The experience of running a full-time HEMA school in Glasgow

sparring with singlesticks
Keith and Jamie sparring with singlesticks at the Vanguard Centre. Photo by Jonathan Spouge, 2018 (edited by Keith Farrell).

Although I’m currently based in Liverpool, I am responsible for all the paperwork and business admin for a full-time training centre that teaches HEMA in Glasgow, as well as offering archery and blacksmithing activities. The Vanguard Centre is located just south of the city centre in a railway arch beneath the train lines leading into Central Station, and it is a very cool place to spend some time!

Running a full-time venue like this is a lot of hard work, but it has some very rewarding moments too. Since many people toy with the notion of becoming a professional HEMA instructor at some point in their future, I thought it would be interesting to share some of my experience.

It’s not all about playing with swords!

Although one might expect that a full-time training venue would give plenty of scope for playing with swords for most of the day, there are so many other tasks that come with the job.

There’s always paperwork to be done, there is marketing and advertising, there is accounting and finances, there is website maintenance and using social media, there are emails and messages to be answered, there are invoices to issue and payments to chase up, and there’s always cleaning to be done.

For me, playing with swords is the most fun part of the job, and it’s almost a reward for good behaviour when I can spend a couple of hours with sword in hand. Doing all the other tasks for several hours a day means that the lesson can go ahead as usual, and that means I can play with swords – if, and only if, all the other tasks get done.

Dealing with paperwork and business requirements

Most of my time is spent with paperwork and bureaucracy. There is so much paperwork to be done. It’s not unusual to go through several inches worth of paperwork in a week, with maybe only one or two sheets that feel like they have any actual value or importance to the business. However, the admin must be done, and dealing with it in a competent fashion means that everything else goes smoothly.

Although I joke about filing paperwork in the shredder, I don’t do that very often. I promise! And even then, only in the name of data security. Although I would love to file some of the bills in the shredder, that’s not really a viable long-term strategy.

It is important to develop robust systems for handling paperwork so that it can be dealt with quickly and efficiently, to avoid things piling up. The admin is pretty boring, but by dealing with it conscientiously and quickly, we can stay on top of things and rest assured that our business is above board and in compliance with all relevant legislation.

Although having to deal with it all is quite a hassle, knowing that we are running an ethical and above-board business is actually a major plus in my book. It makes me happy.

Dealing with local and regional competition

It’s a great situation for the community that there are something like four different HEMA clubs in Glasgow, and some MMA gyms are tentatively beginning to offer HEMA classes as well. It is really cool to see that there is so much choice and option for training HEMA in Glasgow!

However, this is a little bit of a headache for us in terms of trying to run a business and trying to recruit students. What makes us unique and special? This took us some time to learn and come to terms with, but we are quite confident now with our place in the local HEMA community.

We have a full-time venue, we do cool stuff, our instructors are very good at what they do and they can help you become good at what you want to do. We want to show professionalism at every stage without losing any of the fun or any of the personal touch. As a result, there’s no need to engage in recruitment competition with any of the other local clubs or schools or classes. If we can show that we do things to a high standard, and that it can be fun to come and do cool things in a railway arch, then that’s what we want to make known!

This has required quite a lot of balancing and learning over the years, to be able to articulate clearly what we are trying to do and the way we would like to do it. There is always room for improvement, of course, but we try and take this seriously so that the Vanguard Centre is a great place to visit for HEMA lessons.

Seeing students develop

One of the best things about running a full-time training centre is that we can see students develop over the months and years. Because we have full-time premises, and we are not dependent on being able to hire someone else’s hall, we can run consistently on the days and at the times we like. Scheduling is always a difficult balancing act, but things seem to be working well for us – we have several students showing consistent and significant improvements on a regular basis.

Helping people achieve success in their endeavours is immensely rewarding. Seeing the spark in people’s eyes as the lightbulb comes on and they begin to understand something difficult is one of the greatest feelings as an instructor! Knowing that we, as staff members at the Vanguard Centre, have had some hand in helping people gain some value from HEMA that is relevant to their modern life is wonderful and makes all the paperwork worthwhile.

Community outreach

An ethical business doesn’t just try to turn a profit; we try and do some good for the local community as well. At the Vanguard Centre, we have been working with several charities across Glasgow and the surrounding area, doing public outreach to help people who are a bit less fortunate than ourselves.

It also lets us spread the word that HEMA is a thing, so that more people know about HEMA as an activity, and hopefully giving people the impetus and motivation to approach their local HEMA club to give it a go. If people come to our school, then great; if people decide to attend a more local HEMA club elsewhere in Glasgow, then we don’t mind in the slightest. The more the HEMA community grows, the better for all of us.

Trying new things

With a full-time premises to play with, it gives us the option of trying new things. We can maybe introduce some new disciplines, we can invite guest instructors to give lessons and seminars, we can buy (or make) some new equipment to play with.

By keeping a slightly playful approach to running the Centre, and not letting things stagnate, we can keep ourselves relevant and interesting even as the community changes and develops around us. This makes us much better placed to weather rocky periods without folding, and it also gives our instructors a chance to try some new things without too much pressure, and to develop themselves as well as their students.

Leaving equipment at the venue!

One of the best things by far about having a full-time centre is the ability to leave all our gear at the venue. When I was teaching HEMA in Glasgow for 12-15 hours a week, before moving down to Liverpool, I appreciated this so very much! Carrying equipment to and from venues is always a hassle, and being able to travel there and back without having to carry heavy bags was a great help.

Several years ago, I used to teach broadsword at a club in Glasgow, and I had a one-hour walk there and another one-hour walk back every week, carrying my own equipment and also a bag full of masks for the students. This was pretty miserable, even in good weather, and the winter months were horrendous!

Conclusions

It is a crazy amount of work to keep a full-time HEMA centre up and running. However, it has many benefits and rewards, and I’m delighted to be part of the team making a success with the Vanguard Centre!

Being a professional HEMA instructor is not as easy or as much fun on a day to day basis as people might think. There’s so much paperwork and other work that goes into keeping it all working smoothly – although travelling to events might be the glamorous part of the job, that’s really just the reward for being well-behaved and doing everything else that has to be done.

If you would like to enjoy some professional HEMA in Glasgow, then please do invite yourself to come and play with us at the Vanguard Centre. Guests are always welcome.

If you are interested in improving your instructing skills, then please do feel able to get in touch with us. We can arrange workshops, seminars, and more intensive events for the individual or for groups, to help improve teaching skills. Hopefully, we’ll be able to make some rather exciting announcements about this sort of thing in the not-too-distant future!