Event Organisation

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Delivered at the Conference of the National Association of Prospective Student Advisers, Melbourne, November 2000

By Giles Pickford


Definitions (from The Macquarie Dictionary 1981)

  1. event,n. anything that happens or is regarded as happening; an occurrence, esp. one of some importance.
  2. organisation,n .the act or process of organising.
  3. organised ferment, n. See ferment.
  4. ferment,v. agitation, excitement, tumult.

Many essays begin with dictionary definitions. I tried it too! But a hopeless lack of clarity was the end result. It is reproduced here to illustrate what can go wrong when you open a dictionary.

For example. Does your Open Day happen; or is it regarded as happening? Is it an occurrence of some importance; or does it pass utterly unnoticed? Does it ferment; or does it go off like a dead fish? Is it an agitation, an excitement, a tumult; or is it 'flat, stale, dreary and unprofitable, like an unweeded garden with things rank and gross in nature? etc'Hamlet

I spent the next three hours going through the dictionary, and then Shakespeare, and almost forgot to write the paper.

Moral: never open a dictionary unless you are retired or partly retired.

1. Prelude
Why do nations, cities, and universities want to stage events? Make no mistake about it, they all do. Events are noticed. They make news, thus making their political sponsors newsworthy. They make money, provided that they are not fermented by a university.' The eyes and ears of the world are on us' said the Australian media during the Olympics last September. 'Denmark rejects the Euro' said the World media in response.

Victoria spent millions getting the Grand Prix away from Adelaide. Australia spent much more winning the Olympics away from Beijing and Manchester.

Universities also struggle to produce the events that attract a crowd, but what sort of a crowd do they want, and how do you get it?

2. Crowds
Let us categorise crowds.

  • The devotees, the converted, people whose families have been going to University for generations and who have the wealth to prove it.
  • Those who yearn for, long for, desire, lust after something better. Something mysterious. Something just beyond the edge of their known world.
  • The sceptics, the cynical, those bitten too hard by the reality bug, those who are looking for a better job and who think that a University is a means to a selfish end.
  • The innocent iconoclasts, school children, hoodlums and riff raff who are attracted to any event, either out of sheer boredom or by parental pressure.
  • The best crowd: all of the above, altogether, all at once.

3. What event can get all of the above, altogether, all at once?
In the 1980s the Australian National University was lucky enough to host the National Folk Festival each Easter and it attracted tens of thousands of people from all of the above crowd categories to the campus. They occupied every nook and cranny, parked their tents on the ovals and ate and drank us out of house and home.

The rot set in early in the nineties when the economic rationalists in the ANU Union decided that the organisers were not allowed to sell their own beer, instead they had to buy it from the Union. This meant that one of the sources of funding for the Festival dried up. The organisers went looking for something better.

Too late the ANU woke up to what was afoot. The ANU Union was autonomous and it could not be ordered to give up its profits. Anyway, it was going to lose them entirely because of its greed.

I was asked by the then Pro Vice-Chancellor, Philip Selth, to go and make the Festival an offer they could not refuse. I came up with the best package I could, which included a move to another part of campus away from the Union, and the right to run their own bar, plus other enticements.

However, the organisers were talking to EPIC (the Exhibition Park in Canberra) which had good infrastructure for a major event, but was a long way out of town. The ANU had good infrastructure and was close to town. The tussle was evenly balanced when EPIC played its ace card. It offered to underwrite the Festival. I asked the ANU if it would match this offer, because if it had, we would have tipped the balance in our favour.

However, it was not to be. The ANU, like universities everywhere, was designed for spending money, not for making it. They would not rise to the risk of underwriting the event and it was lost forever to EPIC. Needless to say the Festival made a profit every year and EPIC was never called on to underwrite a loss.

Greed began the rot, and fear of risk finished it off.

The reason for telling you this story is that I want you all to start thinking of the potential that non-university events can have if they are staged on a university campus. Such events have the power to attract all categories of crowds, and inculcate into the visitors an awareness of the University which is far more subtle that a University organised information-giving event such as Open Day.

4. What Other Event can get Crowds?
Open Days are the traditional way that all universities use to promote their best qualities to a smaller audience. When the larger audience is there, free of charge (eg. When a major outside event is on campus such as the National Folk Festival, the World Council of Churches Congress, etc.) the University usually ignores the opportunity to quietly promote itself to an entirely new crowd.

The University wants to concentrate on the school leaver, the known quantity, the local audience, the predictable. Hence Open Days.

At the University of Wollongong in the early 80s a local commercial radio station (2WL) decided that it wanted to run a Life Style Expo on the University grounds. It spent a fortune on advertising the event and tens of thousands of people arrived to look around. The only part of the University which was open that weekend was the Library.

The following year, and the year after that, the University merged its Open Day with the commercial event and it was a great success. However, the pressure to turn away from being swamped by absolutely everyone in Wollongong, covering all crowd categories, was very strong. Eventually the University convinced itself that it needed to focus on school leavers and smaller, more predictable Open Days followed from then on. The Life Style Expo left for another venue and a great partnership ended.

5. Why Shut Them Out?
I am convinced that the way out of the Open Day groove is for Universities to let the world in. Open Days are hideously expensive. Usually half the budget goes on advertising. Imagine having an Open Day with ten times more visitors for an advertising budget of zilch. It can be done, but it requires the University to take risks, not be greedy, and to enter into dangerous liaisons with commerce.

Therefore it is unlikely to happen in the near future, because the sort of people who tend to be appointed as Vice-Chancellors just don't see the world in this way. They take no risks, except in the field of industrial relations.

6. The Little Flowers
I have been talking big and looking at the blue sky for a while. Now let us look at the little flowers that happen in the ordinary run of university life every day. There are so many ways of encouraging people to come on to a campus.

And believe me they need to be encouraged. Uneducated people do not understand that the University belongs to them because it was built with their taxes. They tend to think that it is aloof, mysterious, other-worldly, weird.

So you need to trigger their curiosity by wrapping the invitation in something they can immediately understand, such as cricket, Chess, poetry reading, rock concerts, debates, concerts, art exhibitions, and so on.

I will summarise a few such events that I have organised at ANU and before that at the University of Wollongong.

When you study Chess players, you discover that most of them are mathematicians, scientists and engineers. This is a group in which Universities should be interested. At the ANU we invented the ANU Chess Festival which includes a Primary School competition, a Secondary School competition, the ANU Open, the people versus computer competition and a simultaneous Chess Exhibition (1 versus 20) held in Garema Place, Canberra's town square, during lunch time. The main Festival attracts crowd categories 1, 2 and 3. While category 4 turns up at the Simultaneous Exhibition during lunch. Budget: $3,000 per annum, with the rest of costs covered by entry fees.

Chess players are naturals for University. The project is entirely focussed on student recruitment, even though on the surface it is disguised as a peripheral entertainment.

The antecedent for this project was an event I organised for the University of Wollongong, comprising the Schools element only. It ceased when I left there in 1988.

The ANU Poets' Lunch is a casual affair starting at 12 noon and rollicking on to around 4.00 pm. It attracts the literati, quite a different mob from the Chess Festival. Around 25poems, specially written for the occasion, and selected by a panel of local poets, is read to an appreciative and increasingly inebriated audience. The event is loved by the 'town' who turn up in reasonable numbers and make it worthwhile. School students have read poems at it, which is a bit of a worry. The ancients of ANU also attend, but no-one from the current staff of the Department of English has been involved in it since 1993. One member of the English Department commented that 'the poems were easily comprehended on the first reading', which the English Department finds a bit disturbing. However, the public love it, which is what matters.

The Town v Gown Cricket Match was conceived at the University of Wollongong, but they stopped having them when I left. They were recently revived there, but it is now essentially a match for cricketers, and the populace no longer attends.

When we translated them to the ANU, it was timed so as to be part of the annual Canberra Festival. It took off like wild fire and built to an audience of 3,000 in the mid 90s. ANU Departments, and firms from town, would organise their own marquees and issue invitations. They were 'A Grade' matches and the cricket was quite serious. Their purpose was to 'invite the neighbours in'. Being neighbourly is not something that comes naturally to universities, but they should do it if they want political support.

However, they also came to an end at ANU. Shrinking budgets and disappearing sponsors were the problem.

7. Other Agencies

There are also other parts of the University that constantly gather crowds of categories 1 and 2. These are adult education courses, concerts, debates, art exhibitions, theatre, sport, and related activities all of which go on day and night and all weekend, and which help to make the citizens feel that they belong to the University and vice versa.

All of these are important in student recruitment. They are friendly, continuous, engaging, and in sum probably equal to a whole Open Day in the effect that they produce. They are important because they often happen in the evening, or at night, or on the weekend, and therefore are accessible to ordinary working people.

8. The Anniversary - Once in a life time - No chance to get it right next year
In 1996 the ANU celebrated its 50thAnniversary with a year-long series of about 300 special events.

My first piece of advice is never put on a stunt like this without a budget of around $350,000 plus sponsorships, because that is what it cost the ANU Public Affairs Division in 1996 dollars. No-one knows the whole cost of the Anniversary because every part of the ANU spent time and resources on joining in.

It was a tremendously unifying force as any birthday is in any family. The ANU, which in its normal state consists of 79 warring kingdoms, was remarkably peaceful in its anniversary year. Even a suggestion that the NTEU should ban the ANU Open Day was not taken seriously.

I am going to describe a few highlights and a number of themes from the program so that you can experience some of the joys and sorrows. But let me tell you now, if I tried to go through the whole year, we would be still here the day after tomorrow.

Leadership of an anniversary is crucial. We were fortunate at ANU that Council delegated the job of leading the Anniversary to the Pro Chancellor, Pauline Griffin. She was high enough in status, and warm enough in outlook, to command respect and love from the entire ANU. Without her the thing would never have worked. Other people high up in the structure had too many enemies, too many vested interests and other baggage. Pauline belonged to none of the 79 warring kingdoms that make up the ANU, and therefore she was accepted warmly by all of them.

Secondly, Pauline was backed up by the Public Affairs Division with an event management team (myself, Barry Parr and Bobby Pinkerton), media, graphics, alumni, and the ANU Reporter .It is important for a good leader to have a range of talents to call on, seven days a week, and we provided that.

It is essential to get students involved and there is only one way to do it. You must be able to give funds in support of student events and then let them go and invent their own thing. The ANU managed to get 39 student events supported. Some were as small as "Music at Lunch time" and some as large as the "University Games". The most moving one was the "All Faiths Religious Service" where Muslim, Jew, Christian, Hindu and Buddhist united in a demonstration of hope by the young that they will be able to fix things that the old have definitely got wrong. Another huge one was the "Intervarsity Choral Festival" which filled the whole of Canberra with harmony and light from 5 - 21 July.

An anniversary is an opportunity to bring national and international attention through attracting important conferences to the University. To be successful here you need funds and a lot of notice. Four years before the Anniversary the word went out that the ANU wanted Conferences in 1996. The venues of important conferences are decided years in advance. In planning for an Anniversary the first thing to put into your critical path is "Call for Conferences". We did that and attracted more than 50 Conferences to ANU. Many of them were World Conferences with massive attendances. There is no other way to create an international impact for an Australian University.

Secondly, again you need money. The Anniversary was able to give a $1,000 grant to each important Conference: not much, but enough to create good will and use of the 50th Anniversary Logo.

We decided early on that we needed one peak moment in the year around which we would hang most of the promotion and publicity. For us this had to be the ANU's Birthday which is 1 August; the same as the Horse's Birthday.

Knowing this to be the case I booked all the main venues at ANU four years before the event.

In the case of Melville Hall, my booking was over-ridden by the Registrar a few months before August. He suddenly decided that he needed it for a core University activity. The Anniversary was clearly not core, so the launch of the History of the ANU by Emeritus Professor Peter Karmel, attended by Vice-Chancellors and Chancellors from most Australian Universities, politicians and other celebrities had to be moved to a lecture hall foyer; an entirely unsuitable venue. The moral here is don't worry how early you book venues for your anniversary. There is no point worrying because nothing will ensure that your booking will be honoured by middle management.

Our peak day began with a special meeting of the ANU Council, followed by the launch of the aforementioned ANU History, followed by the Chancellor's Lunch for visiting Chancellors and Vice-Chancellors and former members of Council.

The afternoon was kept for the Celebratory Congregation in Llewellyn Hall with an academic procession of 150, the largest ever in our history. The Prime Minister cancelled at the last moment and sent Amanda Vanstone in a large red floral print frock instead. This immediately ensured that there would be a student riot.

The students burst into the Hall after the ceremony had passed the half way mark and security, lulled by a false sense of their own name, had gone home for the day. The students' timing was all wrong however, because they arrive during a recital by other students from the Canberra School of Music.

Public Affairs leapt forward into the fray. We quietly congratulated the student leader saying, that this was exactly the sort of thing we needed, but that he should not take longer than three minutes to make his point. After three minutes the Professor of Music, shouted out to his student orchestra 'Play the sixth movement' which was the loudest and most boisterous part of the recital. The Orchestra burst forth at top volume, the audience cheered wildly. We thanked the student leader once more and said it was now time to leave, which he did.

This event created ANU policy. The Stage Manager of Llewellyn Hall knows that in the event of future student incursions, he is directed to wait for three minutes for the students to make their point, and then put on a recording of Widor's Toccata in C Minor, or the famous Bach Toccata and Fugue in B Minor, at full volume.

The peak day finished with the Alumni Dinner in the Great Hall of Parliament House, which unfortunately I could not attend because I had to run a Public Lecture by Art Historian Bernard Smith at 8.00 pm in the Manning Clark Centre.

It was quite a day.

We had 27 sponsors of Anniversary activities and it is vital that they be thanked. We did this in the usual way with commemorative plaques that they could hang in their foyers.However, sponsors always want media and we were lucky enough to be able to raise enough advertising support to run fairly substantial supplements in The Australian, Campus Review and The Canberra Times. It is interesting how much effort this sort of thing requires and that is because you are asking people to part with money: never an easy task. The supplements were spread over the year in the order shown above. We had to let enough time to elapse between each of them, so that the market could feel that the next one was an entirely new idea.

It is important that you have at least one major project that reaches out, to all categories of crowds, in fresh new places previously untrammelled by your University. In our case this was definitely the Anniversary Touring Exhibition of Treasures from the ANU Art Collection. We chose a truck full of the greatest works from our $16 million collection and toured them to regional Galleries from Warrnambool to Brisbane and many places in between. The tour went on fortwo years, beginning in April 1996 and it was worth every cent spent on it. The catalogue was another highlight of this project costing more than half of the $70,000 budget.

Other outreach activities were:

  • Alumni Dinners held all over the World.
  • Part sponsorship of the 'North-West Patrol' - crossing the island of Papua New Guinea following the route of the Karius Champion Expedition of 1926.
  • Part sponsorship of 'The Vision of Kings - Art and Experience in India' at the National Gallery of Australia.
  • 'A University for The Nation' - an electronic interactive display, mounted at Parliament House, and later at the Royal Canberra Show, ANU Open Day and the Woden Library.

Several events competed to be the big bang that ended a long year. The two that made it in terms of bigness were Bach's Christmas Oratorio on 7 December and Handel's Messiah on 14December. Both were massive, expensive and glorious.

However the one that was held last of all was the ANU Kids Christmas Party on 15 December. The Pro Chancellor was there along with the Vice-Chancellor, his wife and Border Collie. There were camel rides, bouncing castles. Face painters, strolling clowns and wandering minstrels. Santa arrived on a camel, making the page one pic in the Canberra Times on a 'weak-news day'. Because I am a much slimmer man than the bloke who has been Santa for the last decade at ANU, I dressed up as Santa's Elf to assist with the giving out of gifts to the University's smaller children

It was a perfect finish to a year that I for one will never forget.

9. Conclusion
Because of industrial strife, two of Australia's Universities (Wollongong and Newcastle) have stopped having the conventional Open Days and have replaced them with school visits that are spread out and harder for the Unions to blockade. This is one way of avoiding trouble, and of avoiding the public and the mature age student.

However, I hope that I have given you all a few ideas about how to arrange things so that events can be staged which Unions would not even think of blockading. At the ANU, in the past, Unions were invited to occupy a stall at the Open Day and use it so that members of the public could send faxes to Ministers giving them their views about university funding.

There is always a dozen correct ways of getting around a problem. After all, we are the cleverest people in the community, and we should occasionally try to demonstrate that fact.


© Giles Pickford | Website created by Michael Pickford