#EventProf of the week: Michael Lever, Oxfam

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Each week we will focus on a StandOut individual who has been extraordinary within the events industry. This week it is Michael Lever, head of festivals and events at Oxfam.

How did you get into the events industry? Where has your career taken you and what roles have you enjoyed?

I’ve always liked the idea of putting on shows since I went to my first ever gig when I was 13 in March 1996 at Manchester Arena with my Dad. We went to see Phil Collins and Genesis. I was so much more interested in how the show was put together than the show itself and that’s when I knew that I wanted to be involved in events.

I started promoting my own club nights at university and lost a load of money but learnt a lot. Then I started working for a promoter – who manages Manchester’s legendary punk poet John Cooper Clark – and my first foray into festivals was putting on food festivals around the UK.

After that, I got the gig running Manchester Pride and spent the next 11 amazing years making the Manchester Pride events programme happen and loved (nearly) every minute of it. I headed up the events team as head of events, overseeing the events programme from a strategic level and then went on to become the operations director for the Manchester Pride charity.

I wanted to work for Manchester Pride because it was one of the biggest, most renowned events in Manchester and is Manchester’s longest-running annual event. I have to admit in the beginning it wasn’t because of the cause or because it was Pride. But I very quickly realised what I was the custodian of. I became an ally and really an influential voice for LGBTQ people and I thought about that privilege every single day I went to work for Manchester Pride.

After 11 years I felt like it was time to move on and now I’m head of festivals and events for Oxfam GB and oversee our partnerships with some of the UK’s biggest and best music festivals every summer. This year, we’re expecting 9,000 volunteers to join us at 16 festivals where we deliver a stewarding operation, and we take our teams to talk to festivalgoers about our Climate Justice campaign.

I’ve been working in events for more than 20 years and I feel very lucky to be running events for Manchester Pride and now Oxfam as two of the most well-renowned and important charities in the world who do incredible work.

What is it about your job that you love doing?

I love the buzz of being at an event that my team has put together. I love seeing people enjoying themselves whether it’s a headline artist on a main stage or an intimate gig; there’s just something about that feeling of “We did this”. that gets me every time.

There’s an amazing community in the events industry that I love being part of. You can instantly connect with events people even if you’ve never worked with them before and I love that connection and collaboration because we all know what it takes to make events happen.

I’ve also been lucky enough to be the artist booker for Manchester Pride for a decade and so I love being able to work with artists and agents to make incredible programmes.

And I’ve really loved being part of world-renowned events for important causes. There’s nothing more exhilarating than putting on events on the world’s stage for charities that do work that literally changes the world.

What’s been your biggest achievement? Equally, what have you done that you can now look back on and cringe?

My biggest event “pinch me” moment was when we took an abandoned railway depot in the centre of Manchester and turned it into Manchester’s largest city centre venue for Manchester Pride Festival 2019. The venue is now well known as Mayfield Depot but back then it was just a huge, abandoned building and a car park. We made it into a multi-stage festival and booked some of the biggest names in music to perform including Years & Years, Cheryl, Kim Petras and also brought Ariana Grande back to Manchester for the first time since her One Love concert after the Manchester arena attack.

I look back and cringe at some of my early career moments. When I was 19, I managed to secure £5,000 to put on an event series, funded by Kevin Spacey, and I blew nearly the whole budget on the lighting package because I thought that would be a good investment into the first show. I didn’t sell enough tickets to cover the rest of the series, so we had to cancel the rest of the shows. My budgeting skills have improved a lot since then. I do believe that it’s OK to get stuff wrong as long as you can learn from your mistakes, so I often look back on mistakes quite fondly.

What’s been the stand out moment of your career so far?

When the world ground to a halt during the pandemic, I thought I may have to think about doing something else, but that time became one of the most productive and developmental times of my career. Nobody knew what would happen with the events industry and there was new information coming out all the time which meant I had to create scenario plan after scenario plan to ensure that Manchester Pride, the charity, was able to survive and be ready to launch into action when the news came that events could happen again.

In August 2021, Manchester Pride Festival was the first large-scale public event to take place in Manchester after the pandemic, six weeks after the Government gave the green light for events to happen and it was a major success. I’m so proud of being able to ensure that Manchester Pride continued and headed up a team that delivered a safe, successful and important cultural event after the pandemic.

What key pieces of advice would you give to someone starting in events?

The first bit of advice would be that it’s OK not to be an expert in everything right away. When I was younger, I used to feel like I wanted to know everything. I wanted to be an expert in artist booking, technical production, licensing, legal, running a team, crowd management etc. It took me a while to realise that it’s OK not to know everything right away and it takes time. I’d now consider myself pretty well-versed in most event-related aspects, but it’s taken 20 years and I’m still learning from my peers. So go out and absorb as much as possible. Be humble and ask questions.

The second piece of advice would be to treat every event like a lesson even when you go as a customer. Whenever I’m at an event, I’m always looking at how things are put together. What is the customer journey? What is the venue like? What crowd management systems are in place? What’s the technical production spec? What are the crowd demographics? My wife thinks I’m a nightmare to go to gigs with, but you never know when you may use those skills.

What career goals do you have and where do you see yourself heading? For example, is there an event that you would love to work on but haven’t?

I’m pretty sure that my career will involve lots of festivals! Oxfam has an amazing network of festival partners which I’m keen to expand on. I’m really proud that we work at some of the best festivals such as Glastonbury, Boomtown, Isle of Wight, Leeds and Reading, Wilderness, Shambala and Shindig to name just a few but I know that there are so many others that our volunteers want to be part of, and festival organisers want us to be part of. I’ve only just started at Oxfam six months ago so I’ve got a lot of work to do to take us to the next level and I can see myself at Oxfam for a while. And then maybe we can even put on our own Oxfam Music Festival… Watch this space!

If you would like to nominate someone for #EventProf of the week, please email marketing@standoutmagazine.co.uk.