Nikki Gibson: ‘This is about connecting in a modern way’ (pic: Terry Murden)
Interview: Nikki Gibson, hospitality entrepreneur
Like most of us, Nikki Gibson admits that when Boris Johnson ordered the closure of businesses in March last year she did not expect the lockdown to last more than a few months. She was running a successful events company with business partner Anna Wilson, and as the new year dawned the outlook could not have been better.
Their Edinburgh-based Naked Events company was on a trajectory with more than 300% growth over ten years and was placing 300 functions a year, worth £1.5 million.
“2020 was set to be one of our best years. We’d also worked hard to achieve a good work-life balance,” she says. “It all fell apart overnight following the news of the first lockdown.”
Being forced to close down was one thing, but she shared the general assumption that things would soon be back to normal.
“Looking back I didn’t think it would be 12 months. Like all of us in business, we thought we would get to June and then play catch up. We spent the first two months of lockdown moving events from one quarter to the next. But then they began to cancel and eventually we had no bookings. We realised the industry was in trouble and we were facing real challenges. It was now a case of survival and trying to make it through the ongoing restrictions, basically get our business to the other end.”
The easing of lockdown has lifted the gloom for Naked Events. However, the pandemic threw up a window of opportunity with entrepreneurial Gibson turning her attention to a new business concept realised out of the experience.
“We have faced over a year of no revenue for our events business but I have never been one to sit still,” she says, as she prepares to launch Swurf, an app that connects the new nomadic workforce with host venues to offer a variety of spaces to work from across the hospitality sector.
“2020 has changed the way we all work,” she says. “Since the Government instructed people to work from home last March, a year on 60% of workers are now remote. And, it’s not going to change back any time soon, remote working is set to become the standard for millions of workers.
“As someone who’s worked in hospitality all my life, I understand the industry and have a lot of contacts with venues. They have faced huge challenges. The Swurf App supports these businesses by driving footfall from this newly created and displaced workforce. Remote workers [whom she refers to as Swurfers] can now confidently access a variety of welcoming spaces to work from. We are essentially creating a community of Swurfers.”
She acknowledges that many cafes and pubs are well-used to serving customers working away on laptops, but says there are many in the wider workforce who have never done that, or don’t feel comfortable about sitting in the corner of a bar to work.
“Some people are okay with dropping into a cafe to work – I regularly did it myself – but it may not be so easy for those who’ve been used to working in an office from nine to five and now find themselves working from home or on the road.”
Gibson says she’s had really positive feedback from working individuals and hospitality venues who’ve recognised the opportunities of the App.
“I want to create a network where individuals can use the app to find a welcoming destination where they can confidently work without pressure. A community of workers and host venues where collaboration is encouraged.”
‘It is also making venues think about using their space for other purposes, rather than pigeon-holing a suite or room for one role‘
The aim is to inform users what facilities they may have access to such as wifi, dog friendly, meeting space. Swurf works with its host venues to create exclusive benefits for its App users. From the venue’s point of view, it brings in badly-needed custom.
“As soon as someone steps over the threshold they become a customer,” says Gibson.
“It is also making venues think about using their space for other purposes, rather than pigeon-holing a suite or room for one role.”
She mentions hotels that have turned bedrooms into temporary offices, enabling individuals to escape the confines of home, particularly if space and facilities are limited.
Another advantage will be the benefits that working from cafes and hotels will bring to re-connecting people who have been missing regular physical contact, including those suffering isolation and mental health problems. It could bring co-home workers, especially teams, together.
“We have incorporated a booking system to the App and will introduce other functions as the business grows,” says Gibson. A pilot will operate with up to 50 hosts and she wants that to reach a thousand to test the market properly.
“In its simplest form it is a directory for people to find out where they will be welcome to work after they’ve dropped the kids off at nursery and see an email asking them to deal urgently with an issue.”
Now 40, she arrived in Edinburgh via a career in hotels that has taken her to Blackpool, Leeds and her home city of Durham. She teamed up with Anna Wilson, now based in Sheffield, to build one of Scotland’s biggest events businesses.
She says she’s delighted to see business slowly coming back but doesn’t expect to return to Naked Events just yet as it slowly comes out of “hibernation”.
“I think the app will be a great tool for people,” she says. “I am passionate about it. I understand space and how people use it. This is about connecting in a modern way.”
Occupation: Startup entrepreneur
Education: University of Lancaster – Blackpool campus (photography)
Career highlights: Hilton (Blackpool), Radisson Hotel (Leeds and Durham), sales; Principal Hotels (Leeds), regional sales; co-founding Naked Events; launched Swurf
Who or what has been the biggest influence on your career?
I have learnt valuable lessons at every point in my career and try to take lessons from every relationship. But the most poignant that I keep coming back to is the value of people and the importance of culture within an organisation. I was lucky to be given a development opportunity with my time at Radisson Hotels, my first real job out of university. Their outlook at the time, to me, was revolutionary. They valued, and hired, people for attitude over skills and qualifications. Had they not have done that my path would have been very different. This gave me the confidence to dream big and set goals.
What did you hope to be when you were young?
Happy. I always just wished to be happy, and successful. By success I don’t mean how much money I earn or what title I hold.
How do you relax?
Netflix. I love nothing more than cosy evenings on the sofa with hubby, my wee dog and a glass of wine.
Do you carry cash?
Does anyone? … well yes actually, I know the answer to that as I have been working part time in a supermarket through covid. But no, I don’t carry cash, unless the £20 note I have had since last March counts?
What have you learned about yourself?
So much, and I continue to learn. But one important thing for me, highlighted more so through this pandemic, I need good people around me, I am at my best when I am surrounded by people with good, positive energy. I love problem solving and it’s a lot more fun, and effective, when collaborating with others and exploring different perspectives.
Optimist or pessimist?
Forever an optimist.
Dare I say this, I love reality style escapism TV like Come Dine with Me, Four In A Bed etc.. I just love people watching and this is perfect example of not judging a book.
What other activities do you engage in?
Anything that involves maintaining a healthy lifestyle and balance. Long beach walks with Pip Dog. Running – which I only discovered I liked in lockdown. I find it really helps to clear the mind and refocus.
What do you find frustrating and what annoys you?
I am a ‘doer’. My opinion is if something needs doing, it’s best just to get on and do it. Not talk about, not think about it – do it. So I can get a little frustrated when I have to remind people to do things.
Do you have any claims to fame?
I’m in Fast and Furious 9 ….as an extra, but still.
What is your business motto?
All or nothing. If a job’s worth doing – it’s worth doing well. That applies to life as well as work. You could add that to the list of things that frustrate me. Half-hearted completion of tasks.
Name three people, living or dead, whom you would most like to have met and why
Obvious one, but Barack Obama. I admire his poise, he always projects a sense of calm. I Imagine in person that would be something special.
Victoria Beckham – Yes – I am a spice girl fan! but I really admire her resilience, determination, ambition and achievements, in life and work. It’s all about balance.
Mark Zuckerberg – knowing what he knows now, would he do anything differently?