FEATURE: How do you make a Girls Night Out run smoothly?
What does it take to stage St Nicholas Hospice Care’s biggest annual fundraising event ... apart from a passionately-committed team of organisers and a couple of thousand women in their pyjamas?
Behind the scenes of the Girls’ Night Out sponsored walk there is a massive checklist of everything needed to ensure it all runs smoothly.
Eight thousand chocolate bars, 2,500 pairs of the event’s trademark flashing bunny ears, 4,4000 bottles of water and 2,000 medals were just a few of the essentials last year.
This year, with almost 300 more walkers already signed up than at the same time in 2015, it’s likely even bigger amounts will be needed.
More than 1,600 people took advantage of an early bird offer and put their names down for the walk on September 10. It will be the eighth one and it’s growing every year.
There’s every hope the number of entrants will crash through the 2,000 barrier this year.
The walk in the dark through the streets of Bury St Edmunds has become one of the town’s most popular events. Last year it raised £190,000. Many of those taking part are family or friends of hospice patients. Others just want to help fund its crucial care for people with life-limiting illnesses.
Every year, putting the next Girls’ Night Out together starts almost as soon as the last walkers cross the finish line.
But as the event gets closer the pace hots up until in the last few weeks the hospice’s entire fundraising team gets involved.
It’s not surprising that the two people responsible for the advance planning wake in the night fretting “have I organised enough signs” or “did I order the torches for the marshals?”
Jenny Baskett and Charlie Ruddock work throughout the year organising the walk, in addition to a host of other fundraising projects.
They concentrate on events and challenges, commonly known, says Jenny, as the “hot and sweaties”.
Bike rides, parachute jumps, treks, climbs, obstacle courses – anything that involves people taking on a physical challenge to raise cash for the hospice will either be organised, or supported, by them.
Their desks in the fundraising office – noisy, full of people, often crammed with collecting buckets and balloons – are the nerve centre of Girls’ Night Out.
Everything moves up a gear from the start of April when registration opens and the race is on to sign up as many women as possible to don PJs and bunny ears and walk either six or 11.2 miles through Bury.
But making sure all that’s needed for their comfort and safety, from portable loos to marshals to bare-chested water boys, is just as important.
“The sheer volume of walkers is our biggest challenge,” says Jenny. “Our 300 volunteer marshals are crucial. Without them it just wouldn’t happen.”
Although it’s a women-only event, marshalling is one of the jobs that men – often husbands or partners of the walkers – take on too.
Marilyn Hughes, one of a handful of regular St Nicholas volunteers who have the wider role of hospice ambassadors, is a marshal for the second time this year.
Her husband Roger will also on duty with high-viz jacket, torch, phone, sticking plasters and, of course, the fluffy pink bunny ears worn by everyone involved.
It’s his third time. He was a marshal in a previous year when she was walking.
“He really enjoys it because there is a lovely, lovely atmosphere,” says Marilyn, an ex-Cornard Middle School teacher who lives in Glemsford.
“Last year we were standing in Northgate Street, and seeing the huge crowd walking up towards us in the dark with their ears flashing was an amazing sight.”
Pairs of marshals are closely spaced all along the route, especially at any point where people could take a wrong turn. There are also some who cycle around the route.
“Our role is to guide the way, be there to help if there is a problem, keep people safe, and offer encouragement.
“We jolly things along which is important especially near the end if they are flagging.”
Events fundraiser Charlie, who has worked at the hospice for a year, says: “I’ve done the walk and they really do spur you on.
“One of our marshals high-fives every single walker and by the end her hand really hurts.”
Planning the 2016 event started immediately after last year’s. “We have a wash-up meeting to discuss what when well and what might need to change,” says Jenny.
“We thank people who have helped and re-book them for the following year.
“Angel Hill is booked with the council two years in advance because it has to be closed for the whole day, and the police also have to be told the date.”
Around Christmas they start thinking about new branding, which changes every time to give each walk its own individual image.
This year for the first time they have blue and pink enamel lapel pins.
The official launch is always in April, which is when the first walkers sign up. Fifteen thousand application forms are printed.
“Two are sent to everyone who has ever done the walk, and they are also available in all our shops.” says Charlie, who has also had to find time to plan her own big event – her wedding to fiance Alex De-Moore on May 27.
Bunny ears, which come from China, have to be ordered well in advance. T-shirts are ordered in July and handed out in August.
Bands are booked to play along the route. Arrangements also have to be made for a marquee, road barriers, hot chocolate and bacon rolls to greet people at the end of the walk.
Staging, an inflatable arch and a finish rope are also on the do-not-forget list.
A dozen volunteers help send out registration packs including sponsorship forms to everyone taking part.
Marshals are contacted and assigned in August. The spread sheet listing where they will be positioned is a work of art in itself.
“Every year we have to do a new risk assessment of the route because things change. There could be scaffolding up, or holes in the road,” says Jenny.
“One of the last pre-walk jobs is to deliver a letter to every home on the route saying please come out and support it. And people really do.”
On the day of the walk Jenny, Charlie and their team will work 18 to 20 hours, assisted by hundreds of volunteers. A fleet of hospice vans ferry equipment and paperwork to Angel Hill. During the day a giant marquee, gazebos and a stage will be delivered and set up.
Making sure there is enough loo roll in the portable toilets is one of the less glamorous jobs.
All through the run-up to the walk social media keeps people in touch with the latest developments.
Girls’ Night Out has its own Facebook and Twitter accounts, plus a website.
l For information go to www.girlsnightoutwalk.co.uk, or call 01284 715583.