We love events because they’re dynamic experiences, always changing so no two events are ever the same. It means we rarely get bored of events as a career.
But it can make them challenging to predict and plan for. Even the most organised and experienced event planner will find a new obstacle they need to overcome from time to time.
We reached out to a dozen experience event organisers and professional event planners to ask about their experiences of events gone wrong, and the lessons they learned from them.
Here’s what they had to say about their event horror stories:
Dealing with a Bomb
by Mike Zywina, Founder of Lime Green Consulting and former Fundraising Manager at Link Community Development
At Link, my role involved overseeing Morocco Hitch – an iconic and successful student fundraising event.
With hitch-hiking perceived as a ‘risky’ activity, we had a comprehensive range of safety measures and contingency plans designed to safeguard participants and ensure that the event ran smoothly.
While these existed on paper, we hoped that most would never need to be used.
Then one day they were tested and it had nothing to do with hitch-hiking. In April 2011, a bomb exploded in central Marrakech. The explosion happened in a cafe used as a meeting point for students enjoying a holiday after their journey, five minutes before the daily meeting time.
Link operated an excellent daily tracking system and all our student groups had checked in their location the previous evening. However, we had over 600 students whom we couldn’t completely rule out as having been in Marrakech when the incident happened.
While we feared the worst, we knew we had robust safety measures in place. We immediately sent emergency text messages to participants to check they were safe and had a great process for logging incoming information quickly.
We were trained to respond to worried parents and even had a dedicated contact person at the FCO. Within two hours we had spoken to the majority of our students and by late evening we had confirmed that all 600 were safe, although some were understandably distressed.
I couldn’t be more proud of the way my team reacted in very challenging circumstances.
Everybody kept their cool and relied on the processes we had in place. The experience reinforced my belief that very unlikely scenarios can happen and that you need to plan accordingly.
When organising a major challenge event, you take on a burden of responsibility that you must be able to live up to – for the safety of your participants and for the reputation of your event.
The Last-Minute Venue Cancellation
by George Taylor, Founder and Director at Creative Industry Hub (@CRIndustryHub)
One time I was organising a fashion show in London, and I had an agreement with Wowcher to sell 400 tickets on a discounted rate and the event would have ran 2 days in a row.
It took me months to organise it and find the perfect venue. I had 5 fashion designers, 10 models and lots of other things arranged and the day before the event went on sale, the venue pulled the plug on me and I had to call Wowcher and call the whole thing off as I’d missed the deadline and wasn’t able to find a venue in time.
Two months later I found the perfect venue by accident and decided to organise a different fashion event.
Luckily I’d built all the right contacts so it was a case of making a few phone calls. It worked out even better than the first round as I teamed up with international fashion company Fashion United and had celebrity Noelle Reno speak at my event and people travel across the world!
It was a disaster, which later turned into one of my biggest life achievements.
When Nobody Turned Up
by Liz Elfman, Marketing at Campus London for Google for Entrepreneurs (@lizelfman)
I was way too busy, but I took on organising an event with two large corporates.
The subject matter was really interesting – cyber security and hacking. But, the event had a wordy, vague title that would put anyone to sleep. It was my job to market it, and the corporates did everything else.
They provided a 200-person space, ordered drinks and snacks, and put together these wonderful, insightful presentations. And then, in the end – 18 people showed up. Completely my fault. It was my own personal nightmare sitting there watching these presentations in a sea of empty chairs.
Since then I’ve realised quality content and a great event aren’t enough to drive people to attend.
How are people supposed to know it’s great before they show up?! Now I always put as much effort into the marketing, messaging and communication as the logistics so the organisers get the audience they deserve.
My advice to others is if you don’t have enough time to market your event properly, rethink whether you should run it at all.
British Weather Rained on My Parade
by Keeley Harris, Event Director, Festival of Vintage (@fovintage)
Bad weather can make a big difference to an event’s attendance, even if it’s indoors.
I organise one of the UK’s largest indoor Vintage Festival’s based at your Racecourse. It has a modest budget compared to some events at £35k but still requires a good attendance to pay the bills.
After a cracking first event with fine weather, year 2 was a different story. I increased spend on attractions and bands, marketing & promotion to try an increase footfall which was fine. But with persistent rain in Yorkshire and national news reports showing the whole of York was flooded the event numbers halved, even though it was an indoor event, people just did not venture out.
I have learnt that a tighter control on the budget for future years helps to cover any short fall in visitor’s numbers. Plus an increased use of Twitter allows the marketing & promotion to be an on-going feed throughout the year, encouraging more visitors whatever the weather.
The Last-Minute Venue Change
by Lianne Robertson, Managing Director at www.survivingactors.com (@survivingactors)
At Surviving Actors we did once upon a time have a major event horror story.
Less then 24 hour before an event there was a problem with the venue and we had to do a complete venue change. In less than 24 hours we had to find a new venue within budget that was suitable for the event, notify every company, every guest speaker and every actor planning to attend. It was absolute mayhem but with forward planning and a bit of luck we turned it around.
We found a venue that worked (the first one on Google), and we went on to use this venue for 2 years running after this. The staff there were actually amazing. Big shout out to Kings House Conference Centre in Manchester.
We went wild across all social media channels with ‘NEWSFLASH’
We were up to all hours emailing and printing maps and on event day we had a member of staff stationed at the old venue to direct anyone that turned up to the new venue.
The most important thing as an event organiser is BE ORGANISED!! Something which was key in our being able to turn the event around was having a list of mobile numbers for out of hours contact, this meant we were able to efficiently update people.
Can you imagine what a mess it would have been trying to contact companies out of hours on a Friday night. Also via Eventbrite we were able to message every single attendee with the click of a button! ACE!
An Unshippable Stand
by Christie Fidura, Operations Manager at Shoreditch Works (@shoreditchworks)
When I was the Marketing Manager for the Adobe Technical Communication Suite, I was doing about 10 trade shows across Europe per year.
Therefore, it was a smart budgeting decision to actually build a booth to use at each of these events. As I was based in the UK, I had the booth built here, and then just thought we would be able to ship it anywhere we needed.
Well, we ended up making such a beautiful booth of long-lasting materials that it weighed a huge amount and was impossible to ship. So my poor facilities person (outsourced) had to drive that booth wherever we needed. I remember him driving it to Copenhagen and Monaco both!
The Venue Mix-Up
by Scarlett Dixon, Editor-in-Chief and Founder, www.scarlettlondon.com (@Scarlett_London)
My event horror story is a rather big blunder, but something I’ve taken heed of since.
The first ever large-scale event I hosted was within a branch of a chain of bars in Central London.
I arrived at the venue with a car full of goody bags, only to discover it locked up. I rang the head office, who informed me that I didn’t have a booking there – and that my event was booked in another of their branches, across the other side of London.
I quickly had to make my way to the new venue, while simultaneously frantically emailing, texting and tweeting about the ‘venue change’.
Later on, I had the opportunity to double check the booking details with the PR I’d organised it through – a small print email in a long chain of correspondence. We’d been talking about the ‘original’ venue, but we both hadn’t noticed the mistake of the booking.
I now read every email three times; it can’t hurt to triple check. It could have been a complete disaster, but luckily – the event God’s were watching over me that day!
The Unwanted Guest (and Unreliable Tech)
by Katie McPhee, European Metro Marketing Manager at Eventbrite (@BriteLondon)
I recently held a networking / talks event for the digital community.
As it was a community event – no sponsors and free entry – all elements were provided gratis and we decided we’d probably be ok not to have someone on the door after the talks were under way.
As one of our high profile speakers took to the stage I was alerted that someone who’d been begging outside had ran in. He’d locked himself in the toilet where a queue was rapidly forming, and was refusing to leave – saying he was experiencing ‘issues’.
Luckily the building manager was on hand to direct guests to an upstairs bathroom while negotiating with the person refusing to leave; he eventually opened the door from the outside and escorted him from the building.
Learning: next time I’ll set up a donation ticket to support small costs like security or rope someone into volunteering to man the door – I know now that any central London evening event, even if it’s invite-only, should have someone at the entrance to dissuade gatecrashers.
At another event I organised I had 5 small businesses talk about the tools that had made them successful.
The room itself was impressive – a large theatre-like setting with a big screen – but unfortunately the venue’s projection equipment was outdated meaning we had to use their laptop to run the content.
We’d have just about got by but then the final speaker arrived while the first talks were on-going – and with just a URL to a Prezi presentation. Not good!
While the presenter managed to fill the awkward moments while we tried half a dozen options to get it running, we could not get it to work and the hardy speaker ended up having to ad-lib without slides.
Learning: I haven’t run any web-based presentations since then – I also always now insist speakers send their presentations before the day of the event, and a full technical run-through takes place before guests arrive.
Not Enough Space
by Maricar Jagger, Public Relations Officer at University of Portsmouth (@maricarjagger)
Sometimes success can become a problem. The first time we sold out an event, we didn’t know how to cope with the additional demand.
We thought, “Hey, all the seats are filled; we are happy!” Of course, more people turned up on the night and it was hell trying to fit everybody in. People get very upset quickly. It turned ugly, near a punch-up, as they vent their frustration on our staff and each other. It was stressful.
So it’s important that event organisers anticipate disasters, even one that comes from a success. We improved our management of ticket sales, so although our events are free we treat them as though they are paid. We appreciate that people invest their time, and more, to come to an event and we need to respect that.
We also monitor numbers closely and manage the surge of demand early with a well-managed waiting list. Our communications also anticipate a busy event and prepare people to face some delay or a venue move if an event becomes successful.
Our audience love to celebrate our success and be a part of it, so they also appreciate being involved in the process. Let them know if you are having a problem and trying to find a solution. They will love you more for your honesty and in the long run become loyal, even helpful.
A Morning Event with No Coffee
Imagine a room full of attendees, geeks, or grouchy early-morning B2B’ers, and then realise the venue has bad coffee, or no coffee at all!
One thing you can get badly wrong, that any attendee will happily point out, is the food and coffee situation. If an event is almost perfect, the food and drink will be the topic scrutinised most.
I’ve learnt to always make sure it’s clear who’s providing the brews and even where needed, bringing your own good quality grounds just in case.
For maximum engagement and positive feedback, make sure participants caffeine fix is adequately maintained.
The Longest Queue
by Lorna Bladen, Head of Marketing & Events at Enterprise Nation (@lornabladen)
My event horror story was when I had too many people turn up! It may seem like a good problem to have, but at the time it felt pretty overwhelming as an event organiser.
I learnt that charging even a small ticket price is better than not at all, as you will then have a clearer indicator on how many people will show on the day.
Quantity of guests is something, but delivering a quality experience to all is another.
This is the queue we had at the event where we had overwhelming demand!
The Goldilocks Vendors
by Rakhi Sinha, Manchester Marketing Manager at Eventbrite (@BriteNW)
Thankfully, I’ve not had any really serious disasters but as every event organiser knows, there are, of course, always hurdles, complications and last minute changes – it’s par for the course.
I would say the most difficult event I’ve organised is the pop-up market I do in Manchester called ‘Chorlton Bazaar’.
Me and my partner work with around 40 stall holders – ranging from vintage clothing to delicious street food and DJs – so there are a lot of moving parts. Most vendors are great and totally self-sufficient, but there are some that can be quite the diva.
“It’s too hot, it’s too cold, the light’s not bright enough, it’s too blinding”… and almost all of them turn up with more stuff to sell than they say in their applications. Once we get everything and everyone in place, though, it’s always a great day and it really is the different personalities that make it, so I wouldn’t change a thing.
Whether it’s a surplus or absence of attendees, unreliable suppliers, even less reliable British weather or something completely left-of-field (like a bomb), even the most experienced event professionals will have horror stories of events gone wrong.
What’s your worst event disaster, and what did you learn from it? Share them with us in the comments!