A year in lockdown: What does an events manager do when there are no events to manage?

Conference Manager Mel Searle loves running events. During term-time, it’s academic gatherings and the formal events that mark the student year, alongside external bookings. Come the summer, it’s international conferences, romantic weddings, overnight guests and plenty of local business events.

But, from March 2020, the world changed. Mel told us, “What I loved doing was no longer there.”

Instead, she found herself phoning brides, conference organisers and academics, discussing whether they wanted to cancel or postpone their plans.

And that was only the start of a whole unexpected new role. As Covid unfolded, Mel was a natural pick to arrange the College’s risk assessment for each building and event.

Supporting teaching, Fellows and students

Each room booking, whether from a student, a staff member or a Fellow, had to go through Mel for a safety check.

Suddenly, she found herself selecting new technology to allow hybrid teaching. “We’ve got Owls in all the supervision rooms, and they’re great for zoom calls with students who may be shielding or overseas,” she explains mysteriously. (Rather than birds, College has installed sophisticated web cams to help teaching.)

The Conference Office worked much more closely with students, and Mel’s colleague Abi Denniss was appointed as the Student Self-Isolation Co-ordinator, supporting individual students in quarantine or isolation.

In fact, their team suddenly found itself at the heart of College, and, as Mel says, “My understanding of the college is so much better now. I’ve collaborated so much more closely with the Fellows and the Tutorial Office.”

What’s more, Mel can see the potential for some really positive changes in the conference arena – with Newnham leading the way. As a College, we discussed the environmental impact of conference travel two years ago in our Green Week Report. and before Covid hit, Fellows were trialling giving keynote lectures online.

A greener approach to conferences?

Mel sees the hybrid conference model, with some people gathering in person and others online, as the future. “18 months ago we said you can never do this as successfully but hey, you can,” she said.

Hybrid conferences allow for international audiences and speakers to come together while reducing travel. It’s an opportunity to reach a wider, larger audience. And, in fact, most of the infrastructure we needed to host these hybrid conferences was already in the new Cynthia Beerbauer Room. A specialist A/V company has been brought in to bring in the rest of the technology, and we’re now able to livestream to and from the College’s largest meeting space.

“I’m excited, of course, after a year without events,” Mel said, “but I’m also very aware of safety.” Mel has also ensured that all the college’s rooms and events planning meet stringent Covid safety standards. She’s delighted to have been awarded both the AIM Secure certification, accredited for business events, and the UK Government’s ‘Good to Go’ accreditation, for hospitality.

One other unexpected thing lockdown did bring: “wedding enquiries galore”, many of them from Newnham alumnae.

“I suppose if you can survive lockdown together, you know it’s a relationship that will survive,” Mel mused. “And there’s something special about a wedding at Newnham, isn’t there?”

And, when that first wedding of 2021 takes place, Mel can’t wait to be there. “It will be finally shutting the door on the past year.”