A Day in the Life of the Events Management Unit

26 October 2009

The Events Management Unit, part of the Communication and Marketing Department headquartered at La Grotta on middle campus, is staffed by events manager Judy Smit, events co-ordinators Edwina Kannemeyer, Rosina van de Rheede and Ursula Ross, as well as Michelle Moses, the administrative assistant.

What does the unit do on a day-to-day basis?

From conceptualising and planning, to organising and hands-on managing, the team is responsible for 90 or so events or functions that take place at UCT in any given year, and they entertain about 24 000 people in the process. Events could be as small as organising a welcome tea or as big as hosting a gala dinner for heads of state. Their work deals very much with logistics and attention to detail; from welcoming guests, to planning seating arrangements, to timing the programme and solving safety and risk factors for the function. The events team also provides an advisory service, and support, to the broader university community. The process begins in December when Smit and other colleagues meet with the vice-chancellor to discuss his calendar in conjunction with the events rolling list, based on annual and ad hoc events. She then meets with the event co-ordinators to allocate the scheduled events for the year. "That is when the real work starts. We need to know every detail about every function," says Kannemeyer. "We need to understand what the objective of the event is, the guest list, budget, the audience, the theme; and then we plan the logistics within specific (and at times, very tight) deadlines". At any given time the co-ordinators are working on three to four functions simultaneously - "juggling many balls at the same time".

What are the challenges?

Every function has its own challenges, and organisers must think on their feet and find solutions quickly. They need to do so while portraying a positive front, regardless of the pressure and operational problems that may occur during a function. UCT has limited venues for functions, and due to the annual growth in demand, the team is often forced to negotiate with Venue Bookings and clients for space. "The success of any event is dependent on attendance," explains Van de Rheede. Kannemeyer adds: "There is a perception that no response to an invitation means we should know that invited guests will attend and, as a result, we spend a lot of time chasing guests to respond." On the day of the function it often happens that people who have not responded arrive anyway, forcing organisers to shuffle other attendees around to make space for them. The team often works within a limited budget. "But we must make plans to deliver the best function regardless of the budget," says Ross. In addition, there is always the risk posed by environmental conditions. "We need to have Plan B in case of rain or wind", says Kannemeyer. "It is attention to the finer details that contributes to the quality and success of any event."

What are the highs and lows of the job?

"It is highly pressurised and deadline driven, and every day is different. The team works very long hours," explains Smit. 'No-shows' at an event can be devastating. Organisers are perfectionists, and the lack of acknowledgement is a low point. The perception is that event management is only about food and wine, though every event has other objectives as well. But at the end of the day, the work is exciting, and organisers tend to meet interesting and very high-profile people.

"Graduation is the highlight of the annual events calendar, when the team organises celebratory functions for the approximately 3 600 graduating students and their families after each graduation ceremony in December, and approximately 600 in June."

What is the weirdest thing they've encountered?

From having seven cases of wine disappear from a locked storeroom overnight, and seeing food vanish in an incredibly short time, to guests demanding to be seated in reserved seats. But one that tops them all is when they invited a particular guest and another person (who happened to share the same name and surname) turned up instead. "He said he did wonder why he had been invited to that function, but didn't question it," says Smit. "We invited him to stay for a drink and enjoy himself."

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