It succinctly records our experience of emerging from the 1st National Lockdown in July.
Jon Williams, 50, from Ledbury, Herefordshire set up Eastnor Pottery with his wife Sarah Monk, also 50, 26 years ago. Since then, they’ve been teaching the British public how to get to grips with a potter’s wheel and coach them through the process of clay throwing.
“It’s our baby”, Jon says, “What started out as a studio where Sarah and I made pots to be sold all over the world became our everything – a place where we could do what we loved and work with other people. We never factored in the possibility of our business being affected by a global pandemic – who does?!”
Like many other small businesses, COVID-19 threw the future of Eastnor Pottery into complete chaos. In total, Eastnor Pottery was closed for just over 15 weeks, from 17th March until 4th July. At one point, Jon was forced to start thinking about other work: “It was really concerning. I just couldn’t see how we could sustain what we do here. I seriously dabbled with the idea of becoming a postman to keep us afloat.”
Before COVID-19, Eastnor Pottery employed a core team of four people, increasing to seven in the summer months during Peak season. When lockdown hit, Jon and Sarah had to shrink the team right back to just the two of them: “The uncertainty of the situation was very unsettling. As a business owner you are responsible for the wellbeing of your staff. Having to shut up shop for three months meant there was no work for our employees. Luckily, we were able to access the furlough scheme and the government’s small business grant.”
Working with Virgin Experience Days meant that the team had a huge number of classes to put on hold. This really shone a light on some of the admin processes that needed revamping and in a bittersweet turn of events, lockdown allowed Jon and Sarah the time to address these issues: “I’m historically one of those people who will write myself a note and then find it two weeks later, Jon laughs, “Our admin system really needed updating and lockdown gave us the chance to regroup. We’re savvier and much more efficient now – we’ve set up an online system which has hugely streamlined our booking process.”
When the government announced easing of restrictions in England on 4th July, Jon and Sarah had to completely overhaul the way they ran their workshops. Due to social distancing guidelines, customers are no longer able to paint their pots – historically, a key element of Eastnor Pottery’s offering. Jon and Sarah were initially worried, but customer feedback has exceeded all expectations: “We’ve got people telling us that they love getting to spend so much time on the wheel. Before lockdown we hadn’t considered this as an offering, but once again, the circumstances have forced us to reflect and have ultimately allowed us to reshape our business for the better.”
Jon and Sarah have done everything to ensure any customers visiting feel as safe and comfortable as possible. Anyone attending a class must wear a mask and wash their hands as soon as they arrive. Jon and Sarah wear Perspex visors and strictly follow the two metre social distancing guidelines.
They’ve also had to cut down on the frequency of classes and currently there is limited capacity for the classes they do run. A typical Saturday pre-COVID-19 would have seen up to 40 people walking through Eastnor’s doors, but now Jon and Sarah welcome a maximum of 12. This allows for a deep clean to be done in between sessions.
However, Jon and Sarah try and look for the positives: “We just want everyone to be as safe as possible. We love meeting new people. Of course, limited capacity means we’re not making as much money, but look at it this way: our customers get an amazing one to one experience and we really get to know them. Our classes were brilliant before, but due to COVID-19, the quality has really shot up. Now they’re extra special.”
It also means Eastnor Pottery has been awarded the Visit England seal, so customers can rest in the knowledge that their safety is being taken seriously.
The pair are ecstatic to be fully booked for the next few months but are ever-conscious of the changing guidelines and potential future lockdowns: “To be honest, we weren’t sure how it would go. When we first reopened, we didn’t know if anyone would have the confidence to come. However, we’re experiencing a huge spike in popularity – it seems people are desperate to get out and do something exciting and creative. We’re not taking it for granted though, who knows what will happen in autumn and winter.”
The pandemic was unexpected, but the positive consequences for Jon and Sarah’s business as a result are even more so: “We feel quite buoyed up. The pandemic is a massive national tragedy, but lockdown has been positive for us. It’s given us a chance to reflect on the business and come back more streamlined than ever.”