Get some fresh air

Conventional conference venues, or standard sampling locations, can often be restrictive and forgettable. One solution is to step outside, maybe into a marquee – or just the great outdoors. By David Benady

There is nothing like a spot of bad weather to ruin an outdoor event. But the unpredictability of the British climate has not deterred an increasing number of brand owners from building their own temporary outdoor venues to stage conferences and concerts.

From Innocent Drinks staging its Fruitstock festival in Regents Park in August, to Pepsi Max handing out samples at its Ultimate Frisbee competitions, running on four beaches around the UK this summer, brands are finding that the great outdoors is a useful medium for promoting their products. Youth brands are increasingly popping up at rock festivals and the Notting Hill Carnival is awash with brand representatives handing out samples.

In the lap of the gods

Despite the precautions event organisers can take against adverse weather conditions, there is sometimes little that can be done if the heavens open.

Vodafone discovered this when it organised the Vodafone Cup, a four-team football tournament held over two evenings at Manchester United’s Old Trafford ground in August. The competition featured the Red Devils themselves taking on Argentine side Boca Juniors, Japanese team Urawa Red Diamonds and Holland’s PSV Eindhoven. The final presentation ceremony was to be made on a platform built by production company APS, but disaster struck in the form of a freak lightning storm on the night of the final. The last game and the presentation had to be called off, as thunder and lightning crashed around the stadium.

“There was nothing we could do,” explains APS director Chris Teague. But he says such occurrences are rare and there are often steps that can be taken to mitigate the worst effects of adverse weather.

At one pharmaceutical conference, organised by APS at Versailles, during last year’s heatwave, the company realised there was insufficient air-conditioning in the outdoor marquees it had erected and this risked creating a baking, air-starved atmosphere for the delegates. The company had to hurriedly install new air-conditioning, while other organisers which failed to act had to abandon their stands. “We managed to work out a solution, which was critical because the pharmaceutical companies had invested so much in the programme. If it had been too warm to be comfortable, they would have got nothing for their investment,” he says.

Come into the garden

Some brands take to the outdoors partly as a way of promoting their brand values. Over the years, sportswear company Umbro has invited licensees of its brand to get together in exotic locations such as Dubai and the Mexican resort of Cancun. But this year, the company settled for a conference in its home town of Manchester. As there was no venue big enough to hold the 800 people invited to the event, Umbro erected a marquee in its grounds and ran the whole event from there. But this move was not just a response to the lack of suitable indoor venues. “A lot of this is about team-building,” says Teague, who helped to organise the event. “There is more fun to it and you are more likely to get people to attend the event if it is something out of the ordinary. They sit in the office all day and every day, but this is a creative company and these are marketing people. An outdoor event encourages them to do something unusual. We have all stayed in Hiltons, but with outdoor events you get people involved because they are not just sitting in a classroom listening.”

Companies running outdoor events can buy insurance against their day being ruined by bad weather, but this can itself be ruinously expensive. Insurance premiums can amount to 50 per cent of the cost of organising an event and for many brand owners it hardly seems worth it.

Some events cannot be run indoors, so there is little choice but to take a chance on the weather. Many venues do not permit sampling indoors, for instance, so if a drinks company wants to hand out samples of a new brand, there is sometimes no alternative to erecting a marquee.

Clouds over the crowds

There is always a chance that people will be put off attending if the weather looks threatening, though this very much depends on the sort of event being organised. Rob Jones, chairman of the live events division at USP, says attendance is “content-driven”. He points to a classic rain-soaked event – when Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti performed before 250,000 people in Hyde Park in 1991, during a torrential downpour.

Jones says: “If it is an attractive event, people will brave the elements but if it only rates a ‘so-so’ on their list of priorities, they will give the weather more weight than the entertainment.”

But he believes there are great advantages to staging events outdoors, rather than relying on an indoor venue. “Because you have a plain piece of paper you are not limited by the facilities: you are starting from scratch,” he says. An outdoor venue also gives a brand greater ownership of the event, he says: “If you go to a venue, that venue owns and determines the event, but people may wonder why they are standing in this field – who is responsible for bringing them there? The brand owner then owns the event, whereas in a venue it is just the sponsor.”

Exhibition designer 2Heads is working on stands for both the BBC and Granada TV at the Mipcom television exhibition in Cannes, where production companies showcase their work. The agency is also designing a stand on the beach at Cannes for another broadcasting client, Fremantle Media. The structure will cover some 400 sq m and, according to 2Heads client services director Richard Skeeles, getting the whole thing up and running will be quite a feat.

Rising to the occasion

“It is challenging. We need to air-condition the space, we are working with 20 meeting rooms for senior staff, plus a presentation room. It is the first time that Fremantle has been away from the main area down on the beach. We have to get power down there, but one generator isn’t enough to feed that space. Previously, Fremantle has taken space in the main arena and for client entertaining it has hired a yacht, but this allows the company to have its three divisions in one place, and makes it stand out from the main space,” he says.

To make sure people are aware that they should go out of the main area to see the Fremantle stand on the beach, 2Heads has created a flyer campaign which has been sent out to key executives.

“Clients are becoming more sophisticated in their demands and we are being pushed to think of more creative ways to present the product to the target market,” says Skeeles.

External, not expensive

But he plays down the idea that staging an event in a specially constructed outdoor venue is more expensive than sticking to an established one. “I wouldn’t say so: we build on site, so we have carpenters and electricians on our books. We have the capability to design it and build it.”

Carrying out sampling outdoors also has advantages, such as being free from the constraints of space and some of the health and safety considerations that apply at indoor locations such as shopping centres.

Gill Dunsford, director of brand experience agency impetus, says: “You get bigger crowds of people outdoors and the sampling can be targeted towards a certain type of consumer. You get families together and you attract more people.” One exercise the company carried out was distributing samples of Pepsi Max at the Notting Hill Carnival. It managed to hand out 30,000 samples a day for two days.

While there may be a greater number of people passing through a shopping centre, there are limitations on the space a brand team can occupy, which means you have to avoid having large queues building up and you will be separated from your stock.

“It is about visibility too: if you have a big stand, people see it even if they do not sample the product. This is particularly true at railway stations such as Waterloo and Victoria, which have 300,000 people passing through them every day,” she says.

While outdoor events face the risk of bad weather and present their own organisational problems, brands are increasingly coming round to the idea that they can be well worth the effort.

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