Leslie Harris, executive vice president of production with TBA Global, based in Los Angeles, shares how she would handle a mega event such as the Michael Jackson memorial.
With experience encompassing virtually every aspect of the process, Harris has overall responsibility for production at TBA Global, one of the industry’s largest event marketing agencies. Recently, her team has created some of the largest and most complex public and corporate events in stadiums and arenas and on the Washington Mall. For more, visit www.tbaglobal.com.
Special Events: What are organizers facing with an event of this magnitude?
Leslie Harris: There are many things to consider in a short amount of time. First, the family’s desires for the service. Then, the experience for ticketholders, the experience for non-ticketholders, and the impact on the city of Los Angeles.
As this is a memorial service, crowds will be filled with intense and unfiltered emotion, which means producers need to prepare for the unexpected. The needs and wants of family need to be put first, and the producers may find themselves acting as a buffer between the family and the many people will want to be a part of the presentation.
From an external vantage point, a primary challenge is to provide a satisfying experience for the public in which waiting times, comfort and the opportunity to participate are managed against the requirements of public safety and cost management. And the event has to be managed in such a way that it does not impose too heavily on other activities and business going on in the city.
Q: What are the challenges in planning something like this so quickly?
A: There is no room for delay and no room for error. Many things will need to occur in parallel.
A short amount of time is a challenge--but more than that, this is a situation where emotions run high. The production company needs to be incredibly professional, transparent, efficient and agile--they need to provide the backbone so that those on the inside with the family can manage the emotional aspects of the program. The production team needs to be prepared to do whatever needs to be done--to listen, digest, solve and respond.
The first step is getting the right professionals on board. In assembling the team, you need key people in each core role that can "divide and conquer" on specific areas of the plan. They then roll up into the core producer, who becomes the main point of contact for the production team. When you have people you trust that are deeply experienced, the process of communication becomes incredibly efficient. It is critical to have very specific and defined points of contact and know exactly who the decision-makers are and what they are responsible for. Decisions will need to be made quickly, and staff needs to be empowered to act.
With a small window of time in pre-production, assuming you have the right team in place, the biggest challenge is really communication--keeping everyone on the same page, notifying the affected teams of program and schedule changes, and keeping the many city departments and outside organizations apprised of the issues that affect their work or participation.
Q: What logistics issues will producers need to address?
A: Infrastructure and safety are paramount. They’ll need good police and private security coverage for both the public and VIPs as well as for production installations. They’ll need traffic management for spectators and special routes for the procession, VIPs and emergency vehicles. Spectators may begin to gather even as setup is happening, so security will need to secure production and keep the public out of work areas. Credentials for personnel, press and VIPs will need to be prepared and distributed. Insurance, permits and emergency plans will need to be covered.
A communication system for personnel is needed, which will allow work groups to be in touch and will also connect all on-site personnel in case of emergency or changes in plans. The producers will have to be in close communication with all city service and safety personnel, especially if they are not on the same radios. Parking for spectators, media trucks, vendor trucks will have to be planned, as well as schedules for deliveries and services (waste removal, etc.). Power, high-speed Internet access, telephony, HVAC and weather contingencies will all need to be planned.
Equipment has to be ordered and prepped, probably even as the program content is being developed, so they will need a flexible setup and personnel who can roll with the punches. Good communication and effective delegation will be the key to getting it all done. Coordination with press and media outlets will ensure that the various news and entertainment media organizations get what they need. Facilities for on-site video crews, power, feeds and connectivity for media and an on-site press relations team will be needed. Beyond any event catering, the crews working round the clock to put everything in place will need to be fed.
As with all programs, we recommend sustainability be considered--how to provide for recycling, minimize trash and litter, and manage the use of power and gas.
Regarding traffic, it is best to draw on experience from other large events at these venues and in the area. It may be necessary to shut down streets and redirect traffic flow. On top of that, be prepared for a lot of overflow traffic. Be prepared for more of a crowd than you may get. You could also suggest that those who work in the area telecommute on the day of the event if possible.
Add portable restrooms. Again, better to have more than needed than not enough.
Q: What to do about the 700,000 fans who may show up even without a ticket?
A: The event in the arena is the element over which they have control, as it is a secured space. A good solution for accommodating those without tickets is to promote the online Webcast and discourage non-ticketholders from showing up. If there is a desire to accommodate others, perhaps allow overflow into the Nokia Theatre and/or utilize the large LED screens and audio system outside the Nokia Theatre, at L.A. Live [across the street from Staples Center]. You could also sell or give away tickets to other venues in L.A. where the live broadcast will be shown, so if people want to gather, they have a place to go.
Q: How can the planners juggle the celebrities who want to appear but who may not show up till the last minute?
A: For a memorial, stars are treated on a case-by-case basis. VIP management will be a big effort as someone needs to be totally on top of the schedules, requirements and protocol for those attending or performing. There should be one liaison who handles appearance requests, consulting with producer and stage manager and loops others in as necessary so that all requests/demands are going through one channel and there are no miscommunications. This one VIP liaison should have a team of people to work with VIPs who are poised, resourceful, organized and not star-struck. Also, VIPs will come in with their own security teams so that will need to be coordinated.
Q: With tickets already changing hands on Twitter, et al., how can planners ensure the identity of ticketholders?
A: If identity/ticket verification has not already been baked in to the ticket process, it’s tough to tack it on now. According to TV [reports], a double wristband system is in use. So the person picking up the wristbands must attend with a guest of their choosing or anyone who they sell it to. Any damage to a wristband makes it null and void.