There are career changes and there are career U-turns. The decision Neil Hughes took in 2003 would certainly fit into the latter category.
Having set up an Altrincham-based software company, REAL Information Systems, in 1996, he sold his majority share in 1999 and, after staying on for three years to help grow the company, finally left in 2002.
Here comes the U-turn bit. Contractually prevented from working elsewhere in the software industry, the father of four decided to chase his dream: running a live music venue.
“I did my research and looked at the high street, Stamford New Road, but everywhere was too expensive for rent and rates, so I put the idea to bed.
“But because I’d registered for some business magazines, they kept coming through the door and I saw an advert for a building that I didn’t recognise, which was weird because I’d lived round the area for a long time. I like period architecture so I thought I’d take a look, and when I saw it I just fell in love with it.”
The building in question was The Bowdon Rooms on The Firs, which was at the time been run unsuccessfully as a stag and hen venue. “It was dark, dowdy and underinvested,” remembers Hughes.
Originally one of three partners (he later bought the other two out), Hughes acquired the impressive Edwardian building and set about knocking it into shape.
A sound system was installed and sound engineer recruited, and the 50-year-old’s dream of a live music venue came to fruition with The Cinnamon Club.
Live jazz at the Cinnamon Club
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Inspired by the smoky, sultry, speakeasy-style atmospheres he had encountered at venues like Ronnie Scott’s in London, Hughes demonstrated the seriousness of his intentions to such an extent that the early bookings read like a who’s who of jazz and blues legends: Georgie Fame, Humphrey Lyttelton, George Melly, Cleo Laine and John Dankworth.
“We went for well-known names who we thought would fit within the demographic of Altrincham. We know the customers in Altrincham like a certain type of music and appreciate a certain type of artist.”
What were his guiding principles when creating his ideal venue? “First of all it has to be about the music,” he said. “People have to trust you again and again, because they come out for people they may not have heard of.
“Secondly it’s high quality service, from the welcome through to the drinks and the food. But it’s also about the ambience – and this building, being 100 years old, just has it in spades, so the trick then is to get the lighting right. You don’t want to walk into a room that’s too brash and bright.”
The formula has proven a success. Big names return time after time – Hughes singles out Cleo Laine’s “out of this world” appearance – but a highlight also came with a charity gig last November, when Hughes watched from the front row as OMD and the Beautiful South’s Paul Heaton and Jacqueline Abbott appeared. A departure musically perhaps, although Hughes insists the club is “open to all sorts”.
Hughes freely admits that watching live music in his venue on a Thursday and Friday night is the highlight of his week. But the key to him turning his passion into a successful business has been his ability to transform the club, chameleon-like, into other revenue streams.
[blockquote]We’ve found a formula with those businesses – dance, music and functions – and we’re happy with that[/blockquote]
So each week 1,000 – that’s one thousand – locals participate in dance classes, everything from Ballroom and Latin American to Modern Jive. The Strictly Come Dancing effect in full flow.
And then there’s the functions side of the business, The Bowdon Rooms, which will this year welcome 30 wedding receptions and countless birthdays, school and charity nights.
“It just gets better year on year,” said Hughes. “We’ve found a formula with those three businesses – dance, music and functions – and we’re happy with that.”
On top of that, he’s opening the club to a more youthful demographic than usually venture out to the club’s staple jazz and blues fare. It’s teamed up with The Music Place, the Altrincham music school, who put on their end-of-term concerts at the venue, and there are also monthly Cinnamon Unsigned and Open Mic nights put on by an 18-year-old promoter.
Hughes’s remaining spare time is also now given over to fulfilling another ambition, one that he says has left him feeling “energised”.
At the request of jazz-stars-in-waiting The Ben Cox Band, he’s now their manager. Instead of watching from the sidelines, he’s booking their gigs (they recently headlined Ronnie Scott’s), promoting them on to Radio 2 and handling their first album release.
With so much on, you’d think the passion that sparked that unusual career change could start to feel a bit too much like business. Not a bit of it. “Nothing,” he says, “beats watching live music in your own venue.”
Below (top to bottom): The Bowdon Rooms; live act Rat Pack; tables set up for a dinner jazz night; Neil Hughes outside his venue
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