Recent goings on have prompted me to write my first Live! article in months. Namely, the fuss about the Summer Ball ? mostly from people who are not aware of the facts, did not take up the opportunity to question officers at Council meetings, have shown no demonstrable interest in wanting to help and yet sit comfortably at their computer desks telling everyone how they would do it better.
Let?s look at the facts. Historically there has been no ICU summer ball. The annual ?posh do? was left to the constituent college unions (City & Guilds College Union, ICSM SU, the former Royal College of Science Union and the former Royal School of Mines? Union) ? although the non-medic ones were usually in spring. ICU?s big events were limited to the carnivals in Beit Quad.
In 1998, the first ICU ball was held at the West Hall of Alexandra Palace and was a great success. It actually turned a (real) profit and remains the only ICU ball ever to have done so. It was helped, in no small part, by a generous sponsorship deal from EDS. The Ball was sold out well in advance (about 1200 tickets) and by the end there was actually a waiting list of around 300 people for returns.
In 1999 the Summer Ball committee had grand visions for building on the previous years' success. They decided to go for the 7,000 capacity Great Hall at Ally Pally, with a target for 2000 tickets. Unfortunately, things didn?t go so well. They booked the same weekend as Royal Ascot so struggled with the coaches. They didn?t advertise the tickets so didn?t sell many. Dave Hellard was President. The Medics held their ball at the same time. The event was a disaster and in the autumn President Natasha Newton had to grovelling to College for a £30,000 bail-out to cover the losses of both the ICU and ICSM SU balls.
The College were not very keen for us to go back to Ally Pally (given the cost to them of the 1999 disaster) and so the 2000 Summer Ball was held in the Paragon Hotel. Whilst quite a nice event (by all accounts) it too flopped and made a loss. Union Officers were rightly indignant about the losses and there was a strong sentiment in both Council and Felix that the ball should either break even or be scrapped.
In 2001, President Hamish Common, negotiated a £20,000 subsidy from College. The condition was that the ball should be held in College (so that money would flow back into College Catering ? which makes a loss most of the time). Idris Harding took up the challenge of organising the ball that year and was very successful in transforming the format into the now familiar one centred on the Queen?s Lawn. Whilst Idris would claim the ball broke even it actually made a loss of several thousand pounds once all the invoices had come in. (Yes, a loss, on top of the £20,000 College subsidy).
The format of the 2001 ball (and the £20,000 College subsidy) was emulated in 2002 and 2003 balls. The 2002 ball made a similar loss. The 2003 ball supposedly made a profit. However, when I took the reigns as President the first thing I found were a load of unpaid summer ball invoices. On top of that, the big stage on the Queen?s Lawn had, that year, been replaced by a marquee ? shared with the College Open Day and hence in receipt of a further subsidy (the marquee cost around £12,000).
So the bottom line is this: The Queen?s Lawn Summer Ball that we are now all familiar with is not financially viable. It made, on average, a £25,000 loss every year. To make it break even we would have to jack up the ticket prices and severely cut down on costs (getting rid of fairground rides or quite a few rooms). That would have severely limited the appeal of the ball, in that format and, given expectations based on the previous years probably not have sold. We needed to either accept making a loss of £25,000 or come up with a different format.
Why could we not make a £25,000 loss? Because the money would have to come from somewhere ? probably by cutting clubs and society grants, and there would (rightly) have been uproar. So what about the money from College? Well what about it? Union money is College money. If the College gives us money for one thing that just means they are not going to give us money for something else. I think it?s outrageous that for the last few years money that could have been given to the Union for club/society grants or spent on accommodation or (dare I say it) on teaching was, instead, wasted on a big piss-up.
I was offered £20,000 for this year?s ball. I turned it down. Instead I asked the Rector to double it and fund 24 hr library opening for the summer exam period ? he agreed. Anyone who has seen the incredible early hours usage of the library since Easter will know that was the right decision and benefited many more students. If you disagree, grill me on it at the next Union Council ? I?m more than happy to be held to account over it.
So the ball has to break even. College isn?t viable, there?s no big dining venue for a formal ball. Local hotels just aren?t big enough (if it?s not big enough for 1000 students then there?s no point in holding it ? C&G and ICSM are more than capable of running smaller balls). Our options were limited to the Royal Albert Hall, Olympia, Excel, Alexandra Palace, Earls Court and a couple of really big clubs. The only option that was economically viable and available was Alexandra Palace. Not only that, but we had done it before and hence had confidence it doing it again.
This year?s ball is the same format as the original 1998 ball (the only one that ever paid its way). Yes, it?s completely different from the last three Queen?s Lawn balls and will attract a different student demographic. Many of the initial sales have been to finalists and postgraduates who are less likely to attend Union events. Is this a bad thing? We are supposed to be here for all the students. We do that by providing a range of events. If you want a cheap and cheerful piss-up, come to the Union for the end-of-term carnival. If you want a formal ball book a table at Ally Pally for 21 May.
The ticket price is not expensive. It?s only £5 more than the last West Hall ball (1998). Don?t forget this thing called ?inflation?. Excluding transport it?s only £5 more than the full price last year (and you won?t have to put up with College catering). We are not selling ents-only tickets as we have to sell 900 meals to get the room hire for free and the dinner is an integral part of the event. Cambridge balls usually cost around £100 a ticket ? and they are subsidised by the rich colleges. Sure you get the booze thrown in for that, but not all of us drink ? it?s fairer to pay separately. And yes, I know you only live on a tin of baked beans a week. Most Oxbridge students aren?t super-rich either. Yet they save up for the end of year celebration. Of course, Oxbridge balls are smaller, so a better comparison would probably be somewhere like Edinburgh ? that one?s £80 (no booze).
The timing won?t be perfect for everyone ? but no date will. The earlier the event, the more students have exams. The later the event the more students have gone home or onto industrial/academic placements never to return. This year?s timing was driven by Ally Pally?s availability but conveniently fits right in the ?gap? period when the smallest number of students are in exams. It?s a Friday night. If you want to go to a ball, you probably will. If you don?t, there?s probably someone else who will who wouldn?t go if it was whatever date you wanted it to be on. Wye and ICSM have long-standing balls at the end of the year and we don?t want to clash with them either. If you really want a ball on the last Friday, I?m sure there will be busses to Wye for their Commemoration Ball again this year.
This year?s ball will be fantastic. It?s based on a proven, traditional format ? the only format that has ever worked (financially) for an IC ball. If it?s not your cup of tea, fine. The Union puts on a number events and activities (including clubs and societies) throughout the year. The idea is not that every event or activity appeals to all of our members but that through all the different things we do, we provide something for everyone.
If you think you can do it better, prove it. Do something useful. Tell us how to do it better. I don?t mean post a few lines on Live! about what venue you would use, what ticket price you would set and how your innate ramblings are somehow God?s gift to earth. Instead, email Mike Moate and ask him for a copy of the Summer Ball budget, as a template. Then re-do the spreadsheet for the event, as you would run it, documenting any assumptions / market research used and show that your proposals would work. Then take them to Mike for discussion with the Union finance staff. If your proposals are sound, congratulations, you?ll get the chance to see them in action next year since (probably) no-one else could be bothered to put together a viable plan.
At the end of the day we are a students? union. The most important element of that is not that it is run for the benefit of students (the College is supposed to be too) but that it is actually run by the students. To that end, our success (or failure) hinges on student involvement. If you?ve got some criticisms, great ? get involved. If you can?t be bothered then just find something better to do with your life then moaning about it on here.