TEMPORARY STRUCTURES: Going undercover - Come rain or shine, from transparent greenhouse designs to semi-permanent structures, marquees are exceptional for their adaptability, Caspar van Vark explores the many options

It may be little more than a dim memory now, but there is wisdom to be gained from last year's party season - and not just about snogs under the buffet table. A plethora of events, from parties to product launches, have been held in the past few months in a variety of structures.

It may be little more than a dim memory now, but there is wisdom to be gained from last year's party season - and not just about snogs under the buffet table. A plethora of events, from parties to product launches, have been held in the past few months in a variety of structures.

The choice of structure depends on the type of event and a host of other factors, but how do you know what to go for?

Many structures can be adapted to some extent, but it's vital to know what kind of space you need for your event. If there is to be dancing, you might not want people swinging into poles, for example, so a clear-span structure would be more appropriate. Factors like the time of year come into play, too.

'For a Christmas party marquee, you would always use an aluminium frame tent for the weather,' says Bill Preston, chairman of Owen Brown. 'It might have a fitted heating system to melt snow off the top, for instance.

You wouldn't use a traditional marquee at that time. But for a product launch it would depend on the type of product. Often you'd need something blacked out, such as our own Tunnel Vision structure, to create a dark environment. For this, a frame tent is invariably used - you can use one with greater height, to allow tiered seats, for example.'

Some event management companies create temporary structures which can be adapted for different kinds of events. These are about as close as you can get to a permanent structure, and often stay up for a whole season.

Event management firm Fireball put such a structure in Lincoln's Inn Fields over the Christmas season, and held its brand relaunch there. The structure was 18.6m wide, with 11m of headroom in the apex, and offered a total of 1,400sqm of space. With two mezzanine floors, it could seat 1,000 for a sit-down dinner, or 2,000 for a buffet.

'The shape of a marquee is limiting,' says Fireball production director, Tim Clarke. 'We wanted this to be versatile, and it's designed so you can close off some parts and you don't see the entire structure initially necessarily.'

That kind of flexibility makes the structure suitable for product launches, where you might want to conceal something for a dramatic unveiling. Fireball also held a nightclub in the structure for its relaunch. Acoustics can be a problem. Clarke admits noise is always an issue with a temporary structure, but says the sound drops as soon as you step off the dancefloor. It was also used to host a two-day conference for Reuters.

Witney UK has a structure called the Starship, which it put up next to the Millennium Dome last year. The Bollywood Awards party was held there, as well as various conferences and corporate events. The Starship is an aluminium frame structure, 40m wide and 75m long wing-to-wing, with an internal hospitality space of 982sqm and a wall height of 4m. It seats 750 for a dinner/dance or 1,250 for a reception.

Witney UK managing director John Bourne says he's after the 'wow' factor with the Starship by using, for example, beautiful windows like you might see in a proper house.

'A marquee is a marquee, but inside it can be incredible,' he says. 'A marquee rarely improves a view - you use it when the right space can't be found at a venue.'

Stephen Congdon Party Design & Catering contracted Witney UK to supply the marquee for a private pool party it was organising. Witney supplied a 20m wide by 15m long structure with a tailor-made flat ivory casement lining. Bourne says the structure provided a neutral canvas for the decor and lighting.

But while a marquee won't improve a view, you can still appreciate your surroundings from inside. In January, First Protocol Event Management organised an event for the SWX Swiss Exchange at Somerset House in central London with a structure supplied by Owen Brown. The structure was Owen Brown's Premier Pavilion, and it was transparent to let guests enjoy the location.

'It was actually a platform with a tent on, because the venue was outside in a sloping cobbled courtyard,' says Owen Brown account manager Rory Thorpe. 'It was unusual because it was completely see-through, with clear PVC roofskins, so it was akin to a greenhouse.'

The choice of structure had everything to do with the location, explains First Protocol's Mark Riches. 'Somerset House has a beautiful courtyard,' he says. 'To put a traditional structure there would not do it justice.

There's a growing trend of venues that fit into their surroundings: when you're in a marquee, you could be anywhere. In this structure, as guests sat down they could look out. It's also not that expensive because you don't have the trouble of linings, pleatings, and hiding bits, so you save the cost of lining crews.'

Those add-ons are another point to consider. Some companies provide structures with all the trimmings - such as star-cloths, toilets, and decorations - while others rely on outsourcing them.

'We put the flooring in the Starship and then get other professionals in for things like the linings or heating, so you get the best of every aspect,' says Witney UK's Bourne. 'A lot of marquee companies try to do everything themselves.'

Owen Brown's Preston says his company also offers the basics such as flooring and doors, but will respond to the customer's needs beyond that.

'Some event organisers want their own stamp on things, others are happy for us to do it for them. But unless you have a full-time organiser, co-ordination is important and that's why it can be easier to leave it all to us.'

In some cases, you might not even need to choose a structure. Honda launched the Honda Civic in Bath late last year with Mar-Com using a De Boer structure, but went on to launch the left-hand drive version in Spain last month in a hotel conference room. 'In Bath, we had two 9m by 9m chalets, and one 6m by 6m chalet,' says Mar-Com head of production James Marchant. 'We also had a secondary structure which was 20m by 20m and which functioned as a garage, but in Spain we just used a hotel conference room and the hotel garage.'

Success or failure mostly comes down to whether or not people enjoy the setting and have a good time at the event. Witney UK's Bourne says his aim is for people to walk in and say 'I've never seen anything like that.' It's an ambiguous remark, but if you've done your homework it will hopefully be a compliment.


Marquees and temporary structures are not off-the-shelf products, so companies tend to quote prices on an individual basis. The location can also be a factor.

'Putting a structure in Somerset House will set you back at least pounds 14,000,' says Mark Riches of First Protocol Event Management. There are three basic kinds of structures: the pole tent, the aluminium structure and the temporary structure.

Pole tent: You don't have a clear run of the space because these tents have poles inside them. This is fine for many parties - you can even make a feature of the poles - but less appropriate for conferences. Yeo Paull says a 30ft by 30ft pole tent costs about pounds 280, but that's just for the tent itself and excludes the cost of putting it up and other add-ons.

Aluminium structure: These structures give a clear span, so they're more suitable for a stage-led event or if you want a big uninterrupted dancefloor.

Simpson & Simpson offers a 10m by 30m clear span framed structure for pounds 850, excluding extras such as floor matting and furniture.

Temporary structure: A temporary structure is more long-lasting than ordinary tents so is often put up for a whole season. Also, it can be adapted for different uses. As such it is difficult to give a price, but you could be paying between pounds 10 and pounds 20 per sqm on average. Time of year, location, size and type of event will all affect the price.

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