When we turn up to a concert or a performance of any kind we have an expectation that the venue will be clean. For the last 25 years, one of the key people in making sure that expectation is met has been Rory O’Kelly.
His Cork-based company EcoKell grew from humble beginnings to the point where they took care of every piece of litter, every discarded cup and every piece of wayward waste left behind by the near half a million of us that attended Ed Sheeran’s mega tour of Ireland last summer.
Entertainment for Business is all about shining the spotlight on the businesses that keep the sector rocking and rolling and we sat down this week with O’Kelly to discover a little more about the business of keeping clean.
Entertainment for Business: It’s been a long journey over 25 years to get to where you are today, where did it all begin?
Rory O’Kelly: Back in the early 1990’s I bought a powerhose just to do small odd jobs around Cork and give myself a shot at being my own boss. I was diligent and people liked the work I did. They recommended me to others and so the business started to grow.
First, we picked up a contract to clean a local school then that became two and then three schools and so it went.
We got our first entry to the world of entertainment through cleaning a couple of nightclubs and the business was growing through taking on office jobs across the city.
EfB: Was there a moment in that steady rise to being a proper business that you look back on as being key?
Without a doubt. We got our first what you might call the big break when we won the contract to clean the Marquee in Cork which then, and to this day provides the city with a massive summer of music every year.
Peter Aiken was willing to take a chance on me then and we made a good job of it. That would be the most direct line through to cleaning up after the Ed Sheeran Concerts last year and we have always had a great relationship with Aiken’s.
He gave me a shot at going national and we grabbed it, quickly expanding to doing jobs in Kilkenny and Dublin, all the time making sure that we worked to a very high standard.
EfB: How important is that to you as a business?
It’s the most important thing. In order to be trusted as a cleaner, I believe you have to present yourself in the best possible light.
We always ensure that the staff are really well turned out in clean uniforms and our fleet of trucks and vans are always clean, no matter how many kilometres they are putting up around the country.
First impressions are critical, for customers who are coming into a place the night after a concert, or for a promoter or venue manager when they are meeting us for the first time.
EfB: How does a typical job work for you in this business?
The principles are the same no matter what size of a job. I rely on a team of really great staff. The core group of supervisors which I would trust implicitly every time have generally grown up through the business.
For a major event like Ed Sheeran in the Phoenix Park, we would have a team of nine or ten supervisors and staff that would be on site from a couple of weeks in advance to make sure everything was clean during the setup and during the event itself.
There would have been blocks of toilets 200 deep in the Park, it’s never the piece that people remember unless it doesn’t work well. Our job is to ensure it does.
We use our own bins at events so we know the way that all the details are going to be a long way out. Once you’ve planned well, there are few surprises to catch you out.
EfB: And how long does the clean up take post-event?
Obviously the size of the crowd and the layout of the event is what makes the difference.
For a big outdoor concert we would aim to have 70 per cent of the job done before leaving the site between 2 and 3 AM, then the morning crew come back to finish off so that everything is as new when the gates open the following day.
Last summer we had teams that would leave Cork to head to Galway in advance and the rest following on after the job there was done.
The bigger events like Festivals and major concerts might have a week to ten days until the final sign out and it’s what we do to make sure that the process remains tight and the clean up continues right to the end.
I was delighted this year when we got word back from the OPW gave us a glowing reference for returning the Phoenix park exactly as we had found it. Hearing things like that gives the whole team a boost and in this game, you are only as good as your last job.
EfB: What were some of the other jobs that have made a difference along the way?
Getting to work on cleaning the backstage area at concerts puts you in a very privileged position. There’s a lot of trust involved and we are the ones that are there with the Triple-A Pass to be in throughout a performer’s stay. The rubbish you leave behind tells a story about you and it’s the job of a good cleaner to make sure it is disposed of without a second glance.
EfB: How about the world of Festivals, what particular challenges do they present?
Again every one is different. Shane Dunne down in Mitchelstown trusted us to look after the Indiependence Festival and that has always been a great job. The volumes of rubbish are completely different as people are basically moving in as opposed to just dropping by.
Disposing of tents has become a major issue now and one that has really changed over the years. It could be the case that 60 or even 70 per cent of the tents that people bring now are left behind.
EfB: How big has that area of sustainability become?
Oh it’s very big and we do what we can but Ireland has a real issue with understanding what recycling is all about.
Contamination is the biggest challenge and while we can put out sufficient bins to cater for all the different kinds of material, one person being lazy or distracted, or just not caring, means that the process of sorting becomes incredibly challenging.
In an ideal world, and a number of promoters are moving in that direction, the concessions would be bound to use only biodegradable materials. I think it will come.
EfB: How much is the entertainment side worth to you now as part of your overall business?
Over time, and one year might be different from another, I would estimate that it’s now worth around 50 per cent of the overall business. It also works well because the busier summer months for concerts and Festivals tie in nicely with the quieter times for our school contracts.
It means we can use the same trusted staff and they enjoy the opportunity for a change and an occasional glance at the acts that are performing.
EfB: You must have found some strange items left behind over the years, any that come to mind?
For sure the strangest one, and I’ve no idea why or how they got it in, was when we found a full-size canoe.
The other strangest one was a cat. well looked after but no identification. We made sure though that he went to a good home.
EfB: And finally if there was one concert that you would be in the front row for what would that be?
Easiest question of the day. Bruce Springsteen at Nowlan Park in Kilkenny. Best gig I’ve ever been at and one I’d go back to again and again.
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