Death of the Gala Ball: what we learnt from our annual conversation on the special events landscape

Back in 2016, the Special Events Forum and Hope Street Media started a discussion on whether the traditional gala dinner is no longer the best format for charities to raise money through events. In the past, these events have consistently raised six- or seven-figures for organisations, as well as providing an opportunity to engage both existing and new corporate, individual and celebrity supporters. However with complaints of event fatigue and a highly saturated market, coupled with budget cuts and the high cost ratio, has this type of charity event finally had its day? We picked up the conversation again, hosted at the offices of THRSXTY in Soho, with a panel of representatives from some of the UK's leading charities. 

In recent years, organisations such as Ark, the DEC, Save the Children, Unicef UK and The Prince's Trust have turned to immersive events to bring their work to life. Some have had success with raising significant income through this type of event, whilst others have mainly used the new format to reach other audiences and to present their work in a different way. So is the immersive event here to stay, or is this just a fad? 

Amanda Sinke, representing Right to Play UK, highlighted how doing something immersive didn't have to result in a dramatic shift in format. For Right to Play UK, this meant looking at storytelling and how they could bring to life their powerful and emotive stories from Africa at a ballroom in central London. Others echoed the sentiment and shared examples of how they had sought to bring something creative and interactive to their existing events, rather than change the event altogether. 

Hibba Al-Altrakchi, representing The Prince's Trust, shared the case study of the Trust's longest running gala event and how they took a risk to take the event out of the ballroom altogether and host it on the Belmond British Pullman. 

As well as reflecting the shift in focus, our audience observed that our guests should be at the heart of our plans and that our longterm supporters can help us to make these decisions and tell us what they want and expect from our events. For every organisation this will be different; when asked whether she thought that more charities should be doing something new, Hibba's response was a firm "Yes - but only if the time is right". 

As an agency, 40% of our work centres around the charity fundraising gala - our clients are still seeing great success with events of this nature - but much like those on the Forum, we continue to seek new ways of bringing our work to life at these events and doing more than just showing a charity film or delivering a speech. Just like other fundraising streams, the ever-changing sector demands that we challenge ourselves to do something different, take on our competitors and listen to the voices of our donors. 

We asked our audience to give us an idea of the future of their portfolios by a simple show of hands - it was clear that over half of the organisations represented still continue to grow their events calendars, with only a couple of organisations making a move to reduce theirs. That said, for those charities whose income is largely made up of event funds, new fundraising streams are being explored in an attempt to diversify and future-proof. 

The conversation continues and we look forward to seeing how it progresses. 

Autumn round-up: a colourful few months

Another amazing but knackering few months has passed and as we enter the Christmas season, I'm once again so proud and thankful to have worked on some fantastic events with some bloody brilliant people and organisations. 

The one with Patsy, darling! 
I have to admit I hadn't watched any of Joanna Lumley's travel documentaries until she spoke about them at this event on 15 September and I've since binge-watched whatever I could get hold of. Hosted within the beautiful surroundings of The Ned (where the service was first class), Ms Lumley was our special guest for BAFTA's Academy Circle and all of our guests left as serious fans.

We ate seabass and lemon tart (at Chef's recommendation) and drank Le Croix Belle from The Ned's beautiful cut glassware.   

The one that smashed all targets
On 19 October, the AKT Gala moved to Cafe de Paris for an evening bursting with entertainment, hosted by Gok Wan. The Gala exceeded all expectations, with the auction including the opportunity to enjoy dinner at Sir Ian McKellan's home. As always, the dance floor was packed until the early hours... 

We ate smoked chicken and papaya on blini, pan roasted Gressingham duck breast, strawberry feuillete with cognac cream.

The one with David Attenborough
On 23 October, what more can be said about this incredible evening generously hosted by Hotel Cafe Royal, one of my favourite places in London. Sir David had all 80 of our guests eating out of the palm of his hand during a Q&A hosted by his friend and former colleague Alastair Fothergill.

At an intimate supper afterwards, we ate venison loin with twice baked sweet potato souffle and braised red cabbage, followed by blackberry and apple pie with calvados cream. We drank Comtes de Taittinger and the wonderful Louis XIII. 

The one showcasing amazing emerging talent
On 25 October, the sixth annual Breakthrough Brits took place at Burberry's flagship store and we were delighted to host an informal supper afterwards at Thomas's Cafe. The event celebrates breakthrough talent in film, games and television. 

We ate cherry ponzo seared tuna, Hereford beef with Jerusalem artichoke puree, ricotta gnuddi with spiced winter tomato. We drank nothing but Nyetimber.

The one with breakfast with Doctor Foster
I binge-watched the two seasons of Doctor Foster in the two weeks prior to this breakfast on 1 November with the amazing Suranne Jones. Dressed in a jumpsuit and Converse, the former Coronation Street star had the whole room (both BAFTA and Quintessentially members) hooked as she spoke about her career to date, her production company and her plans for the future. She truly is a superwoman!

We ate mini bagels and pastries and drank Buck's Fizz and strong coffee. 

The one filled with colour
On 22 November, we worked with Richard House Children's Hospice to deliver their Rainbow Ball, where the dress code was strictly "anything but black". Our friends at Bloomsbury Ballroom hosted the event with The London Cabaret Club providing a breathtaking array of entertainment, from a contortionist to an aerial dancer. We beat all targets to raise over £350,000.

We drank Laurent-Perrier and ate heavy hors d'ouevres, cut out the starter, opted for a duck main (although we had over 40 guests request a vegetarian meal on the night - we will avoid in future!) and a rainbow-inspired white chocolate bombe. 

The one celebrating our teachers
And before we move into the Christmas period, we closed the season with an inspiring day at Teach 2017, bringing together school leaders and teachers from Birmingham and further afield for a day of learning and sharing of best practice. Our keynote speech from Ofsted Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman, and our panel discussion on collaboration guaranteed lively debate, with our breakout sessions providing valuable professional development opportunities focusing on teacher wellbeing, behaviour management and coaching for excellence.

We ate sandwiches and drank copious amounts of tea and coffees - it is a free conference after all...

It works for me: setting up as a freelancer

Over the summer I had a few weeks out of the office which included a short break in Spain, returning to a spot that I’d visited almost exactly three years ago. It is, therefore, almost exactly three years ago that I decided to set up Coveted Events.

I recently put together some notes for a friend’s blog and thought I’d share these too. The following five things were my “must haves” before I decided to move away from permanent employment and into freelance consultancy:

  1. Varied experience - Don't rely on one piece of work to carry you! I knew that I wanted to reach a senior level in events before I moved into consultancy - I wanted to be taken seriously and for my career history to speak for itself. Before I took the plunge, I deliberately sought to work or volunteer with small and large organisations, to deliver large-scale and more intimate events, and to work on team-led and independent projects, in order to demonstrate how diverse I could be. 
  2. Clear expertise – I knew that I wanted to focus on helping charitable organisations maximise the amount of money they raised through events. I’ve diversified a little since then but largely I continue to work with clients who need my support in this area. Having a niche has helped me pitch for work and to feel confident that I can add value. 
  3. A strong network of contacts within your field - I continue to be surprised at, and grateful for, the amount of work that I have become aware of through former bosses and through the wonders of social media. Remember to keep in touch, make the most of LinkedIn to stay aware of where your contacts move to and it doesn't hurt to maintain regular coffees or glasses of wine with those who could make introductions in the future. I will always remember a former colleague whose personal PR skills were second to none - she definitely inspired me to work on my profile and to focus on building working relationships with those who were influential. 
  4. A next step – Now this is entirely up to you but for me, as a planner, I needed to know what the next few weeks looked like. I made the move out of a permanent role knowing that I had a holiday lined up, followed by a piece of work that would see me through for a couple of months and help me pay the bills. This helped me sell the decision to my family and partner, and took away some of the initial fear. For others, I know that part of the attraction is the unknown and I also know how helpful it can be to have space to think and breathe and regroup, before jumping into something new. 
  5. Confidence and motivation – So finally, yes it's cheesy but I really have found it to be true! If you have reached the stage where you believe that you can do it, then put yourself out there and go for it. From this point forward, you will be your biggest advocate, particularly when you're having to prove yourself all over again to new people and clients, and your biggest motivator, particularly when you find yourself working seven days a week. 

But remember, it doesn't have to be forever. Use your freelancing time to build up your portfolio, to work with a variety of organisations, and to experience life without the infrastructure of a larger company. Permanent employment will still be there if you change your mind! 

I have often said the same about having a baby and stand by the same principle that there is never going to be a perfect time and you could put it off forever if you started listing reasons to wait. Three years in and I’m still learning and still have big ambitions for the business. 

I’m always happy to share my experiences and talk through what I’ve enjoyed/struggled with so if you want to hear more, get in touch.