“THERE IS NO MANUAL FOR THIS”

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The end of each long day sees this lockdown diarist winding down with an evening ride.

She’s been too busy to notice... But last month (10 April) marked the 20th anniversary of Claire Williams’ appointment as chief executive of BETA, the British Equestrian Trade Association.

A New Zealander who fights for British equestrian businesses with bulldog-like tenacity, Claire has become the trade’s information-provider-in-chief as the impacts of Covid-19 play out.

BETA represents the interests of more than 800 companies. Its members range from manufacturers of global brands and feed companies to tiny tackshops and household name retailers.

Saddle fitters, horse dealers, marketers and providers of services from insurance to tourism are among its other members. 

As the crisis unfolds, Claire has become the conduit between business owners – many of whom are understandably anxious - and the agencies that govern and enforce how they can legally trade under Covid-19 restrictions. 

Her mission has been to find commercial ways forward; while never forgetting that this coronavirus is putting lives, as well as livelihoods, at stake. 

This is Claire Williams’ lockdown diary for ETN

“Here at BETA HQ in its parkland setting near Wetherby, I’m in my office in glorious isolation. My assistant Agi Mossakowska-Knast is halfway down the corridor in her own separate office. Others are working remotely.

“We come into the office to work because we’re allowed to; broadly speaking, we can’t do what we do from home for varying reasons.

“Day to day, we’re getting record amounts of communication from people – members and non-members. Most initially email, assuming there’s no-one here, and are quite surprised when I ring them back. But I often find I can be more helpful and detailed over the phone. 

“The coronavirus crisis has created an unparalleled need for information. And that’s not surprising because we’ve not rehearsed for this; there is no manual. 

To trade or not?

“Before lockdown, businesses had mainly HR queries. Since lockdown, it’s been mainly Covid-related and what they can and can’t do trading-wise. 

“I’ve been following Government briefings so I can pass on information about where to go and how to apply for the various support schemes. 

“We’ve also seen more requests for statistics from the National Equestrian Survey [which BETA commissions every five years to measure the size and shape of the equestrian trade], I imagine largely for businesses to submit plans to banks and other lenders. 

“Keeping staff and customers safe has prompted many questions too, especially from customer-facing businesses. 

BETA members come first

“We get enquiries from members and non-members. In the latter case, I try to be as helpful as I can be and point them in the right direction. But I have to remember that BETA members pay for my time, so they come first. 

“For example, members receive regular – at one point almost daily – update briefings as Government guidance and support schemes have been rolled out. It’s been crucial to give members the heads up so they can take action on these initiatives quickly. 

“When the ‘bounceback’ loans for small businesses were announced last Monday at around 4pm, I stayed on at work to ensure our members got all the details that were available. As soon as we know more, in terms of how to apply, they will get these details too when available from the Treasury. 

“I hope BETA is proving to be a like a good insurance company – something reliable to fall back on in times of trouble. It’s perhaps not unrelated that in the last six weeks we’ve had several new BETA membership enquiries! 

Zooming with Pony Clubbers

“BETA has been asked for information and quotes from the equestrian and wider media.

“Producers from TV’s Countryfile wanted help with a piece Adam Henson is presenting on the importance of caring for horses during lockdown.

“Then there was the Tivyside branch of the Pony Club looking for online educational resources. I ended up doing a live Zoom with the kids on how to fit body protectors. 

Bringing the horse industry together

“In many ways, this crisis has brought the horse industry together more with the various bodies sharing resources, problems and newly developed Covid-19 protocols.

“I have two weekly conference calls with Defra head office which gives BETA a direct tap into the Minister to raise issues. 

“BETA is a British Equestrian [Federation] board member and I also sit on weekly British Horse Council meetings. This puts BETA among key players in the sporting, veterinary, welfare, breeding and racing sectors. 

“Between us, we have a good overview of the whole horse industry and can share ideas and discuss issues. 

“Today, I’ve been catching up with the Worshipful Company of Saddlers, I’ve called a couple of member retailers back to see how they’re getting on with specific issues they’d asked about, and I’ve had a call from a consultant doing a plan for a business centre. Then I had a rider wanting some ‘slow down for horses’ stickers…

“I’ve Zoomed with a company who wanted to show me their face mask designs too. That was useful as I’ve been scrutinising Government PPE guidelines to extract what’s relevant for BETA members. 

“BETA has also produced a number of templates for members. For instance, there’s a letter that employees can carry to show they are entitled to travel to work. 

Cutting down on coffee

“Working alone in the office means I’ve achieved a huge amount and drunk far fewer cups of coffee. There simply hasn’t been time. 

“It’s been rewarding to be in direct touch with so many members. 

“We’re all communicating now more than ever, perhaps because we have a common purpose. I’m certainly getting a lot of positive feedback and sense of satisfaction from doing something genuinely useful for our members.

Battling on 

“In general, people are battling on in the face of Covid-19. 

“The gung-ho among us just want to get on with it, have a business at the other side and secure a future for their staff and customers. Others are more cautious. Of course, it depends on business type and circumstances. 

“Many retailers with the online tools have successfully moved a percentage of turnover from physical shop to online. 

“But I hold out a hope that the equestrian sector is one where people matter and that consumers will need to go back to shops where they can enjoy specialist advice. 

“In anticipation, I’m putting together a Covid-19 protocol for hat and body protector fitting.

Next challenge

“The next big challenge comes at the end of this week when we learn more about how lockdown will be deconstructed. We will have to adapt how we work and live. 

“Business relationships will be tested in the months ahead too. Decisions retailers and suppliers make in next few weeks will shape how they work with one another for the next year. 

Live to ride

“When I get home, I have two horses to do. Fortunately, it’s light until 9pm. I might hack one – the roads are much quieter at the moment - and school the other. I can’t live without riding, but I do risk assess…

“As a keen forager and cook, I go out after my ride to gather wild garlic. It’s the prime season just now and it smells wonderful in the late evening. Then I tend my seedlings and plants in my greenhouse before dinner, which my partner Bob and I take turns cooking. After a quick check on Facebook, it’s time to turn in. 

“The sun rises at 5am here in North Yorkshire, so I feed the horses by 6am, and I’m in the office again by 8am, ready for another day.  

We’re here for you

“Technology has been a godsend. We’re looking at moving some of the BETA training courses online and already we have BETA Finance & General Purpose and other committee meetings by webinar. 

“I’m very aware that BETA Council members all have their own businesses to run, with the extra pressures that currently entails, so we postponed the May meeting to June and are running sub-committee meetings where possible.

“There is no how-to guide to this coronavirus crisis. So, if you have concerns, issues or ideas, please do phone or email – we are here in the office. And BETA is here for you, its members.”

For more information about BETA (British Equestrian Trade Association) please visit www.beta-uk.org

Lockdown image by rawpixel.com