Alternative summer venues: Cloud busting

Summer events can often fall foul of the British weather. But with proper planning every cloud really can have a silver lining. Jane Stanbridge reports.

The inimitable Albert Einstein once said: "One need only think of the weather, in which case the prediction even for a few days ahead is impossible." Einstein knew what he was talking about but you don't need to be a genius to know that the increasingly unpredictable British climate means there can be absolutely no guarantees for fine weather, even in the middle of summer. What does this mean for event management companies, venues and organisers who have the task of planning summer events?

According to Margaret Jennings, special events manager of event management company Fortesqueue's, at least 90% of their enquiries for summer events require outdoor space.

But as Penny Ellis, managing director of events agency Eventwise, warns: "It's easy to plan a summer event back in the winter and think it's going to be light and warm, but the reality is that even on a very hot day it can be chilly and dark by 10pm."

To ensure the success of an event, whatever the weather, a lot of time, effort and expenditure must be put in to the event planning. Whether it's a marquee, an indoor space or a gazebo, it is essential to offer the option of sheltering from the elements. "Nowadays, we have to offer cover or we just don't get the job," states Olaf Born, general manager of Castle Ashby in Northampton. The castle has a dedicated marquee site and provides umbrellas, and event organisers usually provide additional cover for their guests. Vicky Begley, sales and marketing director of the Four Pillars Hotel Group, agrees that providing shelter is essential but also highlights the need to have alternative activities planned. "Most events go ahead whatever the weather but it is always a good idea to incorporate activities that can be brought inside if necessary," she says. It's not a good idea to assume, however, that a venue can accommodate the guests inside as often capacity will be greater outside than in. "Sometimes people book outdoor space and then say 'have you got space inside, just in case'. We have to build this into the booking as we can't just magic space up," says Judith Day, sales manager of commercial events at Stoneleigh Park.

Choosing the right venue and then familiarising yourself with what it can offer is a critical part of the planning. "Although many clients will choose a venue for the outside, if you are planning to come inside in case of bad weather the interior has to match up to the same standard. If it doesn't, you should reconsider," says Eventwise's Ellis.

She used the car park at The Worx in Fulham, London, to create an outdoor facility with a high quality wet weather option. During the day, the car park was turfed, fitted out with tables, lighting and heaters, and by midnight the whole thing was removed. "It's very easy to create a magical feel with lighting at night, but you just have to think about it. Many clients like the idea of using candles, but it's no good just using night-lights that are going to blow out."

Being familiar with the venue means the organiser can plan activities in the best locations. "We assess the venue and use what is available.

That may mean locating some activities right next to the hotel, or using trees for shade and choosing carefully the activities that are some distance from the buildings," says Nicola Gore, operations director of team-building support company, VTESS.

It is also important to be able to adapt to circumstances. "We have to be flexible. If the forecast looks bad, for example, we might need to change eating times to suit by bringing guests in earlier. When one client wanted to eat outdoors, we set up inside as well, just in case," says Born of Castle Ashby.

Being creative with resources

For many events, being prepared means having a weather contingency plan in case conditions become too bad to run a particular event at all. "Clients are often not prepared to spend on what might not be used," says Tara Higgins, senior account director at integrated event marketing agency The George P Johnson Company. "But we always have to have something up our sleeves and be creative within the resources available."

When a sailing day had to be cancelled through bad weather, the agency had made back-up plans for a city tour using buses already on hire, at no additional cost. A certain amount of cost is usually inevitable, however, for the peace of mind that a contingency plan brings. Eventwise organised a party last year for a client who wanted to be outside. "The client was happy to pay for an awning to cover the catering area in case it rained but luckily it wasn't needed," explains Ellis.

But the challenges presented by unpredictable weather can offer an opportunity to be creative in the planning process. When construction work required Royal Ascot to be moved to York this year, Worldlaunch Events was approached to stage Race Week, at Syon Park, in June. The event will focus on large screens showing the races, both inside and outside a state-of-the-art marquee structure. The marquee will be complete with grass green floor, to resemble the racing paddock. With the 1,080sq m marquee surrounded by windows overlooking the river and gardens, guests can enjoy the event from inside or outside, depending on the weather, and will still get the whole feel of Royal Ascot, bandstand included.

Solving the practical problems

With a shortage of outdoor space in London, Fortesqueue's' The Room By The River, situated behind the National Theatre on the South Bank, offers a creative solution to clients' demands. Used for parties, award ceremonies and conferences, the 2,000sq m temporary structure can be transformed for each function with colours, theming, furnishings and lighting and includes a garden, roof garden and partially covered outdoor space. "If the weather is good, people want to be outside," states Fortesqueue's Jennings. The outdoor space can be used for barbeques and drinks receptions even if it is raining. But when an "outdoor feel" was required for the Orange Prize for Fiction, staged there in 2004, the English country garden theme was built inside the marquee - not because of the weather but because of the amount of technical equipment required.

Sometimes creativity is just needed to solve practical problems. For the Stoneleigh Live Recycling and Waste Management In Action event, to be held later this month, one exhibitor wanted to put some large machinery on a grass pitch. If it rains, not only could the equipment get bogged down, but it could pose a health and safety risk by becoming unstable.

The solution involved placing the machinery on the roadway and then routing pedestrians around the exhibit, across the grass on temporary tracking.

"We have to think, 'what do we want and how are we going to achieve it'," explains Stoneleigh's Day.

One sure fire way to defeat the weather is by planning events where the weather is not an issue. "We open all year round, seven days a week, as long as there is daylight," says Rob Baber, managing director of Head4Heights, an aerial adventure centre in Gloucester. "Most of our corporate events are outside of the summer months, so we have vast experience of running events in poor weather conditions." Baber claims that only two conditions would prevent an event running; lightning or winds over 70mph, and this has not happened yet. Concessions to cold and wet include working on wooden rather than metal elements and incorporating more tea and coffee breaks. "The colder it is, the busier we keep people, and then they don't have time to think about the weather," says Baber.

Providing alternatives

When there is a choice of activities, it makes sense to choose the ones least likely to be affected by the weather. With a marquee on site for one event, Worldlaunch Events considered the options for its client. "We know that softball is very popular, but if it rains it can be spoilt, so we decided to book an It's a Knock Out competition instead as this can be brought inside," explains director Mel Robinson.

At venues like Castle Ashby and Eastnor Castle, where quad biking and 4x4 driving are popular events, rain can actually add to the fun. "A bit of water on the tracks is a definite bonus for the off-road driving," explains Simon Foster, manager of Eastnor Castle. "The guests are pampered inside brand new, top-of-the-range Land Rovers while driving through horrendous conditions." With the luxury of the Castle to go back to afterwards, it's no wonder Eastnor has never had a corporate event rained off.

Four Pillars Hotels has two venues situated near water and events can include river-based activities where it doesn't matter if it rains. Four Pillars' Begley, comments, "Most events go ahead whatever the weather - 95% of people take it in their stride and really go for it. It brings out the desire to pull together against adversity and everyone in England is used to it." Not only used to it, but positively embracing it in some cases. "We had planned an outdoor Cryptic Quest and our clients still wanted to go out to do it, despite bad weather," states Begley. Eventwise's Ellis describes a similar experience when organising an event for a large accountancy firm where she had 1,500 people in dinner suits, ball gowns, trainers and wellies. "It poured with rain, but they all wanted to go outside for the fairground rides and stalls, so they came prepared."

In fact, organisers comment on how poor conditions can actually become part of a team building exercise. According to Gore of VTESS. "It can create a totally different atmosphere. It can put some people off, and sometimes there are one or two who moan but usually the majority are upbeat and the others eventually join in. It makes them work harder in some ways," she says.

Barber of Head4Heights adds: "We inform people what they should bring for all conditions and we believe it is part of the exercise for people to arrive appropriately prepared."

No doubt thanks to that preparation and the indomitable British spirit, it appears that only a very small number of events in this country are ever called off because of weather and, in fact, the ever-changing climate may add that extra something to your event.

CASE STUDY:

Organiser: Worldlaunch Events

Venue: Hyde Park Tennis Centre

Event: Corporate Fun Day

Worldlaunch Events has used Hyde Park Tennis Centre on a number of occasions for summer corporate days and has managed to cope, so far, with all that the British summer can throw its way. "The venue is great for smaller companies who want to have a fun day," says Mel Robinson, director of Worldlaunch Events. "We can put on a range of activities from mini golf, petanque, tennis, lawn bowls, softball and five-a-side football. We find that people don't mind the rain too much if they are busy." A marquee is erected for shelter from the elements if needed. "And we always have a contingency plan," adds Robinson. Last year Worldlaunch organised a team-based, mixed sports event for a television production company at the Tennis Centre but made plans to bring the teams indoors for a Who Wants to Be a Millionaire competition if the weather was too bad. It was a relatively straightforward task to swap from one to another; the teams were already in place and a PA system was available. "You can usually tell a couple of days before what the weather is going to be like. Fortunately, despite not having a great summer last year, we were able to stick to the original plan in this case."

SAVING FOR A RAINY DAY

Despite the fact that very few events actually get cancelled, some organisations need the reassurance of knowing that if the worst comes to the worst, the financial loss will be minimised. Several companies offer insurance against event cancellation due to weather and will tailor a policy to a specific event at a specific time, but the conditions and limitations attached to the policies can vary enormously.

Ed Cruttenden, underwriter at Insurex-Expo-Sure explains, "We have a geographical boundary and won't insure events north of Carlisle, or any winter events, that is, from the beginning of October to the beginning of March. It would just be too expensive." Event Insurance Services offers several products for the event industry, one of which covers adverse weather should the event be called off by a local authority because of safety issues such as high winds or very boggy ground. "We used to have 'pluvius' cover, an insurance that protects you against damages caused by bad weather," says John Wakefield, business development manager, "but it is very hard to get cover for this now." A new company called Weather-Proof is offering a financial product which director Dan Levin claims is cheaper and pays out quicker than traditional weather insurance. The client simply agrees how much rain would cause a problem between certain hours of specified days at their location and Weather-Proof provides a quote. Once the client has paid the premium the only trigger for payment is the level of rainfall within the agreed time frame. "If the climatic event occurs, the client is paid quickly without any quibbles," says Levin.


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