Sunday 26 May 2019

Local hero: Events firm that hosts parties for tech giants gathering Momentum

Two lifelong friends have been honing their business skills since starting a successful company while still at college

Craig Dee of Momentum Events says the company is ‘all about creating unique experiences’. Photo: Dylan Vaughan
Craig Dee of Momentum Events says the company is ‘all about creating unique experiences’. Photo: Dylan Vaughan

Gabrielle Monaghan

Craig Dee and Stephen Lynch, the 27-year-old founders of Momentum Events, have known each other since they were toddlers.

Growing up, the pair lived across the road from each other in the Co Waterford town of Kilmacthomas. As children, they dipped their toes into entrepreneurship by painting stones they had collected and selling them to neighbours from the bottom of Dee's driveway.

Dee and Lynch were friends right through from attending the same playschool to studying business together at the University of Limerick.

During their college years, they even worked in the same Kilmacthomas pub at weekends.

So it was only natural that they would set up their first business together in the town.

A decade ago, when they were in their late teens, Dee and Lynch spotted a gap in the children's entertainment market in the south-east of Ireland for hiring out bouncy castles. Back in 2008, the market was dominated by tradesmen who used their vans at weekends to rent out bouncy castles to parents for birthdays and communions, typically advertising in the classifieds sections of newspapers.

Dee says: "But insurance of inflatables got stricter and each product had to have a serial number, like insuring a car. That tightened up the market, because everyone had to disclose their assets and insure them. But we were able to offer a fully insured service."

Their business, First Class Castles, was borne out of a first-year college project. Using their savings from part-time work at the pub, the pair started the company by borrowing a van from Lynch's father and boarding a ferry to the UK to source second-hand inflatable products.

"It was a week before Christmas, which was a bad time for renting out inflatables, and we bought 20 of them from this guy in the UK who was selling them because he needed money for Christmas," Dee says.

While this temporary stock helped the lifelong friends launch First Class Castles, they were keen to expand quickly. In February 2009, while in the UK collecting more stock, they spotted an inflatable slide for which a sale had fallen through.

"I said to the guy, 'I'll take it off your hands', but Stephen reminded me that we didn't have the money," Dee says. "So I borrowed my mother's credit card without her permission and bought the slide. When her credit card bill came in three weeks later, I had money to give her and she was just laughing at me. She's always joked that I would sell sand to the Arabs."

First Class Castles carved out a competitive edge in 2009, when it started working with a British company that designed inflatable products which were then manufactured in China.

"That year, large-scale obstacle courses were a very big thing, especially for communions in rural homes with big gardens," Dee says. "We started buying them in and tying them in with familiar children's characters and brands to create a desire for them.

"You could ring us up with your garden size and we could offer unique shapes and designs of obstacle courses that went from 20ft to 100ft long. Because we were importing from China, we had economies of scale and we could rotate stock so that not every child had the same bouncy castle during communion time."

By 2010, imported stock had attracted the attention of domestic event-management companies and corporates eager to hire them out for employee fun days and Christmas parties. The fledging company also scored a competitive advantage by becoming the first bouncy-castle hire company to incorporate a booking engine into its website, in a market that had virtually no online presence.

In 2013, when Dee and Lynch had progressed to a master's degree in international entrepreneurship and business studies at UL, they realised that corporate customers that had slashed spending on employee parties during the recession were starting to loosen their purse strings again. So the pair approached their course director at the university about giving them the time to target this corporate market and build up a business around it.

Dee says: "She agreed that if we came up with a viable business, it could form 25pc of our thesis. So our thesis became a strategic commercialisation plan. They [UL] wanted us to pivot First Class Castles and target new customers at a national and international level."

The new business, Momentum Events, specialised in creating, producing and managing events and has posted an average growth of 15pc a year since its creation, according to Dee.

While First Class Castles exists as a standalone business that caters to consumers for smaller events such as birthday parties, Momentum Events is used solely by businesses, including festival organisers and event management companies that hire the Kilmacthomas-based company for its props. It has been involved in producing Christmas parties for behemoths such as Facebook, Apple and Intel.

"We are the suppliers for creative event managers, who direct the event but rely on people like us to pull it off," Dee says. "We do the props and produce units like entrance archways and marquees. We are all about creating unique experiences, so that from the moment people hit the archway, they are transported to a themed experience.

"There are no defined rules. For instance, who said that Santa has to have a red-and-white costume? Coca-Cola did - he was dressed in green and white before that. We've had Jack Frost walking on stilts, a Willy Wonka-themed party for 3,000 people, and a silver-and-white themed party centred around Santa's ice cave."

In 2018, Momentum Events was hired by Winterval, the largest Christmas festival in Ireland, to set up and run the Enchanted Christmas Santa's Grotto. Dee and Lynch turned Waterford city's old postal sorting office into Santa's Post Office, and even organised a Sensory Santa Evening designed for children on the autism spectrum.

The lighting, crowds and noise that come with a traditional visit to Santa can be difficult for someone on the spectrum, Dee says. "With the sensory evening, we only allow in a limited number of people per hour, so each family has own time to walk through it, and we have removed the sound element." Dee and Lynch are not afraid of setting up spin-off businesses. The two are working on a company called EventBase that will allow organisers of events to log onto a website and hire the stock that Momentum Events has accumulated over the years at a trade discount.

The inventory, which is earmarked to go online in the spring, includes props for Harry Potter and Game of Thrones-themed parties.

Momentum Events is based in a former famine workhouse in Kilmacthomas, just 50m from the new Waterford Greenway. The Kilmacthomas natives remained dedicated to their hometown, with Lynch and Dee both buying houses there recently.

The two friends have plenty of opportunities to meet for coffee: the day the 46km-long greenway opened to cyclists and pedestrians in 2017, Dee and Lynch unveiled the Coach House Coffee outlet at the former workhouse to cater to visitors. In May, they added a restaurant called the Pigeon Loft.

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