From spreadsheets to sanity: managing a residential event


ResultsStrategy, Symfony, Data pipelines

UCCF is a student-focused charity, running events across universities and colleges in the UK. The biggest is an annual 1400 person residential event.

Having previously consulted with UCCF to review their digital strategy, infrastructure and digital team, they asked me to advise on how to reboot their current booking system, making things easier for their staff.

Managing the event in one interface

When UCCF contacted me, they were managing the entire event (e.g. accommodation, meals, ticketing) using multiple spreadsheets. This was becoming unmanageable and led to administrative headaches.

Since 2003 I’ve designed, built and advised on booking & event management systems for museums, galleries and companies, and I brought all this experience to bear on their situation.

Together we carried out a GAP analysis, exploring what UCCF had to manage, what they required from a system, and why they thought an off-the-shelf booking management system wouldn’t work.

It quickly became clear that when managing events the only constant business rule was “Every rule has an exception”, and this culture was encoded into the charity’s DNA. The software needed to fit the way the event was run, and not vice versa.

“Peter quickly understood our needs, challenged our assumptions, and brought clarity to our thinking. With our new system in place we're able to manage the data with ease, freeing our staff to focus on running a top-quality event and growing numbers even further.”
Ollie Brown
Digital Manager, UCCF

Having agreed a custom system was the best option, I wrote an outline specification for the event management software, and a plan of work. This allowed the in-house digital team to explain the project to colleagues and get budgetary sign-off.


Satisfied with the plan, UCCF had the opportunity to appoint a different build partner - as with all my consulting, there are no contractual ties. Based on the results to date, they chose to continue working with me.

A project plan was made where features would be developed in order of need. There was a fixed deadline: the guests would arrive in 7 months and the system needed to open for bookings 6 weeks after contracts were signed. The project was built and rolled out on a tight schedule, with live bookings managed using the system while it was built. Any mistakes and the conference would be ruined. I liaised with staff to carefully timetable this, making sure that each phase was rolled out as soon as it was completed.

Extensive features

The new event managment system integrated with their existing student-facing booking & ecommerce system. Data was synchronised via an API we added to the legacy system.

Beds could be assigned to students and staff per-night, and meals per-meal. Health and dietary information was managed and made available to staff on a need-to-know basis. Data security was taken seriously, both at a server level and by providing password-protected, encrypted Excel spreadsheet downloads. A full suite of reports were provided per event, including name badge printing.

The finance team provided valuable input on how the system can support them in reconciling booking income and expenses.

A feedback-driven development process

The software evolved during the build – whilst the project stayed within time and money constraints, as both UCCF & I understood the problem domain better, priorities changed and the system was made more useful and intuitive for staff to use.

Staff feedback was solicited at regular demos, and training provided on-site and via Skype. As the system was used in production whist being built, a tight and highly responsive feedback loop meant any concerns or improvements could be immediately addressed.

A late addition was that the system had to work offline during check-in at the event, due to lack of reliable internet access at the main event’s venue.

Expectations exceeded

The project was finished ahead of schedule. The system was a success, with substantially fewer accommodation and meal issues at the event than in previous years.

From customers and UCCF staff, there have been many comments about how smoothly the booking and check in process ran in comparison to other years.

My favourite moment was seeing the sheer relief on the event administrator’s face as I demo’d assigning people to accommodation, as she realised how it would slash the amount of work she and her team would have to do.

It has been fantastic to see the positive impact the system had on UCCF staff in the stressful lead-up to the event. The event ran smoothly and guests, staff and volunteers ended up with beds and meals when expected.

Results for them,
results for you.

We've worked for organisations on 6 of the world's 7 continents (Antarctica has proved elusive). You next?