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Thoughts from Cuckoo HQ
Jul 17

Inside Cuckoo: Elaine Fitzsimon

For part three of the series 'Inside Cuckoo', we sat down with Elaine Fitzsimon, Site Manager and Event Producer here at Cuckoo Events, to hear all about her journey into the event world.

What was your first full-time job?

My first job was grading and packing leeks when I was about 12. I progressed to the lovely world of tomato picking after that...it was impossible to get the green out of your hands and you’d be covered in bee stings!

Or do you mean proper job? I was 15 when I started working in Arnotts. I worked in the school uniform department. I used to have to measure secondary school kids for school uniforms and also lads for Snickers trousers, as we sold workgear. It was a bit of a mental job at that age. Parents would get very pissed off when they have to wait in a queue and the queues would be so long they’d be running into the furniture section!

It was a very good learning curve working there. I learned a lot of people skills and patience, which seems to have deteriorated as I've gotten older!

I worked in Arnotts right up until I left college, in different departments, so about 6 years, part-time. I worked every Saturday and Sunday there, then I worked in an unnamable supermarket chain as well during the week when I was in college to pay the rent.

That was an odd job. I’d go into the bakery after 6pm, clean it and set it all up for the baker to come in the next morning. I wouldn’t see a soul for the whole evening. Im sure they all thought I was bit of a weirdo. Let's just say I haven't eaten a muffin in packaging since then. Their sell by dates are ridiculous. Some of them were still on the shelf two years later.  

So you did interior design in college? 

I did interior design and draughtsmanship. I learned how to draw, by hand first, then CAD, and then the theory behind design.

I also did graphics and did a refresh in that a couple of years ago. I only worked in domestic interior design for about a year after that, before I went into doing commercial fit-outs. It really taught me the basis of design, layouts and how to consider the psychology of people's perceptions and how they use and move through spaces.

Oddly I use so much of it in event site planning and production now, so maybe I had a crystal ball I didn't know about at the time!

And did you always want to do that?

No. I wanted to be an archaeologist when I was a kid. I was obsessed with the Celts and Ancient Egypt from when I was very young. I loved history when I was a kid, and still do! I was always down the woods climbing trees or off on some adventure somewhere so I probably thought I’d be off doing that when I was big.

I suppose I'm in fields a lot now so I’m halfway to the dream. I don’t know why I didn’t go into it, I think I probably was off messing too much as a teenager to study to get the points for it, but I had a lot of craic so it probably wasn't meant to be.

And so did you do art in school, was that how you got into design?

My Da was an artist. He was an art teacher in a secondary school as well. So I actually didn’t do art in school because I was surrounded by it at home. There was a choice between history, geography or art, and I picked history and geography. There was no point. I learned so much from my Da before I was even in secondary school and I loved geography so it worked out well.

He definitely made me appreciate colour, detailing and the beauty in the wilds of Ireland. I've a bit of an obsession with perspective, scale and geometrics too so design seemed like a good choice.

Did you enjoy your interior design course?

Yeah defo. It was very broad. There was a lot in it, a lot of content. It was probably a little more intense than the rest of my friends' college experiences. I actually took weeks off now and again and went down to Dundalk to my mates for sessions. Actually my third week in first year I took off sick and headed off to Dundalk.  

We had a huge amount of drawing projects, and they’d take up so much time that you’d be up with the birds singing most weeks trying to get something in. It was hard work!

A lot of people seem to end up doing something completely different than what they studied but I think college is a good transition from school into the real world and I also met some mates for life at college who have been stuck with me ever since, god love them!

How did you find your way into events, or what was that first moment where you said, “Hmm, I like that!”?

I had been working as a project manager in the construction industry doing renovations of large offices and reconfiguring workspaces. I had been doing that for a couple of years, and just wanted a change. I love being outdoors but also wanted to change to something that I could use the skills I had.

I was doing a lot of CAD, but it wasn’t really the type of design I wanted to be doing. There are only so many walls you can put up and change around! It was a lot more limited I suppose, in what you could do. So I started looking at other careers.

I looked at production design in film and events. I wanted to do something that was sort of relevant to what I was doing, ‘cos I’d a lot of experience in project management, planning and site work, and I enjoyed that side of it. I went for the event route. I researched companies and Cuckoo was the one that stood out for me.

I emailed Mark saying “Hello nice people. Please help..I'm bored!” just chancing my arm because I had a job so I didn’t feel pressure really. I just asked in the email if he'd meet me for a cup of tea  and that I want to chat to someone about events. Then when I went in he said they were actually offering a 4 month internship, so the cup of tea turned into a sort of interview.

I came in again brought samples of my CAD drawings, build schedules and also randomly made a Cuckoo cushion...met Martin and well, I’m still here! I had to leave a job where I was a senior manager to go back and be an intern so it was a big decision but I pretty much loved it from the get go.

There are so many similarities in events to what I’d done before. The first Dublin Pride we did, when the last CCB had been loaded and the call was made to order a pint, after a whopper of a day I had that lovely exhausted, relieved, proud feeling and knew that I really loved events.

Changing careers is a big decision, did you take some time to think about it?

No, I just decided pretty much straight away. Life’s too short and I’m not much of a worrier. I generally just go for things if I’ve a gut feeling and always try to trust that. It worked out well…. this time, ha!

How many years have you been here now?

3 years.

Cool. So, what was the first event you did with Cuckoo?

The first event with Cuckoo was probably Run for Your Lives, I think? I would have just started, so it was a weird introduction because I was googling how to make rope nets and trying to find hay. It’s definitely a good introduction to events. So eh, yeah it was good, I enjoyed it.

So have you done any tough events, Elaine? What was the toughest one you’ve done so far?

They can be physically tough, working in the lashings of rain, mud, for days on end can be hard going. But most events are tough, if they’re not tough then they’d be pretty boring. That’s oddly what event managers enjoy about events, the difficulty of them. I think we feed off the adrenaline of that. That’s what I enjoy anyway.

Getting on site, after months of planning, scheduling, wheeling & dealing, hair-pulling, late nights, it’s event day and you're ready to go, the whole crew are pulling it all together and you're watching a safe happy crowd enjoying themselves!

Do you think there are any areas within the industry that could do with a bit of change, or more attention from policy makers?

I think from what I do, probably more the build-side, we’re really reliant on construction regs. Which might seem fine, but while there are similarities there are also very specific things for events that aren’t in construction, that there aren't legal guidelines set out for.

It's a grey area that needs a lot of attention on that side because you’re building these massive temporary sites, and if it was construction it’d be a lot more regulated. It's a lot clearer on a construction site and you have the legislation to back up your directions / decisions.

And where would you start if you were in charge of that?

It would be creating a whole new set of regulations that was specifically for events.

You’d have to do a complete overview of the whole industry and start there.

If you were to do that, what kind of people would you need to make that happen?

You need to set a large programme for that with consultations with a mixture of competent contractors from all the professions. You’d have to probably start really with the methodology behind how you’d create sites and their content. Also the legal side to it and the statutory governance that would need to be given to that.

It’s a massive thing to start. It’s like starting construction regs all over again, so it wouldn’t be something that’d be done quickly.

And if you were starting out again, if you were trying to break into the industry, what advice would you give someone?

Just work your arse off!

You can’t sit around and expect it to just happen. Get out there and do as many events as you can. It can be a tough, thankless job, especially when you’re on site. Maybe try to really get to know what the job is. There's no glamour and you will have to have an extremely thick skin. Listen and learn from everyone you work with.

Have patience and set your expectations at a point when you’re starting that you can’t just jump in and be an Event Controller. You have to learn it.

There are various different roles in events and you can do a few but it's just to try find the one that you're really genuinely interested in and enjoy whether that's safety, production, site, using your own personal skills that suit you and your personality. I love site work and I’ve used my experience in construction and design to what suits me and what I’ll enjoy.

I definitely think there’s an area that suits people’s skills and talents and personality a lot more than others, so it’s just trying to find that, if you can. Also - just be a sound person. No-one wants to work with an arsehole!

What does it take to be a good event manager?

I think you 100% have to be able to build relationships with people. If you're a genuinely personable person, and really enjoy dealing with people it will make the job a lot easier. Suppliers and contractors are what make events. It won’t happen without them.

You can plan it and plan it but unless you’ve got good suppliers and contractors your event just does not happen. I've learned a lot listening to them and watching their skills, knowing where your skills stop and when to just just trust them - and that’s why you’re hiring them.

Be nice and appreciate the crew you're working with. You may plan a lot of the event and schedule it on your own but when you're on site it's about the crew and team you're working with that pull it all together. You have to 100% pull your weight when you’re in a team. You can’t be off in the corner behind some generator having a sambo when everyone else is working away, you know?

It's great when you've been so immersed in planning an event to get their perspective on things when you're on site. I've met some completely deadly people in this job who I'll be friends with for a very long time. We are very lucky to have such a diverse, talented, just savage crew at Cuckoo and most of us are mates outside work.

Your brain has to be able to compute a million different ‘to dos’  at once so it helps to be organised or have your own clear system for managing the workload. The show will go on without you. It might not feel it when you know the event inside out and you know every minute detail but you're not invincible. Shit can happen to you.

I think it's good to keep things organised in a clear processed way and communicate all the details back in case someone has to take over from you. The event as a whole is always bigger than you as an individual.

Patience, a lot of patience! Definitely the ability to stay calm and firm in your decisions in tricky situations while taking your own personal feelings out of it. I’ve been called some very unsavoury names but you really can't be sensitive or take it personally you're just a body in a high viz to a punter who can't get in.

Mostly being able to enjoy it and not get too stressed. There's always a solution. Try to set the tone on site and people will actually enjoy working with you on your events.

What are your essentials, at an event?

Cable ties, cable ties, cable ties… cable ties, a multi tool, wet gear, torch, a belt, a rake of water, a notebook, good boots and production socks, but I always end up not changing them cos I just don’t like reminding my feet they haven't sat down. Probably some sort of snack that won't melt and fits in pockets, and most importantly a good sense of humour!

Snack of choice?

Tracker bar. Roasted nut Tracker with a cup tea.

And the question we’ve been asking everyone else as well, desert island, what would ya bring?

Probably the mammy or one of my mates…

Not a person!

Definitely a person! Sure you could just make a little hut, eat coconuts, get some fish, but I’d like a person to have a bit of craic with. I do enough talking to myself as it is.

Then I’d probably kill and eat them when I’m bored with the fish! So yeah, definitely my best mate then.

I don’t really wanna eat my ma!

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