When pop star Justin Bieber sold out a 20,000-seat arena, it was London event planner Robert Eveleigh’s job to shepherd 60 Spanish teenagers through a whirlwind tour.
LONDON HAS SEEN ITS SHARE OF SPECTACLES IN ITS 2,000-YEAR EXISTENCE—from its foundation in 43 A.D. by the notoriously licentious Romans to the execution of Anne Boleyn at the imposing Tower of London to raucous Shakespeare performances at the Globe. Then, in 2011, there was an outbreak of Bieber fever.
When Canadian pop star Justin Bieber sold out London’s 20,000-seat O2 Arena that spring, it was London event planner Robert Eveleigh’s job to shepherd 60 Spanish teenagers—each infected with the aforementioned, highly contagious Bieber affliction—and their horde of chaperones through a whirlwind 24-hour tour of one of Western civilization’s greatest cities.
Brought on in the final stages of a Spanish cellular telephone company’s concert ticket give-away, Eveleigh had just about a month to make sure his clients had the time of their young lives. But what does one do with pop-obsessed teenagers when they’re not screaming themselves hoarse for their favorite star?
Eveleigh’s answer: put them on a boat. Twice. Then give them plenty of time to shop bustling Oxford Street, hoof through historic Hyde Park and get a taste of perhaps a more highbrow listening experience at the Royal Albert Hall.
“It was a fairly complex event, because they were only really here for 24 hours,” Eveleigh said.
He was hired by a venue finder, which in turn had a marketing company and incentive agency between it and the original Spanish client.
“It was a lot of layers,” Eveleigh said, but he was intrigued by the opportunity to plan an event that was really half-leisure, half-corporate. “It was a challenge; that was why I took it on.”
The whole event was an exercise in mitigating what Eveleigh says is one of the most common planning mistakes when it comes to London group events: not initially booking a London-based event planner.
“Before you even start booking venues, clients should make a budget-friendly pact that starts with: ‘Let’s get a London event planner,’” Eveleigh said.
Not only does Eveleigh, for example, know the lay of London’s incredibly diverse hotel landscape, but he can find off-the-beaten-path venues that may save money and fit a given group better than big-name hotels or meeting spaces. For his Bieber event, Eveleigh says the hotel had already been booked when he was brought on. It was a big strain on a small hotel, almost all of which was occupied by Bieber-fevered contest winners.
“This was a very, very big group for them,” Eveleigh said. “But they did an exceptional job, I have to say.”
Eveleigh says he’d also have changed some of the group’s travel logistics had he joined the project sooner.
One of the tremendous advantages of booking a meeting in London is its accessibility, both from within the European Union and without, but that doesn’t mean all arrivals are created equal.
“Most people in the world will be able to get to London within two flights, and many of those just one flight,” Eveleigh said.
Four airports—Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted and Luton—serve the United Kingdom’s largest metropolitan area. The trouble with the Bieber event, Eveleigh says, was that the Spanish charter flight was scheduled for Gatwick, when in fact small tours do much better to arrive at Luton or Stansted.
“It can be tricky,” Eveleigh said, because of Gatwick’s long walk between the gate and the coach—or bus—pick-up bay.
Eveleigh suggests going for ease over perceived prestige when it comes to chartered arrivals. Royals and government members will get the red carpet at larger airports, but planes full of Bieber fans don’t quite have the same caché. Eveleigh’s group had to walk about a mile-and-a-half from the gate to charter buses, which must park at holding locations outside the airport.
“Smaller airports like Stansted and Luton actually have dedicated private terminals which are very, very good value for money,” he said. “Your group can actually come off the plane and they’ll be the only people there, and get on their coaches at leisure.”
International travel is hard enough for one family, but when 60 teens are flying across a continent, there are bound to be delays. Luckily London, Eveleigh says, is a city especially accustomed to handling travel setbacks. When the Spanish charter flight was delayed two hours, he had no problem getting the group’s first round of boat transportation rescheduled.
“The good thing is that a lot of people in London will understand that traffic is unpredictable,” Eveleigh said.
The group was set to take “fast boats,” or speed cruises down the Thames to the O2 for a pre-concert soda pop reception, and it was no problem to get his passengers on different departures thanks to Londoners’ innate understanding of travel woes.
Post-concert, the group took it slower on the way home, when they were treated to a night cruise down the Thames catered with a buffet dinner, live music and deejay.
The morning after the concert, Eveleigh was asked to revamp plans on the fly: instead of three separate walking tours, his clients wanted just one. He’d had the foresight to book Blue Badge guides, a registered group of London experts whose extensive knowledge of London geography helped him combine three planned tours into one. Instead of a Hyde Park walk and two separate shopping trips, they were able to morph it all into one outing “in about five minutes.”
The teens and their chaperones were then whisked down the high-street fashion capital that is Oxford Street before visiting Harrods, the nearly 200-year-old famed department store, followed by a tour of the only slightly younger Royal Albert Hall, which was founded by Queen Victoria in 1871. Next it was a leisurely stroll through green Hyde Park. If it sounds simple enough, don’t be fooled.
“It was the first time I’ve ever had to run a risk assessment for crossing the road,” Eveleigh said.
Getting 100 people, 60 of them teenagers, across busy Bayswater Road running along the north side of Hyde Park meant taking everyone in shifts.
Because Eveleigh had himself walked the route two weeks earlier during a site inspection, he’d had everything planned out.
“We came up with having a traffic marshal for the kids rather than the traffic,” he said.
It wasn’t a speedy crossing, but everyone crossed without incident.
After a group lunch back at the hotel, it was time for the group to take their Bieber fever back to Spain. But Eveleigh says he never relaxed until he was sure everyone was set to fly.
“I waited until they’d all checked in and gone through security,” he said. “And that was the end of quite a stressful 24 hours.”
Of course, there’s a reason why a Spanish cell phone provider would give away a trip to London in the first place: it is, as MPI United Kingdom and Ireland Chapter Administrator Richard Kidd tells One+, “magic” for celebration-type events as well as conferences as meetings. With 125,000 hotel rooms in the city and “almost everything anyone could possibly want to do as an add-on,” London is the kind of destination that requires zero arm-twisting, even for events far less intrinsically squee-inducing than a Justin Bieber concert.
Kidd says his elevator pitch for London is terribly simple: “Any type of conference or event? We can do it. What do you want to do?”
It’s true, he says, that prices for those 125,000 hotel rooms are higher than elsewhere in the U.K., but “that’s because there’s so much more to do [in London] and so many more reasons to be there than anywhere else.” For meeting planners, those reasons include an incredible array of unusual, historic and state-of-the-art event spaces.
Planners can choose from specialty spaces such as the British Academy of Film and Television Arts’ private screening theater, portions of the Museum of London or the sprawling Barbican center, where the London Symphony Orchestra calls home. For special occasions, there are more than 50 Michelin-starred restaurants in the city, or for a smaller profile affair, there’s take-out from Tesco and lunch in Russell Square or St. James’ Park. And music venues abound, Kidd says, such as the intimate Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in SoHo or the sprawling O2 Arena that hosted Justin Bieber for 20,000 adoring fans.
Whether it’s a 15-year-old Spanish Justin Bieber fan or a business traveler looking to add a little Western Civ 101 on to her week-long training seminar, London’s cultural diversity and rich history will appeal to anyone, Richard Kidd says.
“I can’t give you a type of person that I don’t think will find London interesting,” he said, laughing. “I’m really struggling with that one.” One+
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One+ August 2012