Off Limits Corporate Events corporate director Martin Stephens incorporates all that is good in the UK events industry. He is bursting with enthusiasm and entrepreneurial flair and clearly finely tuned to the market’s changing demand. He is also involved as a board member at the Meeting Industry Association, where hot topics he has addressed include venue experience, marketing toolkits, training, green issues and Brexit.
I met him most recently at the new Off Limits implant on the Farncombe Estate in the Cotswolds. Stephens had jumped in his car – not one of the agency’s UTVs (utility task vehicles)– and driven from the Nottinghamshire HQ to give me a personal tour of some of the company’s teambuilding offering in the field.
Having traded blows with the ‘The Teeside Axeman’ on the throwing target and raced Segways and UTVs, we sat down to chew the events fat at The Fish, the estate’s restaurant.
So, how did he first come into the events world?
“I was brought up in a typically Northern working class family in Redcar. My career prospects when leaving school were limited and the only option was a Youth Training Scheme at a local grocery store. I realised, however, I was drawn to engaging and networking with customers. I saw a notice advertising jobs at a hotel in Hampshire and applied. Five days later I arrived at Tylney Hall where I started as a house porter.
“This country house hotel was a great start and I later moved to several other hotels in various roles.
“My career progressed and I became conference co-ordinator at Ettington Park Hotel. After some initial sales experience with a teambuilding company, I joined Off Limits Corporate Events in 2003, buying shares in the company in 2005.”
He remembers his first big break was securing preferred supplier status with Hayley Conference Centres. “They were leaders in the conference market and the account stayed with me when I moved on to other companies.”
Best early advice?
During my days at the supermarket I was talking with a customer about the role I had secured at the country house hotel. I said I’d need to try and talk posh and she said: ‘Martin just be yourself and you’ll do well’. I’ve definitely taken this advice on board and seem to have done OK.”
Other influential individuals on Stephens’ career path include Alison Groves who gave him a first opportunity in an events office at Ettington Park Hotel. He also mentions his business partner John Tarr as another mentor and describes joining up with him at Off Limits as “the best thing I’ve ever done.”
There were long hours and hard work in those early years.
“Teambuilding and corporate events can be one of the most rewarding investments a client will ever make for their business,” says Stephens, who notes the challenge is to convince clients that these events mean better engaged employees, which is good for company culture and the bottom line. “This industry is about building trust and key relationships with the clients and venues. You have to evolve to remain relevant and this is an industry where the term ‘if you snooze you lose’ applies.”
Off Limits has certainly not been snoozing and, having acquired the original BBC It’s a Knockout in 2001, complete with costumes and inflatables, the company went on to run the teambuilding event for clients including WRG and the Qatari Government. Their event took place at the Aspire Academy in Qatar, the country’s largest indoor multi-purpose sporting dome.
Knockout remains extremely popular and has been hosted worldwide from Barcelona to India, Dubai to the former Athens Olympic venue.
In 2009 Off Limits launched its Yacht Charter business, providing solutions for corporate events. An office in Barcelona followed as did business in the stag weekend market.
In 2014 Stephens’ team launched Totally Wiped Out and Crystal Amazed, the company’s most popular corporate teambuilding event to date. “In 2015 we entered the world of Escape Rooms with the creation and launch of Escapologic in Nottingham, soon expanding into Leicester,” he adds.
Tripadvisor has seen Yacht Charter, Escape Rooms and Farncombe Events Centre all receive top marks.
What trends is Stephens now seeing in UK teambuilding and incentives and how is Off Limits shaping to deal with that?
“During the recession in 2008 many new teambuilding companies formed which created a challenge. The surge of the one-man band, who operated from home or the garage to drive costs down, began to rise,” says Stephens. “This created a negative impact on clients when they received poor quality events.”
He acknowledges the need to account for costs, however. “Clients now have a clearer picture of what they need to achieve and how to measure the impact of their investment. In addition, we’re seeing employers address stress and health related issues in the workplace and seeing a trend towards wellbeing workshops.” So, what advice would he give to a newcomer?
“This industry is fast paced and you need to keep up with day to day challenges, it’s a great industry and you really need to let the passion show through,” Stephens says.
And his funniest moment at work?
“My business partner John and I played a prank on our marketing manager who arrived one day with her hair in pigtails. We passed comment that it was like Britney Spears in the Baby One More Time video. I went to our warehouse and got two blonde wigs, which we put on to do our own rendition of the song in front of all the employees.”
On to Brexit one more time, and security, regulations and recruitment issues.
Stephens believes it is in the interest of the events industry for Brexit to be completed sooner rather than later, “as once it’s finalised we can get back to business and positively rise to the challenges”.
“I see recruitment in the future becoming an issue,” he says, “as there’s a skills shortage in the industry, should the government decide EU nationals need to leave the UK.”
If he wasn’t in this business, what other career would he have liked?
“Working with people and networking in some capacity. You’ve created a stop and think moment here.
“To be honest I think I’d like to be a fighter pilot as I’ve always loved the movie Top Gun.”