Stuart Evans: I’m a ‘get on with it’ person (pic: Terry Murden)
Interview: Stuart Evans, co-owner, Fusion Group
Stuart Evans was just back from a business trip to Newcastle which, at any other time, would have been a largely routine engagement at a function organised by his biggest client, the drinks firm Heineken. But this was no ordinary trip or event. After the toughest year and a bit that anyone in the hospitality industry has endured he came home to Edinburgh like he’d just taken part in his first assignment.
“I’ll be posting on my social media about a great day. There were no group meetings, they had breakfast in grab bags, but it was just so nice to be out with people again,” he says.
We meet in an empty student hall in Leith where he’s planning another comeback, leasing two floors to accommodate Edinburgh Festival goers and artists who are expected to arrive for the hastily re-arranged event next month.
That day it had been confirmed that the world’s biggest arts festival would go ahead, in a shrunken and re-modelled format, and Evans is wasting no time preparing to welcome visitors.
“We’re going ahead as normal. There is a limited amount of risk,” he says in his unmistakable Brummie accent. “I’m a ‘get on with it’ person,” he says, “I’m definitely an optimist. You have to be. This a virus we have to live with.”
At the end of last year, however, Evans wondered if days like this would ever return, having seen his company, like many others in the sector, facing the unthinkable. He admits that there came a point in the autumn when he and business partner Alex Mckie, with whom he set up the Fusion Group 15 years ago, “had a conversation” about their chances of getting through the devastation of last spring and summer.
“When the lockdown was first announced I just thought it would pass quickly, but that soon wore off when I realised how bad it was. We had to preserve the company and make sure there was something to come back to. It meant thinking about who stays and who goes.”
Fortunately, they made only one person redundant and she quickly got another job, while others were moved into other tasks.
“The furlough scheme was the best thing that happened and we qualified for a couple of other schemes. They kept us going, along with chasing up invoices to ensure we had cash coming in.”
He admits they were among the lucky ones that came close to going the way of those less fortunate. “We had built a good business and we almost saw it come crashing down,” he says.
“We talked about scaling it back to just me and Alex and we did speak about winding it up. By September and October we had missed the summer and by November the main corporate events were over. We could see no sign of recovery until the vaccine came along and that gave us hope.”
Evans, a buzzy, energetic individual, is not the sort to let adversity get the better of him. He exudes a can-do approach to business which means his glass his permanently half-full. But as a back-up plan he set up his wife in business hiring out hot-tubs.
“It’s done well. She’s fully booked and she’s just bought herself a car,” he says with a wide grin that could be interpreted as a gesture of defiance to all attempts by the virus to get the better of him.
Evans has spent his whole career in hospitality, taking a job as a bellhop in the Swallow Hotel in Birmingham straight from school. He worked his way through various hotel jobs before moving into sales with CCD, an agency, that led to him meeting his business partner at a corporate event in East Lothian. They decided to set up their own venture which became the Fusion Group, now a sprawling assortment of leisure activities that includes holiday lodges and hotel booking services. Evans looks after the meetings and events business. He says they are on the lookout for hotels to buy.
‘Some people are enjoying the virtual events. Techie people are knocking themselves out. We just end up paying the IT guys’
He admits to getting frustrated by what he feels are under-performing organisations in the tourism and leisure sector. He was critical of Edinburgh council’s arms-length business Marketing Edinburgh which was controversially shut down. He reveals he has been in talks with a group of like-minded people about resurrecting a privately funded alternative, but would like the council’s endorsement in order that the city can speak with one voice.
“It is an outrage that Edinburgh is one of the few big cities without its own convention bureau. We have a plan that is affordable and we have the people who could run it,” he says.
As for his plans at Fusion he says it has done some virtual business, but it is not a big winner for events organisers.
“Some people are enjoying the virtual events. Techie people are knocking themselves out. We get involved but there are no delegates, so there is no bedroom revenue, nothing from the bars and restaurants. We just end up paying the IT guys.”
He is looking beyond virtual conferences to the end of the year and to next Spring when he confidently predicts things will be back to pre-Covid levels.
“I have 400 Americans coming to Edinburgh in December,” he says, his face lighting up as if he’s anticipating the arrival of Santa Claus. “We are looking after them for eight days from the minute they get off the plane to the moment they get back on. I’m looking forward to it.”
Occupation: Co-owner, Fusion Group, head of Fusion Meetings and Events
Education and Career highlights: Went straight from school into hotels, working as a bellhop and front of house for Swallow Hotels, before moving into sales with CCD, then setting up Fusion Group.
Do you carry cash?
Today yes, but not normally.
Bimingham City FC, rum and reggae music.
What makes you angry or frustrated?
General incompetence. People not managing expectations, like when you go somewhere for a treat and the service is poor.
Anyone you regard as especially helpful to your career?
Stephen Carter at the Caledonian Hotel in Edinburgh. I learned a lot about service.
If you could choose three people, dead or alive, to attend a fantasy meeting or dinner party who might they be?
Floella Benjamin, TV presenter… the best public speaker I have heard.
John Lennon… I’m a big fan and he was admired by my family
Ant and Dec.. just for fun