Time for a change

So in case you were wondering where the heck I’ve been for the past few months, I can assure you that I’ve not become a beach bum, or a compulsive shopaholic, nor have I retired. I’ve been doing is something I’ve always wanted to do, train as a fitness instructor, more specifically a STOTT Pilates instructor.

As my friends and family will testify I am a bit obsessed with sport, and generally being outdoors; walking, running, cycling, swimming, kayaking, I also love to watch sports but that’s another story (I hate football so don’t get me started on that). Everyone always said to me that I should turn my passion into a career, but until now I’ve never had the opportunity to do so.

At the end of last year, I was feeling a little dis-illusioned with the events industry, particularly in the Middle East due to a number of reasons & with my babies gone I had more time to take on a course that didn’t have to fit in with the school run. So I bit the bullet signed up, paid the fees and embarked on the first class – 20 hours of Functional Anatomy.

This was a real eye opener, everyone has a general idea of where the major bones and muscles are, but I can honestly say I had no idea how clever the body is in weaving all 640 muscles and 206 bones together to make us move – it really is incredible. Having studied for the past few months knowing the attachment sites for these muscles makes it very clear to work out how we can move in the most efficient and pain free way.  As someone who exercises regularly and is the wrong side of 40, injuries are always on the horizon, but with my new found knowledge I can work out where I’m going wrong and hopefully how to fix it.

We learned about posture, and now I find myself analysing people in the queue at the supermarket, or on the bike in front of me on the track, or in a spin class. I consciously think about how I am holding my posture, what muscles I am using and when, which are supporting me and if I’m twisting or creating undue stress.

The STOTT Pilates course itself was tough, really tough, but it’s tough for a reason. Anyone can sign up to a “pilates” instructor course, 1 day, job done off you go. But having done STOTT Pilates, there is no way you can possibly understand how the body works and how to instruct after an 8 hour course.

STOTT Pilates is the contemporary approach to the original Pilates methods, which were introduced by Joseph Pilates back in the early 1900’s, but STOTT uses modern principles of exercise science and rehabilitation.The 2 week course covers every exercise in the repertoire; what muscles are working, how they are working, why they are working, how to modify if your client feels any tension or pain. What was a eye opener for me is how small the movement is if you do it correctly. Anyone can do a very macho ab crunch but if you do a proper ab curl using the right muscles and not tugging on your head or using your hip flexors you won’t need to do 100 reps to get results, because you won’t be able to, your muscles will fatigue way before that.

After the course the hardwork started observing instructors, teaching friends and family what I’d learned and making sure I studied hard for the exams. Several hundred hours later I was ready and 2 weeks ago took the practical and theory exam. I really want to pass, it’s a minimum of 80% or a fail so it’s not easy.

At the end of July I will get the results and if I’ve passed then I can do something I love, I feel I can make a difference to people around me, help keep them injury free and able to train and compete, and help to make sure they don’t fall over as often when they are old and frail. I will continue with a few events, but long term I have plans to follow my passion and share what I’ve learned with clients here in Dubai and eventually overseas.


Onsite for EAGE

Having worked for the European Association of Geoscientists & Engineers Middle East office for 8 years, I was delighted to be asked to take on a couple of their projects in Q4. The first on Integrated Geomechanics and in December the next edition of their Arabian Plate Geology series.

During challenging times for the oil & gas industry EAGE continue to focus their events on technical content and exclude commerciality – which is admirable, and, from the turn out in Abu Dhabi today, is appreciated by the members and the geoscience community in the region and beyond.

For the venue we are using Westin Abu Dhabi – the space here is excellent for conferences, the pre-function space is spacious, there is natural light, they have an outdoor terrace which is great now the weather is cooler here in the UAE. They invested in quality audio visual (which many venues do not), and the staff are attentive and friendly. For tonight’s cocktail we are using the Poolside Garden and tomorrow’s dinner will be in the Italian, Sacci. Keeping everyone in one place helps with logistics particularly in this region where the traffic is truly awful. 

There is one thing I always smile about when planning for EAGE, the content is so technical, the equations the presenters show are mind blowing and I can listen to 3 full days of talks and not understand a single thing, but these guys are so friendly, they work with the earth and are so down to, they love to explain in simple terms what they do, and they have the best stories…..from helping fly a plane back from Saudi to France in the 70s, spending a year on a remote island with a million penguins and not much else for company to negotiating with tribes in the Amazon for safe passage. 

Venues -tips & tricks

When it comes to selecting venues in Dubai we have a lot of choice, the same would be true for all big cities, so where do you start? I mentioned the importance of location in a previous post, so start there, and when you’ve shortlisted places that fit the bill you can start to look at each in more detail.

Venues have great websites, a gallery of fabulous photos and capacity charts for the space available, so selecting one for your event should be straightforward right? Yes, however you should be aware of a few curve balls, such as:

  1. Do the capacity guidelines take into account a stage for speakers, a podium, space for back projection? Often not, the capacity chart will be the maximum number of tables they can get in the room in a specific layout using the whole floor space.
  2. Are their pillars in the room? Some hotels will show them on the photos, others do not.
  3. How is the pre-function space divided up if you only take one section of the Ballroom?
  4. What are the specs for the projector? Is it ceiling mounted or will it be on the floor – in which case you need to allow for space.
  5. Is there free WIFI? Everyone needs WIFI and if you have to pay for it, this could have a big impact on your budget. Most hotels in the Middle East include it, but in Europe there are often hefty charges. This could be a deal breaker.

The first interaction you will have with a venue will be submitting a Request for Proposal (RfP). Personally I loathe online RfP’s and I will actively avoid using venues that insist you complete one to get a price, rarely do the drop down boxes on the form relate to what the requirements are for your event, and the focus is heavily on selling rooms. I will always call the venue, get the name of someone in event sales and send the request direct. Instantly you start to build a rapport with that person. You can tell a lot from the venue by what response you get to the RfP, on many occasions it will be a copy paste of the last proposal the venue did, often without changing the names of the previous client, I expect them to at least have read the brief and have taken the time to provide me with the information I need to go back to the client.

In Dubai certainly, more and more hotels will not sell their event space without a commitment to hotel bedrooms. I get this, I understand if you have 1,500 rooms to sell and only one Ballroom you want to make sure you sell it at the best price and that means including rooms. The rule here is that hotels will not offer space without rooms until 3 months out from the event. In the Middle East there are a lot of “last minute” bookings, so this might not affect as many event planners as you might imagine, however, for me it’s a problem. My clients like to secure events minimum 6 months out and I have a lot of Dubai conferences for people living in Dubai who do not require rooms. How I overcome this is by building relationships with the venues I know suit my clients, if I bring repeat business the venues are often more flexible on the rooms, or I target new venues when they are keen to sell the space during the “soft opening” period.

If you are in location it’s easy to do site inspections of the venues on the shortlist, however  if you are sitting thousands of miles away and only have the internet to help you how can you be sure to pick the right place? I have organised many events for which I arrive 24 hours in advance having never been onsite. It’s scary. I would strongly recommend you seek out a local event planner to do site inspections, it really is money well spent. I offer this service in Dubai for a set fee, having someone who knows the venues and the location for the event (including things like local holidays, road closures, major construction sites etc) who can give you honest impartial feedback could be the difference between success and failure.

For my conferences the networking part of the event is as important, if not more so than the content, so make sure that the pre-function space works, don’t focus all your attention on the conference room itself. I know venues that have brilliant Ballrooms, but whoever designed the pre-function space was certainly not an event planner, some have escalators running right through the middle, some put the Ballroom in resort hotels on the main thoroughfare to bedrooms, so whilst your delegates are networking in business attire families in beachwear are wandering through the space. It’s also important to check what else is booked in the hotel that day, if the venue has a lot of function rooms have the hotel had to hire in agency staff? Will the be enough valet/parking? Does everyone have a dedicated area for lunch? Will there be adequate signage? The more you know in advance the better prepared you are to tackle any challenges that might arise.

For me selecting the venue is the most important part of the event, and I could write several articles highlighting my experiences, but for now I will leave it at that, in future posts I will come back to items like F&B and A/V.

I will get back to planning my events for the weekend now, a social lunch for the cycling group and my son’s sweet sixteen. See you next time








Money, money, money – allocating the budget

Almost everyone’s first question when planning an event is “what’s the budget?”. In the Middle East there are some events with enormous budgets, but most are run as tightly as possible, as an event planner you need to make sure that you are making the money you have been allocated work hard for the client.

Firstly, when it comes to money you have to make sure that everyone understands the concept of a budget. Seems obvious? You’d be surprised. I had a colleague once who had been assigned a budget of £300 to purchase a digital camera as a prize, after several days she advised it was impossible, there were cameras for £275 and some for £350 but none for exactly £300. It made me smile too, but it actually highlighted that not everyone understands a budget and what is expected if you are tasked to find items in the event remit within that budget.

For my events clients have two ways of working; firstly those that want you to cost the event based on the brief and come back to them with price so they can then assign a budget; or those that have a budget assigned and require a breakdown of where I think this money will be spent, for example, venue costs, F&B, audio visual, marketing collateral, decoration, entertainment, registration, etc etc.

In both cases the most costly item is almost always the venue, but it is so crucial you chose the right location for the event, this is justified. I would always give the client a minimum of three venue options, at different price points, showing how the venue costs affect the money left for the other items required. Once the a decision on the venue has been made you will know what budget you have left for everything else.

Quite often clients will need guidance on assigning budget to certain items, they may decide that they want to allocate most of the money on entertainment, or branding at the event, but then leave too little for other items which could have a detrimental affect on the event. For example, my husband attended a large corporate event earlier this year which had clearly assigned a large portion of the budget to entertainment at the Gala Dinner. However, there were so many different acts that the guests didn’t get to eat until almost 11pm after a long day in the conference, and most left before dessert. Could this have been managed more efficiently? Perhaps instead of booking several different acts the money could have been spent on one or two “show-stoppers” one in between the starter and main, and the other between main and dessert, then perhaps have some performers mingling around the tables. I think my point here is to not get overly excited when you have budget to spend, and make sure you spend it wisely – in the best interest of the client and the guests.

My next tip is don’t be afraid to negotiate, I doubt if any suppliers come in with their final/best price on the initial quote. Look closely at the items and breakdown the costs, are there savings to be made? For example don’t hire in a screen use the venues and get the A/V company to build a set around it, can you get the F&B costs down by cutting out a huge selection of cakes, pastries and all manor of calorific but delicious items on the coffee stations? The delegates will be having lunch and really don’t need much to eat at the 10:30am break, some cookies and fruit is perfectly adequate. Saving just a small amount per head might give you enough to hire additional staff for the registration desk, or allow you to upgrade the wine at the cocktail.

My final point would be to always build in a contingency, something will inevitably cost more than quoted, or an item will be missed off the initial budget, and it makes life a whole lot easier if you have some money set aside from the start rather than having to go back to client for more budget, or cutting costs off other items.

Next week I’ll talk about venue selection, so until then have a great week.





Understanding the Brief, events are easy right?…

You’ve got a brief from a client or colleague, it’s a one liner that says “Just need a seminar plus drinks organising, shouldn’t be too difficult” on paper maybe not, but if that’s the brief can you deliver on all the expectations? Probably not, without asking some key questions.

When I get sent a request for proposal (RfP) or a brief from clients my number one question is “what do you want the outcome of the event to be”. By asking this question you know what you are tasked to achieve. A seminar might be sharing of information, a sales pitch, or it could be a product launch, a means of advising clients of a new legal position, or it could be the best way to get the people you want to network with in the same room.

Next – who is the target audience? Who do you want to attend? Is it an internal event or external? Where do those people work? In Dubai, same for any city, location is key, you can pick the most fabulous venue, have canapés inspired by a 3 Star chef, but if you choose a venue that is hard to get to you’ve failed.

Then we move onto the budget, once I know what funds are allocated I can work on making sure I achieve all the goals within the budget. I also give a couple of options on enhancing the event at an extra cost, with those costs itemised, so that the client can make a decision on whether the extra investment is worth it.

Once you are clear on the brief as an event planner it is your role to advise the client on any logistical issues you foresee. Often larger corporate clients roll out an event in several locations, and use the same brief in London as they do in Dubai, Hong Kong and New York, but each city is different and therefore you need to look more carefully at the objectives for each location.

For example, an inbound client to Dubai wants their outdoor cocktail reception at a beach hotel near the Marina, at 6pm, in early October, their guests will be coming from the Financial Centre.  Already I can see two key hurdles:

  1. The Financial Centre is 25km away from the Beach/Marina and making it across the city for 6pm will be challenging, and could be the excuse needed for the guest to change their mind and bail. Can you find a venue closer to the financial district that gives the same relaxed feel as the beach? You would be looking at venues targeting leisure & business travellers, most have great poolside areas perfect for a reception and many offer fantastic views of the city.
  2. The guests will be coming from the office, early October in Europe might be perfect weather, but in Dubai it’s still hot and humid, guys in suits don’t really want to stand around sweating. Could they compromise on the outdoor venue? Is there a hotel offering a bar with a terrace, the guests would then have an indoor and outdoor option depending on the temperature that day. Could the timing be put back an hour to 7pm.

Particularly for inbound clients I feel it’s vital to point out any potential obstacles in achieving the aims and objectives of the event.

To conclude my advice would be to always read the brief carefully, what seems simple might not be, so ask questions, and add value to your clients.

I will close today by wishing Ramadan Kareem to those who today begin their spiritual journey for the Holy Month of Ramadan.

Next week I’m going to look at allocating the budget. Until then….bye bye.



Let’s start at the very beginning….first impressions

So I thought a good topic to start my blog with was first impressions, and just how important they are. You can have a huge budget, have booked the most prestigious venue, hired a top band, and got a Michelin starred chef in to prepare the dinner or a former President to speak at a conference, but if, when your guests arrive, they have no clue where to go, what the seating plan is, or the timings for the event, you’re letting yourself and the client down.

We recently attended an event during the Dubai Food Festival at a designer hotel, it was a big ticket event, top chefs, a gourmet extravaganza, however when we arrived there was a red carpet and a lit backdrop, but no photographer. There was a lot of hotel staff, with soft drinks, but none of them knew if alcohol was available. There was a seating plan, that didn’t look the same as the plan everyone had chosen their table on when booking tickets, and nobody knew what time dinner would be served.

It is so important that when your guests or delegates arrive they are greeted by either the client/host of the event, or by one of the organisers. In Dubai in particular venues use agency staff for events on a regular basis, it may be the first time those staff have been at the venue, so they really don’t know where anything is. As an organiser it is your responsibility to brief the staff, including the duty manager on what your expectations are from them and who their point of contact is during the event.

It’s good practice to speak to the client in advance to establish how they would like their guests greeted. I encourage my clients to be there personally, for smaller events this is always the best option. For the client dinners I organise we agree in advance who will be on the door and who the guests will be handed over to. For conferences, it is a good idea to make sure the hosts have a different coloured name badge or lanyard, so they can be easily recognised, not only by the delegates but by hostesses and hotel staff.

When assigning someone from your team to be the first person your guests see and speak to on arrival that person has to be confident, know the format of the event, and basic information such as where the rest rooms are, what time the presentations will start, where the lunch will be served etc. They must also be confident enough to know how to react to a question they don’t know the answer to. Always say “I don’t know, but I will find out for you” – it’s much better than trying to bluff your way through. Your greeter must  be able to cover for you if there are last minute glitches back stage, and the rest of the team are running around fixing things.

You should agree with the client what information they want you to collect from the guests, do they require a business card from everyone? To complete a sign in sheet for CPD hours? Will there be an evaluation circulated post event?

For events with sponsors – you must make sure they are fully briefed on the schedule. I have had events for which sponsors arrive and set up their marketing materials at the same time as the bulk of the guests, this looks unprofessional, messy, and does not create a good first impression. Stress to the sponsors that to get the most out of the networking opportunities at the event they should be there to set up a minimum of 30 minutes before guests arrive, and that those arriving late will not be able to set up any exhibition booths until the delegates have gone into the first session and the pre-function area clear. Often sponsors will request a guest list/delegate list in advance, agree this with the client, and agree what information will be shared.

My rule of thumb is to walk through the event as if you are a guest, or get a friend to do this and see what questions they ask. Taking the time to make sure the first impression of your function is positive could make or break the event.

In my next blog I am going to look at understanding the brief – so have a great week and I’ll be back next Monday.