Getting ready for the 2017 Gathering – backstage perspective

Sarah from the Beltane team writing here!

Today’s marks exactly a month until the Beltane Annual Gathering at Chesser House, Gorgie. This is the biggest single event in the Beltane Network’s calendar. It’s a celebration of best practice in public (and, increasingly, community) engagement, and seeks to inspire new activities and to share best practice. These events have been happening since 2009. If you haven’t already got your 2017 ticket, get it now!

This year, we’re doing the event a little differently:

  1. We’re trying to actively involved voluntary sector organisations in the event and offer them something useful
  2. We’re in a venue – Chesser House – where there is absolutely nothing except four walls and a roof. (The venue is currently being transformed from abandoned council offices to community and art spaces, but this won’t be finished by 9th June.)

This has brought us some whole new organisational and communication challenges which, in case it’s useful for your own event/engagement organisation, I’ve listed below.

Chesser House from the back

Setting the scene

  • How can we make the venue look welcoming, or at least interesting and engaging, given its battered carpet, missing polystyrene ceiling tiles and general abandoned office aesthetic? (Hint – bring in a professional like Lisa Thompson who is imaginative, positive and practical.)
  • Are we in danger of trivialising anything that should not be trivialised, or alienating anyone, with our ‘set design’ for the space – or our use of the space itself? Are we in danger of being irritating hipsters with another pop-up thing or, at worst, making people pretty uncomfortable (and not in a positive personal growth way)?

Health, safety and accessibility

The fantastic art’s complex, who are in the process of transforming Chesser House, have made sure the building is safe for use. However, in a venue like this, a risk assessment is (more) essential (than ever). These are the questions we’ve had to ask them or ourselves:

  • Is there heating and/or air con? Do windows open safely?
  • Are the electrics safe and practically usable (e.g. enough sockets)?
  • Will lifts be working and reliable?
  • Is accessibility – e.g. ramps and corridor width – up to spec? Is it *really* accessible, even for a big electric wheelchair?
  • What is the fire evacuation route? Is this sign-posted?
  • Is there WiFI and/or decent phone signal?
  • Who else will be using the building on the day event? Is access secure and monitored?
  • Will people be able to find their way in? Do we have enough volunteers (and branded T-shirts) to act as human signposts?
  • Is the venue clean, or can it be affordably cleaned?
  • Is there adequate lighting?
  • Will language interpreting be needed (and could we afford it)?
  • Is there safe drinking water in the building?
  • Does the venue have a waste disposal contract, or do we need to take *everything* away? If the latter, where do we then take it?

Reaching the right audiences

  • What can we offer the other inhabitants of the building given we have no idea who these people will be until close to the time, hence cannot ask them?
  • How hard should we focus on involving organisations specifically in the Gorgie area? Is it enough to just invite them and try and make the event appealing to them?
  • Is it really possible to design training workshops that are 1. about engagement skills and 2. appeal both to researchers and (often very experienced) individuals from third-sector organisations? How much can a trainer differentiate in a 2.5 hour workshop?
  • Can we realistically offer anything to service users and clients through an event like the Gathering?
  • Is this event going to annoy the inhabitants of the building who aren’t participating?

Kit and catering

  • What’s the most affordable way of bringing in tables/chairs/tea and coffee urns/coat racks?
  • Do we need to bring the very basics – toilet roll, hand soap and towels?
  • Do we need serving staff? Can we manage with our volunteers?
  • If we buy stuff as a one-off for the event, what can we sensibly (and ethically) do with it afterwards? Will the venue want any of it?
  • If people loan us stuff, how can we make sure they get it back as they gave it to us?
  • Reusing bits and bobs from various places is environmentally sound but labour-intensive (and so costly in staff time). At what point do we hire en masse from a commercial set-up?
  • Is alcohol appropriate?
  • Can food be stored safely if delivered in advance of the event?
  • What’s the most cost- and energy-effective way to transport everything? Is this realistic?