Sarah Balfour is CEO and founding Director of Orchid Events. With an extraordinary vision and meticulous party planning abilities, Sarah has shaped Orchid Events into a leading light of the event planning industry. Sarah began her career as a concert pianist. Having played the piano since the age of eight, she went on to become an accomplished session musician, performing at many of the world’s most prestigious venues.
Orchid Events was not Sarah Balfour’s first foray into the business world. She had already proved herself a skilled entrepreneur, founding and building a successful music and entertainment agency, Music By Arrangement. Established on the core principles of fair practices, great service, party planning and outstanding musicians, Music By Arrangement flourished and now has 700 hundred artists on its books.
Throughout her career, Sarah has always strived for perfection, something which has gained her recognition in various guises. Amongst her accolades, she has won several awards such as the Young Musician of the Year at the age of just 14, the Watford Cup, and a scholarship to study music at Leeds University.
She was selected as best wedding planner by The Wedding Channel, Inspirational Woman of the Year by Eve Magazine, and was also nominated for Business Woman of the Year 2011, one of just seven women on the shortlist, for her party planning expertise. She also won the LTG award for best event company in Israel and the UK 2 years ago. We caught up with Sarah to discover more about her career as well as the impact of Covid on the wedding and events industry.
Can you tell us a bit about your career progression and what led to founding Orchid Events and Music By Arrangement?
I discovered my love for the piano at 8 years old. With the incredible support from my parents I was fortunate enough to study under the renowned Jean Andersen, Professor at the Royal Academy, from the age of 12. It was meeting Jean that cemented my desire to become a pianist. After graduating from Leeds University, I began working as a session musician and released an album of classical piano solos, called Keyed In. I landed jobs across London, performing at many of London’s most prestigious venues and hotels, including The Grosvenor House Hotel, Claridge’s, The Dorchester, Harrods, The London Palladium and Wembley Stadium, and performed with some well-known musicians including Charlotte Church, Louise, Seal and Mandy Moore.
However, musicians were often treated badly. After witnessing again and again first-hand the shoddy behaviour, lack of understanding of music, and work ethic of certain agents, I decided to do something about it. With just a laptop in my home office, I spent more than a year auditioning and recruiting musicians, establishing my own agency, Music by Arrangement. Sadly, I discovered that many other musicians had endured the same type of treatment from agents and managers so they flocked to be represented by Music By Arrangement. As the agency flourished, and while I continued to work as a performer, I found that my opinion was often also sought on staging, decoration and indeed the overall look and feel of an event. Great business ideas can come to people in a number of different ways and I had mine when I was playing the piano for Hugh Grant. The event was a marathon seven-hour 1940s-themed party to celebrate the launch of the film Bridget Jones’s Diary. My stint at the keyboard gave me plenty of time to see what was going on. Everything was themed, from the lighting to the flowers to the canapés on the trays and it looked phenomenal. However, while I was playing I was thinking, this looks fantastic but I would have put that there and I would have done this differently. I suddenly thought to myself, I could do this. This germ of an idea led to Orchid Events.
Who are your biggest influences?
My great grandfather, Al Tabor was a renowned violinist and bandleader. He was the original composer of the Hokey Cokey – so it must be in my genes. However, he sold the rights for very little and didn’t make much money out of it! I think that this has influenced my determination never to be exploited as a musician.
And my parents, who were hugely supportive; they gave me the freedom to choose and follow music. They worked hard and made sacrifices so they could afford extra music lessons. I was taught by one of the best teachers in the country. I remember my dad listening to me practice my pieces day and night. They have a great work ethic, which I inherited, and they always believed in me and knew that I would achieve my goals.
My piano teacher Jean Anderson was also a huge inspiration. Jean not only taught me how to play and perform, but I also learnt vital life lessons from her. All of her teachings will stay with me forever. She towered with strength and wisdom and was truly inspirational. She handled the turbulence and challenges of life with dignity, poise and composure. She gave me the confidence to succeed and I am indebted to her.
With the roadmap out of lockdown underway, people can start planning their events and dream weddings again. With hundreds of thousands of events and weddings postponed in the UK due to the pandemic, it’s set to be a busy time playing catch up.
Do you have any advice on bouncing back after Covid?
People still need to be thinking of the older generation or those with underlying health issues when planning events post-Covid. Even if they have been vaccinated, they will most likely feel nervous or uncomfortable in packed out venues. I think we need to take a more mindful and sensitive approach to guest’s needs – even if all restrictions ease from the 21st June. I will suggest maintaining some social distancing, ensure good ventilation, provide plenty of masks and sanitisers if necessary, and regular cleaning etc.
A lot of people have been hit unbelievably hard this year, so many have lost loved ones, have suffered with anxiety and mental health issues, have lost their livelihoods…it is our duty to be mindful of everyone’s own situation and be considerate of that when planning a return to events and special occasions.
Anything in particular you have learnt about business in general, and/or specifically the wedding/event industry in the last year?
Be adaptable. I’m amazed at how adaptable people are and how imaginative we have become during lockdown, creating inventive ways to connect and communicate with each other. But people are desperate to re-connect socially in person. I’ve had clients emailing me desperate to have a party. Just to hug people, to celebrate life again, to show gratitude and love without necessarily a big wedding or birthday as a reason. Post pandemic hug parties…you heard it here first!
Anything you will do differently post-Covid?
Mindfulness – every element of an event will go through a mindfulness check. Have we considered all eventualities, have we ensured all guests will be happy and safe, have we considered the feelings of neighbours, staff, suppliers, etc.
I’m currently organising a small event for 15 people in a marquee. There will be a silent disco to avoid upsetting neighbours, drinks are all pre-made in bottles with name tags, interaction with staff will be kept to a minimum, the photobooth is a green screen with digital props which will be sanitised after each use.
Any recent lightbulb moments?
I’m not sure it’s a lightbulb moment, but aside from post-Covid changes there is a major shift towards sustainability in event planning. Events can be incredibly wasteful. As well as driving this new approach when discussing options with clients, more and more clients are coming to me asking how their events can be more sustainable. Venues are making changes, and I get contacted a lot by new suppliers, such as Bags of Ethics, with exciting new eco-friendly, ethical, sustainable products. Even clients with huge budgets are trying to ensure, where possible, low waste, recycling and eco alternatives.
Are event suppliers behaving differently?
I spoke recently to one of my regular suppliers, Adam Soloman from Liquid Chefs who, over the past year, has taken the time to relook at its offerings across the board and have made some strategic moves towards trying to offer a more sustainable service for clients. From March last year he pivoted his business, offering virtual cocktail classes and customised cocktail boxed experiences to individuals and companies throughout lockdown. Post lockdown he anticipates working in a very similar way to how they operated pre-covid except for the introduction of more sustainable options, including better recycling and composting food waste, menus based on seasonal produce, greater support for local suppliers and building on relationships with suppliers who can provide sustainable options for all items that we regularly supply.
The wonderful florists Lavender Green Flowers, were, like every other supplier in the events industry, badly knocked by the impact of Covid. It’s a hugely successful and established 32yr old business working on 1400 events per year, as well as sporting events weddings and 5* hotel contracts. Overnight, all but one revenue stream, retail from its Fulham Road and online store – saw a decrease in sales of 85 per cent! The newly formed national flower relay service, and retail offer, enabled LGF to continue trading but Sue Barnes, its founder says she has learnt not to take anything for granted now and is focusing on re-building and growing all revenue streams. Both of us have come out of this with a new perspective and a fresh outlook – it’s important to look for the positives. Everyday I receive an unexpected email or call which fills me with hope.