The makings of a successful Festival event

The ESRC Festival of Social Science  aims to promote and increase awareness of social sciences and ESRC’s research, with events focused on engaging the public and young people with social science research.

With the 2016 ESRC Festival of Social Science fast approaching, Dr Christopher Deeming, Chancellor’s Fellow and Senior Lecturer at the University of Strathclyde, reflects on running an event and some of the “the dos and don’ts” you may wish to consider.

Chris Deeming 150px

Organising a large event for the Festival of Social Science requires hard work and planning, which can sometimes feel overwhelming. But, a great starting point is to identify your audience and format, you will be able to plan your event accordingly. The audience for the ‘Great Environment Debate’ that I organised in 2012 were sixth form geography students and I wanted to address issues to do with climate change. To reach my audience I sent letters to all heads and heads of department of local schools in and around Bristol. I also set a date for registration – knowing attendance numbers can be important for planning, particularly if there are catering costs involved.

Getting the venue right

With so many potential delegates the size of the venue was important, and so I opted for the dramatic neo-gothic Great Hall in the Wills Memorial Building on the Bristol campus which can seat 270 people. This meant plenty of space for my interactive event– but the Hall also had top-notch modern IT facilities and good access, with all of the schools and young people arriving together around the same time.

If you are going to have catering at your event this may require some planning, there are dietary requirements to consider. I arranged with the porters and cateriFestival of Social Science logong services for the Hall to be set for cabaret seating (20 round tables), as this arrangement would help with the small group work sessions I had planned in the afternoon.

I also had facilitators who sat at each table, and MSc and PhD students who volunteered on the day and who came to the planning session before the event.

I opted to use university catering (making the formal risk assessment for the event more straightforward, schools may ask to see one) and ordered 200 packed lunches for pupils and teachers. No full banqueting menu on offer here, but the catering accounted for most of my grant/budget, that included refreshments for the morning and afternoon breaks (hundreds of individual pieces of fruit, squash, tea and coffee etc.). I checked pupils’ dietary requirements with schools and lunch menus were ordered accordingly (worth keeping food allergies in mind etc).

Naturally, it is important to liaise with your speakers about their talks and timings etc., but I also briefed the portering and security staff, who were all great and the porters even volunteered to give (prospective) students and teachers a tour of the buildings after the event – the Hall has amazing views over the city and these tours proved very popular with pupils and teachers.

Don’t forget the tech

This was my first large event, and some things were overlooked, like internet access for our visitors. I was a little embarrassed when one of the teachers asked how to logon to the university network. Fortunately, the Vice Chancellor had also popped by to see what was going on; a quick call and within minutes a guest login account had been set up. Then my mobile goes and a speaker pulls out as we start; no problem, I quickly reorganise the line-up…

The IT support I had booked to arrival early also arrives late, the PowerPoint is working but not the microphones for the first talk, and in this huge hall – does anyone notice the ensuing panic around the lectern? An ESRC Director is present – is this my first and last Festival event I wonder?

Logistics on the day

What about travel costs and parking or transport arrangements? I arranged designated parking bays for the arrival of all those school minibuses. One school based in rural Dartmoor that cannot easily access these types of university events had travelled over 100 miles, and where can you park a large coach after the drop-off at the venue? No space around the university precinct for that, unfortunately. These are just some of many things to organise as the event drew closer.

If you are filming special permissions may be required from participants and audience members in advance (the university must seek consent before using any footage focusing on individuals). Do get in touch with your university press office too; they helped me with a press release and we managed to get some local radio coverage on the day. I also found the university’s public engagement and widening access teams very helpful for advice and support.

Taking stock

Finally, feedback and evaluation is important. After each Festival, the ESRC evaluates the Festival based on feedback from event organisers and the questionnaires from attendees, this is for the Festival as a whole, but you may get messages of encouragement as I did:

“Thanks so much for organising such a superb event last Friday. My Year 12s were talking about it non-stop on the drive back and found the whole thing really valuable – have been able to use their newly acquired knowledge in lessons this week too.”

“I wanted to write to thank you for organising an excellent day last week. My students got a great deal out of the lectures and the group work and enjoyed the whole experience very much. I do hope that this becomes an annual event!”

“Thank you for hosting a fabulous conference. Both myself and the students thoroughly enjoyed the event. I am sure they will be able to apply what they learnt in the exams later this year and it enabled them to experience a wonderful debate.”

So, all of the hard work may well be worth it after all. Wishing everyone an enjoyable and engaging Festival in 2016!


As part of this year’s Festival, Chris Deeming and colleagues at the University of Strathclyde will be hosting an event for local schools in and around Glasgow: ‘Referendum debates: Where does Scotland belong?‘ on 11 November 2016, on the prospect of a second Scottish referendum.

For details of other events taking place as part of this year’s Festival, see the full programme of events, or follow on Twitter using #esrcfestival

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