The Joy of Sets! Lessons learnt.

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For many years I plugged away as a freelance chippie, working ridiculous hours, drinking too much and being paid far too little in comparison to other freelance departments in the events industry. I thought a way around that would be to have my own company. Of course, all those who have done the transition from freelancer to company director know that instead of losing the yoke of working for others, you end up working far more hours, get paid a lot less and wonder “what have I done”. I was fortunate to meet a great business coach Andy Gwynne and alongside my business partner we changed the way we thought, and the way we worked.

While we worked on our business practices with help, we didn’t have anyone to guide us when to, and when not to, take a job on. This is something you have to learn yourself, but with an expanding team and increasing overheads, sometimes, you forget to be as prudent as you should be, and when you are starting out, that may break you and your company.

Now in 20 plus years of having my own businesses I have done some proper disasters of jobs that have always rescued themselves in the end due to the tenacity of the teams we worked with. There are a few exceptions when no matter how hard we tried, the reality of time and conditions beyond our control, jobs simply fail to be delivered to the high standards we hold ourselves to.

One particular example of trying to help out and by doing so putting ourselves in the firing line, is when our good friend and much respected set builder Richard McCabe called us up to help out on a project that he couldn’t fit in. We had done overflow work for Richard before and when you start out, for someone like Richard to put his company reputation out there with another company like us, we were both flattered and grateful for the work.

Now in Richards defence, he knew some of the detail of the job, but not all. We took it on knowing the time restraints of a two week build to make 37 waterfalls, that would become the event walling to a prestigious dinner for the Red Cross annual fund raising ball, on the south bank.

Now anybody that has built anything for money will know, in one off manufacturing there is always financial risk involved, and in our industry, that risk is always there. So, we were prudent and practical with our approach. We didn’t call Water Sculptures or any other professional, we thought we knew the lot. How hard can it be, we had built water features before!! Our prototype worked well, some plastic pipe drilled with lots of holes screwed to the mdf surface running up to a 2m wide header coming from a sump with a standard off the shelf sump pump in it. We had done the water volume maths, we had made sure everything was water proof, we had laminated the front surface as requested with brushed steel, we had trims all cut and ready to be installed when we seamlessly added all these together in a line on site and we had the vinyl’s to apply on site when all finished. Happy we were in the mix and ready to roll. It was as usual, lots of work for two weeks for only three of us at the time, but we cracked on and loaded two 45ft trucks for London.

It’s the first week in December, it is baltic weather, and the venue is a marquee. We were expecting the usual issues with the floor, storage, speed to get built, little to no working lighting, and it to be cold. What we weren’t expecting, was the floor to be as bad as it was. It was perfectly level in the middle of room and then it fell away like it was embarrassed to be there. This marquee was 30m wide and 75 metres long, that’s a lot of embarrassed flooring!! We were working with water, so everything had to be laser level flat, so we had our work cut out to now not just pack the features up but build a whole sub level from our spare timber.

When you are on a build like this you have to stand back and look at the bigger picture and make sure all elements you are installing are still flowing regardless of any issues in a particular area. The only problem was, we only had one area to look at and that was 37 water features that by the end of day one, were not in place.

So, on day two, show day, we start early. The boys all knew what had to be done so they went for it. A great team of guys who have stuck with us for many years. The water features started to go in and as they were installed on the new level staging we had built, the water team were filling the features up. We were confident we had this. We had tried the water features in the workshop and had managed to get it trickling down the sloped faces of the features and we had lighting in the headers that picked up the falling water beautifully. As the walls were being joined, we also had to go over fire exits. I had pointed out this was a bad idea, but the client insisted the walls should be continuous. Elevating around 100 kilos of water above a double fire exit door was always going to be challenging, as it was only a fifth of the size of the others.

As the walls were coming together the vinyl team followed around getting the sponsor vinyls applied. We hadn’t tested any of the features as we wanted the surfaces to be dry for the steel effect vinyls to be applied to the brushed steel surfaces so they would look like they had been engraved. They were lit by the header lights and when the water was going to flow down it, it would make a great effect as background to the lavish occasion.

It was getting to the time on show day when the flowers are arriving on the tables, very expensive goody bags were being distributed to each of the guest placements and cutlery is being polished and placed precisely on ironed tablecloths. Large corner and door stand flower displays are in, pin spots are being hung in the roof and sound checks are underway.

It’s at this stage that sometimes you can be plummeted into darkness by the lighting department or deafened by sound checks.

This time it was our turn to amaze and annoy the entire set up teams from all departments.

We had been powering up the 37 water features as we were going along and we had positioned some accessible points to turn them on in groups. So, if you can imagine a U shape of features, the two long sides are 75m long each and the short bottom of the U is 30 m wide. There is a central main entrance in the short end and two double fire exits in each long wall, it looks great and the inset header lights were lighting up the vinyls as planned.

I gave the instructions to turn the water features on and in my hubris, I wanted it to be a grand gesture of how shit hot we were in getting this achieved in the time. So, we turned on a whole side and one side of the entrance way at the same time.

Niagara falls, Iguassu, Victoria and Aysgarth falls had nothing on what we unleashed on the £10,000 pound a ticket table centres and goody bags 10m into the room. The water came down the front surface of the sloped brushed stainless surface and when it hit the top of the micron thick vinyl, it cupped the top of the vinyl and formed a flume of water that went into the middle of the room at a speed expected of a fire brigade hose, arcing into the air over our heads and onto the floor, tables, goody bags and flowers, lighting techs, sound techs and anybody on the south bank within a 10m radius. As we were all in the room all standing back to admire our handy work, we didn’t have anybody on the power. The fire exits were particularly spectacular and as water cascaded down onto the floor as a 2m wide water curtain one of the brave team went through the icy water to get to the power. In the time it took to get back to the wet sockets we had dispersed half of the sump water in each feature across the now soggy, not quite so elegant room and all of the water in the fire exit headers was on the floor.

There was an ashen silence for probably only a second, before the flower lady shrieked and all hell broke loose. Goody bags were ruined and some of their contents, flowers on the table had taken a direct hit and had now fallen over and displaced their water on the already sodden tables, table settings were ruined and seats were soaked.

Now as luck would have it, some of the pumps hadn’t worked as the wiring had been missed so there were one or two dry spots but the carpet took on a cold wet guise of a student flat after a particularly vibrant party. It was audibly soggy, and as the Dowager who had just arrived and was organising the party for the Red Cross stood there in her evening gown, I could see the train of her dress taking on water. I guided the now hastily adjourned client party to a dry section while the team tried to look at the vinyls and see what could be done.

The client after some debate insisted on having everything as it was and this is where I should have stood firm. One of the features had lost its vinyl completely so I ran this one to show that the features would work without the sponsor graphics. This was not an acceptable solution, so we had turned down the pumps with what little adjustment they had and tried again with the client watching. This time with only one feature. To my, by now very wet and beaten spirit I thought it couldn’t be any worse than before, so we cleared the nearest table and turned it on. I am not sure whether it was because when we had all the water features on, we got less power to the pumps, but with just one we surpassed our previous attempts at ruining an entire event and the possibility of the Red Cross donators being very un-inclined to cough up much needed donations. The water hit the vinyl graphic with the same gusto as a seven year old boy in a water park running and bombing into a swimming pool on holiday. It cleared 15m at least into the room soaking an otherwise untouched part of the resplendent dining room and when we turned the power off, everything it had missed on the way out, it hit as the water jet power reduced on the way back.

Well, thankfully the decision to get rid of the vinyl graphics was made and we had some confidence that we could resume the fountains without.

To cut a very long story short, we had continuing issues, if only the vinyl graphics had been stuck on with friction and not glue, if only we had smaller pumps for the doorways, if only we had bought proper pumps not general sewage sump pumps, etc. Then someone decided to crank the heating up which made a dense mist as the cold water mixed with the hot air and we had a mist around the bottom of the tables that didn’t go until the guest arrived as well as a luke warm sauna feel and smell to the whole environment.

We eventually had most of the fountains on for the walk in and that was it and spent a lot of time apologising and helping other departments get ready for dinner.

I was to work the show as Stage Manager that night for our props.

Now as much of a disaster as it was for us, we were selfishly happy when other departments started to unravel. There was a water curtain installed by others in front of the stage which leaked all over the bands kit and when Madness came on the stage, they were mad! The water curtain had also spread all over the dance floor, so I was on my hands and knees cleaning the floor for the first dance when the system seating supplied by others started to come apart. The back of the bench style stage deck seating had been put on with tiny screws and they all started to fall off, and when I say all, I was on my hands and knees on the soaking wet carpet during presentations going round the tables with a box of screws and drill screwing them all back on.

So very wet and very cold, I am sitting back stage in my black tie shivering and much to my surprise the client comes back stage to thank me for all mine and my teams hard work and he was sorry I had to make reparations for other suppliers! Well blow me down with a feather, I was envisaging law suits for the ruined interior of the tent, for non delivery of project etc. What a sweet man to understand the issues we had and his mistakes and mine in undertaking this much in such a short time frame.

Lesson learnt!

Think twice and don’t be shy about voicing your concerns at every stage and make sure the client understands the possible ramifications. They use you because you can do what you do, so it is right they should also trust your opinion and you should walk away if the alarm bells ring.


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