Conference News editor Martin Fullard speaks to Penny Banks, whose application for a Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan has been rejected. 

“He called me back after I had submitted all this and said, according to his calculations based on our removed sales, that we would need to borrow an astronomical figure, twice as much as I forecast, and that they were not willing to lend it to us.”

Why be ordinary when you can be extraordinary? Those are the words you encounter when you arrive on Penny Banks’ website. Those unfamiliar with the events industry, and what goes into make an event happen, may shrug with short shrift and note Penny ‘only’ supplies furniture.

This is an unsurprising attitude when you consider so few people appreciate both the value and importance of the UK’s £70bn events industry. Should we be surprised, then, to learn that Penny Banks – the eponymous name of Penny’s business – has just had a government-part-guaranteed Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan application rejected by Yorkshire Bank (soon to rebrand as Virgin Money)?

It was only last week when business secretary Alok Sharma called on banks to make it easy for businesses to access funding, and that no good business should be turned down. Surely, with the news this week that 60% of the UK’s events industry’s suppliers facing collapse within three months, of which 6% won’t last until the end of April, minister Sharma should be readying the Malcolm Tucker Book of Metaphors to ask the banks what is going on.

Perhaps Yorkshire Bank (Virgin Money) could explain, then, what a good business is, as Penny Banks had only a few months ago secured a five-year contract supplying high-end furniture for the corporate hospitality at The Open, one of the UK’s largest sporting events. A contract, it must be noted, that is still valid. Not to mention she has demonstrated five years’ worth of year-on-year growth, which includes turnover increasing from £850,000 to £1.9m in the five years to 2018.

“I’ve been in the industry since I started working for my father’s business back in 1991,” Penny tells me. “He was a furniture designer and manufacturer and he got involved with furniture hire when he helped to set up London Fashion Week back in the 80s.”

Penny lost her father in 2019. 

“We have a reputation for leading trends in commercial and contemporary interiors,” she adds. “We design and build feature areas, hospitality restaurants for big sporting events, and more besides. We still design and manufacture about 80% of our furniture hire range, so we are quite unique in the industry. 

“In 2019 I was even chosen to take part in a parliamentary review, in recognition for the work that we were doing.”

I already like the sound of Penny’s business; rooted in history, honest, and with some mouth-watering clients. I wonder, what was involved in taking part in a parliamentary review, in this case one organised by the Rt Hon lord Pickles? “It was quite interesting, although it would have been more interesting to be part of it this year because they asked how government legislation has affected the business, and is there anything that would help,” Penny says. 

“One of the things I talked about was Brexit, as well as the rate system. We had to move premises last year because the rates were crippling where we were. We had a 5,000sqm warehouse because we carry so much furniture hire stock and it was hard to keep up with the rates payment.”

Brexit! I’d forgotten about that. How I miss it.

Penny continues: “It was quite interesting. Had it been this year it would have led to very different things. We were invited to parliament, there was a big reception, they did a lot of PR, and they brought out a glossy magazine. We were chosen to take part due to our contribution to the industry.”

So far, we have established that Penny has been in business for 30 years, has demonstrated consistent growth, secured a five-year contract with a major sporting event organiser, and has been invited by a lord of the realm to parliament based on her contributions to the industry. I’m struggling to see how this could upset the suits at Yorkshire Bank (Virgin Money).

Maybe the loan rejection is something to do with this five-year deal with R&A, the organisation behind The Open. I ask Penny for more details about the deal, which she says is still being honoured. “R&A, which is responsible for staging The Open and the Women’s British Open, is our biggest client,” she says

“This year would have been the first year of the new five-year deal. We have been working on the event for the last five years, building and designing their hospitality areas and public catering areas. When we got the news last week that it had been cancelled [but will run in 2021], it was a massive blow. It is a huge piece of work and we have already done a substantial amount of planning and design work.”

Hang on, there are more clients, and big ones at that…if you are event-literate. “We also work for most of the major exhibition organisers, Hyve being the largest one,” Penny reveals. “We supply Spring Fair [the UK’s largest B2B exhibition, which welcomes approximately 50,000 visitors and 4,500 exhibitors] and Autumn Fair [still large, at about two-third the size of its Spring cousin], and their wider portfolio. 

“We also work with Clarion, Montgomery, Single Market Events and more. It is worth pointing out that we generally work with organisers rather than with individual exhibitors, where we work with them to come up with feature areas and press offices and so on. 

“On the event side, we have been quite instrumental in changing the look of corporate hospitality, spending time coming up with new concepts and making hospitality look different. We have worked on large-scale sporting events with the Jockey Club at Newmarket and for the Cheltenham Gold Cup, too.”

We appear to have gone down a rabbit hole. This part of our conversation started with us discussing The Open, but it transpires that Penny has quite the client base. Anyone who knows events will know the likes of Hyve, Clarion, and Montgomery are big fish indeed. 

“It has been very difficult. It is like the taps have been turned off overnight,” she says.

Turning our attention to the loan, it turns out that it was actually Yorkshire Bank (Virgin Money) that contacted Penny in the first instance. “The relationship manager called me at the start of the outbreak and said he had been told he needed to contact customers to see if we were affected and if the bank could provide any support,” she tells me. 

“At that point we had five events cancelled, and I said yes, we have been affected. At that point we didn’t know we were heading for a complete lockdown.”

What did she need to provide to the bank, I ask: “We were asked to produce several scenarios of what could happen, which was difficult as the situation was changing by the hour. Soon after came the announcement about the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS), and I contacted them to say we are eligible, so can we apply. We were then asked to demonstrate a raft of scenarios, such as when I saw the situation improving.”

I spit out my coffee over my desk. The bank asked Penny when the situation would improve?  If Penny knew that, surely, she would be rewarded with more than an invitation to parliament by lord Pickles.

“We produced half a dozen cashflow forecasts and budgets, working on scenarios. I considered the indefinite lockdown and the fact that key venues have been turned into Nightingale hospitals, which will impact on when things can get back to normal, despite being a wonderful contribution to the national effort. We started to take out events at ExCeL, the NEC, Manchester Central and so on. 

“He called me back after I had submitted all this and said, according to his calculations based on our removed sales, that we would need to borrow an astronomical figure, twice as much as I forecast, and that they were not willing to lend it to us.”

There goes the rest of my Nespresso. Removed sales? Of course there will be no sales. Not many businesses are making sales right now, is that not the point of the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme? Is the clue not in the name?

I ask Penny, based on her projections, what she applied to borrow. She reveals the figure flatly. It is still a big sum, but beneath the government figure of £250,000, for which the government would guarantee 80%. She employs 12 people full time, which are currently all furloughed. This is part of the government’s Job Retention Scheme. It seems a bit pointless if there won’t be a business for these people to come back to because a bank manager doesn’t understand the events industry.

When did Penny learn this, I ask: “This week, 14 April. I sent him an email to make sure he had everything, since I hadn’t heard back. I don’t even know how he has come up with that figure. He told me I can appeal if I think he has the figures wrong. Those were the figures the bank thought I’d need to keep trading until the end of the year if there was no work. 

“The bank assumes the events and exhibition industry won’t have anything going on this year, and that it is unlikely to recover in 2021 meaning many businesses won’t be able to repay loans. 

“He didn’t say if it was a CBILS loan or one of the bank’s own products, just that it was over the £250,000 level and that it wasn’t covered by the 80% guarantee. Nor did he reveal an interest rate [although CBILS are supposed to be interest-free for 12 months].”

We reported this week, 14 April, that 60% of the UK’s events industry’s supplier base is facing collapse within three months, unless events businesses receive further support from the government, according to an online survey carried out by the Events Industry Forum (EIF) and Business Visits and Events Partnership (BVEP) and co-ordinated by the Production Services Association (PSA).  

Of the 1,490 businesses surveyed from all sub-sectors of the events industry between 3-7 April, 6% say they are unlikely to survive until the end of April as a result of the impact of Covid-19. 

The results were published a week after the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s tourism minister, Nigel Huddleston MP, said that events can “kick-start” the economy when the UK emerges from the Covid-19 crisis.

I know the answer to this question already, but does Penny fear for her business? “Yes,” she says with a tone of notable sadness. “If we have no support from the bank and no income coming in, then it’s going to get extremely tough, some difficult decisions will need to be made.”

Is she going to go back to the bank to appeal, I ask: “Yes. I said I’m going to appeal their decision and I feel the amount we are looking for would be much less. However, I have got more work to do with cashflow forecasts to help strengthen this.” 

The feeling among the business owners I have spoken to indicates a feeling that the banks have ignored the government’s message about making the CBILS an easy process. Does Penny feel let down, I ask: “Yes, he [the bank’s relationship manager] was very ready to say that the bank must establish whether it is a viable loan, and whether we can afford to repay the amount borrowed. He said what I had asked for wouldn’t be enough, and that come September we would need additional funding, which wouldn’t be available to us. He said the bank must look at the worst-case scenario.”

It is too sad for words, almost. With the saddest revelation being that Penny Banks is not alone. Countless events businesses have been in touch with Mash Media reporting similar roadblocks with banks. 

A survey released on 15 April by the British Chambers of Commerce showed that just 2% of respondents had successfully accessed the CBILS programme this week. Some businesses noted lenders were failing to respond to inquiries fast enough, if at all. That is another problem.

What do you think this means for the events industry, I ask Penny while mopping up my coffee: “I think it will be incredibly sad, if the figures revealed by BVEP are correct and 60% of suppliers may disappear, I can only see the larger organisations being able to sustain themselves, creativity and choice will be lost. It’s a really sad situation.

On that note Penny and I say our digital goodbyes. In between conducting the interview and actually writing it, I took time to spool the web and if there is one overarching theme it is that there is a growing sense of resentment against the banks. People have not forgotten about the 2008 crash, and how it was the taxpayer who bailed them out, and how their actions in the preceding years led to a decade of austerity. An austerity programme that has seen criminal under-funding of institutions like the NHS, which as a result is now using major event venues as hospitals, meaning Penny Banks, and hundreds of other events businesses in her position, have fewer venues in which to operate, and a bleaker future to boot.

The banks invited us to play football, and then ran off with the ball. 

How a business, including a bank, conducts itself now, for better or for worse, will be remembered when we emerge from this crisis. Why be ordinary when you can be extraordinary? Something to think about.

Images supplied by Penny Banks | Main image: The Open, supplied by GL Events

Do you run an events business and have been rejected for the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme? If so, contact Editorial Director Martin Fullard on mfullard@mashmedia.net

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