Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Disaster Management... Or the Art of Saying No or How I Almost Burned Down Palm Springs

Disaster management - we've all been there. I can name earthquakes tornadoes, floods, hurricanes and volcano eruptions which have caused me event challenges. Those you have no control over, right? It's the ones that you can see coming that are the real challenges. So I thought I'd share so that you won't make the same mistakes that I did.

The first one that came to mind was what I think of as "Disco Inferno." A fellow event planner invited me to become involved with an event held in the Palm Springs desert where her client wanted to have a fireworks show after a country western night at a remote ranch. Remember the word "remote." All basic elements had been planned, but they still needed fireworks. The client was a New Yorker; at the time my associate resided in Florida; and I was relatively local. So I got to plan and be responsible for the fireworks.

The client asked me for a short and impactful show, and I hired a local and very reputable pyrotechnics company. One that was fully insured.

The Challenge
A few days before the show, the client indicated that he had seen something he wanted to hire - AKA "I have to have that! - a bi-plane that had pyro on its wings. He thought this would be very cool to add. I had never heard of such a thing and said that unless I knew more about the company, the plane and their insurance that I could not take responsibility. The client insisted. So, I said he could hire this plane on his own but that I needed to coordinate it to make sure that all was going to go smoothly. That meant I needed to coordinate the plane with our pyro company, too.

When I contacted the plane's owner, I was told how great and how safe the act was. Nothing specific was detailed, except, "Don't worry," which meant to me that I should worry. I let my client know (yes, in writing) that I didn't trust this addition and advised against it. Of course, I was pooh-poohed. I don't give up easily, so I went back and repeated that several times. Each time I was dismissed. Against my better judgment I caved and said "Okay."

The Venue
Let me describe the venue - a ranch surrounded on three sides by mountains of brush and only a one-lane road to get in and out. The center or eye of the keyhole was where the party took place.

To be on the safe side, I ordered two water trucks to be in the keyhole and on standby. My client didn't want to pay for this as he felt it was unnecessary.

The Outcome
All went well through dinner and during the entertainment. For the finale, we got our pyro team in place and called the cue for the plane to start flying. We saw it take off, and standing next to him, I heard my pyro chief take a deep breath and start muttering, "Go higher; go higher!" Then he took off at a flat-out run to the water trucks as pyro started spitting off the wings of the plane directly onto the brush. The hills on all three sides exploded into flame.

The water trucks immediately took off toward the burning hills, giant hoses spraying the brush, as my associate radioed the buses and started herding a panic-stricken audience of executives toward them. Immediately, I grabbed some blankets, and my entire team and I started beating down flames.

Fortunately, we got all the guests out quickly and ultimately watered and beat down the flames. I lost my eyebrows, charred my face and hands and ruined my outfit, but at least no one was hurt.

Of course, during the time I was on the mountain playing fireman, my client was standing next to me screaming hysterically, "This is your entire fault!" Or, best yet, "I'm not going to pay for this!" I chose not to respond as he stood there doing nothing but watching me and having his tantrum.

Indeed, when I sent him our bill, he refused to pay it because our pyro had never been set off. It was a substantial charge, yet I chose not to fight it even though I knew I had been wronged. It would have wound up in court forever, across three states of negotiations and cost more than could be redeemed. And ultimately I knew I had been a fool to say "yes" to something that I knew was a potential disaster.

And, yes, I paid our pyro provider in full. And, no the bi-plane had no insurance.

The Lesson
When you know something is wrong, stick to your guns and don't give in. I should have refused to have anything to do with this job as it flaunted good sense and safety, and nothing good ever comes of that!

Andrea Michaels is founder and president of Extraordinary Events, a multi-award-wining international event agency based in Los Angeles. Andrea is the author of Reflections of a Successful Wallflower: Lessons in Business; Lessons in Life and an in-demand speaker and leading voice in the special events industry. She may be reached via

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