NATIONAL RALLY – BEAUMONT ESTATE, OLD WINDSOR, 2019
This is written particularly in the hope that it will help other regions who are organising a national rally. It gives particular attention to the earlier, hidden stages of planning which may be found most difficult - the later stages of planning are more public and so better understood by anyone who has been to a national rally. Thank you to those in the NW, SW and WM regions who gave valuable detailed information from their own events – particularly to SW Region as the event two years before happens at a significant time in the selection of a venue and preparation for signing the contract.
FINDING A VENUE
An initial internet search found many event venues. There are comparison sites such as VenueFinder, also central sites for academic venues and for some of the hotel brands. To narrow these down, the first problem was to identify which items are essential and which are potential dealbreakers, although some compromise may be necessary.
1. Accessibility – of main rally areas, as many workshop rooms as possible, and enough bedrooms, and the routes between them. Needs can vary between booking and the event because of accident or surgery. Nine accessible rooms were booked for 2019, divided equally between single, double and twin. The main areas were accessible but some workshop rooms were accessed by stairs (although there was a path to one of the upper floors) so we had to work around that.
2. Accommodation for 200 – 300 people or more, preferably onsite, although it may be worth considering suitable event facilities with separate accommodation close by.
3. Availability including accommodation during the Easter holidays. This needs to be known up to two years in advance.
4. Cost. This was a concern as costs in the South East can be high, which may put people off attending. We aimed to keep the full-weekend price down to that charged at Exeter, which was well-attended. Most venues now quote a cost per person rather than an overall cost, to include both the main facilities and accommodation, with possible extra charges for additional workshop rooms. This limits the surplus or loss if attendance is much higher or lower than budgeted. Our budget came to about £60 per person above the hotel cost, including £17.50 to cover additional workshop rooms, so a venue cost per person up to about £215 excluding those rooms was suitable.
5. Large hall, possibly a ballroom or sports hall, if everyone is to be together for massed ringing and team solos as has become popular in recent years. Venues usually describe room capacity in standard layouts e.g. theatre style, classroom, boardroom, U-shaped, banquet (circular tables) etc. Classroom seems to be the closest approximation for ringer numbers but can suggest too high a number – or allow up to 2 sq.m. per ringer. There will be a “dead” area the width of the hall at the front to allow for the conductor and reasonable sight lines. Check for pillars or other immoveable fixtures. The hall at Beaumont Estate was 540 sq.m (18m x 30m) and was a tight fit for about 280 ringers on the Sunday.
6. Concert Hall – this may be the same hall as above. Seating may be flat or raked, but there must be a large enough flat area to accommodate performing teams for at least half, and preferably the whole concert. A formal stage is likely to be too small unless extendable.
7. Location: Accessible from all parts of the country. Not too far from at least one motorway or good A-road – no-one wants to spend an hour or more on small country lanes at the end of a long drive! Some people may travel by rail (or even air) if there are good connections. 8. Parking at little or no cost, and plenty of it! Access for loading and unloading as close as possible to ringing areas. 9. Workshop Rooms – “Breakout” or “Syndicate” rooms.
8. 12 rooms large enough for workshops, with moveable furniture - many breakout rooms in conference venues are too small for ringing workshops or have fixed furniture such as board tables which cannot be positioned adequately for ringing. Classroom layout numbers are again a rough approximation, or 1.5 to 2 sq.m. per person. Beware obstructions such as pillars or IT consoles, and alcoves or L shapes which limit vision. A tape measure was useful during site visits.
Venue Types Considered
- Academic Institutions – these usually have plenty of classrooms or similar suitable for workshops. A sports hall may be suitable for massed ringing if no other hall is large enough, although that may not have the best acoustic. Accommodation aimed at students can be rather basic: small single rooms with no luxuries such as TVs, not all ensuite, but historically quite cheap. i) Agricultural and other colleges – these have been quite successful in other regions but very few offer accommodation in the South East Region.
- Schools with boarding Check that accommodation is suitable for adults. Schools have shorter holidays so availability may be an issue.
- Universities – these can provide good quality teaching rooms although some have immoveable fixtures such as IT consoles. Accommodation in some universities has improved in recent years although not up to hotel standards, and some double rooms may be available. Rates have become more commercial in recent years. However many universities nowadays only offer accommodation during the summer break and require students to keep (and pay for) their rooms over Christmas and Easter.
- Hotels: bedrooms are more comfortable than student accommodation, with TVs and ensuite bathrooms as standard. Double and twin beds and often family rooms are available so we can offer single occupancy, sharing with another ringer or bringing a non-ringing partner. Parking is usually free if out of town but may be expensive in town centres. Some hotels have a large room e.g. a ballroom suitable for massed ringing but some workshop rooms can be rather small for ringing. Historically hotels were more expensive but can nowadays offer good value while universities and colleges have put their prices up.
- Dedicated Conference Centres : these often have good conference facilities but may be expensive. Accommodation is often not included but there may be one or more hotels onsite or nearby, particularly on out of town sites, and discounts may be available. Vehicle access can be difficult and parking expensive at in-town sites but out-of-town sites usually have free parking.
Venues considered in more detail included:
A football stadium/conference centre in Reading, with plenty of boardrooms large enough for workshops, a large hall suitable for massed ringing and a direct link to a next-door hotel with lots of parking. Deal-breaker: it is only available on non-match days, and the match timetable is not known more than one year in advance.
A private college/boarding school (13 – 18 years) near Reading. It has a very large Sports Hall which has been used for SE Region rallies in the past, and classrooms suitable for workshops, with plenty of onsite accommodation available during the Easter holidays. Most accommodation was set on quite a steep hill, which some people may find difficult. Deal-breaker: it was late setting term dates for 2019 so could not guarantee availability in time.
Two universities did have accommodation available during the Easter break. One was not very responsive to enquiries and the location was eventually considered to be too far for most ringers. The other had a good location and facilities (it had been used for a previous national rally) but despite having a new hall could not accommodate all ringers at once. However it cost more than the hotel we eventually chose despite the hotel having better rooms and a larger hall.
2½ – 3 Years Before - Set the dates including any alternatives. Identify criteria and start looking for venues. Contact any that look promising to check potential availability, capacity, ballpark costs etc. Not all venues will know availability this far in advance. 2 Years Before – Narrow down to a small number of potential venues, get more detailed information and arrange visits. Put together a proposal that can be sent to venues of interest, outlining our requirements.
18 – 21 Months Before - Select the best one or two venues, prepare preliminary budget(s) and report to September NEC. Finalise choice of venue. Booking may need to be made at this stage to secure the venue – in our case another client was interested in the same dates. Liaise with National Treasurer about payments.
15 – 16 Months Before - Refine budget. Get any NEC approval required at the Jan/Feb meeting, e.g. discounts for stewards and workshop leaders. Prepare article/advert for Spring Reverberations.
12 - 14 Months Before – Finalise budget and set prices. Produce publicity material and application form for distribution at previous National Rally. Prepare material for HRGB website – this is not posted before the previous National Rally but can be set to go live once that has begun.
8 – 12 Months Before - Detailed planning including workshops, concert and contacting traders. Identifying potential concert teams early gives team members time to make plans and gives an incentive to members who might not otherwise come to the National Rally. The disadvantage is that a lot can happen in that time and two teams that had originally agreed to play had to withdraw. The teams that replaced them were enjoyed by the audience however, and many compliments about the whole concert were received. Beginning to plan workshops early also allowed time for any changes. Our publicity invited anyone interested in running a workshop to let us know, but most workshop leaders were identified and invited by the subcommittee. Workshop applications went live in November for applications by post or electronically.
4-8 Months Before – Receive the bulk of applications, deal with queries, update the venue regularly with bookings, particularly for room types in limited supply. More detailed planning of massed ringing music and who would do what during the event.
Last 3 Months – Prepare and send final information, music etc to ringers. Update venue with booking numbers, room layouts etc. Agree rooming lists and detailed event schedule including full requirements, numbers and costings with the venue. Prepare welcome packs, concert programme, organise raffle, organise volunteers – all the detailed preparations required for a National Rally! We had a single contact person at the venue, which worked well in the earlier stages but not so well when conveying some of our detailed requirements as ringers. Communications improved when we arranged a meeting to include a senior member of the operations team who understood our specialist layout requirements. In retrospect it would have been helpful to arrange this meeting earlier. There was still some confusion about table sizes available and floorplans would have been adjusted if they had been able to give us correct sizes in advance. Staff were unfailingly helpful at the event, however.
We were keen to remove any barriers to booking.
From feedback about previous national rallies we realised that, while many ringers find online booking easier there is still a sizeable minority who prefer paper forms. As well as setting up online booking, we made paper application forms available at the previous National Rally, with Reverberations and also by download.
We also gave enough notice of the opening of workshop bookings that everyone had an equal chance of getting their first choice workshops, whether booking by post or electronically. The website was changed to allow couples to book under one email address and registration.
We tried to give flexibility so ringers could arrive on the Friday evening or Saturday morning or come for just one day.
Almost all Saturday day visitors chose to stay for dinner. Sunday arrivals usually come to ring with their teams – there are not many but they can make the difference between others in their team coming or not. Non-ringing partners are easy to accommodate in a hotel to enjoy a weekend away. This option can encourage ringers who don’t like being separated from their partners/spouses for a weekend, or prefer to travel with them. Over 30 partners booked.
Children: there were only a few, but we wish to encourage them, and it was possible to come as a family. The hotel had good rates for children, but its strict chaperoning regulations (each under-18 must share with an adult, but sofa-beds in family rooms were not suitable for over 12s) made it difficult to bring a youth team.
The venue had some difficulties reconciling meal numbers shortly before the event and the number of booking options may have contributed to this, while encouraging more ringers to attend.
SUBCOMMITTEE We set up a 5-6 person subcommittee to limit time spent on this in regional committee meetings. The committee worked closely together, agreeing most decisions and communications, but specific roles were allocated.
One person took on logistics, organising equipment and workshops. One person was responsible for applications and accommodation matters, liaison on this with the venue and communications with attendees. One person took on overall co-ordination from the beginning, contractual matters and general liaison with the venue, budget preparation, concert organisation (joint) and trader liaison. Other tasks were taken on by members of the subcommittee as they arose.
Roles during the event included dealing with the concert, running the Sunday morning sessions, overseeing workshop setup, running the information desk, running the raffle, co-ordinating other volunteers, dealing with various queries etc. The Friday night ringing was led by someone not on the subcommittee, which worked well as the subcommittee members were all too busy that night!
BUDGET This started with venue costs to which we added planning and publicity, registration and admin (welcome packs, postage, concert programmes etc), music and workshop materials, equipment costs (e.g. bell transport and care, tables), provision for discounts for workshop leaders and stewards and a contingency allowance.
We classified costs as fixed or variable (i.e. dependent on ringer numbers) and also by which day (or both) they related to.
We decided to reduce costs where we could, e.g. by having basic but functional welcome packs and by taking advantage of reduced rates and special offers for items such as printing, so we could increase the money allocated to music.
We budgeted for a conservative estimate of 200 residential ringers, including 20 in shared rooms. We had almost 300 ringers, which brought in more than required to cover the fixed costs. Although we have not yet finalised the accounts at the time of writing, this plus various savings has resulted in a surplus.
We saved on postage by using email for most communications, including sending massed ringing music (with the permission of the composers and arrangers). We had budgeted for table hire in case the hotel couldn’t provide enough suitable tables, but after extensive negotiation with the hotel they were able to provide the equivalent of over 160 6ft tables. We hired a van for transport of bells but did not need the storage we had budgeted for.
We decided at a later stage that new music would be written for the massed ringing, by people within the SE Region who have written for regional events. The intention of this was to make more music available to teams and not to save money but it also resulted in a saving on commercially published music.
We also received about £1,000 from trade stand sponsorship, concert tickets and sales of workshop music, which were not budgeted as they could not be guaranteed beforehand.
CONTRACT We were grateful to those experienced NEC members who looked through the detailed contract before it was signed.
After signing the contract we were transferred from the sales team to an events co-ordinator, and many things were then fixed. The contract included a detailed programme (suggested by the venue) at an early stage in our planning. We established before signing that this was provisional and could be changed, but initial access time to some of the rooms could not be brought forward.
Our access to some of the rooms on the Friday evening was then delayed as staff needed time to reset rooms after the previous client, and this had a knock-on effect on Friday night activities.
One difficulty was that the venue had a policy of charging partial cancellation fees on a sliding scale for any reduction in attendees and total cost less than 52 weeks before the event. So we could reserve a high number of rooms and risk paying a fee if we didn’t fill them or reserve a low number of rooms and risk not enough being available if bookings rose. So we reduced the contracted rooms as low as we could while keeping the function rooms, to avoid the risk of a fee.
This meant we had to keep the venue regularly updated once we had exceeded 180 rooms to ensure that the hotel reserved enough rooms for us (and also enough rooms of the right types). That worked well up to Christmas but afterwards the hotel got more external bookings and became overbooked so we had to find overflow rooms elsewhere, which caused quite a bit of extra work.
Gay and Alan Cooper