The Winchester Round Table Bonfire & Fireworks display has been held in Winchester, Hampshire for 56 years. The event has grown from humble beginnings, when it attracted a small crowd and raised £20, to a 21,000-spectator extravaganza, generating £40,000 for charity.
It’s no small feat. Roger Jones, Bonfire Chairman at Winchester Round Table, shares with Eventbrite all the factors that must be taken into consideration when organising a fireworks display…
Identifying the need for expert input
“Whether you need to employ specialist knowledge will depend on the scale of your event. As far as our event is concerned, we have taken professional advice on safe distances for fireworks and the site where the display takes place has undergone analysis. Access points to the site are particularly important in case accidents happen.
“If you’re only planning a small display you don’t need to be as rigorous, but when it gets to a certain point you need to bring in specialists. For example, the type of fireworks we use belong to a category that can only be fired by professionals, so we bring in someone to do that.”
Finding the ideal site
“Again, it depends on the scale of your event. You will need to assess your site to ensure it is appropriate for the numbers you are anticipating. The considerations when picking a site are, in particular, access issues relating to both people viewing the fireworks as well as the fire department and ambulances.
“We originally had our display on one site and when the numbers got too big we looked around the centre of Winchester and found somewhere else that suited our requirements. We have a procession beforehand and we wanted to make sure that could still take place.
“We’ve reached another limit now; we can’t have any more than 21,000 people. That’s why we’ve started issuing tickets. We used to just let people pitch up without a ticket but we were having problems with people having to be turned away. Now the event is ticketed, we’re hoping it will keep it within manageable bounds for the foreseeable future.”
Safe site layout & weather precautions
“You need is establish a fall-out zone to allow your fireworks to drop out into a safe area. It must be calculated with the prevailing wind in mind. If the prevailing wind is towards your audience there is the risk the fireworks could fall out onto viewers.
“We monitor the weather closely, it is important that the wind is blowing in the correct direction. The fireworks company that we’ve partnered with on our displays uses a different type of firework if the wind is too strong in the wrong direction. They use a lower-firing type of firework and adjust the display accordingly. It’s not ideal but you can’t always account for the weather.”
Rules and regulations
“If you’re putting on a public display you will need to engage with the local authority. Because we hire our site from the council, although it is free of charge as we’re a charity, we sign a contract with them as to the usage of the land.
“We have an event management plan that explains in some detail how each part of the event is managed. We have road closures, for example, we have an interaction plan with the police and we hire a security firm for the night – we bring all of these things together in the document.
“Although the council does not sign off the event management plan, they require sight of it and need satisfaction that we have everything covered. Depending on the size of the event, it would require different levels of other services involvement, such as the fire department, ambulance and police.
“Because our site is near an airport and we’re near the flight path, we also require a permit to fire the fireworks. Our fireworks company takes care of that for us.”
Risk assessment and emergency plan
“The event management plan covers off what would happen in the case of various different contingencies happening. One of the key things about site access is how quickly people can get off it. That’s why we can only admit certain numbers on the site. The site is 23,500 sqm, which is enough capacity for 40,000 people, but we can only allow 21,000 people on site because the roads and the bridges at the access points are quite narrow.
“We have a plan for communicating an evacuation on the public address system and we have specific words put in place in the plan, and provided to the people who do the public address. If anything happened, they could right away refer to the process and communicate in a connected manner.
“St. John’s Ambulance is one of our key partners. We discus with them the nature of the event, they then deploy a specific number of people to the site with different skills. We have tents set up around the site and have a link between them and the local ambulance service, so that’s all drawn together. In addition, St. John’s have their own event management plan about how they’re going to manage their crews.”
Planning the display
“For our event we tend to work with one firework company. We discuss with them our budget and the length of display we’re looking for. For me, it’s all about entertaining the crowd, so one of the things we do is put music to the fireworks.
“We have a lot of discussion with them about the songs we want to put in there and the type of fireworks we want – we like to have the music and firework type all co-ordinated.
“Because of the size of fireworks we use, it’s not possible for someone who doesn’t have a licence to set them off, so we get someone to do it for us.”
Insurance and risk mitigation
“We don’t expose ourselves to a lot of risk, we take out various insurances, such as bad weather insurance, third party liability and insurance for equipment.
“In terms of mitigating risk, we make sure that all the parties involved view the event management plan and allow them to have input. At the end of the day the risk sits with us, but by following best practice we can minimise the chances of things going wrong.”
Budgeting and cash flow
“We’ve got years of experience of doing the event so we know approximately what our costs will be each year, remembering to adjust for inflation.
“We’re fortunate that our supplier partners that work with us know we do it for charity so they offer us good rates. We also have many wonderful sponsors and supporters.
“Because we don’t want to let down anyone who supports us, we hold back a reserve fund to make sure we have the cash flow to pay our suppliers on time, and also to refund people if we have a weather event.
“To ensure we have good cash flow we sell the tickets at a lower price up until the day before the event, so it’s £3 in advance and £5 on the day. It gets people to buy those tickets and puts some money in the bank for us.
“We do hold back some tickets to sell on the day. We’ve probably sold 70% prior to the day of the event. Then we have tickets available at various places on the day and a structure to bring tickets back from the high street and onto the fireworks site, as people make their way over.”
Selling tickets and promoting the event
“We sell tickets door-to-door and online on our website. Last year we sent out 4,000 tickets, which was a lot of work envelope stuffing for us! We also have a few partners around the city where we provide them tickets and they sell them on our behalf – the tourist information centre, the library and some shops. Some of our sponsors also hold tickets.
“The year before last we worked with the radio station to get the message out about the event. We’ve sort of stepped away from that. Now we use our website, Facebook, and last year – for the first time – we were able to do a mailshot to our customer database. That was very effective.
“We also produce 10,000 programmes, containing our sponsors’ information, as well as case studies of where the proceeds of the event have gone. We distribute programmes to pretty much every house in Winchester and the surrounding villages. That tends to get the message out there.
“In addition to that, we put a banner over the high street and put up posters. On market day, we set up a little stall in the high street and have four or five people talking about the event, giving people information and handing out programmes.”
Crowd control and on-site staff
“We have about 300 people involved with the event. This includes 150-170 volunteers, including our own Round Table members, 40 or so private hire security staff, and we also have St John’s Ambulance helping us as well. All are involved in managing the crowd.
“We have stewards at all entrances and stewards at the bonfire area and fireworks area, to prevent unauthorised access. We have security patrolling the parameters to make sure there’s no one trying to climb through the river to access the site. It’s not about the loss of revenue; it’s about controlling the numbers. The purpose of the security is to keep people safe.”
Catering and toilets
“We work with an organisation that has a number of catering vans that come in. One of the key things we specify is they need to be able to feed people reasonably quickly. We have looked at more gourmet options but haven’t been able to find suppliers that can do that to scale on the night.
“We have an agreement with the caterers as to what they pay us to come on site. We know the food is a bit more expensive than it could be but we’ve always taken the decision that it’s more money for charity. However, we do keep the ticket prices low to make it accessible for everyone.
“We’ve taken advice on the number of toilets we need for the people coming, it’s not a significant number, but we provide enough so there are not big queues.”
Site break down and cleaning up
“We have the good fortune of having a Scout group that helps us to clear up the next morning. They come in very early.
“We put in temporary fences ourselves, but we get the company that supplied them to come and take them down because everybody is pretty exhausted by the Sunday morning.
“Anything that’s high value, like generators for lighting, we take that away at the end of the evening, but we do have overnight security to keep an eye on anything at risk, such as toilets.”
“Last year we were able to give more than £40,000 to 45 local charities. Organisations that benefited included a youth counselling service, a special school, which received £9,000 for equipment; and a ‘live at home’ scheme which was allocated funds to send members on holiday to the Isle of Wight together.
“Organising the fireworks display is a lot of work, but it’s enormously gratifying to be able to make such a difference in our community and to run an event that is so successful in bringing everyone together.
“We are looking forward to our 57th display, being held on Saturday 7 November, and we’re hoping for better weather than last year!”
With safety of paramount importance, there’s certainly a lot to consider when running a fireworks display. However, by bringing in experts to take care of the elements you can’t do yourself, you can ensure a smooth running event.
Photographs courtesy of Winchester Round Table and Simon Rees