Serious Ambition Sets the Stage

Seroius Stages' Abbey Thomas documents her journey from summer temp to Operations Manager.

Production People Profiled

The business of temporary outdoor staging can be seen as a bit, well, temporary to some, what with the seasonal nature of outdoor events. It’s certainly what Abbey Thomas found when she applied for a summer temp job at Serious Stages in 2013 which, at the time, was just a local company with a job that might provide a little extra income while Abbey was studying for a degree in Maths and Sports Science. Little did she know that the experience would provide the foundation for a full-time role and a rise through the ranks to Operations Manager.

We managed to prize Abbey away from a sea of drawings and spreadsheets to find out just how you learn the ropes and what it takes to achieve success:

“That first summer, I was just an office admin, I did basically whatever they ask me to do, pick up the phones, emails, book hotel rooms; as we now call it, an operations assistant. You’re stood in the operations team, and you’re normally allocated to certain parts; you’ve got one individual booking cranes and plant one doing accommodation, one as the crew coordinator, and then you’ve got your client liaison. So, I did the operations assistant role booking accommodation, I then came back another year when I booked all the cranes and the plants…I did a little bit of everything. Then, when I came back full time in 2016, I came back as the ops manager assistant and a sales assistant. So it was in that year ,2016, that I then started talking to the clients, started that work out scheduling, booking plant, doing the technical specifications and have a bit more of an overview on the operations. Not quite ops manager level, just below.”

With 3 summers under her belt and a full-time role, sights were set on achieving ambitions:

“I started doing the client work and really loved it, I then started working with them from start to finish, not just on the show; I would then do the sales, the quotes, the contract, the ordering. At that time, it wasn’t huge clients, I had lots of clients with one off shows, it wasn’t say, Glastonbury, for example, I managed smaller contracts. The dream was always to be the Festival Republic client liaison. I always wanted to do their work. I always wanted to be their go to, I finally got it. They’ve got some brilliant shows, they’ve got brilliant people as well, I think it’s just really nice being able to work with them. I actually went to a show in Finsbury Park just this weekend gone. That feeling of walking into the arena, seeing all those structures, seeing these thousands of people, I couldn’t have been prouder at work”

Early ambition was matched by a realisation of the demands of her chosen industry, something that quickly earned the respect of those around her and the support of her senior colleagues:

“I think this is the case in like anyone in events, if you really want to strive and get to the top, I think you have to be willing to accept that events aren’t 9 to 5. I would answer calls at seven in the morning, 10:00 at night, I just did it. I earned the respect of the crew and probably the clients because of that; I was always available on the end of the phone.”

“[In the company] I had some really key people for me, obviously Steven Corfield, the owner It was his son (Max Corfield, Operations Director) that I always looked up to, I wanted to be the next Max Corfield, I kind of just pushed up that way. But I also had a real key influence from Simon Fursman (Senior Project Manager), he taught me everything I know about clients, specs, technical aspects & how to talk to the clients.  They were my key influencers, and it was like, you have to push those two out to get their roles…in the nicest possible way.” We laugh and settle on pushing up, or maybe sideways, rather than out.

The conversation was always, at some point, going to turn to gender, especially in such a male-dominated side of the festival industry; Abbey’s rise to trusted, respected operations manager hasn’t been without its challenges, sometimes from within, sometimes from outside.

“Some clients, when I was new, starting to learn it all clients did sometimes treat me as ‘you’re the girl on the end of the phone, get me Simon, get me Max. I got it a little bit from the crew because I couldn’t physically build it, it was ‘you don’t know how long it takes to build, you don’t know what you’re talking about, leave me alone’, but that did change over time, it was just those first couple of years. Now it’s absolutely fine.

We venture to ask if there was ever the notion that this was not the job for Abbey because she’s female.

“No, never” moves us on.

On the subject of challenges, we discuss those requests that venture from the norm, and one recent project springs immediately to mind:

“It’s always the artists, the artists will go to the client who come to us. We recently did one at Download actually, where we had a guy flying from the stage to front of house. We had enough time to do it all because that we did know about it early on in the year. But it takes a lot of focus and attention to detail with the client going back and forth between us [Download promoter Festival Republic] and then the artist to make sure all three are working on the same page.”

Abbey is, at every juncture, keen to recognise what she has learned and continues to learn by the people around her, as she puts it:

If there’s something I’m not sure of, I draw on the expertise around me. You know, we’ve got brilliant people here, so I might be the one talking to the client, but the support behind me is also great if I don’t know those answers. You can’t know everything, and if you’re not willing to ask and learn through others, then you’re never going to progress.”

We turn to what was, for most, the biggest challenge of all, the Covid-enforced closure of the live events business. Serious, as a company, had begun to reach into another branch of the entertainment industry, a move that had to be accelerated. Abbey explains:

“It was hard, we furloughed pretty much all of our staff. There were a few key individuals who carried on, and it was those people that pushed the sales in a different direction. So for myself and a few others it was “we’re account managers for festivals, where do we find this work? We’ve got all this equipment. What can we do with it? “

“We’d sort of been knocking on the door to the film industry. We’d put up a replica stage for Bohemian Rhapsody, so we did that, and then the pandemic hit so it was a real big push selling our film product. We did sort of a film studio at Warner Brothers as well so we were almost there… we just grew exponentially from that”

With the growth in TV and film and the return of outdoor events, Serious is now operating successfully on both fronts, but the shortages of raw materials and staff threatened to take their toll. Serious’ in-house manufacturing capabilities did absorb some of the impact as well as intensive recruiting and training to have site ready crew to replace those that had been lost to other sectors.

“We brought crew in a little bit earlier so that they weren’t brought in a week before they were due on site, they had like a good month of training. And we’ve really tried to [build] them into teams this year rather than just having everyone as individuals. That team bond definitely does create more of a loyalty to both that little team and also to the office and the crews around them.”

As a welcome relief from reliving recent trauma, we discuss career highlights, and the answer comes easily:

“I remember it very, very clearly. It was my very first client, which I did from start to finish. I took I took the call, did sales quote, I contracted it, PO’d, did the technical with them and saw it through to the end and then did the debrief. And for me, it wasn’t like a huge client, but because it was my first, not that they knew it, but they then they recognised the effort and the work that I put in and they just dropped me a little card and flowers in the office and it just really meant a lot, it just felt like, Oh, do you know what? Maybe I am actually really good at this, and I can do it.”

Perhaps that had already been spotted by those around Abbey, who, at the start of our chat, described her job as “keep the clients happy, make sure they get what they want.” Perhaps not something you learn during a Maths and Sports Science degree course but definitely a notion that gets picked up and noticed in the Serious Somerset base. Not that Abbey has stepped completely away from academia as she’s currently studying for a Master’s in Business, studying theory that is already being put into practice.

Ambition, determination, willingness to learn and put in the hours are the time-honoured qualities required for success, the big lesson here is for those that, in a post-pandemic world, are struggling to find people; keep an eye on those summer temps, they might be after your job and perhaps put you in serious danger of success.