By Louise Gordon, conference manager Wolfson College, Oxford
Fame and fortune are no strangers to Oxford colleges, where titled figures, politicians, industrialists, and celebrities in all fields routinely lecture, lunch, lead and sometimes live.
Indeed, an Oxbridge education is often a stepping-stone to positions of influence and impact. Still, for college conference managers, events featuring a big name present special challenges as they do for all venue managers.
So, I got together to share hands-on-tips and discreet tale-telling, with colleagues from some of my companion colleges.
Naturally, we exchanged a few ‘horror stories’: The time an antique chair collapsed under a presidential derriere, thankfully without injury and with potential humiliation taken in good humour. Many a glass of red wine has been spilt under the nose, or on the shirt-front, of high status guests of honour. And many a time a famous face has gone unrecognised on arrival, looking so unlike their on-screen persona, and in stature so often shorter ‘in real life’.
Entrance routes have been methodically mapped out and meticulously swept clean, with a welcoming party gathered in readiness at the front, only to be bypassed when the VIP pitches up at the back to be greeted by workmen or a passing delivery driver.
Or, having gotten lost en route, the VIP needs to be hastily collected from their waylaid destination and unceremoniously deposited before the waiting audience with barely time to comb their hair never mind the sound check.
As with all event-management, preparation and flexibility are equally essential. There are judgment calls to be made, not least in assessing just how ‘VIP’ a person is.
Eventbrite ticketing and Facebook messaging can indicate over-capacity crowds, then on the day, inexplicably there are empty seats and a rush to fill them with those consigned to the overspill location.
When the game plan alters, having personnel stationed and primed to shift gear is invaluable. This tendency for high profile events not to go entirely to plan engenders equal portions of buzz and angst.
After weeks of middle-of-the-night remembrances of things to add to the Running Order, venue managers find ourselves responding to what happens in the moment while maintaining awareness of what is meant to happen next.
Ours is a job of contradictions: obsessive advance planning partnered with improvisational verve. As venue managers, it’s our job to look after what is unseen.
The VIP who is the centre of attention is for us peripheral; it’s the team around them which really counts. VIPs rarely travel solo, their entourage is part of the package. People are often impressed by how ‘natural and unassuming’, how ‘relaxed and easy-going’ a famous individual proves to be. No wonder, as they have the luxury of delegating caution, inhibition and protectiveness to their minders. It is this circle who become our temporary colleagues, and that working relationship can prove the making, or breaking, of an event.
Ideally, we will have had some preliminary contact and chance to build rapport, but often we’re all thrown together on the day to get on with it and with each other.
As venue managers, our natural instinct for hospitality can start things off on a friendly footing – even the most stringent security personnel appreciate a cuppa. It helps to articulate clear roles and remits, and to pool knowledge, theirs of how their VIP likes to operate, ours of how our venue runs.
It takes sensitivity on all sides to retain both the exclusivity of a VIP event and the inclusivity of an open site.
Along with the unavoidable tensions of such events, there are touching moments. As when the queue for a famous author’s book-signing contained the surprise of a chum from his long-ago school days, and they shared affectionate and hilarious reminscences happily overheard by those waiting their turn. Or when a bride’s relations included a film star, who tolerantly bounced a baby nephew on his knee while generously signing autographs for chefs and waiting staff. Which all goes to remind us that VIPs are people too, and all the fuss and hype aside, successful management comes down to holding our nerve – and given that most predictably unpredictable element, an umbrella!