Meet the Presidents: The Tab talks to Cambridge May Ball presidents who were not to be

The presidents talk of mourning May Balls, managing cancellations and the May Week Mega Event

The highlight of everybody’s Easter term, if not an academic year at Cambridge, is the May Ball. For those in charge of it, it is a significant task and one that they put their heart and souls into; only for this year’s May ball presidents that work ended up being for nothing. Upon Steven Toope’s announcement of the university’s move into the “red phase” and all students being urged home on the eve of a national lockdown, it became apparent that searching for a May Ball outfit on ASOS was no longer required. With no Easter term in Cambridge, there would be no May Week, and thus no May Balls, much to the disappointment of students who were looking forward to a well-earned celebration at the end of the year.

May Ball madness: not a prime example of social distancing

Urgent cancellation of an entire May Week was unprecedented. With acts booked and deposits put down, how would May Ball presidents even begin to disentangle themselves from the May Week dream turned COVID 19 nightmare? The Tab Cambridge spoke to three May Week event presidents and the president of the May Week Presidents’ Committee about just what it was like to find out they’d have to cancel their events and how difficult it would prove to be.

“It’s terrifying how quickly the situation developed.”

It was not evident from the outset that the pandemic would necessarily result in the universal cancellation of May Week. During early committee discussions about the coronavirus and its possible impacts on plans, the situation in the UK was not that grave, and the idea of cancelling May Week still seemed extreme. Matilda Schwefel, president of Emmanuel June Event, pointed out that, “it was a bit of a weird time because we knew 1000 people were going to Girton (for their Spring Ball) in a week”. The Girton Spring Ball took place on the same day as the Cheltenham Gold Cup (13th March this year). The fact that the latter took place has received widespread criticism in the media, and many attendees blame the horse racing event for having accelerated the spread of coronavirus in the UK.

Although major events both in Cambridge and nationally were still going ahead, Matilda said: “I think there was an expectation in the room among the presidents that cancellation was a very strong possibility” and she, therefore, felt that she needed to inform her fellow June Event committee members. She said, “following that, literally the next day, I had a meeting with the main committee saying “look, I don’t need this necessarily to go outside of this room, but it’s looking very likely that in the next few weeks cancellation will be the decision taken”.

The Emma June Event Committee on their event launch night, unaware that the event being launched would not be realised (credit: Matilda Schwefel)

Tom Ward, president of the King’s Affair, emphasised how quickly everything changed. There were only eight days between the coronavirus being first discussed in a May Ball Presidents’ Committee meeting and total cancellation. “Looking back,” he says, “it’s terrifying how quickly the situation developed – by our next meeting, a week later on 18 March, most people were at home after being told to leave, and the meeting was virtual. We’d been told of a cancelled term. We needed to act fast – in just seven days, talk of handwashing stations to protect guests had been transformed into the strategy of how to cancel and how to refund.” May Ball presidents across Cambridge had agreed that cancellation of events would be universal, and so in accordance with the University, Cambridge City council, and government guidelines, within eight days it was all over.

There was still a glimmer of hope, however, for St Catharine’s College and their May Ball, as its president, Alex Denny explains: “While other May Week events cancelled in March, our Committee explored whether we could postpone to October. We were really keen to find a way to run our Ball since we had almost everything organised for it”. Due to scheduled building work at Catz too during the next academic year, they looked for any opportunity not to have to miss out on two consecutive College May Balls if possible.

Yet as the weeks of lockdown passed, there was further disappointment for Alex and his team. He said that “In the end, we decided as a committee to cancel last week. This was heavily driven by recent Government and University announcements – we don’t see hosting a Ball in October as being feasible or advisable.”

The cancellation of May Week was not only a huge shock but also massively disappointing for the presidents who had already spent months planning their College’s events of the year. Matilda describes having to suppress her disappointment, acknowledging that she and her team still had a job to do. She told us: “it was more the emotional work of it, having to make that decision and instead of feeling sorry for ourselves as a committee to have to just be like ‘actually no these vendors will be losing a lot of clients at the moment we need to be professional with them’.”

She goes on to say that she found some consolation in looking back on what the team had already accomplished and the fond memories that they had made before the end of Lent Term. She remembers: “What was nice was that the launch event was super fun, we did a flash mob, we had quite a lot of fun as a committee, so the fact that there was that gelling there meant that cancellation wasn’t as awful.”

Having to preside over the cancellation of a May Week event and all that comes with it, as Tom explains, fed into an already incredibly tense time for him both within Cambridge and beyond. “It was a stressful week, that’s for sure – it was just everything at once. Saying goodbye to my friends whom I would never see in Cambridge again, with less than a day’s notice; trying to comfort my mother on the phone as she struggled to cope with the uncertainty at work; trying to stay sane in a college environment that got quieter and quieter as the days went by.

“To then have to begin to deconstruct the event that you hadn’t yet even finished building, knowing how hard your team have worked for almost a year – it was sad, pure and simple. At this point, though, the scale of what was to come, in terms of the pandemic, was beginning to crystallise; there was an element of helplessness to the proceedings. It was more of a matter of how than of if.”

“Strangely enough, ‘what to do in the event of cancellation due to pandemic’ isn’t in the summer handover document!”

An immediate concern for the 2020 May Ball presidents was how best to deal with refunds. Charlotte Milbank, president of the May Ball Presidents’ Committee, emphasises that they wanted to take an approach that was as fair as possible for students across the board: “By the time we cancelled, rumours had already started circulating, so we wanted to make sure any message we put out was unambiguous and as consistent as possible across Balls.” However, this instantly presented problems: “All balls used very different ticketing systems and had made differing financial commitments by this point – so, in terms of issuing refunds, many balls faced considerable challenges working out how to ensure the maximum possible refund they could to their guests.”

Some balls were more successful in this regard than others. Matilda says that Emmanuel was in a good position: “We managed to get all refund information and all refunds processed really quickly, that was a pretty high priority for us. This is quite a difficult time for people not to have cash that they should have”.

Further money had already been put down in deposits for food and drinks vendors as well as entertainment acts which would be very difficult, if not impossible, to get back. Alex acknowledges that, for him and his team, the organisation in earlier months actually worked against them: “Different Balls were at dramatically different stages when they cancelled: some had booked all their suppliers and acts, some hadn’t. For us, it’s been extremely difficult. We had finished almost all of the preparation we expected, so we’ve had to cancel every contract, every agreement and work out how to wind down our operations so we can start issuing refunds.”

For Tom, it was the uncertainty of their predicament that made it especially difficult. In these notoriously “unprecedented times”, there were no guidelines for the presidents to follow. He says that “strangely enough, ‘what to do in the event of cancellation due to pandemic’ isn’t in the summer handover document!

“It was a case of working out where we could recover costs, where we could transfer certain elements to next year and where we could reach settlements with contractors. I’m a geography student; I’m used to trawling through maps, not force majeure clauses! Honestly, I couldn’t have done it without my Treasurer, Dylan, and help from fellows in College.”

“Across all the May Balls a lot of money has been lost.”

With issued refunds (either full or in part) to all ticket-holders and lost money in deposits, there has been a significant financial impact on May Ball committees across Cambridge. The exact figure is not yet known, and Alex tells The Tab, “we’re not in a position to declare precisely how we’ve been impacted financially, but across all the May Balls a lot of money has been lost.”

It is unclear as to who has borne the brunt of these losses, as of May Balls as organisations operate differently across the University. Alex goes on to say that: “Most Balls aren’t supported by their Colleges and are totally distinct corporations, so many of us have been really, really fortunate to receive aid from our Colleges and goodwill from partners – several of our caterers, for instance, have offered full refunds on our deposits without being obliged to.”

While presidents have been able to rely on some vendors’ generosity, they have had to be innovative in finding more ways to minimise losses where they can, which has included carrying over contracts. Matilda explains that, in the case of Emmanuel, “with our main suppliers, we have agreed with them that we will have them on next year and that was a way for us to reconcile any losses we might have made.”

Her committee also had some funds at their disposal which they could resort to in these unprecedented circumstances, something which Matilda acknowledged was not the case for many others: “we had some money in reserves that we were able to use to make full refunds for all of our ticket holders. Therefore, it won’t actually impact the finances of next year’s committee… luckily we weren’t even in the position that we had to go to the bursar and ask anything like that.” This begs the question, then, whether other colleges’ May Ball funds will be smaller in the next academic year, and what impact this might have on student experience going forward.

In many respects, May week planning 2020 may end up as the dress rehearsal for May Week 2021, as Matilda hints that it may not only be the contractors and vendors who will make a return: “I know I’ve said to all the committee members “look, you’re brilliant, if you’re still at Emma next year definitely consider applying and some of the ideas we’ve had we can use for 2021.” .

May Week 2020 gone digital


Whilst disappointed that their events have not gone ahead, there have already been plans to create a virtual alternative that can, in Charlotte’s words, “bring people together even if they’re physically apart and be an important mood-booster at the end of a tough year (and hopefully at the near-end of lockdown)”. Charlotte was approached by the head of May Week Alternative (which has already raised £100,000 this year so far) and the central student fundraising body RAG, to co-host a virtual celebration which hopes to unite Cambridge in spite of lockdown.

The May Week Mega Event also aims to raise money for some important charitable causes in and around Cambridge. Charlotte hopes that the event can add to the £27,000 already raised by the big MAC campaign. They also hope to spotlight local businesses, which have been very understanding throughout the May Week cancellation process and which will have suffered significantly as a result of the pandemic.

There is, of course, recognition that this year’s event will not be the same as the usual May Ball experience, but Mega Event president George Rosenfeld hopes that the event provides the opportunity to unite the Cambridge student community in an altogether different way: “All of our separate events may be cancelled, but that presents a unique opportunity to bring the whole Cambridge community together as one.”

As Matilda says: “I don’t know if there will be full on watching parties, Eurovision or comic relief style… or whether people will just tune in for a little bit… it should be anyway a nice testament to the sorts of organisation that’s been going on even if it does have to happen virtually.”

“Maybe people can dress up in their black tie if they want to!” Matilda jokes. Perhaps that ASOS dress you ordered months in advance will not go to waste this year after all.

For more information about the May Week Mega Event and how you can get involved, visit their website here.