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Advice. Opinions. Conversation.

Interview: Lisa Sweeting, Green Sense Events

Lisa Sweeting quit her full-time job in March and went freelance during the lockdown. She has now set up her own company, Green Sense Events, focusing on sustainability. I asked her what’s she’s learned so far, and her top tips for going freelance.  

TS: You went freelance during the lockdown. What was the catalyst for setting up your own company?
LS: I’ve worked in Events for 15 years, managing a mix of corporate celebrations, weddings, private parties, and mass participation sports events. I’ve toyed to go freelance for about 10 of those years! The thought of having ultimate flexibility, financial independence, fitting work around a family etc, but the comfort blanket of a regular income, paid holidays and sick pay always kept me in my job. When it’s not just you anymore, and you have the responsibilities of a mortgage, and mouths to feed, it’s not a simple decision. 

However, I often felt like I compromised my creativity by working for someone else. I was bored of following a system, of doing the same thing year in, year out. Everyone who knows me knows that I love variety and learning new things. I’m a real get up and go person, and yet somehow, I felt stuck, and I lost some of who I am, which affected my confidence.

I love working with new people which is why I love events, collaborating and connecting with like-minded individuals and I felt so busy all the time just juggling work and home life that I had no time to network with others. One of the biggest drivers was that I felt like I couldn’t implement any ‘change’ in a big organisation. After looking at jobs with event & marketing companies mostly based in Bristol and Bath, both an hour’s commute away, and getting frustrated with the lack of home-working opportunities, I finally decided enough was enough. 

I handed my notice in at the beginning of March, and then lockdown happened. Two months later, having worked my notice period, I had no job, and no prospects, so why did I still feel amazing, like I could finally breathe again! First, I could focus on my children and homeschooling, while my husband worked full time in our home office. I was also ready to connect with a few people I’d lost touch with—albeit virtually! I joined some Facebook groups, thanks to a friend in the know, and started communicating with people, and I loved it. Given that we were spending so little, I felt I could relax a bit and use the time to work out what I wanted to do. 

I went freelance despite no prospect of any events on the horizon, and then I set up a sustainable events company: Green Sense Events. Focusing on sustainability was something I’d wanted to implement while employed, and we had done it as an organisation but nowhere near enough. I soon realised that if it was important to me, then I’d need to incorporate it into my business from the beginning, so it was at the heart of my work and not just a nice to have. 

What have you’ve learnt so far?
Social media can overwhelm. I joined lots of Facebook groups, networking events, and digital events which were all great, but at one point, I had to step back and work out a plan of action, write a business plan, edit and update my social media profiles, just to focus my mind. It’s easy-to-read everything on social media and sign up to every digital event, newsletter and training session going, which is fun and can be useful, but it can also exhaust. It’s essential to work out what is actually helpful to you to upskill and raise your profile. 

I’ve learnt to treat my peers as a community rather than competition. I’ve found that pretty much everyone I’ve spoken to whether they have their own sustainable events company, are a supplier or in a different industry altogether, has been supportive and happy to suggest other contacts and useful top tips. The more you connect with like-minded individuals, the more it leads you to other valuable connections, and it’s a great way to learn. 

Any tops tips on freelancing? 
I’d love to offer top tips that will allow others to gain work, but the current climate means there just isn’t much work around. Things are coming back, and it’s great to have some actual dates for when events can start happening again. I’m using the time to get myself set up properly on social media and finishing my website for the company. Educating myself on the areas that interest me—which is sustainability, learning from similar event companies, and looking at what Tokyo Olympics are doing, for example, to be more sustainable. Building my network of suppliers and networking with others as much as possible. 

Many of the traditional networking events have moved online. So, there are still opportunities to network online instead of ‘in person’, everyone is a potential client even if they aren’t looking to organise an event right now. I hope that people will think about planning events from now on, even if they can’t happen just yet. I also plan to start a blog once my website is up and running. There are lots of interesting articles out there on sustainability, and I’d love to share it with my network. I think it’s also a good way of engaging with people. 

I am interested to see how digital events affect the industry so exploring different platforms to see what’s possible in this field. Digital is a fantastic way of lessening our impact on the environment, so it’s an important area to look at and experience. I think even if you’re not hosting a virtual or hybrid event, look out for virtual events that you can attend as a participant, so you can at least talk from experience. 

Useful Facebook groups: #Eventprofsforchange, Delegate Wranglers, Get Ahead in Events, UK Live Event Freelancers Forum.

Anything you need help with?
I am keen to hear from anyone who is a sustainable supplier or venue, and I’d also to hear about what people think about sustainability. I worry that we could move backwards slightly with all the use of plastic PPE, and restrictions on the use of re-useable cups. But equally, I feel that businesses might do more online and perhaps not hold events for the sake of it as much as they used to. 

lisa@greensenseevents.co.uk

Categories
Advice. Opinions. Conversation.

Interview: Natasha Russell – “It’s a world of content ‘on-demand’. I see opportunities. I see real changes in the vision for and experience of events.”

Natasha Russell is a freelance events producer based in Cheltenham. Collaborative, fearless, and super-friendly, her clients include the London Evening Standard Film Awards, Amnesty Media Awards, Nike and Adidas. We worked together on the GCVA Conference in March just as the COVID-19 pandemic hit. I asked her how it has affected her business and what companies can do to future-proof their events.

What do you do?
I am an events producer, working on corporate events as well as festivals and mass participation. I have been self-employed since 2012 but last year moved to operate as a limited company, as most agencies and clients prefer this. I live and breathe events. For the past 15 years, I’ve worked first-hand at every level of event management and production.

How has your business been affected by COVID-19?
I had two big jobs before the pandemic hit. Initially, it was just extra insurance precautions and additional sanitation measures. Since then, most events have been cancelled. A few have been postponed, and budgets will likely be cut. For those from August onwards, ticket sales have slumped or stopped, despite ongoing marketing in some cases.

So, the reality is that the pandemic has stopped all imminent work, and I suspect this will be ongoing for some time. The last thing we should sensibly be doing is joining thousands of people in a festival environment, for example, where let’s be honest, hygiene levels are much harder to maintain, and any communicable illness is a risk.

Have you had any financial and emotional support?
At the moment, it seems that I am one of many who fall through the cracks as a sole director. Although I am patient to see what might change and get worked out, I have six years of accounts as a sole trader with a reasonable income and would have been properly supported until I changed the status of my business.

I have looked into universal credit and am trying to explore the furlough rules. The irony of the situation is that most events professionals were happy as sole traders and would have been covered, however various schemes such as IR35, have meant more and more ‘freelancers’ have had to form limited companies to continue working.

I have been proactive in contacting my MP and sharing online petitions. I work with Hoxby, a freelance collective and there’s much informal support there, either passively on the vast Slack platform the organisation uses, or actively in individual chats with people in the network, including the founders Alex and Lizzie. They have just launched Remote Work Mates which aims to support people who are new to working remotely. It’s great to have a network of people, who are not emotionally involved with you or your business, to reflect and discuss things. Hoxby values output, not ‘time at your desk’, which helps with mental wellbeing at this time.  

Otherwise, I’ve been turning to the event/business groups on Facebook for information and advice from my peers, (as well as many skill-sharing webinars), ultimately there are thousands of us in the same boat, so this is good for industry-specific things. I’m a big fan of Twitter – you need to take things with a pinch of salt sometimes, but if you follow the right people there are some excellent nuggets of advice and information. I have been watching Martin Lewis (along with the whole nation).

How are you adapting your business?
Initially, there were many knee jerk reactions – people quickly taking things online – shares in Zoom are going through the roof. I have played a slower game, learning about the different platforms, and how to create the best experience for speakers, delegates, sponsors, and exhibitors; how to generate networking spaces for 1-2-1’s and how to maximise income without a physical experience. I have spent time attending my online events to see how I get distracted, what holds my attention and how people are subtly able to get their brand out there. I am now confident to support my clients to move forward with their events in this strange time. 

I am also looking at my skill set, developing new skills for when the events world re-awakens and looking at other projects that can use my expertise. I do hope that I can keep my business going, and I am lucky to have some loyal clients who will come back to me, even if they don’t go digital. I also hope to be able to continue to support new clients whatever their needs might be. The whole events industry is one that pulls together and works collaboratively so whatever the need of the client, there will be an approach I can deliver.

Can you give an example of how the industry has pulled together?
Skill swap days started; people are sharing knowledge. There is no competition, just a general desire to keep busy and share information. Look at how the most prominent event venues have turned into hospitals. People were amazed at how quickly it happened – that’s events – if you want to build something fast and efficiently, call us in and we will do it, and well. One of the next projects I was due to work on would have been at ExCel London, so we would have turned that same space into a fantastic party venue, unrecognisable from an empty hall and the hospital ward it is today. 

What does all this mean for the future of events?
We are already an industry under scrutiny for our sustainability credentials, the travel, the waste – the world of work has changed. Remote working is the new norm. We are now in an era where people are proving they can work just as effectively remotely as in an office, they can even hold down their job and home school their kids! 

I think we will see a shift in the industry. I work in the mass participation sports market, and we are seeing massive changes in people’s habits during this time so not only will live events see a boost but also a desire for virtual challenges. There will always be a desire for experiences, and I think social events, festivals and the like will continue to have real meaning and people will have the desire to connect, with friends, family, their favourite band and even their favourite brands. With everyone getting fit during the lockdown, maybe mass participation events like 5k runs will come back with force, bigger and better. 

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Where I see a long-term change is in corporate events. Businesses will have to be much more open to having a digital offering in the future regardless of whether we get back to ‘normal’. Corporate events are sometimes a bit of a ‘jolly’. If we can effectively deliver the same meaningful content, networking and opportunities for brands to reach their customers online, then will we need to take time away from our families to attend that big conference? Why travel overseas to hear a keynote speaker when realistically you can be in your home office and have a similar experience? We can ask questions, share ideas, run polls, and showcase brands online. We can even go into the side ‘room’ and network with a potential client or collaborator. 

Suddenly there are opportunities to attend events that weren’t viable financially or otherwise, as we can participate in our own homes, with no time off work and no travel costs. It’s a world of content ‘on-demand’. In the future, I see virtual or hybrid events becoming mainstream and complementing in-person events. I see them blending, and most brands having a virtual presence. I see opportunities. I see real changes in the vision for and expectations of events. 

www.natasharussell.co.uk 

Photos by Natasha Russell