How to run a business in lockdown: Robin and Dettaglio

The Dettaglio team at Le Mans

How to run a business in lockdown is our series about how small business owners are leading their companies through the coronavirus crisis. To share your story, message us: hello@tide.coFacebook or Twitter.

Over 500 Tide members are event organisers and a further 300 run other sports, recreation or cultural activity businesses, either self-employed or running a company. Many found their work paralysed in March 2020 when, to slow down the spread of coronavirus, governments around the world ordered festivals, concerts and other events to be cancelled.

Robin Donovan, Director of Dettaglio
Robin Donovan,
Director of Dettaglio

Tide member Robin Donovan is a Director of Dettaglio, an events company specialising in car tours and motorsports. We asked Robin how the coronavirus outbreak is affecting his company, his customers and his finances.

Robin Donovan (right) with Jurgen Lassig and Derek Bell MBE, his fellow team drivers at Le Mans 24-hour race in 1994
Robin Donovan (right) with Jurgen Lassig and Derek Bell MBE, his fellow team drivers at Le Mans 24-hour race in 1994. The team and their Gulf Kremer Porsche finished as First Privateer, Third in class and Sixth overall.

Meet Robin and Dettaglio

As the son of a distinguished pilot, Robin Donovan was never destined to have a humdrum career.

Robin leading the field at Le Mans (in the blue Gulf Kremer Porsche)
Robin leading the field at Le Mans 1994
(in the blue Gulf Kremer Porsche) 

Robin took up motorsport, something he could do on land and on a lower budget, and discovered his aptitude for racing. By the time he hung up his helmet in 2004, Robin had competed in the gruelling world-famous Le Mans 24-hour race an astonishing 14 times.

Without a wealthy family to bankroll his career, Robin worked continuously to find and keep sponsors, including big names like the Financial Times and Sony Playstation. Despite working round the clock over many years, unless you’re at Lewis Hamilton’s level, a career in motor racing rarely results in a healthy pension. So when he retired from racing, Robin couldn’t retire from work.

“I’d always made sure my sponsors had a great time so when I gave up racing, organising events and hospitality was the natural thing to go into.”

Robin joined forces with Nick Smith, founder of Dettaglio. While Nick organises driving tours for luxury car owners, Robin runs trips to race events. ‘Dettaglio’, meaning ‘detail’ in Italian, is a nod to the home of many of the luxury car brands Nick works with, and the level of care the company takes to make sure clients have a flawless experience.

French chateau with a helicopter waiting on the lawn
From the chateau to the track – by helicopter

For racing teams and companies like Tag Heuer, Hackett and Vodafone, Robin organises made-to-measure celebrations, behind-the-scenes tours and special properties for them to stay in. Need a townhouse near the track? A gîte with a pool? A bright pink château with a private helicopter? Detagglio can organise anything.

Most of Robin’s independent guests are American, coming through an agency in Florida and spending around $20,000 per person.

 “Our guests have amazing experiences you don’t get as an ordinary spectator: staying in a historic chateau, being a part of a competing team in the pits and paddock, visiting the D Day landing site in Normandy, wine-tasting in the Loire Valley.

“Going to Le Mans 24 is something on their bucket lists, something they’ve always want to do. It’s the most famous sports-car race in the world and to many Americans, it’s seen as exotic because it’s European. It’s a once-in-a lifetime trip – they just come once. Although one year, a guy came with us to Le Mans with his wife. Then the following year, he brought eight friends!”

Robin’s customers and their reasons for going to Le Mans are diverse but they all have one thing in common: they choose Dettaglio for Robin’s unrivalled experience, gained over 30 years of working at Le Mans.

A Dettaglio tour group at their Le Mans accommodation in 2009
A Dettaglio tour group at their Le Mans accommodation in 2009

How is your business affected by the lockdown?

“We’ve had zero enquiries and lots of cancellations!”

While many companies have a ‘no refunds’ policy on deposits, Dettaglio has been giving clients full refunds if they ask.

Some independent clients have deferred their bookings until 2021, while others have taken a refund, unsure if they’ll be able to spare the money next year. Corporate clients like Lamborghini have generally been happy to leave their deposit with Dettaglio and defer their trips. Some of the properties Dettaglio uses for accommodation haven’t been able to give a refund but instead they’ve rolled the credit over to 2021.

Robin and Nick are reluctant to take out a loan even though they’re worried about their finances for the next year:

 “We always ask for a deposit, to pay our suppliers and ourselves. Giving clients a full refund is the right thing to do but it’s upset our cash flow. It’s roughly balancing up – we’ve not paid out too much and we haven’t lost too much.

 “We are worried though – it will take people a while to work out how much spare money they have, they won’t be planning ahead so much.”

Most of the people Robin employs are French and most are casual employees for the duration of the trips. Hiring two or three key people directly and the rest through agencies, Robin has 20 to 30 people working the Le Mans week with him, from chauffeurs to event managers.

“The French staff take annual leave from their main job to work for us. It’s something we all look forward to. We pay them well and the extra money means they can afford to take a proper holiday later in the year.”

Robin has been in touch with his French contacts who understand that without the Le Mans race, Dettaglio won’t be hiring them this year. And, despite the ennui after weeks of coronavirus confinement, which is more strict in France than in the UK, their mood is positive. The staff are looking forward to lockdown finishing and working for Robin again when the race is back on.

Podium celebrations at the '24 Hours of Le Mans' race
Podium celebrations at the ’24 Hours of Le Mans’ race

What plans have you had to delay or change?

Robin had been working on a new website and Dettaglio were planning to branch out with trips to more motor-racing events:

“Everyone does the British Grand Prix at Silverstone so we wanted to do something different. As well as Le Mans, we were organising a trip to Zandvoort in Holland this year. It’s easy to get to from the UK and it was going to be the first Formula 1 Grand Prix in Holland since 1985.”

Nick was organising more driving events where guests drive themselves, including France, Italy and an offroad-buggy driving experience in Mexico. None of these trips can happen this year.

“We were cautiously diversifying – but only in events! We’d found suppliers, booked events, booked hotels – but only when we knew we could cancel them without penalties.”

Dettaglio are planning a trip to Goodwood Revival, the heritage racing event near Chichester:

“150,000 people attend the weekend every year, in fancy dress. It’s like Ascot but with cars instead of horses! It looked like a safe bet because it appeals so many people.”

The event is scheduled for September. Tickets are still on sale but Dettaglio don’t yet know if the organisers will have to adapt or cancel it.

With so much uncertainty, Dettaglio are currently taking a pit-stop, waiting for governments to announce the step-down of lockdown measures and to see if travellers and companies will choose to be cautious with their money.

Porsche takes a pit-stop at Le Mans
Robin’s guests get a behind-the-scenes view as Porsche takes a pit-stop at Le Mans

Can you continuity plan for a pandemic?

Robin and Nick were unprepared for a pandemic wiping out their business for what might turn into an entire year.

“Le Mans is a dead cert – it happens every year without fail. It’s more likely to go ahead than Glastonbury. We never imagined it wouldn’t go ahead.”

The Le Mans 24 hour race has been held every year since 1923 and was only cancelled during WWII. The race usually takes place on the second weekend of June so when the coronavirus lockdown began, Robin was uncertain what the race organisers would do.

The race has now been scheduled for 19 – 20 September 2020, but this assumes that the lockdown in France will have eased sufficiently by then for race-goers to attend. And will accommodation be open? What about restaurants?

With so much uncertainty, Dettaglio found it impossible to plan trips for Le Mans this year. But if anyone knows how to come back from a crash, it’s a racing driver:

“I got caught out and crashed heavily at Le Mans in the pouring rain at over 200mph. It took me some time after that to feel comfortable driving in the rain, even driving my normal road car. But you have to put these things behind you. A few months later, I won a rain-soaked race in Vallelunga in Italy.

“Some things you just can’t prepare for. Whether it’s a crash or coronavirus, you just have to get over it, adapt, and get on with it.”

Sparks fly from a car during the Le Mans 24-hours race
Sparks fly during the Le Mans 24-hours race

What coronavirus support will your business get from the Government?

Dettaglio has no business property – both Robin and Nick work from home – so they won’t get a Small Business Grant or a Retail, Hospitality and Leisure Grant.

The business hires staff to help with tours and trips and because the staff are contracted for just the days required rather than having them on a payroll, they can’t be furloughed under the Job Retention Scheme.

Robin and Nick are waiting to find out if they’ll get Self Employment Income Support grants. HMRC will contact eligible people in mid-May with payments made in June.

What have you learned about yourself from working in isolation?

Robin’s work isn’t all based at exciting race events and glamorous hotels – most days, you’ll find him working from his home office.

“I’m used to working from home. During lockdown, I can’t go to France to check properties or meet my contacts, but other than that, not much has changed. Oh, except that I can’t nip down to the pub in the evening!”

Supporting other local businesses? Tide is always happy to hear that. While he can’t go to the pub, the extra solo time at home has given Robin chance to reflect:

“I’ve realised that more of my skills from managing my job as a racing driver translate to what I’m doing now. There’s a kudos from racing the cars – I was always aware it’s a dream job. That gave me confidence. But when it’s all over, there’s no back-up.

“While racing was great for the prestige and contacts, I also gained the ability to get along with everyone. From mechanics and cleaners to celebrities and heads of big businesses, no-one intimidates me and that’s vital in arranging these trips.”

Being in isolation has also reminded Robin how much he loves sharing the Le Mans experience with others:

“Even after all this time, I still get a kick out of it.”

Spectators in the grandstand watch the Le Mans 24-hours race in action
Spectators in the grandstand watch the Le Mans 24-hours race in action

What are your plans for the rest of 2020 and 2021?

Robin is hoping the Government will soon announce their plans for the return to work.

“The Government needs to start making the public aware that they have a plan for what happens next. Keep up the incentive for us all staying in or we’ll go crazy.”

Robin and Nick don’t know what to start promoting. Events for 2020 are either cancelled or on hold. And even if events go ahead, the Government warns the last places to re-open might be pubs and restaurants, which Dettaglio needs for the trips.

Instead of trying to plan around so much uncertainty, Robin and Nick are focusing on 2021. They want to get more involved with social media but don’t know where to start. Instead, they’ll contact customers whose trips had to be cancelled this year and they’ll work with travel agencies to attract new customers.

While many existing clients have been supportive, Robin is concerned that independent travellers from the USA will be reluctant to travel to Europe for the next few years. On the other hand, perhaps the coronavirus outbreak will prompt more people to tick off a few things on their bucket list…

Who is your dream client?

After a career working with celebrities and top people in industry, Robin still has one dream client: broadcaster Chris Evans. Famously a car and motor-racing fan who organises his own festival, Car Fest, Chris has apparently never been to the Le Mans 24-hour race.

What better PR for Dettaglio than a national broadcaster telling his listeners about the experience? So if you’re reading this Chris, how about getting in touch with Robin to organise the ultimate Le Mans experience? It’s a win-win: tick the famous race off your bucket list and support a small British business.

One of the stunning properties for Dettaglio guests

Always dreamed about being part of the legendary Le Mans 24-hour race? Visit the Dettaglio website for a spot of lockdown armchair travelling and get in touch with Robin at robin@dettaglio.co.uk

Photos courtesy of Dettaglio

Have your say

How is the coronavirus affecting you and your small business? We’re keen to hear from you – get in touch with us on LinkedInFacebook or Twitter.

Coronavirus mailing group
Be among the first to know how to access Government aid and help from Tide.
For updates direct to your inbox, join our mailing group.

Suzanne Worthington

Senior Writer

Tide Team

Get started with a modern business account

Open an account in as little as 5 minutes:

Open an account

Download on the App Store Get it on Google Play