By Louise Gordon, conference manager Wolfson College, Oxford
Last Saturday night we threw a party. Or to be precise our client did, having booked our Oxford College as the venue for their University Department’s staff dinner dance. And yes our building work was well underway at the time of their site visit, with their booking made in full knowledge that construction would still be in evidence on party night. But what looks comfortably navigable in the bright light of day, tidy and compact behind considerate contractors’ hoardings, presents a very different first impression for guests arriving on a dismal dark night, when constant rain has turned the unpaved temporary entry path into mud-lined trenches and final phase construction has replaced the presentable facade of solid boarding with see-through metal fences encroaching right up to the narrowed walkways, rendering builders’ portaloo all too inconveniently prominent.
As many a venue manager will know, it’s remarkable how much an access route can be altered between close-of-business on a Friday afternoon and final preparations for a Saturday evening, when looming deadlines have kept the builders hard at it on a weekend shift. There was one further ‘enhancement’ to the premises: the main toilets were simultaneously being refurbished, making for a circuitous trek to the substitute facilities.
So what’s a conference manager to do when the builders have downed tools and the guests are soon arriving, in all their black tie, gowned and (alarmingly) high-heeled finery?
Prepare the ground: The Home Bursar returns my urgent voicemail and we identify an alternative safe entry route, in case resumption of rain makes the usual pathway too slippery. My stalwart office colleague prints and puts up yet more intensive signage for guests to follow from all possible arrival points. Laminator and blu tac have been the indispensable tools of our trade throughout the building work!
Call in the troops: With none of my conference office team available to join me for an extra work shift that night, I grapple with the challenge of shepherding graciously onto the site 120 guests arriving by car, taxi, cycle and on foot, over the course of an hour’s Drinks Reception, via dispersed entry points. I circulate a plea for help among the pool of student workers employed to run the College Bar and one of these helpfully volunteers to ‘diversify’ into greeting guests as they make their way through the Quad.
Turn on the charm: Having briefed my student recruit with the simplest of scripts – “Say ‘Welcome’, point to the coat racks, loos and dining Hall, and make sure to smile!”.
I position myself at the junction where car park, cycle racks and temporary walkway converge. With a fair bit of dashing about I manage to intercept every arrival, steering those on foot through the passageway, hailing disembarking cab passengers, directing car drivers to parking spaces and accidentally accosting the occasional passerby surprised to find themselves invited in.
Some guests express bemused dismay at the unprepossessing frontage but respond positively to a blend of warmth and wit, appreciating a steadying arm over a puddle and assurance that once inside, more conventional conviviality will prevail.
Maintain vigilance and visibilty: Once all are safely indoors and the party well underway I turn my attention to the toilets. Experience has taught that signage positioned by knowledgeable ‘insiders’ doesn’t always catch the eye of guests unfamilar with the site. Sure enough, close observation of guests as they exit the Hall with that tell-tale ‘seeking gaze’ shows which of our carefully placed directional arrows need swivelling or realigning.
Having greeted one guest on crutches at arrival, I take care to show her a shortcut to the nearest disabled loo. After that it’s a matter of usual party protocol – the ‘loitering with intent’ and carefully pitched timely intervention that ensures all goes to plan.
Share the celebration: There comes a point in a party evening that I most relish. The meal has been served with the waiting team relaying on appreciative comments to the chefs; the quantity of left-overs is precisely pitched between sufficiency and satisfaction, with enough remaining to treat all the staff to a late night bite; the DJ is bopping along with the heaving dance floor; the Bar staff are busily serving and smiling in equal measure; and, best of all, the party organiser is absorbed among the guests, having entirely relinquished their role of responsibility to simply enjoy the occasion. This proves an especially good night with happiness and good cheer behind the scenes as well as front of house, the chefs having a go on the racing car attraction and the suppliers taking a twirl on the dance floor. This is when it genuinely feels like ‘our party’ and that’s precisely the feeling that tells me, before a word of feedback has been spoken, that the client’s function has been the total success we all wanted. Because, in the end, it truly is the people who make the place. So yes, with our client, we threw a party – and on the Monday morning there’s an email from the organiser securing a date for next year, so together we can do it all over again.