Industry Insights: John Radford

Taking time out to network and learn pays dividends reports John.

Man performing on stage

After a really busy and successful summer it was great to meet up with some of our clients and suppliers at the Showman’s Show held at Newbury Showground every October. This year JR Event Services also had a stand in the main exhibition hall for the first time. Knowing we were going to be at the show for the whole two days meant we were able to meet up with both new and old clients and suppliers and look at some of the newer products and services on offer in the industry. It’s an important date in our diary anyway but this year meant the whole team were busy either manning the stand, having meetings or exploring the other exhibition stands.

I’ve previously written about how important face to face communication can be and these kinds of events are a perfect opportunity to talk through ideas or requirements and actually look at the products up close to see if they will work for your given project. We certainly took away some great new contacts and ideas. From the Enviro-cup team with their recycled aluminium tankards that can take custom branding to the screens from ADI that can make a difference to viewing opportunities with screens from a relatively small 12 square metres right up to their huge iCONIC 100 and 120SW.

The Association of Festival Organisers (AFO) Conference in early November was a slightly more laid-back affair. Attracting a large number of festival organisers from across the UK, the conference gave attendees a chance to listen to others explaining best practice and solutions, network and create new contacts.

People carrying tar barrel which is on fire
Photo: Alex Walton Photography

I was invited to run a session on site design and spoke about many of the points I wrote about in Open Air Business earlier in the year. And again, it’s a fantastic opportunity to network and talk through projects with like-minded colleagues as well as a great opportunity to listen and learn from others, taking on board their experiences so that plans can be developed and not suffer the same issues. One particularly interesting session for us was the interestingly titled “And this is what we do with the waste” led by Grist Environmental. Looking at the whole waste management chain from the guest right through to minimising the landfill or even avoiding completely. A really thought-provoking session, it certainly generated quite a bit of discussion afterwards as to where exactly our waste goes after an event.

Attending the Showman’s Show and the AFO Conference, as well as having our regular meetings with clients and suppliers at the end of the summer, provides us with the feedback, knowledge and information we need to get cracking with the following year’s planning. The outdoor event industry never stands still and in order for us to deliver the best to our clients we need to ensure we are taking that feedback and new information and moving forward.

Tar Barrels and Sparks in the Park

Project wise, early November saw us working on two extremely different events. The Ottery St. Mary Tar Barrels event takes place on the 5 November each year and has done so for 400 plus years. The event sees local residents ‘run’ the flaming tar barrels through the town streets and attracts many thousands of spectators. We’ve been involved in the event safety and event management for four years now and have created a fantastic team in order to provide the event with the right skill set. It’s a really good example of a local tradition that has embraced new ways of doing things but hasn’t lost sight of its core vision.

The event clearly has a highly defined need for a considered approach to event safety and crowd management and it hasn’t happened overnight, but through close liaison and communication with the Police, Fire Service, local authorities and many other agencies the event is now starting to see the benefits. With a coordinated event control system running the event from early afternoon until gone midnight, the need for a strong set of relationships between all the agencies and the event team themselves is clear.

Ottery Tar Barrels 2018
Photo: Alex Walton Photography

For the first time this year, we managed to run a ‘table top’ exercise well in advance of the event to work through potential scenarios as a group and to ensure we had the right plans in place to deal with as many eventualities as are foreseeable. The key to these exercises is to take as much learning away as possible and be honest with any weaknesses so that they can be planned out well in advance of the event proper. For this particular event, we developed six scenarios including poor weather leading to the closure of car parks which are on local farmland, and how the event would manage if a significant incident took place off the event footprint but potentially affecting both the emergency services present and visitors arriving and leaving.

The outcomes were various and complex but it allowed those involved time and space to discuss the issues and develop planning systems to counter those kind of events. Once again, the benefits of having a strong set of relationships with various bodies both directly and indirectly involved with the event allows us to examine all aspects of the planning from traffic management to on-site catering. The actual event went well once again and debriefs beckon in the near future to ensure everything is in place for 2019.

Sparks in the Park is a new project for us and involves circa 20,000 members of the public attending a fireworks event in one of Cardiff city’s recreation grounds. What makes this event somewhat more dynamic than the norm is that the majority of guests are attending purely for the 30 minute firework finale and not only arrive within a relatively small window of time but also depart en-masse, which requires significant planning to ensure that the exit routes are clear, safe, well lit and managed. With a team both in event control and on the ground feeding information back for rapid decisions we can deploy staff or assets where they are needed using first-hand information rather than listening to rumour or assumptions.

We are working alongside a charity for this event with a large number of volunteers on site which provides us with a brilliant additional asset to ensure that the public have a safe and successful event. We are already developing plans to further enhance and make sure that the volunteers who kindly give their time have even more training and information pre-event. As a starting point we plan to look at whether key training sessions pre-event could be instigated in order to get volunteer team leaders better informed and able to ‘cascade’ more detailed information throughout the volunteer team. Great though printed handbooks are, they rely on people reading and understanding them. Face to face team building sessions allow greater levels of communication and engagement which always pay dividends.

Ottery Tar Barrels performance
Photo: Alex Walton Photography


As we come to the end of 2018 and look back, we are already well into planning for a number of events in 2019. Some of the projects are long standing clients where we are working to not only continue the success of the event but also develop new ideas to keep it fresh and dynamic. The best example for us is Sidmouth Folk Festival, which is celebrating its 65th year in 2019, and has a varied mix of temporary and permanent venues on greenfield sites, town parks and in community halls and venues.

We also have some exciting new ventures with whole new festivals next year. Part of that planning is getting out of the office and onto the event sites. One of our projects is redeveloping a core element of its visitor experience and this will involve some significant infrastructure changes with marquees, structures, stages and welfare facilities being moved. Although we have the site plan in a digital format and planned via CAD, we still visit the site and use good old-fashioned flags and rope and pin to see if the revised layout will actually work in the real world. We can check walkways are adequate and that the flow of pedestrians across the site will work and importantly, it also allows us to check safety elements such as fire exit routes and emergency vehicle access.

Although this kind of planning takes time and resources, we find that the investment pays huge dividends when it comes to the actual build and installation of the project. We know what will work and we can design out issues before the build phase so reducing wasted time. For us the investment in time pays off when we are on site for the actual event and not having to amend and alter as we go.

In summary, it really is a case of finishing one year but already planning for the next so that we have time to develop solutions and ideas. Taking those days out to meet others really does pay dividends and putting the time and effort into planning those projects will hopefully make life that little bit smoother come event time in 2019.


John Radford


John Radford runs JR Event Services and has worked in the event industry for over 20 years. He provides event management and event safety consultancy services for a broad spectrum of events from single day and city centre cultural events to week long music and dance festivals. Visit or call 01275 406760 for an informal chat.


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