Sunday, 14 December 2008

Why We Celebrate: Part Two

Back in June, I briefly discussed the key players in special events: organizers, participants, and spectators. I left that blog entry with a promise to return and give what I believe to be the reasons why each of these individual groups becomes part of a special event. This is the beginning.

We view the well-rehearsed, slick productions of big-name concert artists, the fast-paced, half-time shows at football games, and the emotionally charged opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympic Games with awe. To most viewers, these elaborate productions seem effortless, moving seamlessly from one act or program segment to the next, each one building on the last until the finale is reached amidst a burst of fireworks and patriotic or high-energy music. Effortless they appear. Easy to plan and execute they are not. They all require an abundance of creativity, superior organizational skill, an intimate knowledge of performance and psychology, and an unwavering dedication to the task at hand, specifically by the two key players and their teams, organizers/owners, and participants. Each of these two parties needs to know why they are contributing their time and effort to the event.

The first of these, event organizers and owners, have any one or more of five primary reasons for holding an event. These are religious, political, social, educational, and commercial. This has been true since prehistory and across all societies. It always comes down to fear of the unknown (religion), drive for power (politics), building or maintaining group solidarity (social), imparting messages and lessons (educational), and lust for money (commerce).

Interestingly, one often has to look deeper to find the real motivation for an organizer to hold an event. At first glance, an organizer may state something else. For example, increasing tourism as a reason is a euphemistic alternative for profit-seeking by local or national governments. Gaining cultural knowledge as a reason typically disguises a play for group power and recognition and later, money, by politically astute cultural groups. Supporting philanthropy in reality is another ploy for gaining recognition and later, power or money through the allying of support behind popular causes, often by individual or corporate sponsors.

If this sounds cynical, it is. It did not take our ancestors long to figure out the power behind what we know today as event marketing. Events – especially large public ones - influence people. Obviously, the larger the event, the more people can be influenced. This influence usually involves spectators taking action in some way, whether it is physical or psychological, as a result of receiving a message from the event. Watching a Super Bowl game or a World Cup soccer final with all the attendant emotional razzmatazz can induce viewers to purchase the products of sponsors (a commercial reason). In the Aztec civilization of ancient Mexico, as witnessed by the Spanish conquistadors, bloody human sacrifices were in part intended to prevent enemies from trying to attack the Aztecs if they did not want to suffer the same fate (religious and political reasons). Likewise, the Nazi rallies at Nuremberg in the 1930s had very clear messages for the German people that produced untold grief in the years to follow (a political reason). A more modern example became blatantly apparent before the 2008 Olympics in Beijing when United States media giant NBC paid a whopping $894 million for the exclusive broadcasting rights for the games. This made them the largest sponsor by far and obvious proof that commerce drives the once noble games that began in 776 BCE with religion as their raison d’etre.

Yes, we have come a long way - technically - from the special events of our ancestors but human nature has not changed. The reasons for staging them have remained the same. A future blog will discuss the reasons why participants other than organizers become part of special events.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Some Thoughts About Dancing and Music at Events

I have just returned from a weekend devoted to my college class reunion. I won't embarrass myself by stating which one it was; however, I do want to recount the experience of our Saturday night dinner and dance.

This was obviously a time when we all wanted to renew old acquaintances and spend a lot of time talking and learning about what we had all been doing for so many years since we last saw one another. The evening went along swimmingly until the band started, shortly after dinner. At this point, it became impossible to talk so we just sat staring at each other. The band, to be sure, was very good and they tried to keep the volume down, but although many people danced, it effectively killed the party.

I experienced this situation many times during my career as an event producer and it reminded me of the necessity to continually be cognizant of the client's purpose for holding an event. An event planner/producer must understand why the client is bringing all these people together. Sure, a loud dance band is great for a group who knows and works with each other daily. Unfortunately, it is not good when the group wants to discuss business or renew old friendships. The assumption that what worked when we were all young and single and saw each other regularly is irrelevant for a reunion after many years of not seeing each other.

So what can be done about this dilemma? The organizer and client want the event to be successful and having a dance band and music makes it at least seem as if everyone is having a good time. It also makes it seem as if everyone is getting their money's worth out of the event. Yet at the same time, most people want to spend the majority of their time talking to old friends, or in the case of a business meeting or convention, discussing business or common interests.

There are several ways to solve it. The first is not to have any music - and indeed this is sometimes best for a talkative group. No music is better than musical wallpaper that nobody is interested in or has to shout over. When the dance time comes, however, there are other ways. One - and probably the best if it is possible - is to put the band in another room, preferably the same one as the bar, which guarantees that people will visit the room. Another is to try what my parents' generation did, and that is to organize the band's music into sets. I have always thought that this idea is one whose time has come again.

When I was in high school, I played in a big band and we used to follow this concept. It involves organizing the evening's music into sets that last approximately 10 to 15 minutes. Each set consists of perhaps three songs and the songs can be of a certain type. For example, one set can be high-energy rock while another set can be slow, belly-to-belly waltzes or foxtrots (yes, there are a couple of very good options for slow dances, complete with proper steps!) In this way, if someone doesn't like fast, it is only a short time until a slow set will be played. The best part of this way of organizing the evening's music is that the time between sets can be varied according to the requirements of the client, such as wanting to have guests talk more (as in my reunion). Thus, if it is a dancing crowd, the time between sets might only be 3 to 5 minutes. If it is a talking crowd, the time might be 10 minutes, so that there is a 15 minute music-10 minute talk pattern to the event. The band would probably still take their regular breaks after an hour or so but this could probably be varied through negotation.

The other interesting thing about dance sets is that they were - and could now be - based on what was known as "dance cards." These were cards that everyone was given before the event that permitted them to go to people they wanted to dance with and write in the names next to the particular music set (i.e. first set, second set, etc). Obviously, this is great for a singles-type dance, but it could also work with other types such as weddings, reunions, or even business meetings. No doubt, there could be other creative ways to use the concept, such as an ice breaker in almost any type of event with dance music. It certainly forces people to talk to each other yet still allows for a lot of spontaneity without disrupting the greater flow of conversation at an event. It also eliminates that embarrassing moment at the end of each song when neither party really knows if the other wants to stay up on the dance floor. With sets, they must quit at the end of the set.

Perhaps it's time to re-examine the way we use dance music at events. There has to be a better way.

Monday, 25 August 2008

Beijing Olympics: Some Final Comments

Again, kudos to the Beijing organizers for a superb Olympics. At least on television, the venues looked extremely well designed for their particular sports, the TV coverage was the best I have ever seen, the sports timing and organizing seemed from TV to be almost perfect. I enjoyed every minute.

However, now to politics and the reason these Olympics were hosted by China. We have just witnessed the most lavish and expensive rite of passage in history: two weeks of one country trying to prove it is capable of joining the ranks of the major economic powers of the world; two weeks of one country trying to overcome a massive inferiority complex; two weeks of one country daring the rest of the world to do better; two weeks of the rest of the world trying to break through an artifical facade to catch even a tiny glimpse of the true feelings of a nation. At the end, after the light of the last firework has faded, I'm still not convinced that the world knows any more about China than it did in July 2008.

To be sure, the Opening Ceremonies were incredible. Yesterday's Closing Ceremonies were equally impressive - from a technological and organizational standpoint. BUT ----- where was the emotion? I as much as anybody was truly blown away by the mass choreography, the ingenious use of technology, the impeccable timing, all of which was done to perfection by the Chinese. However, if entertainment is to be successful, it must dig very deep. It must tug at the heartstrings; it must pull out a belly laugh; it must make us cry or laugh uncontrollaby or send shivers up our spines. The Closing Ceremonies, in all their glory, did not do it for me, spectacular though they were. Good entertainment is so much more than artificial smiles or loud music or putting thousands of performers through their paces seamlessly. Truly great entertainment does not have to be expensive or huge.

In other places and at other times, I have been moved to tears by a single tiny puppet on a string. I have been moved to tears by a solo musician playing a piece of music with such passion that the moment transcended the music. Great entertainment conjures up what anthropologist Victor Turner has called communitas, that spirit of feeling at one with the universe and fellow human beings. Other Olympics have done this very successfully and with fewer numbers and much lower cost than China. One simple word of advice for China - and it does not just apply to the Olympics but to so much more - replace "rote" with "emote," and mean it.

For Vancouver in 2010 and for London in 2012, I say forget about anyone who asks, "How are you going to top the Beijing ceremonies?" Work with people's emotions and draw them out. You will never successfully compete if you try to match scale - and yes, it is possible to move 90,000 people, or even the entire world - with a single puppet on a string. It just takes a little ingenuity.

Saturday, 9 August 2008

My Thoughts on the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremonies

Well, it finally happened - and it was the spectacular show I was expecting.

The Chinese really did deliver with these ceremonies. It was a stunning blend of state-of-the-art technology, human choreography, and creative genius. The huge, bright rollout LED screen and the stadium surround-scrim, plus accompanying automated lighting (presumably digital) and projection technology, were all impeccably programmed, not to mention the mind-blowing fireworks. It must have taken years of programming to get the details and transitions perfected. I certainly did expect the massed entertainment as that has always been part of the Chinese tradition, but this was done to perfection, right down to each individual performer's exact execution of moves. What was a nice surprise was not to see too much of the trite Chinese symbols such as dragons, excessive martial arts (although the Tai Chi performance was truly great), acrobats, Terra Cotta warriors, etc. The performances were more to do with ingenuity and building unusual interpretations on the theme of China coming into its own in the world. (Canada take note for the 2010 Winter Olympics - stay away from trite Canadian symbols!!)

An interesting commentary on where the Olympics are going was given almost inadvertently by one of the NBC commentators who said that it was obvious that the "Bird's Nest" had been purposefully built as a venue for the Opening Ceremonies, to the effect that the producer almost said, "Here is what I want to do; now build me a stadium to do it in." I wonder if the rest of the world is taking note. The spectacle is more important than the sports, because that's what sells. How many people watch the ceremonies and not any of the sports?? It would be interesting to see the numbers. This really is the age of event marketing.

Can't wait for the Closing Ceremonies - but I will watch as many of the sports in between as possible.

Well done, China!

Thursday, 26 June 2008

Why Do We Celebrate?

Celebration in its simplest form is really the validation of shared beliefs and values. As you can tell from previous blog entries, I have been spending a lot of time researching celebration (read "special events" in modern terminology) from prehistory right up to the present. A tremendous body of research has accumulated from anthropology, performance studies, psychology, religion, and event management as to why people participate in celebration. Within this research, however, little time has been spent studying relationships amongst the three distinctly different key players in the event: owner/organizers, participants, and spectators. Each of these key players has a reason for being part of the event, and these reasons may not all be congruent. Although other researchers and authors (Allen et al, 2005) have included host communities, media, and co-workers in the key stakeholders list, I believe that these people are all just sub-categories of one or more of the main three categories.

Let’s take a look at these players. The first group is owner/organizers. Just who would be the organizers of a spectacle like an ancient Greek festival, a Mayan accession ceremony, or a modern rock concert? Why would anyone want to take on such a difficult task? For answers, we must turn to my personal area of expertise, special event management, or event studies as it may soon be called. It deals with the theory and practice of organizing special events. It is, as Dr. Joe Jeff Goldblatt, a pioneer in the field, called it in his first book, “the art and science of celebration.”

To put the job of event organizer in perspective, how well organizers carry out their craft really determines how successful the event will be. Often, the person who organizes an event is not the person who “owns” the event or who foots the bill. That “money person” may be someone who speaks for a larger entity such as a private company or a government organization, sometimes called a sponsor. That’s in today’s world. In the ancient world, that “money person” was probably a king or a chief priest. The organizer might have been a noble, a senior statesman, another priest, or a military officer.

For the event to be successful, these two people, the owner of the event and the organizer, must be in absolute synchronization in their understanding of why the event is taking place. Then, once they both clearly understand the underlying reason for the event, the organizer must gather together all the necessary elements to convey the message to those who are attending the event. Today, these elements may be actual participants such as talented performers, VIPs, or celebrities. They may also be technical elements such as special effects, lighting, audio, creative set designs, and staging.

The final step in the operation involves the integration of these elements using organizational flair, ritual, and psychology. If the “operation” is successful, the participants (e.g. performers or celebrities) will convey the message to the audience who will come away from the event with a feeling of attending something very unique and memorable. In other words, the shared beliefs and values will have been validated. More importantly, the spectators will maintain a loyalty to the owner of the event. This, of course, is ultimately what it is all about. In ancient societies, this was absolutely necessary for a priestly or ruling class to stay in power. Today, it is more about consumer brand loyalty. This is one of the crucial ways that celebration has evolved over the centuries. The figure above outlines in simple form how the three key players interact.

I'll discuss the reasons why each key player becomes part of celebration in a future blog.

References:

Goldblatt, Dr. Joe Jeff. (1990). Special Events: The Art and Science of Celebration. New York: Ven Nostrand Reinhold.
Allen, J., O'Toole, W., McDonnell, I., Harris, R. (2005). Festival and Special Event Management, Third Edition. Milton, Qld., Australia: John Wiley & Sons Australia, Ltd.

Thursday, 1 May 2008

Beijing Olympics: Opening and Closing Ceremonies

OK, so now you know my opinion about Olympic boycotts.

From the point of view of an event producer, here is another reason why we in the event business should not boycott them. The Opening and Closing ceremonies are going to be unbelievable. I say this based on what I have researched about ancient Chinese events. I have absolutely no inside information. Everything indicates that the 5000 or so years of experience they have is going to count for something, and that something is going to be a spectacle like we have never seen before.

Think about this. Large public festivals and carnivals were common in ancient China, right from the days of the first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, who in 222 BCE decreed that everyone in the empire should engage in great drinking revelries to celebrate his conquest and unification of China. As with modern carnivals in New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro, a parade of floats drawn by horses or cows was one of the highlights. Some of these were entertainment wagons on which acrobats performed flying stunts at the top of poles fastened to the wagons as in Figure 1 from the Han Dynasty (206 BCE to 220 CE) (Scarpari, 2006). And you thought Cirque du Soleil was the first to use acrobats on poles!


Figure 1: Acrobats on poles attached to moving carts (Han Dynasty) (Courtesy Scarpari, 2006)


However, they paled in comparison to floats called "mountain carts" in the later Tang Dynasty. These were wagons that had superstructures hung with colored silks formed to resemble mountains, some up to four or five stories high.

Some festivals such as the Lantern Festival which is thought to have originated around the 1st century BCE, survive today. Even so, the grandeur of the past is still hard to match. In 713 CE “Emperor Ruizong had a lantern wheel 200 ft tall erected outside a gate of Chang’an. It was clothed in brocades and silk gauze, and adorned with gold and jade. When he had its 50,000 oil cups lit, the radiance burst forth like the blooms on a flowering tree. More than 1000 female performers wearing gauze trails, embroidered brocades with lustrous pearls, kingfisher hairpins, and fragrant makeup danced and sang under the lantern wheel for three days and nights” (Benn, 2002).

Precision and pageantry was even then the order of the day for most spectacles. Take for example, the entourages that regularly accompanied emperors whenever they ventured from the inner sanctuaries of the Forbidden City. During the Song dynasty (1067 to 1085 CE), Emperor Shenzong’s honor guard reportedly numbered 22,000 for state occasions. These included soldiers in full regalia carrying pennants, fans, banners, and weapons, musicians of all types, elephant-drawn chariots, wagons, and palanquins carrying the emperor and high-ranking officials (Thorp, 1988). Figure 2 illustrates a small part of such a procession from the Qing Dynasty (1644 to 1912 CE).


Figure 2: Imperial Procession (Qing Dynasty)(Courtesy Thorp, 1988)




Stay tuned. I wouldn't miss these ceremonies for anything.

References:

Benn, Charles. (2002). Daily Life in Traditional China: The Tang Dynasty. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Scarpari, Maurizio. (2006). Ancient China: Chinese Civilization from the Origins to the Tang Dynasty. Vercelli, Italy: VMB Publishers.
Thorp, Robert L. (1988). Son of Heaven: Imperial Arts of China. Columbus, OH: Son of Heaven Press.

Monday, 7 April 2008

Politics and the Olympics: My Humble Opinion

There is no larger special event in modern times than the Olympics. No event musters more of a host nation's pride, creativity, and sustained planning than this international extravaganza. It is an opportunity seldom presented that has such commercial and emotional influence on all the nations participating.

In my opinion, however, it should NOT be a forum for politics. The time for making choices based on politics is during the selection process for the host nation. The time is not immediately before or during the games. If the ideal of de Coubertin as "a way for the countries of the globe to become more connected" is to be followed true to the letter, then once a decision is made for a country to host the games, politics must be left behind. Those who continue to use the games as a forum for their political agendas will eventually cause those games to be lost to history forever. Indeed, history has proven that once a civilization loses its focus on the true reason for a large public event, that event soon deteriorates and becomes extinct. Egypt, Rome, Greece, and a host of other ancient civilizations have seen this happen. The various boycotts of the modern Olympics have been hard on the Olympic movement and if the current furor over Tibet continues (a complex problem, by the way, that dates back to the Mongol Empire of the 13th Century), it may be the beginning of the death knell of these games in modern times. Those who suggest boycotting the games or any part of them are WRONG, WRONG, WRONG!

But that's just my humble opinion.

Saturday, 15 March 2008

Unusual Event Venues Around the World

One of my hobbies - and hopefully the subject of my next book - is the study of ancient civilizations and the amazing special events that they used to hold. Some of these far surpassed anything that we do today in magnitude, creativity, and cost. Part of the fascination of these ancient events are the locations that were chosen for them. Many of the locations are still in existence today and are objects of awe by tourists and of intense study by archaeologists.

During my visits to these locations, I have photographed them and spent a lot of time questioning my guides and others about them, in addition to researching the literature. A recent trip to Egypt provided me with more fascinating places. One is known as the Step Pyramid complex at Saqqara, built for King Djoser by his architect, the high priest Imhotep, in the 27th century BCE (i.e. almost 5000 years ago!!). Part of this complex is a large courtyard that was used for a festival held in the 30th year of a pharaoh's reign to prove his ability to continue to govern. This festival consisted of a number of rituals and feats performed by the pharaoh and witnessed by dignitaries from all over the country, and included the requisite feasting, drinking, musical, and acrobatic performances that accompanied virtually all such events.

According to my guide, given the right budget and the correct procedures for obtaining permission to utilize the site, it would not be out of the question to actually use it for special events today. Now this would mean a lot of paperwork and some pretty adroit cross-cultural negotiation, but one can imagine the impact of holding an incentive event in such a location. Note the photo below of this complex.


Similarly, the nearby Red Pyramid at Dahshur, the second largest pyramid in the world, has two beautifully restored burial chambers inside, capable of holding about 30 or 40 of your closest friends, that may make an impression if you were to use it for say a wedding. Again, a lot of negotiation and palm-crossing may be in order, but not out of the question given the fact that Egypt still has an incredible number of rich archaeological sites awaiting excavation and funding.

This situation is similar in other fantastic locales throughout the world, as you may see if you take a look at some of the photos of unique venues I have posted on the left side of this blog. Lots of negotiation and planning but what a way to celebrate in style and impress your guests. It could end up being a very happy marriage between incentive tourism and archaeology, a field that is constantly in search of funds.

Saturday, 26 January 2008

New Tent Ideas

It has been awhile since I wrote an entry to my blog and I would like to switch gears this time and talk about tents.

Tents have been with us since pre-historic times and now they are extremely popular for special events all over the world as most readers will know. There are two unique and exciting new technologies I came across while doing research for my recently published book. The first of these is a technology that utilizes the free-form design of the Bedouin tent from the middle east. It has been created by F3 Freeform Bedouin Tents, a division of Unit Solutions International in South Africa (http://www.bedouintents.co.za/). It permits tents to be completely flexible in their setup. Larger tents (with canopies up to 10,000 square meters or over 100,000 square feet) can be erected with sides up or down or a combination thereof. Poles can be moved around to accommodate numbers of guests and to create different shapes. Canopies can be wrapped around trees, rocks and walls - and erected with or without poles. There is almost no space that an F3 tent won't transform into a viable entertainment zone. These tents have already been successfully used for special events in South Africa, as can be seen by the photo below.


The second technology is more an application of culture to tent structures. Russian architect Anwar Khairoullin (http://www.anwar-khairoullin.ru/) has exhibited colorfully painted tensile fabrics as building covers and as individual tents. His unique high-peaked and strikingly colored designs are reminiscent of classic Russian church roof architecture. They are distinctly eastern, Cossack-like in concept, yet warm and welcoming at the same time (see below). As well, Khairoullin has designed specifically-shaped tents for mass manufacture but with proprietary cultural designs appliqu├ęd to the walls and roofs of individual tents, thereby enabling very different and eye-catching structures (Also see below). These types of design concepts may soon become apparent to western tent manufacturers and desired by the special event industry.



These examples give us some idea of the many new developments taking place all over the world in special events. Let us not forget that not all innovation starts and ends with North America.