With 650 people on site at Newbury Racecourse for two days of filming, event manager Nigel Whiston has a lot to content with.
I started to work for Newbury Racecourse in 1990 and, with a few gaps between 1990 and 2020, I have been involved on and off with the site for 30 years. This racecourse has always been very dear to my heart throughout because it has formed a major part of my working life. I left a full time job five years ago but am very happy to say that I am still involved in a variety of events.
During my time at the racecourse the tendency has been to focus more towards indoor conferences and exhibitions, however this is now moving to a lot more bespoke outdoor events. Back when I started outdoor events were not really considered, but in the last 12 to 15 years there has been a shift of emphasis. The racecourse has had to focus on using its external facilities as well as the indoor ones, mainly due to the size of the site but also because they are extremely well suited to all sorts of events, from weddings to filming to exhibitions – of course, always weather permitting!
In the last five years Newbury has gone through a large makeover. The management has invested over £50m in both the indoor and outdoor areas but the racecourse remains a place of history, having been around since 1905.
One specific event which is worth mentioning is a recent film shoot. I was approached by the racecourse to be the main client contact and event manager for a very large and famous filming event. It took place in March and April 2019 and wasn’t something that I had been involved in before, especially at that scale.
My first thoughts were that I needed to find out what was going to be involved in the organisation of such an event, trying to get an idea of the itinerary in respect of timings, who would be my main contact, and who would be the director and the producer. On top of that, I needed to understand how many people would be involved (650!) and all the logistics associated with the event, not just on the day, but also on all of the days prior to shooting. I had to answer all sorts of questions in my head: “Where were people going to park?”, “What refreshments were going to be provided for them?”, “What are the expectations of the client?” I, for sure, didn’t want to have any nasty surprises on the day.
For the majority of events I tend to meet the client prior, but if this is not possible, and I only can meet them on the day, I always try to be as prepared as possible, especially in the instance you receive unexpected requests which you are not ready to deliver. The secret is to remain calm, professional and always maintain a “yes I can” attitude.
My duties on this specific occasion were to open the event. I was on site at 5am to make sure that everything was in place as requested. Pre-event checks are essential because you always spot something which is not right, especially when you work on such large sites. Experience taught me that the earlier you arrive the better; it gives you time to think and plan what is going on so you can make sure there are no imminent issues to deal with, and if the client arrives on site early there is someone to welcome them.
My responsibilities were to meet the client and to liaise with them during the day without being seen to interfere with what they were trying to achieve. I was asked to open certain areas that would normally be under lock and key, under jurisdiction of the racecourse. Certain areas weren’t included in the initial proposal, but when you work with film producers you quickly learn that they can change their mind. I suddenly found myself opening areas which weren’t supposed to be opened and then securing those premises while trying to be as flexible and adaptable as possible.
The client can unexpectedly change schedule or timings or want something which is not in the brief – you just need to be ready. I had to be contactable 24/7, and for the client to have the constant presence of my support, without me stepping on their toes. One example involved getting a pineapple cake at very short notice for a crew member’s birthday. I am not sure if this was a test to see if we were able to deliver such a random request, but to see the surprise in the eyes of the client was priceless.
There were no major challenges on the day but of course there were a few small ones, one of them related to electrical power. One of the film crew’s generators broke and I suddenly found myself in the middle of a power source crisis. Luckily we have some ‘pod bars’ located across the site so I decided to open one of them and run an extension lead from it which gave enough power for what was needed.
The majority of the shooting was done around our brand-new parade ring, so not only did I have to consider the client needs but also the keeping of our site and people’s safety. I remember my heart was jumping a bit during that time. At my age you still get that adrenaline rush which is different for each event and situation; you never know what can happen next and you just need to be able to deal with it.
I would like to highlight that at Newbury Racecourse I always feel I have great back up from the on-site team. For this event we had all departments involved: Clerk of the Course, the conference and events team, stable managers and operations. It was the great team effort that meant we could deliver such a large event. People were able to step in at all times and run around in case I needed support.
My direct responsibility was to deal with the production and lighting crew and I met some great people. One thing I noticed was that hardly anyone had any breaks throughout the two days. People seemed to be completely absorbed in their roles. I myself would never expect to have breaks at set times as this would never work, especially in situations where the schedule changes on a regular basis. I always use my own judgment as to when and where to take a break but if my phone rings then that is simply the end of the break and I think this is something that one has to accept.
At the end of the day I checked in with my main contact. I always like to have a debrief before a client departs to make sure that if there were any fundamental issues we can discuss them so I can feedback to the racecourse. On this specific occasion I felt a good degree of satisfaction. I was once again very proud to have been asked to perform the role and knowing I executed it well meant a lot, not only because the client was happy, but because the racecourse succeeded as a strong location and team once again. I look forward to managing more events in the future and I can’t wait to fully embrace the next project and all the variety that will arise with it – this is definitely not a job which is the same every day. You need to like and embrace the unexpected and always confront any situation with a smile on your face.
Nigel is one of Newbury Racecourse’s longest standing event managers. He comes with a wealth of knowledge and experience within the events industry and has been involved at Newbury Racecourse for over 30 years in both the racing and conference and events sides of the business. With impeccable attention to detail and the drive to always deliver exceptional customer service, Nigel is an asset to the racecourse team.
Newbury Racecourse is one of the largest conference and event spaces in Berkshire, with over 50 unique spaces that can be adapted to fulfil client requirements and deliver wow factor. Set amongst 225 acres of natural beauty, it hosts many private and public events, including the Colour Obstacle Rush. www.newburyracecourse.co.uk