When I catch up with Michelle Russell we quickly bond over our shared experience of having worked on Bank Holiday Monday. As they so often turn out to be it was a day of frustrated progress, one which we were both glad to see come to an end.
But I get a very early sense that Michelle – whose North Hop craft beer, gin and street food festival has grown from the proverbial tiny acorn when it was first held in Inverness in 2014 into a pan-Scotland series of indoor events in Aberdeen (AECC), Glasgow (SWG3), Aviemore (Macdonald Hotel) and Edinburgh (Assembly Rooms; although this year’s venue is TBC) – is exceptionally driven. After working in hospitality and marketing, she got the bug to set up on her own and established Snow Marketing; not content with just working on other people’s stuff, she then set about creating her very own festival brand – a process which she seems to really relish and has an evident flair for.
As a lover of food and drink, and with the absence of any kind of major beery events for the hipster crowds of the North of Scotland (surprising given the preponderance of quality craft breweries in the region), the gap in the market seemed a rather obvious one to try and fill for Russell, who is based in Gairloch.
Now, three years down the track, a real milestone as anyone involved in the haphazard world of events will tell you, she has established North Hop in the firmament of popular trade-cum-consumer expos – all with a full-time staff of precisely zero; she relies heavily on freelancers including her “very talented” friend Fergus Thom of Highlands creative agency Cinestag, who came up with the initial designs for the logo, before handing over to Buckie-based Clock Studio. Fergus also did much of the videography work and, more recently, Aberdeen marketing outfit Border Digital, which has taken to running the festivals’ busy social channels with gusto.
While Michelle confides that she had to cede control of social media as she was “running everything” (including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram) I get the sense that she is still involved in every little aspect of her festivals – which at their peak attracted 2,000 revellers at the AECC in Aberdeen a few weeks back – as she admits to “multi-tasking” during our phone interview, busily tagging Facebook photos as we speak.
“I had been doing it all myself, and I reached the point where I realised I just couldn’t do it all,” she says. “I’d been doing practically everything bar the PR on my own, which was okay but as it got bigger I realised I needed help. It is still just a small setup of freelancers which is good because I have a strong group of people around me who I work closely with.”
Even her weekends are combined with work and play; she sets off around Scotland scouting new locations all the time – often accompanied by colleagues from Border Digital – making a night of it but also getting various meetings booked into the diary. She reveals that the on-trend festival – which had an almost instant impact on social media when it launched, gathering hundreds of followers “wanting to know more” – is considering adding another few destinations to its list in the not-too-distant future – St Andrews, Oban, Perth and possibly a pop-up version in London.
But it’s Michelle’s ambitions to grow the festival farther afield that pique my curiosity; she is currently in talks with the brewing company Marshall Wharf in Maine, US, who are planning to take a custom-fitted shipping container converted into a bar with 50 taps to a pop-up festival in Iceland this year. All being well, Michelle hopes the shipping container will make it to Scotland in 2018 if she can get the “timings and logistics” right and would like to reciprocate and take North Hop to the States (it’s a resilient brand in that sense, presumably working anywhere north of the equator).
Michelle also seems to take genuine enjoyment of the more prosaic event management side of the business – she tells me of her confidence in being able to get the shipping container into one of the bigger venues like the AECC which has the right kind of loading bays and ‘roller doors’ to accommodate larger deliveries. Her ‘thing’ is to be left to add the creative touches when dressing venues, bringing in furniture, music and photo booths.
However, she does also like to reduce her input on the actual event delivery where she can and has worked successfully with venues that have significant in-house capacity – taking advantage of the likes of AV and security wherever she can, all backed with a legion of friends and family making up the contingent of ‘on-the-day staff’.
There can be no doubt that Russell has created something that looks like it has all the ingredients to stay the course. She has a waiting list “which keeps growing” of 50 exhibitors and burgeoning international interest – the oldest brewery in the world, the Bavarian state-owned Weihenstephan Brewery, founded in 1040, exhibited at the Inverness festival in 2015 and Belgium’s Copperhead gin is set to appear in Glasgow in six weeks’ time as a guest gin; brands from further afield are also wanting to feature.
Commercially, Michelle is refreshingly candid when I ask if the events are making money; events seem to so often be stifled by exorbitant hidden costs, and the constant downward pressure on margins demanded, often unrealistically, by exhibitors and venues alike is a genuine source of concern if Scotland’s events market is to grow.
“It’s not been the easiest thing to turn a profit, we’ve had our moments,” says Russell. “I’m constantly trying to evolve it and I’ve put a lot of personal finance into North Hop. I’m not particularly pulling a salary or anything but if it wasn’t working we just wouldn’t do it. I’m not getting myself into the same situation as some of the other festivals out there – some of them rack up horrific levels of debt before they decide it’s game over and then let it all go down. I’m just not willing to do that. I just monitor it as we go along and if things aren’t working, we change them.”
She adds: “We’re thinking of other things as we move forward to do more with it – I’ve just literally put some of the merchandise onto an online shop [up to now merchandise was available only at the festivals] this morning. I put an online shop together which will go live shortly.”
And so it seems all those Bank Holiday Mondays spent working just might, eventually, reap the rewards.