Born and bred in the Saddleworth, Danielle Heap’s passion for gigs and festivals has led her to pursue a career working behind the scenes at some of the country’s biggest venues and event spaces. From London’s Alexandra Palace running sold-out performances for Prodigy and Fatboy Slim, to the coordination of Festival Square at last year’s hugely successful Manchester International Festival, she’s certainly made her mark on the events industry.
At a time of unprecedented change and uncertainty, we spoke to Danielle about her career to date and discussed everything from The Maccabees farewell tour to Manchester’s tight-knit community of party starters and festival goers. As the sector pivots towards online events to engage with new digital communities, we also spoke about the effect of the pandemic on Danielle’s own work and her hopes for the future of events when they resume IRL.
What drew you towards a career in events?
I’ve always loved going to gigs and festivals, the adrenaline you feel when you’re in a crowd watching one of your favourite bands. I wanted to be part of it and help to deliver that excitement, and those memories, for other people. Anyone who works in events will know that months of planning goes into an event which may last just a few hours, but when you’re on site watching people having an incredible time with their friends it makes it all worthwhile. Knowing you were a little part of making that happen drives me to do what I do.
What was your first job out of university?
My first job out of university was as an Indian wedding planner, very specific I know, I used to get a lot of shocked faces when I told people what I did for a living! For my first job straight out of univeristy it was extremely full-on. In the summer I would be working every weekend, 18/20 hour days back to back, but it’s definitely what made me into the person I am today. You have to constantly be on the ball, being in charge of someone’s big day, and when I say BIG I mean BIG. These were weddings averaging around 600 guests, at venues such as Blenheim Palace and the Natural History Museum in London. The biggest I worked on was a wedding for 1500 people at Manchester Central. It was a job that taught me how to work under a lot of pressure and manage situations, calmly and in control.
What is the most rewarding aspect of your work?
At the end of the night, when you have worked your butt off for 18 hours straight and you see everyone leaving the event having had an amazing time, there is always this buzz in the air. That is when I know I love what I do.
You’ve worked on some major festivals and events, which ones stand out and why?
My answer to this is the same every time and it’s super nostalgic. Whilst working at Alexandra Palace I ran the final three nights of The Maccabees’ farewell tour. This was a band I had grown up with, I had all their albums, I loved every single song, and here I was running their last ever gig. The emotions that went through me that final night were electric. There was sadness of the band splitting up but the sheer buzz of knowing I was part of making those final gigs, that so many people will remember forever, happen. There were many tears shed, that’s for sure!
What is it like to work in Manchester’s events industry?
I think working in events in London is slightly disconnected – there is so much going on there that keeping up with the amount happening is just not possible. In Manchester everything feels connected. All events, no matter how big or small, work to make the city what it is. Everyone who works in events here does so because they love the city, they want to ensure the talent of place is heard, and they want to bring entertainment to the people of the city because they know how much the people here love it. The events industry here feels like a family, we are all working together to make the city a better place. You feel part of something bigger.
Can you tell us about your experience working as part of the team behind Manchester International Festival?
My first job when I moved back to Manchester was as the Festival Square Coordinator for Manchester International Festival. It was a nine month contract, which ran from the beginning stages of planning and putting the event together, to managing the site for the six week build on Albert Square, the event itself and finally the breakdown.
Festival Square itself was open every single day for 18 days, hosting up to a thousand people on site each day. It was such a privilege working with some of the top people in the Manchester events industry and the experience I gained from working on such a demanding site in the middle of the city was incredible. My ankles don’t miss the cobblestones though! Working for MIF was incredible for me, not only did I get to run Festival Square but it was the first job I had back in Manchester and really gave me a taste for the events happening in this amazing city.
As a freelancer, how has the current situation impacted you?
I decided to go freelance last November after my contract with MIF. It took a while to start picking up work. It was a big change to go from being in contracted work, where you can just get on with the work that comes to you, to then having to be really proactive and putting yourself out there. By the end of January, I was in a good place with three freelance contracts – an arts festival, a street food venue, and a series of local wellness-focused events – and loving everything I was working on. Then comes Covid-19 and the events industry is the first one to grind to a halt. I lost all my contracts and none of the government schemes covered me due to only just becoming self employed. It’s tough.
Have you learnt anything new about yourself during this period?
Being in the events industry you very rarely stop. You are constantly working towards something with deadlines that cannot be pushed back. The event can’t be moved to the next day just because you forgot to do something. You work long hours, constantly on your feet running around – I’ve walked an actual marathon a day running festival sites. For all that to suddenly stop was a massive change to my lifestyle. I love being constantly busy, but this time has shown me that I also need more time for myself, more time to be still. We will see how long that lasts once the events industry is back on its feet though!
Looking at the events industry more widely, what do you think the short and long-term impact will be?
Collectively, the events industry has moved online for the time being. Initiatives such as United We Stream started by Sacha Lord have been amazing throughout lockdown. I was lucky enough to work as a volunteer production manager for Eat Well Manchester when it took over the United We Stream platform. It was a five hour live stream with celebrities taking part to raise money for Eat Well, which is a collective of hospitality experts who have been providing home-cooked meals to those most affected by Covid-19. Live streaming events seems to be the current solution but it’s not something that can last forever. We are human beings, we crave human interaction, and live events are a massive part of our lives. A picture on a screen could never replace the buzz of the real deal. So, in the long-term they will be back, but with the uncertainty of Covid-19 who knows when that will be.
What do you think larger scale events will look like in the future?
Events will most likely face lower capacities, more queue management, more consideration for human contact, but it’s hard to say how long this will last. With the constant changing of government guidelines who knows how this country will look next month, never mind next year. I’m sure large scale events will definitely be back, potentially with restrictions but really that just means more work for the events team to ensure the constant safety of everyone onsite.
What projects or events are you currently working on?
I’ve been doing some volunteer work for initiatives which need events or project management support while there’s not as much paid events work around. I’m hoping that once the government allows pubs and bars to re-open that smaller events under 500 capacity could potentially start happening again in the next few months. It’s hard to say, but I have all my fingers and toes crossed. I’m constantly on the lookout for my next project so as soon as things start moving I’m looking forward to seeing what new opportunities there are.
Do you think you will always work in this line of work or if you hadn’t worked in events, what would you have done?
I feel like I will always stay project based. I get a buzz from being on site, troubleshooting and seeing things come to life, that’s where I get my drive from. I don’t think I could ever be someone that sits at a desk five days a week, every month of the year.
If I hadn’t gone into events I would definitely be doing something with animals, anyone that knows me knows I am dog obsessed. I would probably be a dog walker, dog groomer or work at a shelter.
When you’re not working, how do you like to spend your free time?
You would think I would have had enough of them but I love going to gigs and festivals, I will never grow tired of them, the atmosphere and buzz you get when you’re with your mates having a great time and listening to some amazing live music. I sometimes get shouted at by my friends for having my events head on though and questioning the management of what’s happening and how it should actually be done!
Any favourite spots in Manchester?
Albert Hall, it’s just the most beautiful venue. No matter how many gigs I see there, it takes my breath away every time. It reminds me of Ally Pally in many ways, these beautiful venues were built hundreds of years ago, and have now been brought back to life. They don’t make them like that anymore, and that makes them so special.
If you could give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?
Gosh, we could be here for a long time…. Ha.
I think the main one would be to have confidence in the work that I do. I think this is something I have only just started to do, and I still have to remind myself now!
Behind every great event is an army of people sorting sound, safety and even snacks for performers. For the last decade working as an event manager, Saddleworth-born @daniellelucyheap has worked on festivals, gigs and even tattoo conventions, organising crowd and venue safety to make sure people make memories that will last a lifetime – for all the right reasons. What other job could see you having a Zoom call with Bez, handing an ironing board to The Maccabees, or arranging a private party for Idris Elba? The events industry will look very different in the future – but it’s people like Danielle who’ll be making sure live events can come back to life in a post-Covid world.
Interview: Jenna Campbell