Thoughts from Cuckoo HQ
16
Jun 17

Inside Cuckoo: Mags Connelly

This interview is the first in the 'Inside Cuckoo' series, which will feature interviews with each member of our Senior Team. We wanted to find out exactly how our team members found themselves in the events industry and what advice they would give to aspiring event professionals.

Most of what we're learning as interns comes from listening to what the Senior Team have to say and we wanted to share that opportunity with you all. We're launching the series with Mags Connelly's interview. Mags is Division Head here at Cuckoo Events. Mags' background is in traditional Occupational H&S. She also has a special interest in Emergency Planning & Management for events, especially large-scale, city-wide, public mass gathering events.

What was your first full-time job?

My first full-time job was as a lifeguard in the Aquila Club in the Gleneagle in Killarney. When I left school I didn’t get the points I wanted so I went down to Killarney to work for the summer, and ended up staying for a year and a half before I went off to uni and decided what I wanted to do. So yeah, I was a lifeguard and swimming teacher down there - and loved it!

How did you first get into event management? 

See, I never saw myself as an event manager, I always thought of myself as a Safety Officer that works in the event industry, and then I suppose over time I have got involved with the overall event management and production.

When I was studying for my LLB in NUIG, I volunteered for the Galway Arts Festival and it was my introduction to Sword [Security] as they had stewards and security on most the venues in Galway then. I then went on to work for Sword and that got me involved full time in events. We’d organise the stewards and security for different events, and for some like the races would provide the Event Controller and Safety Officer. I worked full time for them by the time they merged with Event Guard up here in Dublin. We got to work at the festivals, so that was it - it went from there.

I left Sword and went to work for another security company and became their Health & Safety Manager. In 2008 I left and I set up my own company, and when I did, Diarmuid [owner of Sword] asked me to come back and work at the events as Safety Consultant for him. So that was my introduction back as a safety officer into events. I still credit (or blame!) Diarmuid Smyth as the reason I work in event safety.

What was the very very first event you were involved in?

My debs! I went to St. Wolstans in Celbridge and we had the debs in the Keadeen Hotel in Naas. I was involved with the organising group although I don’t remember how I got involved. It was good fun, once all of the formalities such as presentations for best teacher and best student etc. had been done, then we just went on the rip!! I taught my fellow students how to put naggins in their tights to get past the security search going into the nightclub later that night! After the club we got the bus into town, had breakfast in Abbey Street and got the bus home to Celbridge in our debs dresses. I had 120 clips in my hair that night, and I remember being so tired and trying to get them all out! It was a good night and I didn’t sleep until we were all home and safe. So that was my first event. I liaised with the hotel at the time, probably because I grew up in hospitality. Maybe that job was given to me because they thought ‘you know what to do, you know what to ask for...’

What is the toughest event you’ve organised/worked on?

The toughest physically was Witness in 2002, because there was so much mud and so much sun, and I got badly burnt. But every event has its challenges, and none have broken me so far. There’s none I’ve walked away from thinking, “I’m never working at a gig again”. You learn from the challenges. I’d probably go back and do every event again.

The bigger the event, the more challenges you face but not necessarily bigger risks. On event day, you can have all of the plans in place and something will go..not wrong, but you’ll have to deal with something. One of the trucks will break down for Pride, or we’ll have a delay and have to stall the start of an event.

A tough one for me was a sporting event in 2010. It was a new venue, new procedures and there were teething problems, including the ticketing system. Shortly before the event was due to start I had to go to the ticketing office and report back whether I thought there was going to be a delay getting the spectators into the venue in time for the scheduled start time. This info / recommendation was then used to decide on delaying the official start time which in turn had a huge knock on effect for other departments including the commercial dept. So I am standing there thinking “Shite... I’m going to have a lot of people to answer to” but the spectators’ safety was my first and final concern, and not delaying could have caused other issues. Afterwards I had to go into a heated meeting and answer to a Committee and the Commercial Manager….and the Commercial Manager has to answer to big sponsors who are giving thousands and thousands of euros so... that was a tough one. It was a “AHHH!” type of moment but yeah, you learn from them.

I always try and think ‘Can I justify that decision’ and if I can I will stand by it. That’s not to say that I am not open to discussions on decisions or not prepared to listen to others. Everyone has an objective / agenda and sometimes there are other ways of looking at a situation which may satisfy everyone’s objectives. So sometimes the toughest part of the event is the ‘politics’ involved and managing that.

Within the industry, do you think there are areas that need more attention from the government?

Yes, definitely. I think the legislation and regulations need a complete overhaul, and sooner rather than later. Also I think the cities in particular, Dublin, Limerick, Galway etc...  need to look at the resources, infrastructure and event spaces within the cities.

We’re running out of spaces in Dublin and traffic is already a nightmare. Traffic in Galway is a nightmare too, which will affect events like 2020 City of Culture, and the traffic getting into the city of Limerick has always been chaotic...all of the cities need to look at the effect it's having, and it’s a consideration for us as event managers. We’re giving a lot back to the economy and we need to have a support from the policy-makers, from the local authorities. If you know 2020 is coming in Galway, then start building roads now.  

I sat in traffic yesterday on the Eastlink toll and looked at the 3 Arena….the road narrows from four lanes down to one going over the bridge. It took me 45 minutes to get to the Port Tunnel from the Aviva yesterday which is less than 2km. It’s ridiculous. So you’re bringing people into a city that doesn’t have the resources, where’s the sense in that? It will eventually affect our (Ireland’s) capability to attract large scale events. 

But my biggest gripe would be legislation, regulations and competency of people within the industry. I work in construction where, since 2005, there’s been a lot of new regulation. It’s a lot of paperwork, but we’re used to it now. You can go onto a site and say, “We’re doing it this way because the law says we have to.”

I’m not saying it makes everything perfect and that construction sites are now accident free but it has improved things and importantly it has reduced accidents and fatalities. The same thing should happen with events. If you have a Safety Officer, they need to be competent. If you have an Event Controller, they need to be competent. You shouldn’t be able to just open an event management company and organise something where you could put people at risk, nor should companies be given Public Procurement Contracts on price evaluations alone….in my opinion.

We need clear, transparent and consistent guidelines, regulations, legislation to develop and improve our industry, and not wait for another tragedy to force a rushed effort.

So what is the best advice you could give someone who is hoping to start out in the industry?

Get out and get practical experience....of some sort. If you want to get into Crowd Management, get out and work with a stewarding company. It’s the best grounding I ever got because you learn, unbeknownst to yourself, how to watch crowds, how to move a crowd. Even before I got into crowd management and studying it as a science, I learnt how to think..“Right, they’re coming here, we need to start queuing them” or “it’s getting busy there, we need to divert them.”

If you’re interested in production, go and start volunteering for the summer, go and work with the likes of Actavo or one of our suppliers to get experience on site.

If you’re interested in medical go volunteer with Civil Defence, Red Cross or similar.

Anybody who wants to get into event management, even when you’re studying it, go out and work part-time. I know when I’m looking at CVs, I always look for what practical experience the person has. I would always look for, maybe not event management experience, but people’s work background...to me it gives an indication of their work ethic... I think if you’ve a part-time job when you’re a student, it’s a good sign. That’s just coming from my background. Growing up in a pub I was taught to pull a pint at an early age and I’ve always worked. So that’d be my advice!

In your opinion, what does it take to be a good event manager?

A few things I have learnt….

Patience….Patience and diplomacy.. Diplomacy but being confident enough to say, “Thank you for your input, however we’re doing it this way.” Diplomacy and patience to deal with the politics, the personalities and the agenda’s...and there are lots.

Find out what what organisational method works for you, and stick to that. For example, one method we use here is checklists and regular meetings. That works really well for some ….others have a different way of doing things. Find out what works for you and what makes your life easier yet still ticks all the boxes.

On event day, a lot of it is about connections and the way you treat people. We’re lucky here at Cuckoo, we have good relationships because of the way we treat people. You can go and talk to the stewards, you can go and talk to the suppliers and it’s not just, “Yeah, yeah, grand thanks, get on with it.” Just having a little bit of respect for your peers and your suppliers as well… that would be my advice. It’s nice to be nice!

What did you wanna be when you were a kid?

When I was at school I wanted to be an accountant… and I remember my accounting teacher said no I wouldn’t make it because I need to work things out.. so take for example the law of depreciation...I couldn’t just accept that, I had to know why and then waste time working out why. So I’d spend too long in an exam going, “Yeah okay, but why…”  Then I’d try to work it out myself, then the exam times up, “Turn the page over”, “Shit!” End of accounting career, although I still love maths.

When I was growing up in a pub I wanted my own pub, initially, at a young age, ‘til I was in my mid 20s. It’s a tough life lifestyle though, a tough family life but it taught me alot. I remember watching my Mum go after my Dad in a fight in the pub …to save his glasses.. she was and is practical that way! Plus she’s Scottish and knows what a ‘Glasgow kiss’ is!!

I was always interested in people….even as a child I remember sitting on the tube going to school and being fascinated by other passengers. I used to wonder who they were and where were they off to. And I still love to people watch. I applied for Psychology in my Leaving Cert but came nowhere near the points needed.

If you were on a desert island, and you could bring one thing, what would you bring?

Well, apart from my daughter? A Leatherman. ‘Cos you can cut a coconut, drink that, eat that, use it as your lip-balm…..

What are the essential items you bring to every event?

I always have my event bag in the car actually and it has my wet gear, it has my Leatherman, it has my torch, my notebook, my pen, lip balm and change of underwear!

For me your wet gear is a basic requirement. People ask me which is worse, wind or rain, ...personally give me wind any day ...if you’re wet, you’re miserable and it takes a long time to dry in and you’re probably gonna get sick from being wet. You’re gonna get cold, even on the best sunny day eventually it is gonna get cold but I still think the rain is worse.

My notebook comes back to the stewarding days. We always carried notebooks incase there was an incident and sometimes you needed your notes to use in court.

So yeah, they’d be mine. I’d love to go and look at the bag now to see what’s actually in there... Underwear! Clean underwear. Clean socks. The production socks. If you’re on a 16-hour day and you change your socks it makes a huge difference.

What would you like to do before you retire?

Train An Garda Siochana on crowd management, in Templemore or in Phoenix Park.. and that has been a plan for me for the last four or five years. So it’s interesting now that we have members on the courses we are organising.

I’d also like to run a coffee shop or hostel in Dingle, Lahinch or a seaside resort and be able to swim / surf / get into the water everyday….I am told I’d be bored but I tend to disagree!

And is there a dream event?

I’ve been asked this a few times. I love the larger, high-energy events, like a rave or a contentious football match or something with a lot of moving parts, where you’re go-go-go and the adrenalin is pumping, I believe I operate well in pressure. I don’t know if there is one ideal event for me and am I ok with that.

I love the sporting events, because we face a lot of the challenges that you’d face on a big event… The London Olympics were fantastic, absolutely fantastic and I learnt a lot from it, but we face the same challenges that we faced for that at a lot of our events today. In London we had 32,000 people day-in, day-out on a daily basis; we face that for Flavours, we face that for the Marathon.

At the minute the Marathon is my favourite. I admire and respect the voluntary ethos of it and how the Board have built it from a pure passion for running and the athletes’ experience. I also love that we have helped develop this event operationally and that key figures have recognised that and developed with us. It is the biggest spectator event in Ireland and I am part of that...I find that phenomenal! And yes I do stand on the finish line and well up watching the determination of the runners.

I also like the Red Bull events….what and how they deliver! I watch the events sometimes and think ..”sweet jaysus….I’d have a heart attack working that”, but that’s the challenge.

 
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