This is not a topic in which anyone would voluntarily become an expert. As an event professional, the goal is that everything unfolds perfectly, but of course, that is not always the case.
These days, there are so many crises around the world. You will hear about a tragedy at an event, and say things like, “This is horrible” or “How devastating” and “I’m glad no one was hurt.” Let's hope, at least, that you can say the latter.
Over the past few years, I have found myself in many interesting situations. In fact, there have been two events in my career that could be described as “apocalyptic,” in which my own mortality was considered.
SCENE 1: NO POWER. ANYWHERE.
It’s Sept. 8, 2011, and we are in San Diego working on a small, yet high-end conference. It’s nearly the final general session. Then boom—there’s complete darkness. The power has gone out. “Huh – that’s interesting," I said to myself. “Now what?”
So we get all the attendees out onto this gorgeous balcony that overlooks the bay. Then we turn up the volume on the presenter, who talks loudly into a wired microphone that is hooked up to our video camera. This way, we can record it, and everyone who can’t quite hear him will be able to review it later. “That was simple enough,” I thought silently.
Amidst this session, the client calls me out of the room. I learn that the power outage affected three main power plants and three states. The closest city that has power is Las Vegas. From L.A. to Mexico to Arizona--no one has power. The hotel has emergency generators that will give certain areas power for about 48 hours. The food in the hotel is all there will be. Period.
Slowly, the teeny-tiny conspiracy-conscious voice begins to get louder and louder in my head. We are three days away from the 10-year anniversary of 9-11. I take a deep breath. We need to come up with a plan. No one knows when the power will come back. The airports have stopped all operations—meaning no flights in or out. I take another deep breath.
As soon as we are free to do so, I grab my video director, we get a cab to the airport and rent the largest car available. With no power, there is no refrigeration, no ATMs, no gas, no cell phones. This could be bad. The cab driver—realizing the situation—takes only $10 for the ride, so I don’t waste my cash.
The car rental is in chaos. I am a preferred renter, so the guy yells, “Grab any car you want. Go quickly before they are gone.” We choose a Suburban. There are now only two cars left in the lot. If the power is still out the next day, we can drive to Vegas with a few more people and luggage. It’s getting really dark, really fast.
Back at the hotel, the client secures food and drink for everyone. We eat up and decide to rendezvous at 6 a.m. to assess. At 5:30 a.m.--the power comes back on. We pulled the stop, drop, but, in the end, didn’t need to roll. We were grateful for the action plan to safety--just in case.
SCENE 2: THE RIOT AT THE CHRISTMAS EVENT
It’s the day after Thanksgiving--Black Friday. We are producing the city's most-beloved Christmas Tree Lighting event. It involves three key elements: the main downtown mall’s signature five-story Christmas tree, the downtown association’s Christmas Carousel, and the Macy’s Star Lighting, which ends with a fireworks display. Three completely separate entities that all come together for one moment—a moment that is loved by all in the city.
Our job is to make this spectacle as wonderful as possible—bands will play, TV anchors are the emcees, and the local news along with Santa will be there. And did I mention a professional theater cast of 15 children from “A Christmas Story” will be performing? As you can tell, there’s lots of fun and celebration leading up to the moment of “3 – 2 – 1” queue lights, carousel, star and fireworks! It’s a huge, fun-filled Christmas event for friends and family. The head count is around 20,000 people.
But this was Black Friday in Seattle, and our event took place in the exterior balcony of the mall—and it was most likely going to be raining. Luckily, we were able to keep all the equipment, talent and instruments dry and sheltered. It was high up, and everyone could see and hear. The setting was perfect. The day started with the Macy’s parade and everyone was happy. The day was going well. It was a bit on the cold side and a little rainy, but overall a great winter’s day in Seattle.
In the few days leading up to this event, there had been some small congregations of protesters, marching against the recent event in Ferguson, Mo. There were rumors of a gathering on Friday, but the protesters were “peaceful” and about two miles away. At our final production meeting, two hours before go-time, we have a security briefing. The police tell us that the protesters are turning violent, but that they are miles up the road. Our security team has been doubled, Macy’s also doubles theirs, and the police have called in as many extra teams as possible in this short notice.
Now 30 minutes before go-time, we learn that the protesters have turned into rioters. They are getting more violent, but they are still far away, and the police have detained them.
I start to cut elements out of the show to make it short and sweet (the “show” was only 40 minutes in the first place) and give us some breathing space in case the rioters start to head our way. The bands are already playing—entertaining the audience—and the crowd is huge.
We get word that a few people in the crowd are shooting Roman candle fireworks upward toward the balcony and the stage. Thankfully, it stopped as quickly as it started.
The police report that the rioters are moving but are still a ways away.
We start the show. We have it down to about 15 minutes.
As soon as we are in “show mode,” we get bombarded. Two hundred rioters who had placed themselves in the mall as “customers” suddenly attack the area surrounding the stage. They are efficient, swift and forceful.
We have 15 children on stage singing, who are now blocked by this mob of people. There are four things between the mob and the stage: the audio engineer, an adult chaperone, the main power distro and me. The mob seems not to care about the children on stage—they want to shut the entire event down and get on stage themselves.
My main goal is the safety of everyone: the kids on stage, the celebrities, the bands, the crew and the 20,000 people below. Also, this is all on TV—cameras are everywhere—even the mob was videotaping.
They slam my body against the power distro and start to grab any cable they can to shut it down. What they don’t realize is that grabbing the wrong cable could blow us all up. We are physically stopping them from pulling cables and from trying to climb over us to get to the stage. At one point, I thought they were going to break my arm. My audio engineer was pulled into the mob and they started to beat him. Luckily we were able to pull him back to our “line” and keep him safe.
The police can’t get to us and nor can the additional security. The only way for us to win this war is to get the tree, carousel and star lit. I had one other trick up my sleeve: the fireworks.
“Get the tree lit,” I scream into the radio. Quite quickly I hear “3 - 2 - 1…….” the tree lights flicker on, the carousel starts, the Macy’s Star lights up too, and right on cue, there are fireworks!
From where the mob was standing, they couldn’t see the fireworks at all—they didn’t know they were going to happen. The pop-pop-pop sound simultaneously wowed the audience and scared the entire mob. They began to take cover. It took the wind out of their sails, just long enough for the emcees to say goodnight and for us to cut the power to the stage. Now there was nothing they could do, and we were all going to be safe. No power meant that no equipment would explode. They all started to disperse. The police finally reached us.
It was easily the longest 12 minutes of my life.
Yes, I was beaten, but everyone was physically fine—we were O.K. The event was a success and the mob did not win. Safety was secured.
WHAT HAVE I LEARNED FROM THESE EVENTS?
Get a game plan – cultivate a culture of preparedness
1. Before the storm: Risk Management
Understand the risk fully. Think through all the risks that might be involved in any event. Do a mental walkthrough and step into a pessimistic mindset for a quick bit. It’s OK, you can come back out!
Then, based on your findings, make a plan. Make sure you/your company has an emergency policy that everyone knows. It should be a known part of your culture. It should be reviewed frequently. You should even have your team poke holes in it. You have got to know what you would do before it actually happens.
Pack a kit. As event professionals, we all always have the “event kit”--make sure it is well stocked. What materials do you need to pull off your plan?
2. During the storm: Crisis Management
Stay calm and think fast. As event professionals, we probably excel at staying calm when things go wrong. We can think fast to come up with solutions. It’s built into our bones, or it’s very quickly learned. This trait will be a crucial element in any crisis.
Work as a team. Have a core team that acts as the hub of the crisis management plan. They will play the leader/director role when chaos ensues. Your team should be unified.
Be informed. Make sure you are on the inner circle of information and get it straight from the source. Or better yet, be the source--know the facts and details of the situation first.
Be safe. This is the toughest one of all. As event producers, we are the captains of the ship. It is our responsibility to protect the attendees, the talent and the crew. Sometimes in order to protect everyone else, we are the ones who have to get in the middle of the battle. We must be prepared to be selfless.
Before throwing yourself in front the bullet, make sure to have a clear head about what the right thing to do is. This should be solidified in Step 1.
3. After the storm: Check
a. Check yourself. Are you physically safe? Are you emotionally OK?
b. Check your neighbors. Is your client, talent and team safe? Are they OK?
c. Check your environment. Is it safe? Is it OK? Can anything more happen from any loose ends still untied?
d. Recover and restore. This is the cleaning-up process. As captain of the ship, how do you need to respond? Is there an apology that should be issued? Are there reports that need to be filed? Cover yourself, your talent, your team and your attendees with a full-circle sweep. And don’t just sweep it under the rug--address it in order to fully restore.
Take a breath. And then move on. Again, the successful event producers know events like this will happen. Learn from it and let it help refine you in your profession.
Events occur every day where we do not even think about a crisis management plan. It’s too small, it’s a private event, there’s no reason to think anything would happen. As recent events have shown us, even a private holiday party in the office cafeteria could become a “crisis.” If we all give even five minutes of thought as to “what would I do if…” before each event, no matter what, we will be better professionals.
Niki McKay is owner of Blue Danube Productions, based in Seattle. Photo by Mike Nakamura Photography.