Event Logistics: Managing the Unexpected

Editor’s note: the following post is an example of the logistical challenges of managing a large scale event and is not a political endorsement.

Bringing a carefully planned event together, large or small, public or private, involves a number of challenges, and a great deal of patience.  However, when things change at the last minute, you can find yourself in full-blown crisis management mode.

Alongside my work in public relations I work on a contracting basis producing events for a number of non-profit and corporate clients and this month I traveled out to Charlotte, NC, to work on event logistics for the Democratic National Convention.

Democratic National ConventionThere’s nothing quite like the size and scope of an event of that nature to get one’s logistical brain firing on all cylinders. My particular portion of the convention was to be the final evening, held in a separate venue – the 70,000-seat open air Bank of America Stadium – to accommodate tens of thousands of regular people as guests to view the president’s acceptance speech. I was lucky enough to step in a week and a half before the event, working to assist colleagues who had moved to Charlotte and had been planning the ins and outs of this event for several months. Dozens of vendors, hundreds of staff and thousands of volunteers all descended on Bank of America Stadium that final week.

It was about three days before the event and on this particular afternoon I led a volunteer briefing with a few dozen of our team working on access control.  Everything was starting to feel very real; our beautiful stage set was nearly finished, all of our carefully planned signage was up, performers were arriving for walk-throughs and we had even tested out the fireworks display.

We were about halfway through this volunteer briefing and we started to take questions from the crowd.  “Excuse me!” our most eager volunteer interjected, “Do we even have a rain plan?” Certainly we had a rain plan. We would ask the crowd to take shelter in the concourses until the rain had passed. It wasn’t the best rain plan, but this was North Carolina – short bursts of heavy rain are common in summer and they rarely last more than 20 minutes or so outside of a major storm system.  Besides, this was a very exciting event. Our crowd wouldn’t mind.

Fast forward to 36 hours from the event and we were facing a grim forecast. Severe thunderstorms were predicted for 4pm and 10pm – just 20 minutes before the president was to take the stage. After all the planning, all the months and months of preparation, we were faced with the reality that we simply could not risk exposing thousands to severe weather and we were forced to bring the event indoors. We had a 70,000-plus event to fit into the 15,000-seat Time Warner Arena, which had been used for the first two nights of the convention.  Go ahead and work out that math yourself.

The lesson here is not about having a plan B or a plan C or a rain plan. It is about being willing to shift gears VERY quickly if

Setting up the Democratic National Convention

necessary and to learn to be able to move your plans in a different direction when your circumstances call for it. In the marketing and public relations world, this lesson can come in handy in a variety of settings. Any time you’re doing a live event, be it a product launch, a press conference, a keynote or an enormous conference, flexibility is key. You must be prepared to do a 180 when circumstances call for it – all while keeping your various constituencies informed and – as best as possible – happy.

It’s unlikely that most organizations will have to encounter a change in an event plan this drastic, but understanding the best way to move forward in a crisis scenario is always helpful.  Below is a helpful guide on what to do immediately after a challenge of this sort pops up for a live event.

When a drastic change to the plan has to be made:

  • Calm down. Set a calm and collected tone for your staff and be clear that you are going to make it work.
  • Get your team together – either in a conference room or on a call – to address the situation and establish an email listserv or Google group to serve as a centralized channel of communication going forward.
  • Identify the potential problems you face and rank them in order of importance.  Write these down on a whiteboard or in an email for everyone to see. It’s important that everyone is on the same page.
  • Address the most critical challenges first.
  • Eliminate the challenges you don’t have the time or the manpower to address.
  • Note the key groups who will be affected and reach out to these people as soon as possible to eliminate confusion from spreading.

In the end, the event was successful and although we faced a number of challenges —including several thousand folks who weren’t able to attend due to the smaller space— none of that came through in the television broadcast. In fact, the smaller venue felt more intimate and the crowd more energized. As for the weather prediction, those thunderstorms did make an appearance – right on cue. Being outdoors would have been miserable, and possibly dangerous. Overall, we consider the night a tremendous success despite our challenges, and we handled the momentary crisis well. Time will tell if this year’s campaign trail will produce any botched crises, but thankfully this will not be one of them.

Dave Gifford can be reached at dgifford@sterlingpr.com. Follow him on Twitter @david_gifford.

Images property of Dave Gifford.