Yvonne Reay-Scott, Executive Assistant at construction development giant Mount Anvil, discusses an ambitious event she held earlier this year for both colleagues and family – and offers some invaluable advice for any Assistants tasked with the same project…
Tell us about the brief you were given.
The brief was to organise a summer event for colleagues and families – the challenge was to nail an event which would be equally appealing to colleagues without children as well as those with families (of varied ages). It was the first time the company had hosted a ‘family day’, so expectations were high and I needed to source a venue which could comfortably accommodate 200-250 guests – other than that I pretty much had an open book in terms of venue selection. I’m fortunate to have a generous budget, which certainly helped when casting the net for locations/venues.
When did you start planning?
I prefer to have a lead-in of at least four months for a large scale event. I swiftly narrowed down a number of venues, dates available and maximum guest capacities. I can’t stress the importance of visiting shortlisted venues and asking the right questions.
I’m always keen to work with venue staff as they will have seen how other organisations have made best use of the space and might think of a few ideas that I have not.
There are venues in a lot of unusual places so do shop around.
Is the furniture flexible? Can the seats and tables be moved around if need be?
Don’t be shy about haggling on price – don’t show your hand all at once and let them know you are costing up their quotes against their competitors.
Last but not least, many unique venues are still accessibly priced, so don’t be put off using somewhere a little quirky, fun and unusual.
How did you find the venue?
I maintain a ‘little black book’ of events suppliers and venues which I’ve built up over the years and have shared with fellow PAs, so that was my first port of reference. I do attend showcases and welcome opportunities to meet new suppliers to keep my little black book up to date and relevant.
London Zoo fitted the brief perfectly. In fact, I’d already attended an open day/showcase there, so had knowledge of the venue first hand. On the strength of this, I booked a summer BBQ party.
We booked a function room with a large outdoor balcony overlooking the penguin enclosure. The function room was a great, huge space which was a blank canvas that we were able to dress in a jungle theme. Guests were able to arrive in the morning, wander at will around the zoo and then everyone met up for a welcome speech from our CEO and the BBQ lunch.
Our invitation preserved some mystery around the event and mentioned ‘celebrity guest appearance after lunch’ – we surprised everyone with Meercats making a personal appearance on the balcony for a private animal encounter with our guests.
What were the main challenges?
Finding venues which had availability on the dates I had earmarked for the event. Also, with the unreliability of weather, I needed somewhere with a covered area. London Zoo are (admirably) a ‘plastic free’ venue, so I had to ensure we worked around and complied with this policy, in terms of external suppliers and what they were allowed to bring on site.
What did you learn during the project?
Events are by nature, predictably unpredictable, with all kinds of challenges lurking around the corner to trip up even the most seasoned of PAs. I mentioned that London Zoo is a plastic free venue. What I didn’t appreciate however (yup, big learning point for even a seasoned event organiser like myself) is that balloons are plastic. I hadn’t made the connection in my head that latex is a plastic. The balloon decorations I’d planned as part of the room décor had to be dropped at the last minute. I lost some money, but totally understood and appreciated the reason why – if any balloons escaped they could end up in the animal enclosures. Of course, animal safety must come first.
Tell us about the suppliers you chose to work with to tackle the project?
The Zoo had their own suppliers for catering, the bar and AV. I did, however, hire in suppliers to dress the large venue space to make it a jungle themed paradise! Also I hired a magic mirror with animal associated props. Hiring children’s entertainers was money well spent as they enabled parents to be able to relax and enjoy themselves at the BBQ lunch, whilst the children were being entertained.
The official photographer also captured some great images at the BBQ and of colleagues and their families wandering around the zoo. All of our guests were given branded logo wristbands which enabled the photographer to immediately tell who was an employee amongst all the other visitors to the zoo that day.
In your opinion, what are the biggest pitfalls one can face when planning an event on this scale?
Date clashes for a starter – I always check for any major sporting events, religious festivals and industry events which might occur on the same date. I used to organise a lot of international events, inviting delegates from overseas so I’d take care to check Bank Holidays in those countries also. I tend to avoid hosting events on a Monday or Friday where possible as these days they tend to have more ‘no shows’.
Whilst there will always be curve balls thrown at you which are out of your control e.g. air strikes affecting overseas delegates attending, what you can do is plan, plan, plan and manage the controllable risks.
My advice is to imagine anything and everything that could possibly go wrong. Don’t wait for something to go wrong before figuring a solution.
Ultimately, you should ensure that you have a Plan B in place to deal with identified risks and put in place your own contingencies (including wriggle room in your budget).