Behind the scenes at Melbourne Cup

By Ashleigh Muir

A year ago I walked into the Australian High Commission for the first time. I’d been offered and accepted a job as the High Commission’s Public Affairs Manager and they wanted me to experience a large High Commission event before I had to start planning these events myself.

I’d briefly met Kat, my soon-to-be right hand and Public Affairs & Events Coordinator the week before – but she was organising the event and was understandably a little distracted.

This year, I have the inside view on what goes into putting our signature event together.

Wellington is a small place – and the challenge for us is to make each of our events different from the last – and different from year before. We are constantly on the lookout for inspiration to take our events to the next level.

Our events are a key opportunity to say thank you to our contacts who help us throughout the year. From the hotel managers and government officials who help us with visits from Australian ministers, to the Ministers, CEOs, parliamentary staffers and others who support our work to further the trans-Tasman relationship – it is our chance to say thank you.

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Acting High Commissioner Andrew Cumpston with Wes Nobelius and Patrick Whelan from Qantas.

It’s also an opportunity to showcase a little Australian culture. As a Kiwi, I know how easy it is stereotype Australian culture. But since starting at the Australian High Commission, I’ve realised just how little the stereotype really represents.  Any Kiwi will tell you how different Wellington’s culture is from Auckland or Christchurch. And Australia is almost 30 times bigger than New Zealand.  From the performing artists to the science labs, the boardroom to the outback, Australia is much more than what we see on TV.

We want people who come to our events to know they’re going to have a good time, to meet interesting people and experience a little bit of Australia – but we also want them to think, “I wonder what they’re going to do next time”.

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The cocktail bar, run by the team from CoCo at the Roxy

The process starts as soon as the last Melbourne Cup event is over – sometimes before. When we’re organising an event there are always those  moments where inspiration strikes when it’s too late to make it a reality.

But you can only make the dreams a reality when you have the budget to back it. The first real job is to talk to potential sponsors. As cliché as it sounds, these events simply wouldn’t be possible without them. And in addition to their generous donations, sponsors often provide us with opportunities to expand our networks by bringing along new guests who in turn become friends of the High Commission.

We also use our Melbourne Cup event as a chance to give back to our community. The event is a charity fundraiser and we ask our guests for donations to a different charity each year. We’ve supported the Fred Hollows Foundation, Wellington Free Ambulance and the Wellington Women’s Refuge in previous years.  This year, we collected almost $4,200 for Ronald McDonald House South Island.

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Ronald McDonald House South Island volunteers with Acting High Commissioner, Andrew Cumpston, at the Melbourne Cup 2017 function. 

Once we know what our budget looks like, we start ticking off the big items. Catering is always the first cab off the rank and usually takes the largest chunk of the budget. Needless to say, feeding close to 300 people soon adds up. Hosting as many events as we do, we have got to know which caterers can handle functions of this size – but it can also be easy to stick to doing the same type of thing over and over. Finding a caterer who takes the time to reflect the theme of the event in their food can add a little something to the event.

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We were also inspired this year by the outdoor, day-time atmosphere of Melbourne Cup. While our function is inside – making it easier to plan for Wellington’s weather – we wanted to bring a little of the outside in. We used white metal table and chair sets, like the ones my grandparents had on their porch; bright potted flowers to decorate the bar leaners; and we put together six different flavoured water infusers, using fresh fruit and berries, and making stands to sit the infusers on out of white garden edging.

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Flavoured water influsers

The days and weeks before Melbourne Cup are kind of like preparing for an earthquake. If you don’t have your kit all ready to go, you’re going to struggle. But there’s only so much you can do before it actually happens.

Yesterday was my first anniversary with the High Commission. It was also the first Melbourne Cup event I helped to put together. It was incredibly busy. I didn’t leave our function space in the few hours before the event – there was sound checks, faux fences and grass to put in place, caterers and staff to brief, sponsors and charity volunteers to meet, and a quick change of shoes before the guests arrived.

It was a moving feast of things happening and all of the High Commission pulled together to make sure it went off without a hitch. We’re a team, and that means whether you’re the Accounts Manager, the IT guy, the High Commissioner or the Consular Officer, you’ll chip in where you can.

It’s all hands on deck – but that’s how we do things in Wellington.

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Ashleigh Muir is the Public Affairs Manager at the Australian High Commission.

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