Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Unions, Hurricanes, and Murphy’s Law AKA When All Else Goes Wrong, It CAN Get Worse

Everything in life is about persistence … the dogged pursuit of what you want to achieve. In my case, it means I will do anything and everything relentlessly to meet the needs of my client. It’s all about creative solutions. Please, soak this in. Creativity is not confined to making a pretty centerpiece; it is also in conflict resolution and innovative communication … It means not being afraid to go to the top and cry “help.” To emphasize this, I’m going to share a case study with you involving unions, hurricanes,  forgetful city officials and museum personnel – all only obstacles to overcome … creatively.
Such was the case with a 1999 event in Philadelphia. For SAP’s annual users conference, Extraordinary Events was asked to produce Streets of Philadelphia in a city with no available indoor venue large enough to hold the 10,000 that would participate. Working with all the various city departments, the event was executed on the Terrace of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (the City’s most recognizable landmark) and adjoining Eakins Oval Parkway with 1,200,000-square feet of land and approximately 50,000-square feet of concrete. Street closures, city permits, traffic control and security were the beginnings of the logistical challenges. Careful planning of each and every bus route to transfer 10,000 guests from 50 hotels throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey was complicated by traffic to a Bruce Springsteen concert at the same time during midweek rush-hour traffic. We needed to transform an ordinary-looking park into a festive and attractive party venue.  We planned exemplary food and beverage that featured the best of Philadelphia’s varied ethnic cuisine so that our thousands of guests could eat and drink without standing in line. Now that alone sounds daunting, doesn’t it?
Philadelphia is a union town, and the union was not happy that we were in a non-union facility and threatened to picket our event if we did not bow to their demands. All of that paled when Hurricane Floyd (yes, that’s right, a hurricane) unleashed its fury during the event. Logistically, it just doesn’t get more complicated than this.  We had to: create a location where none existed and execute bus pickups and drop offs in impossible situations; close major city thoroughfares during rush-hour traffic; coordinate with every city department individually to get our event approved and re-approved when one department would countermand the agreements of another; pave roads that were torn up in order to get our guests across the street to access the event; fight teamsters and IATSE (the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) in order to get our crew working and productive;  seed and re-seed an entire park both before and after the event; re-grade acres of land after the event and fulfill a multitude of insurance claims resulting from weather-related incidents.
Promises were broken by every entity … the venue, the city, the city officials, the parks department, water and power, safety, police and the streets department. There was salvation only once the Mayor intervened. So, I repeat, this was just about as hard as it gets.
So how did we do it all? Grab your galoshes, and read on … you won’t believe how creative we got just getting this event delivered with all the obstacles standing in our way.
 Event Objectives
Entertainment was the cornerstone of this event, and, by the way, it was being compared to the previous year’s that had five times the budget and a performance by Rod Stewart!  This event would feature simultaneous rock and roll in four locations. Guests would be greeted by a local marching band playing Streets of Philadelphia. This would be followed by a traditional Mummer’s Parade. In a tent, a Philadelphia favorite, The Nerds, would alternate with an interactive DJ who would move between the main tent and the Terrace Stage at the Museum to provide ongoing entertainment. Though not technically a festival, a street fair atmosphere was being created within this corporate event. The entertainment was complex and unique and spoke of “Philadelphia.” The timing of the entertainers, combined with a fireworks production, was to be executed split second so that there was never a moment where something wasn’t going on. Sound had to be perfect so that one stage did not interfere with any of the others.
On one of the main stages, World Class Rockers would do a one-hour performance.
 On another stage, Earth, Wind and Fire was destined to thrill the audience.
 On the third stage, representing SAP Latin America, Gilberto Santa Rosa from Puerto Rico would leave people jumping to the rhythm.
A spectacular fireworks display was another featured entertainment element. We conferred with Grucci Fireworks who was given the directive, “Take what you did for the 4th of July in New York and do more for this show … all in no more than five minutes.” It was planned as a rock and roll fireworks show that could be seen everywhere in Philadelphia. The music was customized and  intertwined with tunes about the City. The sound system was designed to be heard over the extensive acreage of the area we were using. Not an easy achievement considering the vastness of the space.  
Branding was key as SAP was establishing global presence for its U.S. Headquarters in Philly and needed us to introduce its new ad campaign. The purpose of creatively branding this event was to cement that SAP is THE cutting edge of technology in the attendees’ minds and to say to the home town in general, “SAP is a presence, a force with which to be reckoned.”  New slogans and branding had to be done in an area that allowed no signage, and it had to be everywhere and creative.  So, we accomplished this significantly through all the décor elements.
With our goals clearly outlined – entertainment, food and beverage and branding - we knew almost immediately that the focus should be placed on the Museum.  The park alone, though tree-lined and scenic, didn't make a statement for an industry leader in the tech sector.  Structures and decor could be built, but this event was for 10,000 people, with time and budget restrictions.  The Museum stood at the apex of the event area and became a monumental task.
The structure of the museum on its own didn't fulfill the goal of a high-tech, cutting-edge visual statement. So how could lighting transform this historic site into a contemporary work of high-tech art in under three days?  We painted it with LIGHT, a lighting design utilizing almost 275 automated fixtures and miles of electrical distribution cable.  The intense color washes would form a backdrop to frame the client's message.  Projected over the colorful background on the two "sides" of the Museum was a 150-feet-wide-by-five-stories-high visual display of SAP’s logo and its catchphrases. The “branding, images and hooks” that SAP wanted guests to see were produced from a separate lighting system.   Video-like roll-ins, sweeps, complex reveals and one-by-one word fade-ups for entire sentences created the client’s logos and messages. Due to the fact that the designer chose to utilize one of the brightest intelligent light fixtures at that time, the corporate branding became visible for blocks, all the way down the parkway and into the downtown area.  It made such a statement that camera crews from the local news channels taped it for broadcast.
Creative use of graphics and the above-described lighting as well as use of new products, such as the huge AirStar projection inflatable, displayed all current ad campaigns through slides in this unique object. Immense backdrops on the stages previewed the new ad campaign, CityofE. Even the fireworks spelled out SAP in the sky. Guests saw “SAP”everywhere - on cocktail napkins, on signage where possible, in lighting, in the fireworks, on the stage, in the inflatable and in street banners.
Venue Challenges
Under the very best of circumstances, a job of such magnitude would have been a challenge. But, it gets even more complicated!
Let’s look at our venue challenges first. Remember, we had 10,000 guests to accommodate. The entire convention center was being used for the client’s own tradeshow, and Bruce Springsteen was performing at the new arena. Translation: any location anywhere near this arena could not be considered because of street traffic. Several locations were considered but eliminated because they were in seedy and unsafe neighborhoods and, therefore, not appropriate or safe. And SAP was conscious of image. 
So, we focused on the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a non-union venue, a definite plus, or so we thought. (As everyone who has ever worked in Philadelphia knows, the union has an extremely strong presence.) We then met with the city and Eakins Oval Parkway officials to describe the event. Headline entertainment. Huge amounts of food. Fireworks. No problem. (Oh, do I rue the day I ever hear “no problem” again.) Just follow city regulations. What are “city regulations?” I was handed a 500-page handbook. Hmmmm. We read it.
After several site inspections, we were told that SAP must become a member to use the Museum. They joined, and we were told we could use both the inside and outside of it. To make a long story short, after meticulous arrangements with the museum, when we showed up days before the event, they had forgotten everything to which they had agreed, even though we had contracts and production schedules in hand and time-stamped proof of fax and Fed-Ex deliveries. Everything agreed upon… the use of an outside caterer, the fireworks, the use of the inside of the building … all was now a NO. Many meeting hours and $20,000 later they agreed but charged for additional security and would close the building at 11:00 p.m., not 12:30 p.m. as the contract stipulated.
Even though we had received the permits to close the street between the Museum and Eakins Oval Parkway, a main thoroughfare during rush hour that would allow 10,000 guests to cross back and forth between the two areas, when we arrived the large sidewalk area leading to the Museum steps, the only pathway to the Terrace where part of our event would be held, was completely ripped up. No one thought to mention in numerous meetings that, even though it was 1999, the City would be preparing for the Republican Convention in 2000 and that they would be repairing the sidewalk. They refused to fix it, so we paved the sidewalk and street the day before our event so that guests could walk on concrete to access the venue!
And what about the lighting you ask? The real challenges surfaced about an hour after the first on-site inspection meeting began. Suddenly, the city that was quite accustomed to hosting events in the park (complete with large stages, name talent and full productions) said that lighting the front of the Museum was another story. After a host of bureaucratic red tape and meetings upon meetings and more money to the museum, we received the necessary permission again!
 Then there was the park. Imagine our surprise when on the day before the event, crews came in and started seeding the grounds, mulching the soil and creating mud where there had previously been either hard earth or lawn. Would they stop? No, they had their orders. By the time we could reach the appropriate city official, the work had been completed. Aargh! Later, you will know how much this affected our event. 
Of course, we needed everything for the park. We ordered power, toilets, tables, chairs and all that accompanies such a food and beverage event, as well as stages for the talent and on-site dressing rooms for the entertainers with all of their hospitality needs. The limos. The suites. The first-class air arrangements. The roadies. The runners. Phone lines and RVs for offices. Loads of details.  And, we determined we needed a tent in case of inclement weather so that those who couldn’t get into the museum could be sheltered in case of rain. We logistically planned the placement of the 600 linear feet of food tents.
Containing the area also became important, so the entire perimeter of our event space, 600-feet-wide-by-2,000-feet-long, was contained within fencing. Easy so far, right?
 The Union
Still not as bad as it's going to get. As soon as we started set up, our technical director said that we had a problem. A bad problem. The city had assured us that we did not need to use union labor. However, the unions had called on the TD to inform him that because we were not using union labor they were going to stop all local labor from working on our event. He was told that if we proceeded to hold the event they would form a picket line around the entire affair and prevent guests from entering. I tried reasoning. No luck. I was told that if I hired union crews it would be an additional $30,000 to $50,000.
I’d had it. I called the Mayor’s office. God bless Philadelphia’s mayor. Within hours he had his deputy meet with the union officials and me, and we resolved the matter amicably. Amicably for me. Not for the Union. The official had in hand (literally) representatives of each of the threatening unions (who had told us there would be bodily harm … yes, really!) and told them to apologize to me, and sincerely. He then said that the union crews would be happy to pitch in and help and would work for non-union fees, including any needed overtime. So we agreed to use union personnel on our job. All was well. Or so they pretended. Union guys just love being ordered around by a woman, don’t they?
The day before the event, we had everything set up and tested. Everything was a “go” with the police and fire departments and city officials. However, city plumbers would not turn on water to the cook tents or bathrooms until 4:00 p.m. on the day of the event as they cited a water shortage! The fountains at the museum (another of those no problem requests) were never turned on. Water shortage. Little did they know that shortly there would be no shortage of water.
The Hurricane
Prior to the event, we had calculated all the possibilities, provided weather contingencies and accommodated every anticipated need. Hurricane Floyd was all the way down south in the Caribbean when the install first began in Philadelphia.  But, of course, it headed straight for our site. It quickly became apparent that the event could be in trouble.  Fortunately, when the hurricane hit, we had taken care of all the event details and were prepared to handle it because everything else had already been coordinated. This prevented our attention from being diffused.
Dozens of cases of trash bags were purchased and distributed to each of the 275 fixtures, as temporary raincoats.  Just as programming finished the night before the event, the first raindrops began to fall.  The four key technical staff, still working at 3:00 a.m., began scrambling to cover and protect the equipment.  When you consider that each fixture has the electronics and processing similar to a laptop computer, and costs upwards of $7,000 each to purchase, the team was running.  Would you leave your laptop open and in the rain?
The crew quickly jogged around the enormous site, turning over fixtures, and watching pots of water pour out from the electronics and the delicate control motors. 
At this point, we were glad that we had a huge tent (30,000 square feet) installed. Just in case. And the Museum as back up … sort of.
To be safe prior to the rain, we found a supplier of 10,000 ponchos which we handed out as guests got off their motor coaches. Our salvation. And then we just pretended it was “Woodstock 1999.” What else could we do? We had a significant amount of shelter so that people could gather in the tent to eat and drink. The main stages were sheltered by trees and with their ponchos on, guests plodded through the mud to see the main stage acts. The acts performed, albeit reluctantly. We did say to Earth, Wind & Fire, “Hey, guys, with a name like yours, you can’t refuse to play in the elements.” With a forced laugh, they did.
The only real hiccough was the fireworks. With the fire marshal at my side, he at first said, “No, absolutely not,” because the winds were too high. We negotiated. I did not want to be the one to tell my client that his $100,000 fireworks show was not going to happen when everything else was so slushy. He finally agreed that we could test the air by sending up an occasional pyro burst, and, if it looked okay, we could “go” but only when he said “go.” By doing this, we ultimately found a window of opportunity and the resultant show was truly magnificent. “SAP” was written in the sky in pyro, and the clients agreed that it was the most magnificent fireworks display they had ever seen or imagined. Phew!
Guests loved it and said it was the best event they had ever attended. Great food. Great entertainment. Fun. They hoarded the ponchos. They loved the rain and the environment it created. At one a.m. it was over, or was it?
The morning after the event the first call came at 5:30 a.m. Hurricane Floyd had landed in full fury, and our tents were all blowing over. Our kitchen equipment was on its way to the next county; the stages were sinking into the mud and our semis were stuck in the middle of the park and unable to move. Debris was flying everywhere. Ah, the life of an event producer. Off we went in over 100-miles-per-hour winds and pouring rain to manage the load-out. The union? Oh, no, they were not allowed to work under such conditions. So they abdicated all responsibility for load-out.
The final challenge was racing millions of dollars of valuable fixtures, controllers, and miles of cable into the waiting semi-trucks, before the full force of “Floyd” shut down the entire city.  Let’s just say we were very wet and tired.
However, the guests never experienced this part of the event production. In the world of “memorable” events, this one is at the top.
Could there be any more challenges? Of course. For instance, the aftermath. There was a great deal of damage. We had ample insurance, and that was a good thing, because we were blamed for the damage to the park though it was indeed caused by an act of God. However, in lieu of all that had preceded the event, we chose to cheerfully accept our responsibility and replant the park that had been reseeded the day before the event. We fulfilled all insurance claims (tents that hit cars) and insisted that our vendors also act responsibly.
Overall, the event went a bit damp, but without a hitch.  The dedicated crews were left with the satisfaction of a spectacular design, overcoming obstacles and the gratifying statement, “We’re sorry, but that flight has been cancelled; the airport just closed due to weather.”
Note: If you got all the way through this adventure, congratulations; you’ve learned that the key to success is resourcefulness and persistence and good rain gear!

Andrea Michaels is founder and president of Extraordinary Events, a multi-award-winning 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 amichaels@extraordinaryevents.com.


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