Annie Smith interviews the Union's Director of Events and Services to find out what events will look like in September.
With no date in sight for the reopening of night clubs in the UK, and many societies already planning a number of online events for the first semester, it’s clear that events culture at St Andrews will be far from normal in the wake of social distancing regulations and ongoing COVID-19 fears.
As students return to campus and freshers especially fear how they will make friends or socialise in this new climate, The Saint sat down with outgoing and current Director of Events and Services, Mika Schmeling and Tom Groves, respectively, to discuss what the Union as an event hosting space and events for societies will look like come September.
After the first case of COVID-19 was identified in St Andrews and the UK went on lockdown in March, the St Andrews Students’ Association saw major events being cancelled or postponed. The all-Union St Patrick’s Day event and the highly anticipated Graduation Ball were both cancelled. However, Ms Schmelling noted that most of the costs for these events can be pushed to next year, and deposits paid towards the 2020 Graduation Ball are transferable to future graduation balls.
On a future graduation ball, Mr Groves noted that while the company is working with the Union to transfer their services to a future event, he cannot give a definitive answer on the likelihood of a Graduation Ball next year, be that the 2021 ball or a postponed 2020 ball, as the virus has not peaked and the University has already announced that May 2021 exams will be online.
He added, “I’d be very keen to organise an extra Grad Ball if things do change. If enough of this year’s graduates return for graduation next summer, and I suspect the majority would be more than happy at the prospect of returning, then an extra ball would be financially possible.
“My worry is if fewer people are able to return, it wouldn’t be feasible even to have a combined Grad Ball for two year-groups. The ceremonies for each year group are in separate weeks, meaning people would have to stay for a week just for the ball, and the town’s infrastructure is already stretched to its limit with one year group graduating.”
One of the biggest events for the University and the St Andrews town, the Students’ Association has already announced that Raisin Weekend will be postponed from October 2020 to March 2021, with Mr Groves noting, “There’s no way it could safely go ahead in October; delaying was the only option that gives Raisin some chance of happening.”
And with Freshers’ Week typically kicking off the first semester, a week of large club nights and crowded society events in the town, this year will see a Freshers Week comprised of many smaller events hosted by the Union, rather than a few big events, and venues being more “creative” and atypical than in years past in order to accommodate everyone and every event.
On this year’s Freshers’ Week, Mr Groves said, “We’re avoiding the word ‘week’, since events will be more spread out. We’re working with the University to develop a fortnight of virtual content called Countdown to St Andrews, which will start on 24 August. The other big Union events in semester one are the Halloween and Christmas whole-building events. As it is there’s no way these can safely go ahead, but I will be looking into alternatives.”
Affiliated societies have already been informed that through the Union schedule, they can host one event, lasting up to an hour, in the Countdown to St Andrews period, and all events during this time will be hosted online as a majority of students returning to St Andrews will need to abide by the government-regulated two-week quarantine.
For the types of activities that do proceed at the Students’ Union, from catering services at Rector’s Cafe and the Main Bar to study spaces, the Union staff and sabbatical officers are putting in place a number of safety measures inside the building so that it can reopen safely.
The Union will be abiding by Scotland government guidelines, which currently specify that people must remain two metres apart in most places and one metre in specific settings where other measures, such as face coverings, are in place. The coronavirus FAQs on the Union’s website also note that physical distancing “will reduce the capacities of most places, including the Union, meaning we are reshaping how we work.”
For its cafes and bars, the FAQs noted that customers may be asked to queue outside to be assigned a table and they will not accept cash payments for the foreseeable future. All staff will be wearing face coverings and be behind protective screens at the counters, and anyone moving inside the building will be asked to wear a face covering. Contact details may also be requested for everyone entering the building due to track and trace regulations.
Capacity for the Union spaces is likely to be around 20 to 25 per cent, yet this number will depend heavily on whether the Scottish government requires distancing of two metres or one metre. Rector’s Cafe and the University Shop are expected to reopen in mid August, with Main Bar, Sandy’s Bar, and the Old Union Cafe reopening for daytime food and drink service likely in early September.
Safety measures will be affecting the employment of staff, which in the past has been mainly students, at the Union.
Mr Groves noted, “There will be fewer shifts in general, so fewer jobs on offer. Any available jobs will first be offered to last year’s staff, even if this means they move to a new department. Only after this process will jobs be offered to other students, and we’re looking to share vacancies at other businesses as they appear. We’ll be employing more students as restrictions are lifted, and jobs will be advertised on yourunion.net.”
These safety regulations also play a part in shaping how Friday nights will look in what was previously St Andrews’ main night club. Most bars will be operating at table service only, and the Union itself may need to close before 2am to avoid crowds forming.
On Friday nights at the Union, Mr Groves stated, “The outlook for 601 is less clear. Similar venues typically need to operate close to full capacity to avoid losing money, which simply isn’t an option anymore. I’m hoping we can focus on using the space for small society events as much as possible.
“What I can say, is that no venue in the country will be far ahead of any other. Every bar in Scotland has to deal with the same set of restrictions. If an event is safe, we’ll be hosting it.”
Apart from Friday nights, events organised by Union-affiliated societies and other organisations will also look different come September. After the “Countdown to St Andrews” period, societies will be able to host in-person events, yet capacities in the Union and pubs around town mean that venues for these events may veer away from traditional pub quizzes and more towards outdoor events where social distancing and mask wearing is more lenient.
Mr Groves and Gavin Sanford, the Director of Student Development and Activities, are currently working with the University to make it easier for societies to book outdoor spaces on University grounds. However, Mr Groves noted, “Each individual event will have very limited capacity, which is something I’m really worried about. As such, we’re looking into livestreaming certain events so that everyone can enjoy them, even if only a small number are able to be physically present.”
Some types of online events hosted by the Union have already seen success, including the Spring and Summer Sessions. On these events, Ms Schmelling said, “Spring Sessions: ‘Classic Covers’ meant we were actively engaging with students by asking for their song requests. These requests were forwarded to local and student talent to make covers of.
“After that, we launched Summer Sessions: Battle of the Bands, where we hosted a virtual Battle of the Bands [and] solo artist. We had around 20 submissions and the video with the most likes by the end of the voting period won £100. This was probably our most successful online event so far.”
Ms Schmelling identified WiFi issues and solving tech problems remotely as the biggest issues they have faced so far in hosting online events, yet she added that “hopefully next year we will be able to do a little bit more in terms of virtual events once we have access to the tech and equipment within the Union building.”
While it may appear to be all doom and gloom from the student perspective, Mr Groves remains hopeful not only in events culture last year but also in institutional changes which the pandemic has forced into being.
The typical all-building, crowded Freshers’ Fayre in September will be held completely virtually this year, which Mr Groves feels “will be a much better system.”
He added, “A virtual fayre will make it much easier to find societies that match your interests. It will generate less waste, and be more accessible. It’s already forced us to prioritise updating the society pages on the Union’s website.”
He is also hoping to introduce more creative competitions to get students involved, such as the Summer Battle of the Bands.
On other ways the job of Director of Events and Services has adapted, Mr Groves said, “It has also led to a lot of collaboration between students’ unions. I’ve met with the DoES equivalent at Edinburgh, and there’s a group of us from across the UK discussing plans. It seems like that kind of interaction has been missing for years, and it’s really reassuring to talk to people in the same situation.”
While some first years may be overwhelmed with the reality of meeting new friends during a global pandemic, Mr Groves offered hope that things should not be all too different from years past.
He stated, “We will still be able to get close to flatmates, go to events, meet up in bars, and explore the picturesque town we live in. Nightclubs are far from the only way to meet people, and the [sabbatical officers] will be doing our best to replace them with new opportunities to socialise. Besides, St Andrews has never been renowned for its nightlife.”