Finding the right venue - 'We Are Not Amused!'
By Dr Bob Nicholson, reader in History and Digital Humanities at Edge Hill University
Read Bob's great tips on how to build a positive relationship with your venue and the benefits this can have for your public engagement activity.
Can you tell us a little bit about your event?
Our event showcased new research on the history of Victorian comedy. It featured the launch of an exhibition, a series of family-friendly drop-in activities and guided tours, a Q&A with the historian Greg Jenner, and a live comedy performance. The event was hosted by The Atkinson in Southport — a venue that features four exhibition galleries, two large theatres, a library, and ample workshop space.
Why was The Atkinson in Southport the right venue for your event?
The Atkinson was an ideal partner for this event. We aimed to attract as many members of the public as possible, but we were particularly keen to reach children and families. The venue describes itself as ‘a cultural pick ‘n’ mix for all the family,’ and it has an impressive track-record of drawing local audiences to a packed programme of events. It is in the centre of Southport and gets plenty of foot traffic — I suspect that many of the people who engaged with our event did not know about it before arriving.
We had already begun to work with The Atkinson on our ‘We Are Not Amused!’ exhibition and so this was the logical backdrop for our day-time events. We were fortunate that the venue also has two substantial theatres and could therefore accommodate a large audience for our evening performances. Without these facilities we would have needed to consider a different venue for the evening portion of the event.
Did you stay in touch with your venue throughout the organisation process and was this helpful?
We were in regular contact with The Atkinson throughout the whole process. We collaborated with them on a smaller exhibition a few years earlier and already had an excellent working relationship with their curators, technicians, and publicity team. This allowed us to plan and develop our Being Human application in close collaboration with the venue’s curatorial and events staff, which ensured that all of our activities were well-tailored to their facilities and expertise. Rather than simply hiring out their space for our own purposes, we were able to plan a mutually beneficial event that also helped The Atkinson to achieve their public engagement goals.
The Atkinson helped with publicity by advertising our event prominently in their seasonal programme, listing it on their website, sending flyers to local schools, and by allowing us to place a promotional pop-up banner in their foyer. They also used their ticket system to manage bookings for our evening events, which assisted with promotion, alleviated our administrative burden, and helped the venue to make appropriate staffing arrangements.
Were there any challenges throughout the process?
Running our Being Human event did pose some challenges. The work involved in planning, designing, curating, and installing a substantial exhibition already had our small team of three academics working overtime alongside our normal day-to-day teaching commitments. Organising, promoting, and delivering a packed day of events for the Being Human festival on top of our existing work pushed us to the limit. Even with fantastic partners and a clear plan in place, it took a lot more time and effort than I anticipated to pull everything together. Getting an early start on this work was key, but in hindsight I would recommend clearing your diary (if possible) for the days leading up to the event. We were also enormously grateful for the help of several friends and volunteers on the day, without whom we would have struggled to capture so many evaluations. I suggest enlisting as many willing hands as you can.
Finally, the only hitch in our event came from a last-minute change to the closing time of our final performance, which I could have communicated to some members of the venue’s staff more effectively. When plans change, it’s important to double-check that everybody is on the same page — particularly if you’re working with a large venue.
What were the major successes?
Our event was a great success. More than 400 people attended the day-time drop-in activities, and a sold-out audience of 150 people booked to see our free evening performances. This was more than double our expected audience. We collected more than a hundred evaluations, all of them extremely positive. The Atkinson played a huge part in ensuring this success — they promoted the event very effectively and were on-hand throughout the day to ensure that everything ran smoothly.
Do you have any top tips or lessons learned from working with your venue?
- Select a venue that has a strong track record of hosting similar events and knows how to reach and attract your target audience.
- Involve the venue in the planning and application process in order to design a coherent and mutually beneficial programme of events.
- Don’t underestimate the amount of time and effort that it takes to organise an event. Get an early start and ask for plenty of help.