When fun goes wrong on office days out

03 September 2012 -


Corporate entertaining is fraught with risk. But when the going gets tough, top event managers get going, finds Samantha Lyster

When a brand unveils to the press the latest location in its chain of aerial adventure parks, the last thing its event managers need are protestors threatening to chain themselves to trees.

Wannabe Swampys are not typical of the problems that event organisers face. But when Berkeley Public Relations was alerted that a local group – angry with Enfield council for an apparent lack of consultation over the Go Ape course at Trent Park – was planning a protest, it swung into action. The Berkeley team calmly called guests – I was one – to assure them that while there was a small risk the event could be cancelled, they would be given plenty of warning and a new date would be arranged.

Berkeley followed the event manager’s mantra of the Six Ps: prior planning and preparation prevents poor performance. By not panicking, the event went ahead smoothly and the only disruption the team had to deal with on the day was this acrophobic journalist almost fainting after finishing the treetop course.

But at least I was not drunk. And that, according to John Whitehurst, marketing director of agency Momentum Hub, is where many an event manager’s troubles start. “I once had to deal with a minibus full of white-collar managers so drunk that they were, shall we say, relieving themselves in the vehicle on the way to the event,” says Whitehurst. “They were threatening the driver. It was at this point I had to think of the driver’s safety and had to explain to the client why we would not be taking them back from the event.”

Whitehurst says that abandoning a coach party is the absolute last resort – but if he feels that his staff are in danger he will take that course of action.

Mixed results

Unfortunately, it appears that free bars are the catalyst for such behaviour. What should be a generous perk to say thank you to staff for their hard work becomes a red rag to the British binge-drinking mentality.

People go a bit crazy,” says Whitehurst. His company advises clients to limit the amount of free alcohol. But, if they are set on having a free bar, he suggests they limit the time guests can access it. For example, he says, at a gala dinner or Christmas party, you want people to be sitting down eating around 7.30pm for at least a couple of hours – and then have everyone making their way to the transport home from about 10pm. “It’s when events go on into the early hours of the morning that the risk of drink-related problems increases,” Whitehurst warns.

The dangers involved with mixing free alcohol and stressed staff members itching for a blowout are so acute, flare-ups can rapidly escalate. “Unfortunately we’ve had events where we had to call the police,” says Nickie Gott, managing director of She’s Gott It! events. “We had one situation at a corporate event where a very drunk lady lit up a cigarette. She was politely asked to put it out, which she did, only to light another one five minutes later. Again she was asked to put the cigarette out. She did so, but five minutes later she lit up another one. There was no way of reasoning with her and in the end the police had to be called. She was taken away in the back of a police car after threatening them.”

At events where alcohol is involved, Gott says she always hires extra Security Industry Authority (SIA) staff to back up the regular stewards.

Not only are SIA staff covered legally to deal with such situations, they are also trained in conflict management and have the experience to defuse potentially explosive situations. “We always ask the person concerned to step away from the main action,” says Gott. “That way you can calm them down, have a chat with them and create a safe area to minimise the situation escalating.”

Gott says that experience has taught her to have a policy that covers every eventuality, from finding drugs to photographing minors, and to be very clear with clients from the start what those policies are.

Marquee value

Dave Thomas, founder and managing director of Spy Games, a company that organises espionage-themed events, agrees that being up front with clients about how the event will be delivered and what will happen should there be any need to deviate from the plan from the start can save grief down the road.

Thomas gives the example of an event being organised in a hotel located in a valley so, although the predicted rain was only light, all the water collecting on the surrounding hills streamed down and flooded the venue’s lawns. “We always carry a variety of kit, including equipment that means we can put a marquee up in a car park if necessary. In this case, that’s what we had to do, as there was no way we could put it up on the rain-soaked ground.” Thomas and Gott both believe in bringing equipment to cover all situations, especially technical needs such as back-up laptops, extension leads and printers.

Julius Solaris, editor of the Event Manager Blog, adds that these days there is another potential problem area that managers are starting to encounter – social media. “It is not uncommon to see attendees expressing negative feedback on a speaker or the event organisation on networks such as Twitter,” she says. So how to combat it? “Keeping an active role on social networks usually helps with having constructive conversations and singles out troublemakers almost immediately,” says Solaris. Some people are determined to spoil the fun. But the best event managers outmanoeuvre them.

CASE STUDY: When volcanoes go wrong

In April 2010 the sleeping Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland decided to wake up, erupting beneath its glacier ice cap and spewing out tons of ash that forced major airports across Europe to close.

The news was full of stranded holidaymakers, but there were also thousands of British people missing from their desks after the chaos as return flights from conferences and business trips were cancelled.

Charlotte Graham-Cumming, managing director of marketing and events for the aptly named Ice Blue Sky, had 250 sales managers stranded in Lisbon. “The ash cloud was something so unpredictable that it caught even the most experienced event managers out,” she recalls. “Thankfully, we have always cultivated great working relationships with local companies in the overseas locations where we have events taking place. That’s something I would advise any manager organising events abroad to do.

“This really came into its own when the ash cloud hit. We were able to contact several travel and hospitality companies on the ground in Lisbon. Because we had developed such good relationships with them, they were quick to help out and we were able to secure alternative transport back to the UK for the delegates.”

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