well now - we have the army tent
and we are listening to clients who seem to want the Vintage
And keep an eye on the technology which moves so fast.
It does. I'm able to get off the ground by using a lot
of the knowledge I gained in IT and web work, so none of
that is wasted. Also I'm lucky that I have friends still
working in the web industry who keep us informed and
up-to-date. We really punch above our weight there.
We knew we could knock spots off a lot of the bigger
guys because their websites were rubbish. So the company
is primarily an Internet business and has ridden that
ability to sell and market that way.
It's a bit ironic that it is an Internet business
seeing as it's such a physical entity.
Yes, it is. It's a marrying of the two. I'm now using
Twitter and I use a Blog and all these things to very
much keep abreast. SEO and web promotion is important
because my sales team at the moment is predominantly the
website. As the business grows I may be able to take on
more sales people but at the moment the website is there
doing the silent sales for me. And the good thing these
days is that gone are the days of expensive web
designers and online shops - there are services that are
very affordable for all of the off-the-shelf features
you might need to run an Internet-based business.
It's good to have content and stories about what you're
doing because Google, and therefore people, pick up on
that and the fact that it's happening at the moment.
Yes, and it's also very 'now'. People who go to festivals
are our clients and we're all part of what's going on at
present. My friend, who I hadn't seen for a while, had
bought a Zoot Suit when I went round to see him the other
day. He has started to go to events and so on. And I
said "I didn't even know you were into this sort of
thing." It's everywhere now. It's a good time for Vintage
Thanks James. It was great talking to you and it's a
real success story, both personally and professionally.
So well done.
Thank you. If I come across any Vintage events that
you'd be interested in, I'll let you know.
Thank you James.
Over The Moon Tents and