We’re taking a break from The Story in 2020 – so here’s how to run your own event instead

After reaching our 10th The Story conference last February  we’ve decided to take a break for 2020 and not run the event. Ten events feels like a milestone, and a good time to pause and think about why we started the event in the first place, and what we want to do with events like The Story in the future. The gift for all attendees last year was a beautiful book of our favourite talks from The Story, and that felt like closing a chapter on the event, at least for a year. BTW – if you’d like to buy a copy of the book for £10, drop us a line and we’ll sort it out.

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The Story was started when I had a full time job and very little spare time. I didn’t know then, but organising an event every year meant that I had to really grow my networks and ways of finding new speakers every year. The impact on my own thinking and creative processes has been incredible. So if you want to be inspired, run your own event – it’s easier than you might think!

I leaned heavily on the experience and advice of Russell Davies, who had organised the Interesting conference at Conway Hall, so in the same spirit, here’s some info about one of the most important bits of running an event – the money. We didn’t always make money on The Story, but ticket sales generally covered costs, and everyone got paid. If you want to run your own event, it is possible to pay everyone without taking sponsorship. And you really should pay everyone, especially your speakers.

Here’s a typical budget for The Story over the last 10 years:

Costs:

Number Unit cost Total
Venue Hire 1 1,300 1,300
Speaker fees 9 500 4,500
Travel 8 200 1,600
Hotel 8 200 1,600
PA and sound 1 1,100 1,100
Photographer 1 500 500
Gifts for attendees 400 5 2,000
Tea/Coffee 2,000 2,000
Speakers’ Dinner 1,500 1,500
Ministry of Stories Donation 2,000
Little Green Pig Donation 2,000
Grimm & Co Donation 2,000
Total 22,100

Speakers fees/Travel/Hotels/Dinner
ALWAYS PAY YOUR SPEAKERS! Five hundred pounds wasn’t a huge fee, and we sometimes topped it up by adding the hotel/travel budget if the speaker didn’t need them. There were definitely people who wouldn’t do it for that fee, and if we’d ever managed to get sponsorship, this is the area of the budget we’d have increased.

We hosted a dinner for the Speakers and helpers every year, in the private room at Barrafina on Adelaide Street. This was always a fantastic event, held the night before the conference, that gave us a chance to meet all the speakers, let them get to know each other, and generally relax a bit – it meant they knew the other speakers when they met at the event the next day, and that really helps calm the nerves.

Venue Hire/PA Sound/Tea & Coffee
The Conway Hall is a fantastic venue, and very cheap. Once they’d sorted out their own in house tech and had an approved caterer, it made running the event very easy indeed. We also liked the fact it’s run by a humanist/ethical charity, so the money was going to a good cause. There are lots of similar spaces like this in towns and cities all over the UK – so try and support them rather than big corporate event spaces. It’ll save you money, and you’ll help support great charities/art galleries/libraries/etc instead.

Gifts for Attendees
We never spent any money on dressing the hall, or getting big logos/screens put up all over the place for The Story. This is partly because Conway Hall is beautiful in itself, and partly because we didn’t want The Story to feel intimidating – we wanted it to feel warm, welcoming and cosy, not flash and in your face.

But by accident, we did come up with an idea that attendees really loved – every year we printed the running order for the event on a gift of some kind. The first year, we printed it in a newspaper that also had stories, images and other content from the speakers. Then in year two I had the crazy idea of printing the running order on a chocolate bar, and spoke to the master Chocolatier Paul A Young to see if he could help. A few months later, we were taking delivery of 500 custom-moulded chocolate bars.

They went down really well, with people sharing photos on Instagram & Twitter, so they did a good job of spreading awareness of the event. Considering we didn’t do any paid marketing for The Story, this was a huge bonus.

I knew I’d never come up with another idea as good as the chocolate bar, so I asked our friends at The Hoxton Street Monster Supply Store if they wanted to help out. This meant they got money to develop new ideas for products for their store, and we got really unique and beautiful gifts every year for our attendees. That’s a win all round, and better than yet another tote bag full of landfill.

Donations to Ministry of Stories etc
We firmly believe in pushing the ladder down behind you. If you’ve been lucky enough to work in a career you love, it’s because other people have opened up spaces to make that possible. So we wanted to use The Story to support great projects that created similar spaces for young people around the UK.

This started with Ministry of Stories in Hoxton, and ended up including their peers in Rotherham and Brighton. We gave £6,000 every year as direct donations to these projects, which can make a huge difference. If you’re running an event yourself, budget to support projects that are developing the next generation of talent, and make sure you push the ladder down behind you. There’s no excuse not to.

Income:

Free Tickets 50 0 0
Discount Code Tickets 100 50 5,000
Standard Tickets 150 75 11,250
Last Chance 100 100 10,000
Total 400 26,250

Ticket prices remained pretty stable after the first few years of The Story, because once we’d got the format more or less worked out, costs didn’t rise that much. The Conway Hall takes about 400 people, so we kept 50 free tickets for staff, speakers, etc; 100 tickets at £50 using a discount code that we’d share on the Storythings newsletter; 150 tickets at £75 for general sale; and 100 tickets at £100 once the standard tickets had sold.

These prices were before Eventbrite fees and VAT, which shifted the cost over the psychological £100 level for a lot of tickets. We tried to keep it as close to that as possible, as we wanted the event to be accessible for people who weren’t able to get their companies to pay for their tickets.

We knew that The Story wasn’t a commercial event, so you couldn’t always justify to your boss why the company should pay for it. So keeping the price around £100 was important to us – we played around with the distribution between discount codes/standard tickets/last chance tickets every year to try and get the balance between affordability and not losing money.

Profit/Loss 4,150

This is what Storythings would make on The Story if we sold all 400 tickets. We generally sold about 300-350, so we covered costs or made a small loss every year. We didn’t budget for Storythings’ staff time in the event at all – this was a labour of love for us, and actually helped us meet people that we later collaborated with, or who commissioned us to do work for them. In fact, the very first thing that Storythings built in 2011 was for Faber & Faber, who came to us because they loved The Story.

So – we’re sorry there won’t be another The Story event in February 2020. But hopefully this shows that it is possible to run an event yourself, make sure everyone gets paid, and possibly even make money on it. If you don’t have the luxury of a full time paid job, you can take out some of these costs and use them to give yourself a fee. If you have the skills to get sponsors as well, then you could even make some good money.

But remember – ALWAYS PAY YOUR SPEAKERS, and PUSH THE LADDER DOWN BEHIND YOU.

Everything else is up to you. If this has inspired you to run an event, let us know – we’d love to come along!