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Amid practising pianists and stretching burlesque dancers, Denis McCourt of Awesome Events tells V&E about his new role as ring master of the Bloomsbury Big Top
You would be forgiven for assuming the ‘ringmaster’ of award-winning Awesome Events would turn up to business meetings or, say, interviews, in a mode of transport befitting of his position as a successful MD. But then, that isn’t very Denis McCourt. A scooter is. ‘I used to cycle everywhere, but it’s too dangerous in London,’ he says. ‘Now I get about on my scooter. I often get clients on the back and take them to see locations.’
Another refreshing trait for a man in McCourt’s position is his willingness to dress, unabashed, in a fetching jodhpurs and tailcoat combo at the drop of a top hat. He looks good, too – even without the whip. Naturally, this bright-eyed optimism and sense of adventure has permeated into his business.
McCourt left a job in the City years ago and set up the Party Bus – themed nightclub-hopping, on a Route Master. After a few successful years, McCourt was keen to push into the corporate events market and Awesome Events was born. Not long after, he launched prop-hire operation Awesome FX, complementing the events business. It wasn’t until 2010 though, that Awesome Events had its own, albeit temporary, venue: the Christmas-only Bloomsbury Big Top, in Coram’s Fields.
Bloomsbury Big Top is a 1,000-capacity themed venue designed for corporate events in the run-up to Christmas. Trapeze artists, men doing dangerous things with chains, pole dancers, gambling tables – sensory attractions abound. In full-swing, it nods to the most decadent chapter of Pinocchio. You won’t turn into a donkey, though.
The idea germinated in 2009, a few minutes after European Events announced they would no longer be organising events at Coram’s Fields; or anywhere, for that matter. Less than 24 hours later, McCourt stood in front of the Coram’s Fields board, telling them how, without any of the necessary experience required, he’d like to put his own very large tent in their garden. Hands open, shoulders raised, he explains: ‘I always wanted to have my own venue and challenge myself. I thought, Okay, let’s give it a go.’
With permission granted, there was the small matter of the concept to get out of the way. ‘I didn’t want to do a marquee and challenge the likes of The Ultimate Experience, who I have a lot of respect for and do a lot of work with. I wanted to do something different,’ he explains. With London’s competition as it is, merely having a marquee, canapés and flutes of fizz would mean going up against a few, very successful, competitors. A new idea was needed. ‘Someone mentioned having a big top and suddenly that was the name – Bloomsbury Big Top.’ The name preceded, and then qualified, the concept.
Despite the seemingly nonchalant decision-making early on, there was some deliberation. McCourt was initially wary of the Big Top moniker, wanting to avoid any connotation of children’s parties. ‘We don’t use the word circus. We want to create a Park Lane hotel environment, in a field, in a big top, in central London,’ he explains. ‘So that’s what we try to do – with the nice toilets and furniture. And our kitchen (all catering is done by Zest) cooks for a 1,000 people onsite.’ Client tastings are also done onsite, where interested parties can sit around a chef’s table, watch the cooking process, then taste the result. ‘I don’t know anyone else who has done that before. We wanted to raise the bar – it’s a big top, but with a bit of finesse.’
It isn’t just the cooks who work onsite. Awesome Events’ office is annexed for the duration of the Christmas season and the five-strong (permanent staff) team work close knit and flat out. The emphasis on team effort is integral to the business model, a principle visible from the client’s perspective. ‘A client books with a person and that person sees the event all the way through. There isn’t anyone who doesn’t do everything. There’s a real team spirit, there has to be.’ This also applies to Awesome’s agency staff. ‘When we’ve got a night off, we take them all out and get blitzed together.’
A team working onsite has also proven to be one of McCourt’s biggest challenges. ‘You are in the hands of God,’ he says, sighing. If you were outside for any of it, you will remember the ‘cold snap’ of winter 2010. McCourt’s memories weren’t fond. ‘We had the worst winter ever. Apart from a plague of locusts, I had everything thrown at me that year.’ The weather meant deliveries were late and staff couldn’t get there. If they did, they were treated to working in an office where the thermometer was reading minus three. But it was the inaugural year, it had to go well. Sure enough, the show went on – they didn’t close a single night. Safe to say, the learning curve was steep.
‘Because we had that baptism of fire the first year, in 2011 we had a contingency plan in place.’ Luckily, it was a memorably clement winter and they didn’t have to employ it.
In 2011, there was a new problem – noise. More precisely, Bloomsbury residents protesting about an excess of it. One complaint to the local council very nearly resulted in a withdrawal of Coram’s Fields’ licence – a complete show-stopper, then. The solution was a sound ceiling. McCourt invested in a bespoke, flat speaker system suspended above the dance floor. Zara Phillips is reported to have used the equipment – essentially a collection of car speakers, boxed up pretty – at her and Mike Tindall’s wedding reception. They didn’t want to wake Grandma (Queen Elizabeth II) up. ‘On the dance floor it is 100 decibels, when you step off, it is 60. We did a lot of testing with the council, after 11pm, we had to be inaudible.’ Now, if you walk past the park at night around Christmas-time, you won’t hear a thing.
It is was with these two successful, albeit unpredictable, seasons under his belt that McCourt returned to the Coram’s Fields board asking for something else. His new idea was to take over the same corner of the park, for the 2012 summer season this time. In a one-off bid to exploit the potential of the London Olympics, McCourt proposed to erect a traditional garden marquee – The London Pavilion. While the deal was sure to be mutually beneficial, the board were not immediately enthusiastic.
Coram’s fields, if you didn’t already know, is a charity. The 250-year-old site used to be home to an orphanage. The world’s first, so thinks McCourt. While the facility has now moved out of town, in the summer, the space is still regularly replete with the charity’s children. A 1,000-capacity marquee is bound to get in the way. Optimistic as ever, McCourt suggested to the board that a temporary venue could raise a lot of money, especially in light of the Olympics. ‘Our involvement is such that every live event we have, money goes directly to the charity. It could likely be the only time the structure will be there in the summer.’ The board lifted their reticence and again agreed with the ebullient Mr McCourt. Bookings are now being taken for the summer (June/July) residency. It has taken him a while to convince the charity that Awesome Events is not just a money-making machine. ‘I used to take my daughter to Coram’s fields, so I understand the park’s ethos and what it’s about. It’s about creating a revenue stream for us and for them.’
Since the early days of the Party Bus, McCourt's confidence has manifestly grown. An informed knowledge of where the Big Top sits in the market and who should be interested dominates his talking tone and business approach. He explains: ‘We want to pitch ourselves so we are not as expensive as Park Lane hotels but we’re on par with the marquee companies that are out there.’ Awesome Events, it would seem, has moved on, competing with other big companies in a tenacious London market. But, in a friendly way, as McCourt explains, ’I give them [his competitors] business, they give me business. When Bloomsbury was launched, my first phone call was to Mike Kershaw [MD of Concerto Group] saying, I’m behind this, let’s work together on it.’
When he talks about the future, McCourt’s objectives remain characteristically straightforward and honest: ‘We’d like to get some more venues around London, but there’s nothing confirmed yet.’ Oh and he has decided to climb Everest (well, to the base camp) and run with the bulls in Pamplona too. Maybe he’ll go on his scooter.
Awesome Events, tel: 0845 644 6510, squaremeal.co.uk/awesome
This article first appeared in Square Meal Venues & Events, spring 2012