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SXS Events

  • Student Ball Advice

Student Ball Advice

Student balls are often major events by anyone's standard and for most committees this is the first major event they have ever organised. Running such an event can be an inspiring, fun-filled and exciting activity. It can also be a horrific nightmare with minefields all the way. We hope that this article will help you to experience the former.

In my 10+ year career I have worked with over 100 student party and ball organisers. The parties have ranged from halls of residence parties, to RAG fashion shows, to the highest-profile Oxford and Cambridge May Balls with budgets of £500k+. Across all of these projects I have seen the same mistakes happen again and again. This article will cover a few major 'Do's and Don'ts' that will help avoid many problems.

Learn from last year

My first piece of advice is to look at what has worked for past events. While you may be keen to bring in fresh ideas and make your mark, you can save a lot of time and money by learning from the successes (and mistakes) of the previous committee. With many events such as workplace parties or weddings it is important to have a fresh approach and make it feel and look very different to the last event which the guests attended. This is an area where student balls are fundamentally different from most other events, and for two reasons. Firstly, unlike many other events student events are unique in that the guests probably did not come to the previous ball. Secondly, most students have not experienced many events and are therefore impressed by things that are commonplace in the professional events world. The elements of last year's event worth keeping can include :

  • Aspects of layout such as stage location, chillout space location and size which may have worked well last time
  • Choice of venue - there are a lot of benefits to working with the same venue repeatedly. One of these advantages is being able to negotiate discount prices as a repeat booker.
  • High-quality key suppliers - by using the same people again you will save time and cost.
  • Types of drinks and serving methods which proved popular and were talked about by the attendees in a positive way for some time after the event
  • Dress code

However, I suggest that having a completely new event theme and performers from previous events can also work well. The reason for this is that these are the main elements you will use for front-line marketing and they should look different from previous events.

Apply the same rules to the things that did not work for previous events. If the venue wasn't right, no-one drank the obscure wine, a certain supplier made mistakes and the dubstep room was empty, then try something new. By replacing aspects which didn't work you can be creative and experimental.

Your 'Event Skeleton' design

Your event skeleton design includes everything from how you promote it, the styling, the guest experience, the ticket price point etc. It is therefore a complex area.

As there are many factors to consider with your Skeleton Design, you must remain flexible. I would advise filling the gaps using the list below. Each of these sections should be brain-stormed in a group meeting. Questions such as "Do we need it?", "How important is it?", "What type/size/quantity do we want?", "What do we think it is going to cost?" should all be asked in relation to the following:

  • venue
  • marquees/structures
  • decor and decorative lighting
  • main entertainment
  • secondary/multi-zone entertainment
  • background music or speeches
  • generators and power distribution
  • sound, light and stage production
  • canapes
  • main meal
  • general bar
  • cocktail/specialist bars
  • fencing
  • security
  • graphic design and print
  • website
  • ticketing function

When you have the list, you need to do a feasibility study of each. The best way to do this is to go through each item and delegate research to a particular committee member. Take notes of who is doing what so that there is accountability. The research should include background reading on the area, identifying key suppliers and getting initial costs (known in the industry as "budget costs"). At the next meeting each person must report back their findings, with key information being included in your Skeleton Design. In time this design will become a comprehensive list of all happenings, costs and ongoing tasks.

Allocating Budgets

This is probably one of the most common areas where students make fundamental errors. I have seen both ends of this spectrum several times: e.g. committees who hoard cash and deliver a poor event, upsetting the guests and making it almost impossible for next year's committee to do an event due to gaining a poor reputation, and committees who have over-committed financially and then gone cap-in-hand to their university to pay the bills. You MUST avoid both of these extremes.

With any budget you need to start with a known quantity to work from. This could include:

  • What ticket price is acceptable for the target market, and what they expect for their money
  • How many people you are likely to get as an almost-definite
  • What your core costs are going to be.

You must know at least one of these factors before you can have a serious discussion on budget.

Once you have this information make a first-draft of your event budget. Do this by allocating an approximate 'best-case price' and 'worst case price' to each of the items in your Skeleton Design. Ensure that you review your budget regularly to ensure you are on-track.

Managing cashflow

Cashflow is not about whether you make or lose money from the event, but when money comes in, and when it goes out. This is much more critical than whether or not you have a budget deficit or surplus as bad cashflow will prevent you from buying the items you need at the optimal time, or could even result in breaching payment terms and suppliers not rendering services.

The first thing you must do is have a cashflow forecast - this is critical. Any good organisation will operate some form of cashflow forecast. This is basically a list of money coming in and money going out within particular time periods. By knowing when you think money will come in and when you are obliged to make payments, you can know well in advance if you are likely to have cashflow problems. This allows you to plan around problems and ideally avoid them altogether. By knowing this you may decide to do things like offer early-bird discounts on ticket sales, or negotiate workable payment terms with suppliers. I have put together a very basic outline cashflow forecast document in Excel which you are welcome to download free here: Download free Cashflow Forecast Template

The next thing to be aware of with cashflow is the delays you are likely to experience with the way in which money comes in which may damage your cashflow. Here are a few typical examples:

  • Paypal - often you may need to wait around 2 weeks for this to clear in your account. I have heard of longer delays in some cases
  • Card payments- the same issue as with Paypal
  • Cheques - from the point of someone posting a cheque to you having cleared funds in your account I would suggest allowing two weeks
  • Sponsor money - for large firms it could take several months for funds to be released to you, so either don't rely on the money, or negotiate clear terms with sponsors.

The final factor with cashflow is that of payment terms with suppliers. All companies are different with their payment terms to suit their own businesses. Nearly all suppliers will need to see a significant financial commitment from you (typically 50%). Many may want full payment on booking, others might even offer credit (very unusual though). There are a few things to consider with outbound funds for suppliers:

  • Any reputable company will want to see some form of financial commitment from you - so be prepared to pay deposits.
  • Be honest with suppliers about your cash position and what you can and cannot do - all good companies are used to this and will be flexible with you if you are honest. If you make promises that are not kept or are not honest you may find that good companies will not want to work with you again.
  • Negotiate - if your suppliers want to work with you (as they usually will) they are likely to be quite flexible.

Choosing Suppliers

Quality suppliers are vital to the success of your event. There are many competing companies in most areas of events and choosing the right company can be hard. Experience is key as it will mean more accurate quotes from the start as well as competence in delivery. The following points may help you in your decision:

  • Look for who did the event well in the past and speak to them again.
  • Look for suppliers who have done similar events in the past - and that they can demonstrate this to you.
  • Make sure a company is what they say they are - some suppliers can appear to have more or less experience than it appears; see below for how to spot the good ones.
  • Request case studies and references - all experienced companies will have copies of case-studies and references from previous similar events. If your supplier does not have these, you may not want to use them.
  • Request photos of previous work - a good company takes photos of their work and providing these to support their quotations should not be a problem (except in certain NDA - contracted projects). Photos are also a great way for you to have a clear understanding of what you can expect.
  • Visit premises - all good companies will be very happy for you to visit their premises as they will be keen to demonstrate how they operate. This will give you a better idea of the company than their websites and brochures ever can.
  • Get copies of their insurance documentation - this is a basic pre-requisite for any reputable supplier to the events industry. You should expect copies of cover notes back almost immediately as companies will always have this readily to hand in electronic format and often even on their websites. Be wary of suppliers who seem reluctant to send these over to you. It is worth noting, however, that you will be unlikely to get any event-specific risk assessments until you have booked a company.
  • Does the company you are speaking to have the staff to deliver on larger projects? Many smaller companies will call in a lot of freelance labour in order to deliver larger events. This often means they can be cheaper but there is a very high margin for error in delivery with potentially unreliable and poorly-trained staff onsite.
  • Do not accept vague, or what I like to call 'fluffy' quotes from suppliers as they are often vague for a reason. Request specific information. All good companies will have a robust system for ensuring that what has been quoted is delivered on the day, and this means that the quotes will typically be quite specific. Good quotes are clear about the brief, provide images of previous work and also show fully itemised pricing and quantities of equipment and staff to be provided.

With all of the above, do not accept excuses. If a company cannot provide any of the above there is likely to be a reason why not which you need to investigate.

Another important thing to consider is how to engage with suppliers in the early stages. Most suppliers accept that you will be shopping around but few like to be played off one another or have their time wasted to an unnecessary degree. Student events often fall in a busy season and you will find that the best suppliers book up quickly. Involving too many people in the decision-making process can cause long delays and a 'too many cooks' scenario which is best avoided. Often suppliers will be happy to make changes along the way once they have been booked; so if you know who you want to use, but not exactly what you want, see if you can secure a booking with them before they take on other bookings for the same day. As a rough guide try to stick to these rules:

  • Only invite companies to quote that you are seriously considering using. This will involve doing a bit of research but will save you sifting through five quotes later on.
  • Communicate your budget to potential suppliers. Without knowing an approximate budget it is very hard for a company to know to what level you want to take the event. It is understandable that you do not want to show all your cards right away and you may not yet have your budget approved by the committee, so the best way of dealing with this is give the supplier an approximate range of what you think you are looking to spend. Good companies will use this information ethically and to your advantage.

Probably the biggest mistake I see students making is buying on price exclusively. As we say in the industry: "there is always some idiot who will promise the world for nothing and then make a mess of the event". Beware suppliers who nod their head at everything and offer a cheap price. These are usually the people who are unable to stand up to any scrutiny and ultimately fail to deliver on the day.

I hope that this advice has been useful to you in making a successful and memorable event. For more information on event production, click here...

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