Pippy Trentham and Sonia Yardley set up OneStage to provide specialist concert tours to choirs and orchestras around the UK and Europe. Their focus may be specific, but they face many of the same challenges as other GTOs.
Val Baynton discovers more.
In the tour organising world, Middlesex-based OneStage, owned by Pippy (Philippa) Trentham and Sonia Yardley, is rather unique. Others may include concert tours as part of their portfolio, but for OneStage it’s the sole focus. And there’s a significant demand for their services, with dozens of orchestras, choirs, bands and other musical ensembles exchanging visits internationally every year.
As Pippy explains, “Every tour we arrange is purely about the music and the concerts performed by our clients, and we’re dedicated to achieving the best possible results for them.”
“We’ve now been in business 14 years,” Sonia continues, “And in 2012 we organised around 80 different tours to destinations as varied as France, Italy, Germany, the Czech Republic, Estonia and New York for groups ranging from 100 strong youth orchestras to chapel choirs with around 20 members.”
HOW ONE STAGE BEGAN
Pippy and Sonia became friends whilst working at another tour company, and they realised they had a shared interest in music. Sonia plays the clarinet and saxophone whilst Pippy studied the violin to diploma level and has played the piano since childhood. In addition she read music at Manchester University. Neither of them plays professionally but their enjoyment of music has long been an important part of their lives.
This passion gave them the impetus to start up OneStage. Pippy recalls, “We had a strong desire to have our own business where we had control over the quality of the concerts we were arranging for our customers. We used the skills we’d learnt working in the tourism industry and spent a lot of time researching and building up contacts specifically for our product.”
“My first truly memorable tour was for the Bath Choral Society in the Czech Republic,” Pippy remembers. “There were 90 people, all with high expectations and a high standard of performance travelling to Prague. It came home to me just how important it was to do a good job, the amount of research into all the venues that was required and how many details there were to take into account. Our experience is that the more research and detail you put into a tour, the better it goes, which is why we think a product like ours works best in a slightly smaller company, where things do not get lost in translation, or handled by too many people.”
RESEARCH IS KING
Research is an important aspect of the work of all GTOs, but for concert tours it is particularly involved. As well as checking details such as destinations and hotels, Sonia and Pippy investigate specific concert venues because this is what will ultimately account for the tour’s success. Typically they meet the venue’s concert organiser onsite and at the local cultural office but, as Pippy points out, “The important thing to discover is how the local organiser will promote the performance to ensure a good, interested audience.”
Usually the concerts they arrange are free to the public, although sometimes they do work with a local charity and the event can be a successful fund raiser.
“In the end, we rely on our gut instinct as to what will work and what will not. If we do not have the right product then we have nothing to sell,” is how Pippy puts it.
“We work with many national coach companies,” she continues. “But we also have our favourites such as Applegates in Gloucestershire, Andrews of Tideswell and Alpine Travel in North Wales. Family-run, they are typical of the companies we enjoy working with and we hope that the feeling is mutual! They know our requirements and have trailers for instruments, but occasionally we hire a van or lorry as well if the band is large.”
Clients touring further afield may choose to travel by air. This is simple for choirs but for orchestras there are extra luggage charges and occasionally seats have to be purchased for an instrument that is too delicate for the hold. Pragmatism rules, as Pippy discloses. “We tend to use a combination of the least expensive, but safe, methods to get the instruments to where they are needed. In the past they’ve been posted, or taken by van all the way to Estonia via several ferries!”
With staff fluent in several languages – French, German, Italian, Spanish and Finnish – many arrangements can be done directly with venues. But, at some destinations, OneStage work with small specialist local companies who can bridge language and cultural gaps. One such company is the Prague Concert Co. owned by Englishman John Tregellas, who’s also a musician. His small team specialise in arranging concert tours in all parts of the Czech Republic
Every tour is tailor-made but once Sonia and Pippy have built up relationships with venues, they are happy to include them in another tour as appropriate. “When we have researched a totally new destination, then we do try to promote this to other groups,” says Pippy, “For example, a few years ago we were contacted by the Liverpool Youth Orchestra who wanted to go to China; this was a new destination for us but it was exciting to be involved with this 12-day tour to Bejing and Shanghai.”
Such trips include sight-seeing, so the group went to the Great Wall of China and the Museum of Qin Terracotta Warriors and Horses in Xian. “There was an element of cultural exchange too,” Sonia continues. “The visitors performed at Beijing Conservatoire and, in return, the local children danced, sang and played traditional Chinese instruments.”
OneStage’s success can be measured by the fact that there are more clients than there are existing products. “Many contacts come through word of mouth and we are delighted to have repeat business,” Sonia states. “This can be from the same school, because a music teacher moves to another post or from students who’ve travelled with us and subsequently become teachers.”
To date, tours have taken in 27 different countries, but Pippy and Sonia are always keen to expand. Currently they are toying with the idea of Brazil and they would love to organise a tour of South Africa. “It’s got masses of potential,” Pippy says. Other countries under consideration are Argentina and India.
Five of the seven strong OneStage team work from the main office in Isleworth and two are based in the Midlands; they are responsible for booking arrangements such as accommodation and venues, the travel schedule and promotion of the concerts. All client monies are protected through insurances such as ATOL (Air Travel Organisers’ Licence) and TOPPS (Tour Payment Protection Policy). Many of the tour dates coincide so there’s also a small pool of tour managers who accompany the groups.
Until last year, the two directors, Sonia and Pippy, covered all aspects of the business together, but now they concentrate on different areas to provide a more effective service. Sonia, plus a small team, focuses on sales and then the tour passes to Pippy and her small operations team for the organisation of the trip.
“Because of the range of groups with varying budgets, we use a variety of hotels. In Europe, the Ibis and Mercure groups are popular but we also choose youth hostels (see panel below) and anything up to four-star. This part of our operation is quite ad hoc, and so it can be challenging to get the best rates,” says Sonia.
WHO’S GOING WHERE
OneStage has organised tours for a huge variety of performers including the Badminton School Choir, the Finchley Children’s Choir, the Nottingham University Wind Orchestra, the Surrey Youth Orchestra, the Brighton and Hove Youth Orchestra and the Lewisham Youth Orchestra. Venues can include churches and cathedrals, concert halls, summer festivals, open-air venues, community centres, castles and palaces.
“We always try to provide concerts with a ‘wow factor’,” Sonia comments. “Whether it’s for a choir to sing mass at St Peter’s Basilica in Rome or Notre Dame in Paris, or an orchestra performing to several hundred people in the Dvorak Hall in Prague, we want to give our clients a memory of an impressive venue with the thrill of performance during their tour. Groups come home feeling that they have had a real insight into the local culture.”
Bookings are promising for 2013 and there are plenty of enquiries for 2014. Pippy has noticed, though, that destinations are less far flung and budgets are tighter. “Where once school groups travelled to Hungary, now Belgium and France are more popular, and coach travel predominates,” she explains.
Both Sonia and Pippy put their success down to hard work, to the trust they both have in each other and to the support of their slowly expanding team. “We’re still a company small enough to be personable, but big enough to provide a good support network for our clients,” Sonia finishes.
ALL PART OF THE JOB – JULIAN’S TRIP TIPS
Julian Edwards acts as a sales manager developing concepts and ideas for concert tours for OneStage and is well experienced in arranging concert tours as it’s an area he’s worked in since 1994. A keen musician, he studied the clarinet and read Music and German at Reading University and now sings with the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus. He has a passion for music and an innate understanding of the needs of musicians when on tour.
In 2012, Julian was responsible for researching destinations and venues in Romania and organising OneStage’s first concert tour to the country – a week-long trip by the John Powell Singers, a chamber choir based in Greater Manchester. He reveals, “During my initial recce, I visited several hotels in Bucharest; I was looking for accommodation that was practical, comfortable and safe, and offered good value. From these I selected the Athenee Palace Hilton Hotel – not only was it central so that concert venues and many tourist attractions were within walking distance but it offered a rehearsal room.”
The John Powell Singers like to spend the first couple of days of the tour practising and the hotel had an excellent conference suite that was ideal for this purpose. The hotel also had an interesting history as it was involved in clandestine political intrigue during the Cold War years. This particular tour also included partners of some of the singers so the additional facilities at the hotel such as the spa and beauty centre were advantageous.
“The choir also visited Sibiu – one of the largest cities in the Transylvanian area and the European Capital of Culture in 2007. They stayed here for three nights in the Hotel Continental Forum; I selected this because it is within walking distance of the town centre,” says Julian.
The John Powell Singers like a fairly independent approach to their itinerary and they mainly organise their own sight-seeing so that each person or couple can suit themselves. However he did arrange a guided tour of the People Palace, which is the largest building in the world after the Pentagon, and he thinks is a must for every visitor to Bucharest.
“The group flew with Lufthansa from Manchester to Bucharest via Frankfurt,” Julian reports. “When the flight home from Frankfurt was cancelled – every travel organiser’s nightmare – I was glad that I had selected a scheduled airline over a low-cost option because there was no problem with backup. Lufthansa provided overnight accommodation and re-arranged the flight. The choir’s concerts were well attended so we hope to organise more tours to Romania.”
Another tour Julian recently set up was a three-day ‘fam trip’ to Plzen (Pilsen) in the Czech Republic. Comprising selected invitees and some lucky winners from various conference prize draws that OneStage organised during 2012, the clients came from all over the UK and represented directors of music in schools, choral societies and county music ensembles.
OneStage selected Plzen for the visit because it was a favourite location in the early days of the company but had not been revisited for several years. Julian says, “There has been lots of investment in the city with upgrades in concert venues. More is planned since it has been nominated as one of the European Capitals of Culture in 2015, so it was definitely time for a revisit. Also we want to offer an alternative to Prague.”
For this visit, individuals flew from different parts of the UK, meeting up in Prague before boarding a coach to Plzen. The group stayed in the Parkhotel and Congress Centre in the centre of the city, “a business focused hotel that can offer good rates out of the conference season.”
Julian explains more about the trip. ‘We had a whistle-stop tour of the region, taking in three spa towns in the locality – Karlovy Vary, Mariánské Lázně and Františkovy Lázně – all famed for the health giving properties of their waters. These towns also have superb concert venues.”
During a trip such as this, Julian takes the opportunity to assess the suitability of a venue for a concert and what the group has to do to get an audience. For example, if the venue is a church then they may time the performance to follow on from a regular church service or mass so that the congregation can easily attend.
“People often think my job sounds glamorous – and it is lovely to have the chance to visit so many countries,” says Julian. “I also appreciate the way I can use my qualifications and interests so directly in my work. But there is so much more to arranging a tour than making a few phone calls!’
YOUTH HOSTELS ARE PERFECT FOR STUDENT GROUPS
As well as arranging tours for groups overseas, OneStage also works with musicians visiting Britain, such as the Vox Humana choir of current and former students from Oslo University. The choir’s programme includes lots of Scandinavian music and atmospheric ‘soundscapes’ performed with the singers positioned throughout the performance space. Recently, they stayed in London for two nights, performing at St James’s Church, Piccadilly and at St Mary’s Church in Osterley.
The choir also sang in Bath Abbey and did a joint concert (performing half the concert each) with Chippenham Male Voice Choir. After the concert, the two choirs had tea together in a country pub in Wiltshire. As this group included quite a few students, they had a fairly low budget, so OneStage placed them in youth hostels in both London and Bath and they used public transport in London. “Youth hostels are perfect for such groups as their locations are usually very central and the clean and flexible accommodation suits the needs of the guests,” comments Julian. “For OneStage, the low budget was not a problem and the tour was tailored to the group’s requirements.”