Events … All Work and Lots of Play!

PLAY DAY 2013 2 - chris bahnThe Event Manager Blog recently posted about events being grown up play and to a certain extent I agree.  We get to create activity and experiences that are all about enjoyment and often learning too, exploring our environment, trying new things, stimulating our brains…

This week, we are managing Bristol Playday – a 3 hour event with attendance of over 3,000 children and families on College Green.  This is an event that is definitely all about play in all its forms! We have circus, music, dance, Ping!, libraries, arts & crafts, space hopper racing, canoes, cardboard city, parkour, playbus, kite making, hula hooping… The event is being delivered on behalf of Bristol Youth Links, part of Bristol City Council, and so this event is also a manifestation of their play policy and practice.
Designing Playday is not just about putting on a heap of activity that is related to play in someway but rather is a considered plan working with providers and partners to create activity that engages all in play but also demonstrates for example the practical implementation of the risk benefit policy.  This idea of risk benefit is that undertaking risky activities can be beneficial in terms of play and learning and that such activities are entirely valid on the basis that the risks are considered effectively.  We know this from corporate team building activity where collective risk taking is a valuable learning experience in terms of team cohesion, decision making, personal challenge and skill development but it is rarely considered in this way in public sector/council contexts.
Playday could be an event that was ‘enforced fun’ and become play without any fun at all!  But it really isn’t – it is a space where all are welcome and all can enjoy, where play is free in every sense, and where the formality of Council meets the chaos of play!  We could all do with a bit more play in our lives so we can suspend our formality, our stress and all the grown up stuff to let ourselves be creative and feel that freedom.  Bring on Playday!

Claire Eason Bassett, Managing Director, Mackerel Sky Events

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Why Would Anyone Volunteer?

323Don’t believe anyone who says that they can guarantee you volunteers for a project.

Getting volunteers is possibly one of the most difficult tasks that event managers have on our lists. How can we get people to give their time (and sometimes money in travel etc) for no charge to us? The reality is that this is an imaginary saving, oft most suggested by people who haven’t had the pleasure of managing a volunteer workforce.
There is always a cost to getting people involved whether it’s wages, training, travel expenses, coaching or simply time. You can of course have great expectations of people in whatever capacity but they will always need to be managed, supported and trained in order for everyone to get the best possible experience and the best value out of what they are giving (on both sides of the relationship).  In fact, to not train and support people and if you don’t trust your volunteers and give them responsibility, may be to the detriment of that relationship making the volunteer feel that their work isn’t valuable anyway so why should they bother.
We have just recently finished the first round of training for iOrchestra volunteers and staff and this is doubly challenging in that we are training everyone up in the ways of the orchestra as well as introducing them to the project in all it’s forms – MusicLab, RE-RITE and the live concert. Given that the first day of any of this is pretty much immediate, we are all working on plans and discussions rather than reality and experience. What I find most interesting is that every person attending today had a different reason to be involved and different elements of the project appealed to them and from this,I have a yet deeper appreciation of why and how people volunteer.
And this is why I say don’t believe a any guarantee for providing volunteers. Every volunteer is different, each has different motivation and different needs; An individual return on their investment of time and effort. If we think of this whole process as generating a suitable return on investment (in both directions), would our projects present a good investment opportunity? This is not to say that we should develop and manage our projects around the wish and whim of each person who could be a volunteer but rather that we create the opportunity that is perceived as valuable by those who are best suited to being involved with the project.
This process is a bit of a dark art and of course has to adapt to the project and the people involved but be assured that we are all in the same position of trying to attract people to work with us and trying to create a return on their investment. Perhaps if we were to volunteer for something, we would be more able to see it from the volunteer perspective and comprehend (for ourselves at least) what makes a viable investment proposition?
Claire Eason Bassett, Managing Director, Mackerel Sky Events

There’ll always be risk … but it’s how you deal with it

new-balance-990-boston-marathon-2014-2Juxtaposed against the saga of the Sheffield Half-Marathon, the Boston Marathon this weekend seems even more poignant.  What happened at the 2013 Boston Marathon is an event manager’s worst nightmare.  There is very little one can do to really control this but there is a huge amount we can do to manage the risk.

Before I go any further, I wish all those who were affected by last year’s bombings hope and happiness and a huge well done and thank you to all those who are running this year, raising thousands of dollars for charitable causes.

So what can we do to protect ourselves against a bomb blast? The big problem is that the most likely targets are those with high attendance and high profile which means that it’s the large scale open events like marathons or celebrity appearances or Christmas lights switch-ons or city-wide festivals that attract the attention of potential threats.  There is very little we can do to directly control where public go and how they interact with the event – or is there?  We can certainly increase stewarding and increase the capability of those stewards so that should the worst happen, you have a means to evacuate and the team works to minimise the impact.

We could consider ticketing those open events but this is a logistical nightmare and presents significant costs which, for most of these events, are untenable.  We could consider screening all those who attend but again, this is costly and not necessarily effective.  We can definitely liaise with local and regional Police to get their input into how to manage the crowds effectively to reduce public order issues and also to gain their feedback on the likelihood of threats and current intelligence.

So we are left in a position where we can really only respond to circumstances but our response is an area that we can control.  We can plan for the worst; we can bring others into that planning process so that there is a broad comprehension of the challenges and responses across the project stakeholders; we can brief our teams and provide training for volunteers so that everyone knows what to do; we can communicate to keep everyone up to speed and highlight any issues, changes or actions required.

All of these mean that we as event organisers and our wider team are prepared and hopefully we’ll never have to use that preparation. Or when something else happens, like water not being delivered, we’ll have a means to respond ensuring that the event goes ahead as smoothly as possible. So, all credit to the organisers of the Boston Marathon who dealt with last year’s bombings with calmness, consideration and humanity, working hard to save as many as possible and who have drawn on all their resource to make it
all happen this year.

Claire Eason Bassett, Managing Director, Mackerel Sky Events

Sadly, A Very Public Failure

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In the light of last weekend’s successful London Marathon I particularly feel for the event organisers behind the Sheffield Half-Marathon only the previous weekend. They are all volunteers and whilst they have a lot of experience of this event, they appear to have got themselves caught between a rock and a hard place.

It is incredibly difficult when one us involved with a voluntary or community event and the money runs out or you just know there isn’t enough. From what I understand, this is what happened to the organisers of the Sheffield half-marathon where they failed to pay their water supplier. This problem then created a number of consequences:

  • cancellation of the event – which in turn causes us to question the governance of the project. Why did the trustees/directors not know that there were insufficient funds? It’s not just in relation to this supplier – what about all of the other people and companies involved? Was the organisation trading insolvently?
  • reputation destruction – not only of the event and of the directors/managers but of Water Direct and everyone else involved. By one epic failure, they have destroyed trust in the event by all stakeholders and trust in related suppliers. It may even damage the reputation of fundraising sports events in general…
  • financial losses – for the half-marathon, for the participants and for the charities. Whilst they may have started out wanting to do something beneficial for the community of Sheffield and the wider UK, it will certainly take some time for then to recoup losses and recover sufficiently to attempt this again.
  • communication chaos – with no-one really seeming to know what was happening, it was inevitable that chaos would ensue. Some runners decided to run anyway, potentially putting themselves at risk and opening up the organisers to legal action should there be an accident. It’s not just about telling people that it’s cancelled, it’s about making the decision quickly enough and then making sure that it is communicated as comprehensively and clearly as possible. Having said that, it’s not always possible to do this when the budgets are so stretched that you can’t even afford a megaphone…


The big problem is that they chose not to pay a supplier who was crucial to meeting their legal obligations and by their understandable withdrawal from the event, the lack of experience of the volunteer leadership was exposed. I wonder what the situation would have been if Water Direct had given the Sheffield Half-Marathon better credit terms?

Pedal Power!

We take it as given that events serve a huge variety of purposes and in some cases, the ambition is to genuinely change lives.  It could be directly through inspiration, skill development or networking, or it could be indirectly by creating experiences that engender value of the topic at hand. It is the latter that we have had the privilege to be involved with at the end of March.

The Bridgwater Way is a network of new and renovated cycle and walking routes around Bridgwater and the project events and activities seek to engage the local community in supporting the project as well as influence their behaviour by encouraging them to cycle and walk to work and school. This is inevitably a challenging brief to respond to and it being funded and managed by Somerset County Council means that there are a number of due processes to comply with.  However, we are working closely with the Bridgwater Way team to create and deliver a programme of events throughout the year that raise the profile of the project as well as getting people to think about active travel and this presents a more significant creative challenge.

How can we as event managers create experiences that influence people sufficiently to change their current ways of travel?

I believe that this is best achieved within a programme of events, rather than trying to be all things to all people in one single event.  A programme enables us to raise profile with press-friendly, interest sparking activity such as the Neon Bike Ride as well as offering opportunities for people to explore the concept of active travel at their own pace (no pun intended!) such as through the Treasure Hunt coming up in April or the Explore event in
June.  With the Neon Bike Ride, we had 42 riders with rider and bike dressed in neon and lights cycle through the town at 6.15pm to create a spectacle to make people stop and stare!  Sparking their interest is a key part of getting them to find out more about the programme and promoting the next phase of event activity.  We created a film of the event which demonstrates the initial impact of the event and this is being used now to promote the programme, generate interest and raise the profile, particularly online and
via social media.

All the usual event management aspects still applied to this – schedules, risk assessments, co-ordinating resources, liaising with stakeholders, promotion etc etc  – but for this very specific purpose of getting the press and word of mouth promotions working for the project to support the general public in Bridgwater to take advantage of the infrastructure investment and travel to work or school by bike or foot. Time will tell if it has this impact but feedback so far has been great!

Claire Eason Bassett, Managing Director, Mackerel Sky Events

The Lifeblood of Events

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Volunteers are the lifeblood of many events and I can’t thank all of them enough.  For all those who staff car parks for County Shows to those who marshal Christmas Lights Switch-ons, all those who stand on road closures and all those who fundraise, all those who check tickets and those who take on site logistics.  Thank you.

Not all volunteers however are created equal and by this I mean that all are wonderfully different.  Some are more useful than others. Some are better at working in a team than others.  Some are great with the general public and some are brilliant at getting on with whatever is asked.  We all have our own strengths and weaknesses and it can be difficult sometime to co-ordinate those differences in such a way that all motivations and interests are satisfied.  There is no option for us event managers not to satisfy those motivations because we need those people to help us make the event happen safely so we need to prioritise making sure that all of those unsung heroes are supported and engaged in what we are trying to do.

To do this, we need to understand why volunteers want to be part of what we are offering and we need to recognise that there is no ‘one size fits all’.  For example, we are working with over 60 volunteers from the BA(Hons) Creative Events Management course at Falmouth University for City of Lights.  City of Lights is the largest lights switch on event in the UK outside London and as such offers Falmouth students the opportunity to develop their skills and apply their learning to a large scale project.  This year we have tailored the offer so that 6 of the 3rd year students are acting as team leaders for sections of the route and we have added in a full day of training for all of the volunteers in crowd management, communications, risk management and event logistics.  This is a hugely beneficial relationship for all parties with the course gaining profile and experiences for the students, the students developing their practical skills and the event having sufficient staff to ensure it can all happen safely.

Without this commitment from the University, we simply could not run the event and we are not alone.  Many events are dependent on the goodwill and commitment of volunteers at all levels from initial ideas through to implementation and evaluation.  With cuts in local authority budgets, event activity is increasingly reliant on volunteer and community action and this presents a challenge for the events industry as a whole.  How can we support volunteers in ensuring that their events are not only safely and compliantly managed (when often the volunteers involved don’t have the knowledge or experience and neither do they have the time to undertake training even if it’s available) but also that the events are creative and dynamic and meet and exceed audience expectations?

I’m afraid there is no quick or easy answer to this but working with supportive organisations such as Universities to create mutually beneficial partnerships is one way forward that reassures the event manager that the volunteers are  useful people and enables the volunteers to gain experience and knowledge.

Claire Eason-Bassett, Managing Director of Mackerel Sky Events