Outgoing independent greeting card sales agent, Neil Greenwood (who together with Rachel Williams forms Reil Agencies) found himself with an audience of millions last Saturday (April 2) with a surprise appearance on Ant & Dec’s TV programme, Saturday Night Takeaway.
As a true ‘people person’ at the start of lockdown, Oldham-based Neil together with his bestie pal, Lorraine Robinson set up the Virtual Tavern (an online ‘pub’) as a way to help people feel less isolated.
Since then, the Tavern has grown to over 50,000 ‘locals’ based all over the world, including many of Neil’s retail customers (https://www.thevirtualtavern2020.com/). The Tavern has strict rules to keep it a positive safe space, with no politics, football, religion or Covid talk. There have been quizzes galore, bingo, ‘live’ acts and lots of free prize draws – with the initiative recently winning an Oldham Mayor Appreciation Award in recognition of its contribution to the community.
Click below to see Neil and Lorraine explaining about how the Virtual Tavern works…
“It is great that so many people have said it’s helped to combat loneliness and those struggling with mental health problems,” Neil told PG Buzz.
Having made things happen for others, Neil and Lorraine were outflanked when their mutual friend and Tavern staff member Colin Manford (comedian Jason Manford’s brother) nominated them for an Ant & Dec Saturday Night Takeaway surprise appearance.
Colin worked secretly with the TV programme’s producers and told Neil and Lorraine a white lie that they could be called to appear in a documentary. “We didn’t think it would come to anything, but then got an email inviting us to the studio for an interview for a programme called ‘Lockdown Lives’,” Neil explained. “Having arrived at the studios, we were chatting outside to the producer and next thing we were inside and saw Ant & Dec. It all felt a bit surreal!” he added.
Since the show aired the Tavern has gained over 5,000 new members and lots more interest.
As part of their appearance, Neil and Lorraine won a campervan that was mocked up as a real ‘Virtual Tavern’. For Neil though, he would not want to go up against his fave local, The Lowerhouse in Derker, which has been a great champion of the Virtual Tavern and sponsored many events.
From behind the bar to front of the counter…
While Neil shared the TV limelight with his Virtual Tavern chum Lorraine, ‘on the road’ as an agent it is Rachel Williams who is the other half of Reil Agencies.
Here, drawing on a gardening analogy, Rachel shares how she has been digging deep over the last year.
Tell us about your and Neil’s patch…
“The Northwest – covering a large patch of England, with its towns and cities as diverse as the people living within them. From Chester to Carlisle and Warrington to Windermere one thing we do all have in common, aside from a lot of rain, is a northern grit and a determination to succeed and overcome hurdles. As an agent in the Northwest, I represent Caroline Gardner, Cinnamon Aitch, Gift Wrap UK, Hand Crafted Card Company, Laura Darrington, Museums & Galleries and U Studio.”
Calling a spade a spade…
“Overcoming hurdles in the past year has become second nature for us and our customers! If ever there’s been a time to dig deep and look for positives, this last year has really tested us all. Companies, retailers and agents have all felt the impact of lockdowns and tier restrictions, and this has really tested our determination to keep going and use our initiative to survive and ride the storm.”
What have been the green shoots?
“Because of shop closures many of us have had a lot more time, and much of this has been spent in our homes and gardens, many have used this time to tend to our plots and bring life and colour back to our own little space in a shrinking world. This gave us the opportunity to try new things and be creative.
It has been brilliant to see some retailers taking advantage of Zoom calls and video links to restock and communicate. As well as using the time to set up websites, Facebook pages, using Instagram and other media sources to promote and grow their business share. From the ground up with little experience we have found new ways to sell and interact with our customers and have seen new shoots branch and bloom.”
Neil has had the Virtual Tavern, what have been your plant food/fertilizer Rachel?
“I have tried lots of new things, growing my own veg and creating a herb garden being a couple of them. If I’m honest I’m no Percy Thrower and I’ll never make it onto Gardener’s World with my veg patch, even a rabbit would have turned its nose up at my carrots, but at least I tried!
My herb garden on the other hand was great. To be fair herbs are pretty easy to grow, being hardy and fast growing as long as they are tended and encouraged.”
What approach have you taken to your ‘garden maintenance’?
“I am lucky enough to call many of my customers my friends and have kept in touch with them during this difficult time. Those who have been able to stay open have continued to order using the internet or phone to place orders during closure. If customers have been happy, I have also dropped samples off with them and left them to look through and called back to collect.”
What would be your plantlife alter ego?
“I would be a Primrose. It keeps going all year round, loves life no matter what the weather and remains cheerful, hopefully bringing a little colour and happiness to those around it.”
What are your hopes and dreams for the rest of the year?
“If the last year has taught me anything it’s to not take anything for granted, be creative and never give up. It’s been really hard work and of course the rewards have been smaller and harder to come by, a little like my herb garden, but when the successes do happen, we feel elated and rejuvenated. It continues to be a bumpy journey, with weeds popping up around each corner, but we keep trying and chopping them back to get through and back out the other side, hopefully stronger and more determined than ever.”
Top: Neil Greenwood and his best mate Lorraine Robinson have been ‘behind the bar’ of the Virtual Tavern for over a year now.