All the world’s a stage

13/07/2015 - 15:21
UK-based catering, logistics and brand support company Global Infusion Group is a worldwide operation that caters for touring musical artists such as Lady Gaga and Lou Reed. Founder Tony Laurenson tells Andrew McClean about his life’s work feeding the stars.

Founded as Eat to the Beat in 1984, Global Infusion Group (GIG) doesn’t fall into the overnight success category, but there may still be a number of people working in foodservice who have either never heard of it, have no idea just how big the company has become or is aware of the roster of top music industry names it counts as clients.

Managing director Tony Laurenson may have started out equipped with nothing more than a catering qualification and a sense of adventure but, 30 years on, he heads a company that turned over just shy of £15.5 million in 2014, a figure he confidently expects to grow by a further million this year.

After attending catering college and completing a catering management course, he spent some time working at a wine bar, where he met a friend who introduced him to the concept of tour catering. He says this instantly appealed to his desire to travel and his love of music, so he got himself hired.

“At that point, I was the only trained and experienced caterer, rather than a willing volunteer, and that made a difference – knowing pots had bottoms and how to chop an onion.”

Eat to the Beat is the name the company kicked off with – a nod to Laurenson’s drumming days – and it quickly picked up contracts to cater at events such as Glastonbury and the Strictly Come Dancing UK tour.

As the company grew and gained itself a reputation in the raucous world of music, it became apparent to Laurenson that a separate division was needed if he wanted to capitalise on the quieter, bespoke event catering market.

“I was told, ‘If you weren’t quite so rock ‘n’ roll and wore black and whites, we’d give you the gig’, so we started Chevalier Catering.”

His early success did not go unnoticed though, and major venues such as Wembley and the NEC began setting up their own in-house operations as they sought to grab a slice of the action in corporate hospitality.

Such decisions may have taken business away from Chevalier, but Eat to the Beat was still able to cater backstage as part of a tour. It was work built on the company’s knowledge and expertise in catering for sometimes difficult and demanding artists.

“Chevalier always looked for its niche in life, which has led us to GIG Sport,” says Laurenson.
“Our ability to work on location has helped towards our current success. In fact, GIG Sport is the current manifestation of what started off life as Chevalier.”

The brand currently works a lot for Sky TV, the ATP tennis tour and car racing’s Porsche Carrera Cup.
The work gave his team skills, knowledge and contacts in logistics that led to the formation of e2b logistics in 1997, following an approach from a small drinks brand that asked if it could get its products on bands’ tour buses.

“That started with five bars and 50 fridges, and very quickly grew to 500 bars and 5,000 fridges,” he says.

That small drinks company was Red Bull. The business really did grow some wings.

“Within a year of Red Bull coming to us and saying can you store some bars and fridges for us, we were doing £1-million-worth of experiential marketing and sampling. We became a fulfilment company and it deserved its own name, so e2b logistics was born.”

Today, e2b is the fastest-growing division of GIG in the UK.

Laurenson describes his job as “never boring” because of the range of clients and venues the company caters for, and says he is proud of the group’s family ethos, citing “the currency of the bacon butty” as something that should not be underestimated when looking after on-site workers.

The core team at GIG has been working with him for more than 20 years, and its two main co-directors, Mary Shelley-Smith (Eat to the Beat) and Bonnie May (GIG), started as freelance caterers – just like Laurenson.

“Bonnie very quickly became the best of our team in doing high-end jobs. I’ve done hundreds of gigs in Brixton academy; she’s ‘never worked in Brixton academy, darling’, she’s only ever done Wembley Stadium – so it made sense that she ran our corporate hospitality division.”

It wasn’t until 1991 that the Global Infusion Group name was created for the umbrella organisation covering the company’s diversified operations in a number of areas.

Having dabbled in international tours with a handful of artists, GIG looked to expand, and Laurenson began looking at sporting events, initially targeting the Asian Games in Qatar.
GIG ended up with the contract to cater for the ceremonies at the event, which meant feeding 4,000 people breakfast, lunch and dinner every day.

“The legacy of that for us was twofold: it afforded us the time to set up in Qatar and the success helped us then look for more sporting events.”

Not that things have always been plain sailing for the catering company. Business in the US dipped when the recession bit in the mid-2000s and the number of car road shows was cut.

However, the Chinese economy remained strong, leading to the road show market moving east, and GIG deciding to follow it. The company has now been operating in China for five years and has just turned a profit.

The global connections and resources at the group’s disposal went some way in securing contracts for London 2012.

Laurenson had been attempting to secure Olympic contracts since the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. He says the company was strongly placed for the summer games in Beijing in 2008 but, ultimately, fell just short of winning a place because of visa issues.

Ahead of London, he made the significant decision to consolidate the business in one place. From its new home in Buckinghamshire, GIG was awarded five contracts by the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) as a tier-one caterer.

This meant GIG was responsible for all of the catering at the sites it held, looking after every visitor, from spectators to athletes. The flagship site it won was Horse Guards Parade for the beach volleyball.
The group’s global reach, which today means that overseas contracts account for 50% of the company’s business, also secured the prestigious Queen’s Award for Enterprise in International Trade.

In fact, the group’s trophy cabinet gets a regular dusting thanks to the 11 Total Production International (TPi) Favourite Caterer Awards picked up over the years at the festival supplier awards, with the most recent one collected in February 2015.

Laurenson is far from resting on his laurels, however. He knows the business always has challenges to overcome, whether that is competitors in different niche markets or new trends in a constantly evolving market.

“The biggest challenge for us in the music business is budgets,” he says. “Where can they save money? Really, it’s catering. Budgets are being slashed, so there are new competitors coming from below.

“Cooking daily on location is our unique selling point, but now we are up against competitors who are buying everything from 3663 frozen and putting it in the microwave, and we don’t want to be in that game.

“So, the challenge now is to find markets where they’re not quite so restrained by budget, because we find it hard to serve a nutritious meal that’s been frozen and microwaved. In fact, you’re not going to get one; if you want to be looked after well, you get what you pay for.”

Trends have also changed with tighter budgets.

“First of all it was ‘feed them, don’t make them fat’, then it was ‘spoil them rotten’ as competition got good,” Laurenson recalls. “Now, it’s back to ‘feed them, don’t make them fat’ because of the budgetary restraints.”

However, he is thankful for celebrity chefs who have increased the public’s awareness of food, which has allowed event catering companies to become more respected and to improve standards – something that has not gone unnoticed by GIG’s clients. The company boasts an impressive 87% repeat client rate and the secret is rather simple. “Keep them happy with the food and with a smile,” he says.

Among the clients who keep coming back for GIG’s food are heavy metal legends Iron Maiden, the second act ever to work with Eat to the Beat.
There is a dull, black and white tour poster hanging on the wall outside the room where Laurenson sits. It’s from Poland, which, at the time, was under Soviet influence at the height of the Cold War.

He reminisces: “So there we were with Iron Maiden, while the Iron Lady was in power here in Britain, working behind the Iron Curtain.”

Lou Reed is another regular. He enjoyed the food on a number of European tours so much that he became the first US artist to personally request that Eat to the Beat do the catering at all his concerts because “he didn’t like the food elsewhere”.

And what of the future for GIG? Laurenson says that this is very much on his mind as he looks to wind down, so he’s busy with succession planning that is putting in place a number of younger directors.

“I’m 56, and have been running GIG for 31 years,” he says.  “Consolidating the group, succession planning and continuing to be profitable – that’s where we’re at right now, and I’m very happy with it.”

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