Licensing & Associated Responsibilities


This section is critical. If you get this part wrong, the rest of your formal plans are irrelevant.

The venue is the foundation slab upon which you build the rest of this event. If the venue is non-compliant, you’re building a house of cards. It may stand and wobble a little but if even the slightest thing goes wrong, crash!

Get comfortable because this section is a little tedious and we need to drill in quite a bit to get to the juice.

In NSW there are several types of function venue categories, and the government assesses those venues for liquor licensing, granting the appropriate license for both the premises and the activities they intend to conduct. It’s a complex and convoluted process and equally difficult to understand. It took me years of consulting to get my head around how this works.

Now when I mention “Liquor Licensing” I don’t mean for you to discount that as irrelevant to you if your formals are expected to be alcohol-free. That’s an easy supposition to make but it’s contrary to the facts. Whether or not your formal has booze does NOT dictate whether the venue’s license conditions are appropriate for your event the way you think they would.

Formals mostly take place in the following venue types…

  • Hotels & Clubs
  • Privately Owned Function Centres & Vessels (boats)

There are many other venue types and corresponding license types, such as restaurants and public entertainment venues etc but formals rarely, if ever, occur in places like that. Each of the venues that do host formals requires a totally different license and each license type has different allowances, and more importantly restrictions, where formals are concerned.

Hotels & Clubs operate under a license that requires an additional special permit in order to conduct school formals. That’s known as a “Minor’s Functions Authorisation”. If the venue doesn’t have this permit, they’re not permitted under the law to conduct formals at all, or in fact any event where a minor may possibly attend without loco-parentis.

If they do have this permit in place, you’re entitled to ask to see it. Under this permit, there can be no alcohol served to any person, regardless of age, parents & teachers included. There are certain exemptions available at certain venues if the formal is being run by a properly authorised Professional Agency, however these are rare and very specific. On events under a MFA permit, there can be no pass-outs and only ages 15+ may attend.

Under this model, all formals MUST be conducted under “Pre-Sold” tickets. The tickets need to have all of the function details clearly outlined, along with the rules of entry or the conditions of the event. There MUST be a written register kept of the attendees of such formals and those records must be maintained for Police to inspect at any later date. These sorts of regulations are non-negotiable under state law.

The majority of hotels are in the 4 and 5 star category and are often internationally branded hotel chains that you know and respect. These types of venues are highly recommended because they have superior health & safety standards, great evacuation and emergency procedures and well-trained and experienced staff. The quality of what they offer is the highest you gan find and they deliver on their promises. These are my most highly recommended venues.

Clubs usually fall into the 2 and 3 star category and although are priiced accordingly, they fall a little short on procedures, training and safety in comparison to hotels. I really place these more in the following group than the previous.

Private Function Centres & Vessels operate under different classes of “On Premises” licenses. There exist few restrictions under those licenses, there are no minor’s function’s permits required and alcohol can be served.  Most venues in this category, as observed in my direct experience, use under-trained and inexperienced labour, adhere to few of the necessary rules and regulations, cut corners on quality control where ever possible, have little or no safety plans in place and operate a “cookie-cutter” approach to selling formals. They’re usually cheaper but you really do get what you pay for. These are the types of venues that I advise you should avoid.

The Security: (Also See “Teachers are not Guards” coming up next month)

Whether security is provided as part of your venue package, or independently acquired, the same rules apply. They must be properly licensed, certified and insured (separately) to conduct these types of events.

The guards need to be dressed, trained and equipped properly to deal with the types of issues likely to come up when dealing with excited teens.

My recommendation for security entry procedures are well published but here’s a summary…

  • Breath testing
  • Drug testing
  • Metal detection
  • Bag searches
  • Visual checks of pocket contents (airport tray style)
  • Thermal imaging (for the detection of contraband conceiled inside clothing)
  • Electronic validation of tickets

If your security provider can’t provide these things, it’s fair to question whether they’re qualified and competent for this task. This is the minimum I insist on for all of my events and a well-practised crew of the right number of guards

can administer up to 1,000 guests through this procedure smoothly in less than 40 minutes.

Make sure you have at least one female guard in the team to deal with sensitive female issues and for checking toilets.

Of course security costs need to be added into the mix.

Things to watch out for…

The state sets a minimum requirement of 1 guard per 100 attendees. While I applaud the Government for setting some kind of requirement minimum, this is farcical as a guide. You must consult with the security provider to conduct an inspection of the venue, write a detailed Security Risk Assessment Report and a corresponding Security Action Plan as a solution to that report. The average school formal attendance is 200 guests. That means that by the Governments recommendation, you’d need only 2 guards. You may find that to provide effective security coverage suited to the venue environment, that you may need 4, or even as many as 8 or 10 guards to do the job. This is NOT the area of the package that you want to compromise based on cost.

The Entertainment:

A properly equipped Disc Jockey is the likely choice of the teens. As with anything else, there is compliance to be aware of.

Equipment used must be approved and marked with the Australian Manufacturers logos, or other authority approval markings for imported equipment. Every mains-power carrying cable must be tested and tagged and the tags must be valid and current. Make certain that a light show is part of the package as sometimes they charge extra for these.

Things to watch out for:

DJ’s should be able to demonstrate the right experience and be approved by the chosen venue. It is my strong recommendation that you DO NOT permit DJ students from within the year to perform at the formal, no matter how popular they are. It is my experience that this never works well and they seldom have compliant and reliable equipment. A DJ company is better as they’ll have redundancies in place for both equipment and staff in case of failures.

 A Qualified MC:

 If you pack 200 excited teenagers in a room together and just set them loose, well, you can imagine the utter chaos that ensues. This is an event that, like any other, needs structure and a clear leader to facilitate that structure.

The Master of Ceremony can be anyone with the right presentation skills, however it should also be someone who understands banquet operations and the running order of the various events that need to take place, on time, in order and how they impact on each other, and therefore the smoothness of the event.

My experience is that no venue package includes an MC but they are available independently. A wedding MC would be a good fit.

The rest of the inclusions are a matter of choice. These will be things like photography, decoration, giftware, special incidental entertainment and a variety of other features that ebb and flow in and out of popularity with teens from year to year. These elements are all incidental and non-essential to the event, however will give the formal some form of signature colour / flavour that the year group will like.

As with anything, all inclusions that you seek and acquire for your formal must come with the corresponding Hazard Identification documents, insurances, licenses and permits for compliance. You must acquire and inspect them all before deciding which ones may be eligible to be included.

These are the bases you need to cover. Each inclusion, person, product, service, promise that is perused must be checked for compliance and documentation is the key to risk management.

3/ Cover those bases with proper due diligence

Once you’ve compiled what will probably be a full archive box of papers, it’s time to go through them very carefully. You’ll find that the elimination process is quite swift. If you follow these tips, you’ll be able to spot glaring deficiencies pretty easily and you’ll get that list of options down to something workable in no time.

Once you have your final options that make the cut, see if you might need any supporting documents from any of them with which to make your decisions.

Don’t be dismissive of this part of the process. Consider the average attendance is 200 guests and the average ticket price is around $130. That’s $26,000.00 that someone’s going to sign contracts for. If it’s not right, that person is ultimately responsible for that cost. With a diverse range of inclusions and high attendance lists, some of my formals have routinely exceeded $80,000.00 in cost. At these kinds of costs, you’d want to be pretty sure that all the details are properly examined.

The biggest cost is going to be the venue package. This is going to come with some hefty contract terms and conditions. The more there are, generally the safer the venue. Any venue that offers you half a dozen lines on a page without all of the key elements of a binding agreement should be viewed with extreme suspicion and ultimately avoided. Remember that a contract is packed with features that fairly protect the entitlements and rights of BOTH parties. That shouldn’t be feared, it should be embraced.

If your school has a legal department or advisor, this would be a good time to involve them in the process.