Skiddle boss's new ambition as a councillor to boost Garstang with online sales site

It’s been a testing business year for ticket agency Skiddle, but, after being co-opted on to his local town council, its co-founder Richard Dyer is sharing his business know how to help Garstang set up shop, as Fiona Finch reports.
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The co-founder of Lancashire based ticket agency Skiddle has, like many business owners, faced challenging times through the Covid pandemic.

But as the shutters came down on live entertainment the 37 year old has stepped in to help other businesses in his home town fight back against the economic downturn

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Richard Dyer prides himself on innovative thinking and looking to the future. What he could not have predicted was finding a new role in 2020 - as a town councillor.

Richard Dyer pictured in the empty Skiddle offices during lockdownRichard Dyer pictured in the empty Skiddle offices during lockdown
Richard Dyer pictured in the empty Skiddle offices during lockdown

Last week he persuaded Garstang Town Council to be innovative too. Councillors approved his suggestion, put forward on behalf of the Market Town Working Group, to create a new vehicle to boost business locally amid the pandemic.

They voted to set up a This Is Garstang: Garstang Shop, an e-commerce platform for local businesses linked to the council’s This Is Garstang website.

In his report to the council the new councillor noted: “With lockdown two now underway I would like to progress the concept of an online shop, where we offer an online sales facility to all businesses in Garstang, process the sale online, collate the goods and deliver (possibly same day) using existing networks. The business is then paid minus a small fee (propose five%) which covers the card processing fee and the running/marketing of the shop.”

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The council was advised that using its “General Power of Competence” the site could be operated through the council’s bank account. It’s a proactive response to the current economic crisis which will surprise some.

Empty streets in Garstang during  lockdown earlier this yearEmpty streets in Garstang during  lockdown earlier this year
Empty streets in Garstang during lockdown earlier this year

But for Richard it makes perfect sense. He said: “I’ve been in the business of selling online for nearly 20 years. I became a councillor after becoming involved in the market town working group - (made up of) some businesses, some councillors and some concerned residents. When I really got talking to people there’s a desire and passion to survive but there’s maybe not the knowledge ... you start to see holes you can personally fill potentially. It’s not a complicated thing to pull together and there’s really a lot more to surviving than (people) washing their hands. If the council doesn’t get on and do it who is at the moment?... I think over the years people have become very reliant on Facebook and they’re not necessarily embracing the power of the internet.”

The initiative comes hot on the heels of an earlier proposal from Richard which again got the go-ahead from the council, to ensure Garstang gets a taste of Christmas despite social distancing.

At its previous meeting the council approved a scaled down mini outdoor Christmas celebration, with mulled wine and refreshments and music to be staged in Cherestanc Square, after the town’s annual Victorian Christmas Festival had to be cancelled due to Covid restrictions. If lockdown restrictions allow it will be staged for three days from December 18 - 20th.

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Richard said: "We would do a smaller scale event where we would contribute the feeling of Christmas."

New town councillor and Skiddle co-founder Richard DyerNew town councillor and Skiddle co-founder Richard Dyer
New town councillor and Skiddle co-founder Richard Dyer

He also has in his sights reviving the Chamber of Trade having detected what he describes as a need for more “strategic” thinking and planning in the town. Comparing it to its bigger neighbours Preston and Lancaster he sees no reason why Garstang cannot raise its profile and become a more successful go-to destination.

Getting Garstang geared up for the future is, it is clear, a subject close to his heart and his roots. He moved back to the town where he was once a schoolboy with his family - wife, former teacher Emma and their two children - and now lives just off the town centre.

He had attended Garstang Community Primary School before moving to Kirkham and subsequently lived in Carlisle where he attended art college, Manchester and more recently in Catterall.

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While his new voluntary role is a world away from Skiddle the drive for innovation and problem solving remains the same.

When Garstang was busy. Scene at last year's Victorian Christmas Festival.  Photo: Dan MartinoWhen Garstang was busy. Scene at last year's Victorian Christmas Festival.  Photo: Dan Martino
When Garstang was busy. Scene at last year's Victorian Christmas Festival. Photo: Dan Martino

Skiddle has been on a testing journey this year. Some 20 staff were made redundant and half of the remaining staff are on furlough.

He said: "It’s been a terrible year for a lot of people for a lot of reasons whether health/finances/their mental health. It’s been an absolute shocker of a year. ”

Richard is still smarting at the lack of support, from central and local government for the multi million pound turnover agency on Inglewhite Road,near Longridge, which he has grown from a student project with co-founder Ben Sebborn over the last two decades.

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The agency slipped through the cracks when it came to eligibility for support. He said: “We had a very frustrating time. Preston City Council said you are not retail, you are not hospitality, you’re an office. Even though we sell tickets because nobody came into the office and bought a ticket we weren’t allowed business relief.”

Signposted by his MP for a possible grant they discovered they employed too many people to qualify: "The only support we had was a CBILS (Government backed) loan. For years the business has paid millions in VAT and Corporation Tax - then to be told we didn’t qualify for anything was a big kick in the teeth.”

In turn when arts organisations were offered grants Skiddle felt it wasn’t appropriate to apply. He noted ruefully how some of the funds distributed are being spent on new equipment: “I’m letting people go and you’re buying new lights. It doesn’t sit well at all.It’s horrendous.

Looking forward to the ents industry re-openingLooking forward to the ents industry re-opening
Looking forward to the ents industry re-opening

"We're letting go of friends and people’s lifestyles and you're hoping that you're making decisions to protect the company and you're also acutely aware these people aren't going into a job's extremely difficult to let go of the numbers that we did."

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He added: "It was only January when we took them on a Christmas do to Brussels. We took them on a final farewell to the EU and months later we 're having to let them go. It's sad."

Skiddle refunded ticket money for cancelled events to all its customers but booking fees have been put into credit accounts, for customers to re-use when events re-start. He reports most customers were content with this arrangement which has helped Skiddle keep going.

He is looking to better days: “We are scaleable and a quite reactive industry. If they announced at tea time come December 2 we’re all allowed out I could name 300 events that would go on sale.”

He counts on being creative and said: “I left higher education at 17, went into the jobs market and haven’t stopped since."

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Richard also runs the annual Highest Point Festival in Williamson Park, Lancaster and recently set up and co-hosts a weekly live streamed Skiddle online radio show on Thursdays at 3pm: "Years ago we had some research that the weekend started at 3.13 pm....every Thursday, it's just a bit of chat. The 313 Show, it's being creative, looking at what you've got and what you could be doing. It's live streaming on Facebook and YouTube. It's just a bit different."

As for his unexpected new role as Garstang’s second youngest town councillor, which he was co-opted to in the summer, he said: “The democratic set-up is there for anyone to be a member of. We’re all part of lots of local communities and societies. We’re all entitled to do our part to help out and contribute. I’m by no means going to be able to fix everything but I’ve got an eagerness to really get involved and help.”

* Photos and video by Neil Cross

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