Two flights, one night, one ball in Vienna – for less than an Oxford ball

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Image description: Guests dancing at the Elmayer-Kränzchen (Elmayer Ball) in Vienna

Earlier this year, two Oxford students attended a Viennese Ball, paying for a return flight, a night of accommodation, and the cost of ball tickets, for less than the cost of an Oxford Commemoration ball. The total cost of the trip was £154, with the ball ticket costing £26, much less than the price of a typical Oxford Commemoration ball, where tickets normally sell for upwards of £190.

Mario Stepanik, a second year Economics and Management student at Merton, and Bobby Taylor, a second year lawyer from LMH, created a video to document their project (embedded below), which they say is meant to illustrate the “excessive price” of Commemoration balls.

Due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, all Oxford balls for this year have been cancelled, but Taylor told The Oxford Student, going forward, he “believe[s] that they can and should be less expensive.”

The two students visited the ‘Elmayer-Kränzchen’, loosely translated as ‘Elmayer Ball’, organised by Elmayer, Vienna’s most reputable dancing school. The event was highly prestigious, hosted in Vienna’s Imperial Palace, the residence of the Austrian President, and attracted roughly 3,000 guests, as it does every year. Despite this, tickets cost only €30 or roughly £26.

Added to this was the cost of public transport to Gatwick and in Austria (£51.57), a round trip flight (£43.92), a shared Airbnb for a night (£15), and food and drinks (£17.97), for a total trip cost of roughly £154.

Stepanik told The Oxford Student that, “The average young person in Vienna would not visit a ball if the tickets were above €30”. This comes despite the ball season in Vienna being “one of the most significant events in the city’s social calendar”, with the tradition of holding annual balls “woven into the fabric of Austrian culture”.

Whilst popular and typically a highlight of many students’ time at the university, Oxford balls have been described as inaccessible for those on lower incomes, due to their high cost.

The Oxford Student spoke to Georgia Brooks, Vice-President and Treasurer for the committee who organised the now cancelled Worcester Commemoration Ball (whose ticket price was £195 for non-Worcester students), as well as Stepanik, to understand the differences, or similarities, between Viennese and Oxford Balls, to try and understand the difference in ticket price.

Brooks told The Oxford Student, “Annoyingly, the most important part of planning a ball is the thing that is designed to go unnoticed. Without the core infrastructure, such as lighting, water and electricity, the ball could not go ahead, and even if 99% of guests have a greatly enjoyable evening, if one person gets food poisoning or trips into the lake – whether due to their own inebriation or not – the night can’t be considered a success.“

Because of this, she said, “The most expensive part of the ball was the critical infrastructure… 15% of our budget was spent with one supplier alone who was to supply lighting for the entire event area… In fact, nearly 30% of our budget is for logistics spending: toilets, first aid, electric, marquees, tree surgeon, cleaning etc.”

Here there is a difference with the Austrian ball tradition, based on conversation with Stepanik, who has experience organising balls, having organised a charity ball in Vienna to raise money for Syrian children in 2018. He said, rather than logistical spending, “The main cost factor [for Austrian balls] is the location which can easily account for almost half of the total expenses.” The Imperial Palace, where the Elmayer ball took place, costs over €30000 (roughly £27000) to book for a few thousand guests in a night, according to Stepanik.

Strikingly, this cost factor does not come into play for Oxford balls, whose free access to college grounds makes paying for the location of a ball unimportant.

Stepanik described logistical spending, such as lighting, or sound equipment as the “second-biggest cost factor” for Austrian balls, with sound equipment estimated at roughly €7000 for an average ball, with DJs or a band costing a similar amount.

Brooks told The Oxford Student that, “due to the wide variety of musical talent in Oxford, sourcing musical acts can be done more cheaply than you might expect.

“It’s no secret that balls often ‘pay’ their acts with tickets which, due to the majority of costs being fixed (i.e. we do not need to increase the amount of lighting or the number of stages etc for each ticket we sell), allows acts a ticket that would cost them nearly £200 whilst directly costing the committee much less than that.” There is a similarity in that Stepanik confirmed this is also practice for many Austrian balls.

However, headline acts for Oxford balls may make a significant part of the total cost, with Brooks saying headliners, such as British rapper Example, meant to perform at the Worcester Commemoration ball, can cost between £15-20k.

Stepanik told The Oxford Student his opinion is that the high costs of Commemoration balls occur because organisers take the price of a Commemoration ball “for granted; we know that a white tie ball in Oxford has to cost £190 or more, and then the organisers try to organise a ball that seems like it’s worth this money – which is I think the wrong way to approach the organisation of a ball…you should think about what would make a good ball, what is really necessary.”

Commemoration balls (also known as white-tie balls) are held triennially by only some of the larger colleges in Oxford, such as Worcester, St John’s, Trinity, or Christ Church. Despite some critiquing them for being too grand, and therefore contributing to their larger ticket price, Viennese balls are similarly dazzling events.

A 2018 New York Times article describes how, “Most [Austrian] balls feature food stands in addition to booked table service, making gown-clad guests dipping pairs of long sausages into mustard and horseradish a common sight — especially after the midnight quadrille, a coordinated dance that fills the ballroom.”

There was controversy before this term, after refunds were not initially guaranteed following the cancellation of St John’s Ball, one of the most expensive balls in Oxford, with tickets costing an average of £181.85.

Image Credit: Mario Stepanik and Bobby Taylor

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