My Biggest Event ‘Disasters’
21 February 2023
No matter how much you prepare and plan, sometimes things can happen, says Kelly Lewis, Founder and Managing Director of Flying Ruby Events.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll said it again, event management is not for the faint-hearted. It’s fast-paced, high-energy and often unpredictable. It takes a certain kind of person to keep calm under pressure, particularly when things go sideways, as they sometimes do. I’ve been in this industry for 20 years and have organised more than 200 events so, it’s fair to say, I’ve seen it all. The aim of the game though, is to ensure the client or guests only see the event running seamlessly – not what might be happening behind the scenes.
How do we do this? At Flying Ruby, our approach is simple – with every event we organise, we make sure everything is ready to go a full week before the live event. We call it in-house ‘damage control’ and we spend the final week before an event managing the last-minute changes, reviewing contingency plans and whether we need to implement any of these, and checking in with suppliers to re-confirm bump in and out details.
However, no matter how organised and prepared you are, there are ALWAYS last-minute changes out of your control. The weather can change, affecting your layout, a supplier can no longer deliver on what they offered or the MC/entertainers can cancel last-minute due to sickness.
The latter actually happened to us not that long ago. We had booked a very well-known journalist to host an event, but we found out the day before that he had to fly to London as the Queen had died and he needed to cover the event.
And that’s the thing. Some people think event management is about being on-site, bumping in and out, but we actually spend 95% of our time at a computer; planning, organising, putting together contingency plans, risk assessments and run-sheets. We’re constantly thinking through every single eventuality, and we always try to be one step ahead.
But no amount of preparing and planning can prevent things happening that are outside our control. And this is where having the right team becomes crucial. When I’m hiring, I look for people who have the ability to stay completely controlled when the uncontrollable is happening around them. It’s one of the essential traits of being an event manager – the ability to keep calm under pressure. Funnily enough, 95% of our clients do not have this trait, which is why they bring us into the team.
We always tell our clients: “Be a guest at your own event. Let us to do our job; which is to produce the event, and be the eyes and ears behind the scenes, so you can focus on what you need to do, which is host and have a good time.” Because just when you think you have everything sorted, things can go a little sideways…
DON’T BE (FIRE) ALARMED
Like the time we were running a big gala dinner for a client in a new venue. From memory, there were about 400 guests in the room. Everyone was seated and we had a very well-known, experienced journalist emceeing the event. She was talking to the audience when, all of a sudden, the fire alarm started to go off in the building. I radioed to my team members working with the venue manager, and her reply was: “It’s okay, I’ve just heard the new steam oven in the kitchen has set the alarm off, there’s no fire.”
I breathed a sigh of relief, but you could see the entire room was looking a little nervous. The MC stopped talking, listened for about 20 seconds, looked at me, and I gave her the nod to continue. I knew there wasn’t a fire, or any danger to guests. So, she continued on with the event and after what felt like four hours, but was probably about 40 seconds, the alarm went silent. Crisis averted, right?
You would think. Except, I was standing at the very back of the room and the door behind me suddenly flew open. I turned to see six giant firemen, fully kitted out, with helmets on, wielding axes. I might have made that last bit up about the axes, but I swear that’s how I remember it. Anyway, I instantly and instinctively blocked the door – the guests couldn’t see these guys, or people might start running for the fire exits. I advised it was the steam ovens in the kitchen on level three and ushered them out without anyone noticing.
WINNER WINNER, NEARLY MISSED THE DINNER
And then there was the time we were running a big awards event. The major winner of the night (who obviously didn’t know he was winning) had RSVP’d, so we knew he was coming or, at least, we thought he was. Guests arrived at the venue for pre-drinks, and when we checked, he hadn’t yet arrived. Then, people took their seats as the MC commenced formalities, and still he hadn’t arrived. We asked one of the guests sitting at his now full table where he was, to discover he was no longer attending.
Okay. We had four hours until he had to be on stage. Four hours to get him to the venue. The only problem, he was in Sydney and we were in Melbourne. So, we went into overdrive damage control. We got the entire team onto it and, as we were producing the event, we were in the background also trying to get this winner to the event. We booked him a driver to Sydney airport, his flight to Melbourne, and then his driver to the venue. We tracked him the entire time as we pushed dinner out, pushed the entertainment out – I think everything moved back by about 30 minutes as we waited for him to arrive.
It came down to the wire, and he was literally walking through the doors of the ballroom as his name was announced as the winner of the final award of the night. He walked straight through the room, up to the stage, and gave the most incredible, inspiring speech. I almost cried; partly because I was moved by his words, but mostly because I was so relieved that we’d averted yet another crisis. The outcome was incredible – he got a standing ovation and everyone in the room thought he had been sitting at a table the entire night.
Which is just the way we planned it.