Monday, 21 December 2009

10 Hot Tips for Production Management

I am occasionally asked what are some key tips, in simple terms, for running a good event from the technical point of view. Here are my top 10:

1. Anticipate. This is without question the key to good production management. Try to visualize everything that will be happening during your event. Walk through the entire event from start to finish in your head, including where and when guests and performers will be moving. If anything looks like it might be wrong or even has the potential to go wrong, address it before the event, because it probably will go wrong if you don't.

2. Ensure that power and staging are adequate and in place well before the rest of the technical setup. The last thing you want is for technicians and decorators tripping over venue staff trying to put a stage in place or waiting for power that should have been installed hours ago. Besides that, venues will often charge more for such items as power if it is requested onsite.

3. Allow ample time for setup. This is frequently where inexperience causes disasters. There are just too many small things that can get off-track if people must work within a serious time crunch. It is far better to be too early and wait around than to still be doing a sound check as guests enter the event space.

4. Keep updated and firm schedules of setup, event running order, and strike. Stick to the schedules and ensure that all people involved with the event are on the distribution list. This includes venue staff, performers, all technical people, and of course, your client.

5. Know all requirements and technical riders for performers and suppliers. This can include everything from stage plots and sound and lighting requirements, to dressing room riders. Be aware of the excessive riders of some celebrity talent and try to negotiate out all except what is reasonable.

6. Ensure that there are dressing rooms of adequate size and privacy for performers. Don't forget that some shows require quick-change areas close to the main stage such as dance shows where fast costume changes are part of the show. Be prepared to pay extra to set these up properly.

7. Ensure you have adequate and capable stage management in place to run the show. In addition, ensure that adequate communication equipment is available for the stage managers. The best kind is wireless headset equipment like Clearcom which enables you to talk and listen without anyone else hearing the conversation and to move about the venue freely and still be in communication.

8. Rehearse your show whenever possible. Even the smallest show can benefit from some kind of quick run-through. If the show and event is complex, plan for at least a pre-event talk-through with the key participants, including venue staff, performers, sound and lighting techs, and client.

9. Have contingencies in place for any unavoidable changes. Know how to react and what you will do before they happen. This goes along with anticipation but is the last and unfortunately very important step. For example, know how to compensate for a performer who is late or does not show up. Having a plan just may save you from disaster. Try to see through the rough spots and keep smiling.

10. Use an individual or company that is conversant with the production of complex events if you feel you are in over your head. This will save much stress!

Saturday, 21 November 2009

The Benefits of Online Data Backup

A few years ago my office was robbed. The thieves broke in on a Sunday afternoon and took all our computers. They were starting to haul away most of our CDs and other information when one of my employees surprised them. She called the police but they still managed to escape. There were two additional unfortunate circumstances that came with the robbery. The first was the fact that they easily managed to disarm our alarm system since they came through the roof (which we never thought would happen) and cut all the wires to the main control box which was right below their entry point. The second was that all our conscientious backing up of computer files was for nought because the tape system failed and did not warn us. We spent the next two weeks re-entering our data thanks to hard copies we kept on file.

The lesson from the whole fiasco was to use the most secure and reliable backup system available. After that, we did our backups much more religiously and checked every day that the system was functioning. Since then, data storage has come a long way. After personally trying a separate external hard drive for backup I have now made the switch to online storage. I have the feeling that there are probably lots of people in the event business who either are not doing this or are unaware that it exists. I cannot recommend it strongly enough. What happens if you store your backups at your place of business and the hard drive is stolen or the building burns down? It's still lost. Online backup prevents this.

There are other advantages. First, you can share files with anyone or nobody. You choose which files to share. Of course, this means sharing and permitting downloads of such things as images, videos, or complete proposals for clients or colleagues. Second, you can access the files from anywhere. This means that you don't need to transfer everything to your laptop. You can access it from anywhere in the world, even an Internet cafe, make any changes you like to the files, and upload the revised version.

The cost of storage is cheap and well worth it. I currently use a site called The cost is about $55 US dollars per year for 100MB storage. More is available if needed. Check it out. You just might save yourself a whole lot of grief.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Cool Event Venues Around the World

Here are several unique outdoor sites and indoor venues that I have found in my travels. I will update the video as I do more travelling. Many of these locations can be used for actual special events.

The Blogspot video embedding has ceased to work recently. I will be updating this video in the near future (Sep. 2011 most likely).

Please see my post of September 20, 2011 for an updated version of this video.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Production War Story of the Month: Some Clients are Never Happy

Initial discussions between a potential client and our company indicated that the client’s event would be a very energetic, high-end extravaganza for about 2000 guests in a conference center. The client wanted an entertainment show with cirque acts and unusual, creative décor. Every indication was given that the client was going to work with us. Several days were spent preparing an extensive creative proposal. Upon presentation to him, the client indicated that he had also received two other proposals from competitors that were lower in price but not as creative, and he asked us to rework the numbers. This entailed another day of dedicated time.

A second meeting with the client took place with the revised proposal and the client again said that the competitors had beaten the price but that he really wanted to work with our company. At that point, we called his bluff and stated that we would do no more work without being paid for creative and that the event now had a minimum fee for any work done. We walked out of the meeting and never heard from the client again, but did hear that all the other companies had done the same thing and that the client ended up producing his own show which was much smaller than originally anticipated.

What was the lesson learned? It was one that every independent business person eventually figures out. There comes a time when it is no longer feasible to work on a project, either from a financial point of view or from a “gut feeling” about the ethics of a client.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

They Should Know Better

Last weekend I attended a three-day conference. Now this is a conference that has been going on regularly for quite a number of years. I will not say who it was for or where it was held. Suffice it to say there were little things that irked me because they were things that should have been corrected long ago.

Here's what I mean. First, there were two keynote speeches each day in a packed ballroom of 500 people. They used the house PA, which as would be expected, was completely inadequate. It took about 5 minutes to even get anyone's attention. A simple rented PA with properly placed speakers would have solved this problem.

Second, they used house lighting. Since the crowd was particularly chatty, this was another irritating thing that detracted from the excellent speeches. The house lights remained on full and nothing was focused on the presenters, so they were literally in shadow the complete time. How easy it would have been to rent a followspot and operator and turn the house lights down for the keynotes or at the very least, focused an ellipsoidal light on the lectern.

Third, there was no free coffee at breaks in the morning and afternoon sessions. To me this was just plain cheap.

Lastly - and this is really disgusting - at the final luncheon buffet which was placed in the kitchen hallway, the entire area reeked of body odour. This was a conference hotel with supposedly professional staff, but I know that they were the source. Absolutely unforgivable. I will probably not return because of it. In fact, this one thing would put me off ever recommending that hotel to anyone.

To be fair, the conference content was good with professional and knowledge-packed sessions by well-known presenters. However, the devil is always in the details and I have written before about creature comforts. They were just not there and the organizers should have known better. Again, that would be my message. Don't cheap out!!

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Sacred Space and Special Events

Back in March I discussed the concept of ritual and how it related to special events. Noted scholar Catherine Bell whom I referred to places a lot of importance on symbolism and tells us that places and locations are in themselves sacred symbols. In this post, I want to put forward the theory that in special events we are actually working in our own form of sacred spaces and that how we treat those spaces is not a lot different from other sacred spaces such as churches. Our inherent human propensity to treat such sacred spaces with a certain reverence, either religious or otherwise, will always be with us. Let's look at some background theory.

Religious scholar Mircea Eliade was the first to propose that, for what he called religious people, the world is divided into two kinds of space, the sacred and the profane. Profane space is the ordinary space in which we live and go about our daily activities free of all reference to a larger reality. Sacred space is experienced differently. When one enters a sacred space, he or she acts in accordance with the environment (e.g. in a church or temple one might bow or remove a hat or speak in whispers). Eliade claimed that before modern times, “archaic people” established towns, built sanctuaries, and organized space and time with reference to the sacred.[i] [ii] In those ancient times, the choice of location for a sacred space might have been simply due to a fortuitous sign (e.g. hilltops because they were closer to the gods) or it might have been planned as a result of some specific ritual. Today, as Bell points out, thinking is more along the lines that a specific space or location is made sacred by the ritual-like activities that take place within it. Thus, like other symbols, they are differentiated from profane spaces “by means of distinctive acts and responses and the way they evoke experiences of a greater, higher, or more universalized reality - the group, the nation, humankind, the power of God, or the balance of the cosmos.”[iii]

Today, sacred space may be a church, but it also may be a historic site, a natural geographic site (e.g. Niagara Falls or even a cave), or a built environment such as a stadium, city streets, or a conference center. For example, throughout history, numerous sites have hosted special events (mega-events), from the ceremonial plazas and temples of Mesoamerica and Egypt to the Nazi parade grounds of Nuremberg and the stadia of the modern Olympics. As Ellie Carter and architect Thomas Barrie note, “the physical journey made by the individual symbolically represents their mental journey through the act of the ceremony” ------ “Barrie goes on to identify a basic three-part structure to ritual spaces: a marked origin, a path, and a sacred center (or destination) at the end of the path.”[iv] [v] Certainly this is true for the participants in a spectacle. Unfortunately, these analyses do not take into account the fact of the three different key players in celebration and their respective roles in a spectacle. They all need apportioned space of their own within the overall ritual or sacred space of a temple or larger geographic or architectural location. In my personal experience of producing events and of visiting the sites of historical spectacles, I have noticed that all these sacred spaces have common characteristics. These include:

· Well-defined physical boundaries. These can be actual walls, fences, landscape and natural features such as trees or waterways, buildings on the sides of streets or plazas, or humans who have been purposely placed in a guardian-type position.
· One or more formal entrances and exits. Virtually all sacred spaces have at least one main entrance (i.e. the “origin” identified by Barrie) and often the same entrance is used as an exit. This is usually obvious through physical features (e.g. size, color, design) or strategic positioning along a boundary of the space.
· A purposeful orientation. This is usually obvious with ancient sites, especially religious ones, as explained by Eliade. They were often oriented according to compass directions, the path of the sun, astronomical alignments or, as some have speculated, along lines of magnetic energy (e.g. Ley Lines), although this latter is mostly considered to be doubtful science. Today’s orientations are more concerned with accessibility and the presentation of a building’s strongest architectural features.
· Allowance for a processional route. Almost all ancient spectacles incorporated a procession as a ritual component of the event (i.e. the “path” identified by Barrie). For some, the procession was the spectacle. Even today, processions form part of many spectacles and smaller events (e.g. wedding ceremonies, Olympic parade of athletes, football “bowl” games, lantern festivals, Mardi Gras and Carnivals all over the world, etc). Permanent indoor event spaces intentionally build for these events (e.g. wide church aisles), outdoor spectacles use closed off city streets or parks, and temporary indoor spaces design specific routes (e.g. wide entranceways for corporate meetings and conferences).
· A purposefully designed ceremonial space. Most sacred spaces contain smaller but more significant inner sanctums or spaces in which the essential core ritual activities take place (i.e. the “destination” identified by Barrie). The most obvious of course is the altar in a church. Other examples include the classic Egyptian temple layout that incorporated an inner sanctuary only accessible to the chief priests and pharaohs, certain levels on specific Mayan pyramids or other buildings within any given city, the reviewing stand on a parade route, a stage at a concert or large entertainment event in modern times (a stage at a corporate or sales meeting would also qualify), or the playing surface in a modern sports event. Essentially, whether the event is religious or secular, this space is almost always present. The ceremonial space may be at the same level as the remainder of the sacred space, it may be lower (e.g. sporting events), or as in most cases, it may be higher (e.g. pyramids, altars, stages), denoting the important stature of those who use it.
· Performance space. This refers to the provision of space set aside for performances other than by the key ritual participants such as priests, kings, or spectators. In other words, it is space for dancers, musicians, theatrical shows with actors, comedians, and such. For example, in churches performance space is often designed into the architecture to accommodate an organ, choir, or musical group, and nowadays, even full theatrical productions. In other sacred spaces such as conference centers that have been set up for meetings or ceremonies, special staging is often utilized that is set apart from a main stage used for the meeting and key speeches, or the performance space may be purposely set up in and amongst spectators. In the case of a large outdoor procession, this performance space shares its location with the ceremonial space (e.g. the street or processional route), as it sometimes does in the case of a stage.
· Spectator space. All spectacles incorporate a spectator area since they are the key players for whom the event’s message is intended. In ancient societies, this might have been the outer courtyard in Egyptian temples, a central plaza in Mayan or Aztec cities, and city streets in China and Angkor as examples. In modern events, it may be specifically designed or temporarily placed audience seating in theaters, churches, stadia, or other indoor secular buildings, and large open areas for outdoor events. This latter might include everything from airport tarmacs or hangars (e.g. the Paris Air Show) to grassy fields (e.g. various festivals).
· Preparation area. Typically, most spectacles are so large and involve so many complex logistics that they require separate areas set aside for preparations by participants. Sometimes these areas are within the sacred space, sometimes they are not. For example, Roman triumphal processions prepared in the area known as the Campus Martius which was totally separated from the city core where the actual spectacle took place. However, preparations for the Egyptian Opet Festival in Thebes occurred mainly within the large temple complex of Karnak, itself the sacred space. Today’s modern events might use tents as preparation areas for performers or technical staff within an outdoor site or other rooms close to or part of a sacred space indoors (e.g. theater, conference room, arena).

Although most of the events in which I participated were not of sufficient size to be considered spectacles, they were nonetheless important forms of celebration for the key players. Therefore, to put in perspective the range of possibilities for sacred space in special events, these included large ferry boats, parks and gardens, farmers’ fields, hockey arenas, football stadia, conference centers, rodeo grounds, historic sites, gymnasia, hotel ballrooms, golf courses, churches, theaters, mountaintop ski chalets, movie studios, offices, army bases, casinos, stores and malls, restaurants, and many more too numerous to mention.

So the next time you start to plan for an event, consider that the space you are using is a sacred one and that by the very act of your planning, you are really just putting together a ritual for use in that space. No different from what our ancestors did thousands of years ago.

[i] Greeley, A.M. (1995). Sociology and Religion: A Collection of Readings. New York: Harper Collins College Publishers. pp. 94-105.
[ii] Jones, C.B. (2007). Introduction to the Study of Religion, Part 2 of 2. Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company. pp. 112-126.
[iii] Bell, C. (1997). Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions. NY: Oxford University Press. pp. 138-169.
[iv] Carter, E. (2003). Landscapes for Celebration: An Investigation and Design of Wedding Gardens. Unpublished Master’s thesis. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
[v] Barrie, T. (1996). Spiritual Path, Sacred Place: Myth, Ritual, and Meaning in Architecture. Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Friday, 28 August 2009

Audience Participation

One area of special event entertainment that most audiences always like is audience participation. It is one of the most powerful and effective ways to gain audience support and enhance a performer's charisma. It is not, however, only a simple matter of asking the audience “how they are doing.” The more rehearsed and controlled the situation, the more effective it will be. Watch some of the old-time acts like Victor Borge and Danny Kaye to see masters at work.

Participation can take place in the audience (i.e. offstage) or it can take place on the stage. By going into the audience, a performer is in the audience’s territory and had better be well prepared for anything that may happen. Therefore, for this type of situation, all circumstances should be covered. That means that a set routine should be rehearsed (e.g. exact dialogue and participation actions), with escape plans for any eventuality, be it vocal inappropriateness (e.g. audience member swearing at the performer or no reaction at all), or physical abuse (e.g. audience member grabbing or touching the performer inappropriately). Proper technical preparation must be in place as well (e.g. adequate audio and lighting). Just “winging it” when a performer is in the audience makes the performance appear amateurish.

Audience participation onstage brings the audience into the performer’s territory and puts the performer more in control of the situation, although removing some of the intimacy of direct contact with a larger portion of the audience. Onstage participation can take several forms: rehearsed, unrehearsed, controlled, and uncontrolled. Once again, the more rehearsed and controlled, generally the better will be the performance. By rehearsed is meant that the routine is tested and perfected over the course of many performances (including all jokes, questions, and dialogue) so that the outcome is more or less standard, thus defining what may be considered a controlled situation. This type of routine might include anything from a set of questions and answers between performer and audience members (still in their seats), to an entire onstage performance by a group of audience members (e.g. dance number, hypnotism show, victims of a pickpocket, ventriloquist’s dummy). At the other extreme, is the completely unrehearsed and uncontrolled situation. Someone is invited to the stage to sing a song or to be interviewed by the performer. Because the routine has not been rehearsed and never been done before or perhaps tried once successfully (without rehearsal), the performer assumes that it will be successful again. Unfortunately, human nature often turns ordinary people into caricatures once they get on a stage and they suddenly want to take over a microphone or act up for their friends (one of the basic rules of performing is never give the microphone to someone else unless it is rehearsed). This is not a situation that endears a performer to the audience, but rather it makes the performer look even more inexperienced. I once employed a celebrity performer before he became famous who thought it would be a good idea to invite a friendly guest to the stage. The guest was drunk and refused to leave the stage, resulting in our having to find several very burly guests to remove him physically from the stage. It was embarrassing for the performer and undoubtedly became a valuable lesson for him on his road to the top.

In short, audience participation can be the most effective part of an act, but event planners and producers should be aware of the pitfalls and ensure that the performer(s) is in control at all times.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Production War Story of the Month: The Handshake Contract

It was the Friday before a large themed event that was to take place on the following Monday night at a conference center ballroom, and we noticed that the client had neither signed the contract sent weeks before, nor paid a deposit, although communications had been continuing up to that point with both parties having every intention of making the event a success. Wanting as a bare minimum at least a signed contract due to the complexity of the décor that would be provided, I mentioned this requirement to the client, a reputable businessman, who in turn replied with, “I only operate on a handshake.” Taken aback, I was ready to walk away but decided to check on the client’s financial position by means of a private investigation which discovered that there were more than ample funds in his bank account, so I approached the client and stated that the event would not take place without at least a deposit, which the client agreed to pay immediately. However, the contract never was signed and I was in constant fear that the remainder of the fee would not be paid if even one item were not to the client’s liking even though the written contract spelled it out. Fortunately, the event was a huge success and the bill was paid promptly.

Several lessons were learned from this scenario. First, I was remiss in not checking for contract signing and deposit well before three days prior to the event. Second, strange as it seems, there are still business people who believe that written contracts are not needed. A producer must have the confidence to walk away from business that may end up costing money if a contract is not signed. Sometimes, business success is only a “gut feeling.”

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Creature Comforts

After some serious travelling over the last few years and as a result of attending more conferences than I care to count, here is a list of some of my pet peeves about creature comforts. Why would I post something about this, you ask? Because to me creature comforts are the most important aspects of any successful meeting or event, bar none. It all comes down to basic needs, and if we are uncomfortable in any way, we tend to remember that discomfort before we remember all the good things that may have happened at the event. So here they are in no particular order:

1. Air conditioning - Maybe I'm just getting old but why can't building maintenance folks and tour bus drivers learn how to use air conditioning properly? I now take a sweater or jacket with me to every conference I attend and on every trip I take because I know for sure that once inside a conference centre or hotel or bus, I will be freezing if I don't cover up. To all event managers and tour operators and incentive travel execs, I say, "KEEP THE TEMPERATURE REASONABLE, AROUND 72F OR 23C. DON'T CRANK THE AC TO FULL FRIGID. NOBODY LIVES COMFORTABLY IN CONDITIONS LIKE THAT, NO MATTER HOW HOT IT IS OUTSIDE!"

2. Portable Washrooms at Outdoor Events - When are event managers going to learn that portable toilets must be serviced on a regular basis? I keep hearing horror stories about toilets overflowing and running out of paper and cleaner. This is not a difficult concept. They should be cleaned and serviced at least every 4 hours as a minimum, and checked regularly every 2 hours for supplies. A plumber should be on call at all times. To you managers, lack of toilet facilities can really be annoying for event attendees. Remember that! Read my latest book for more details about the proper number of toilets needed based on size and length of event and whether or not alcohol is served.

3. Beds - Am I the only person in the world who hates duvets? Why do so many hotels insist on providing these as the only available bed covers? First of all, they are WAY too hot in summer, no matter how high you crank the silly air conditioning. Why are alternatives not provided? Speaking of comfortable sleeping in hotels, why are there never any options for pillow shapes and softnesses? I have come to appreciate that pillows are very personal items and I have had far too many experiences of pillows that are too soft, too high, too hard, etc, etc. I think the first hotel chain to offer a selection of pillows will be one up on the competition.

4. F&B at Standup Events - This is a big pet peeve for me. People who attend these types of events, particularly events over a meal hour, expect to be served adequate food to make up a meal and to have drinks readily available. Far too many event managers do not provide enough food and do not spread it out enough in terms of physical locations (i.e. multiple small buffets), thus causing big lineups. The same thing with bars and drinks. Most people want to get a drink in their hands as soon as possible instead of being forced to line up at a cash bar or at a free drink station. Managers need to ensure there are either enough bars or stations or have drinks handed out by wait staff as guests arrive. That makes for a much more enjoyable experience. Oh, yes, as a final note, if it is to be a standup reception with substantial food offerings, PLEASE provide lots of high boy tables to allow guests to place their food and drinks on. Nothing is worse than trying to eat, drink, and shake hands all at once. And no, the holders for drinks that clip onto plates are awkward and do not work for all drinks (e.g. a big beer glass!).

Call me a grumpy old man if you want, but creature comforts are the key to keeping me happy - and I suspect many more people too.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Production War Story of the Month

Does anyone even use balloons these days? Here's a story from a few years ago when they were really popular.

A beautiful and highly creative balloon wall was installed in front of the band stage that would magically burst and reveal the band once it was time to dance. It would be an incredible ending to an evening of good food, fun and camaraderie. Unfortunately, someone forgot to tell Mother Nature. The room was fully encircled by floor-to-ceiling windows looking out to the west and this event was held late in June near the day when sunlight lasted until very late in the evening. The event day was quite hot and the sunlight beamed through the windows, eventually making its way to shine on the balloon wall. Just as dinner was underway, we heard the first explosion, followed in fairly rapid succession over the course of the next 20 minutes by a periodic, unrehearsed exploding balloon wall that was soon left in tatters, ragged pieces of balloons hanging from the wall supports like broken flesh. Although somewhat comical while happening, this premature balloon wall explosion did not make our client very happy. The balloon experts were called in and the remaining pieces of the wall were dismantled to leave a clean look, but the damage had been done.

In this case, communication with the client was immediate and consisted of an apology and an explanation. This was a situation that could only be described as a true Act of God. It may have been avoidable but we were never sure exactly how. During the site inspection days before, the weather was cloudy and an estimate was made of where the sun would be at a certain time and whether it would strike the balloon wall. This was only a guess and even with this, nobody – even the balloon experts – expected or anticipated that the sunlight would overheat the balloons and their tethers, which we could only surmise expanded at different rates and caused the premature explosions. The client was not charged a penny for the wall and seemed to be happy with that settlement, but nothing could bring back the planned excitement that had been lost.
What lessons were learned? This was a difficult case. The most obvious one that we learned was not to use a balloon wall or any balloon structure in situations where weather - or excessive heating or cooling of any sort - could be a factor.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Stress and the Event Planner

If you have been in the event business any length of time, you have come to realize that it is highly stressful: long days, evenings away from families, short lead times, grumpy clients, incompetent suppliers. It will ever be thus. How, then, do you live with this stress without physical or emotional problems? Over the years, I have acquired my own set of favourite methods or activities. Maybe the following will help you as they did me:

1. At one conference where I was speaking, an audience member asked me how I lived with the stress. My answer - and right at the top of my list - was that I always planned my work week around my fitness activities. In other words, physical fitness always came first for me. I literally put my daily workout into my day planner and that time was sacred. If someone asked me to attend a meeting at that time, I would say I was already committed. To me it was absolutely necessary to have that 1 1/2 to 2-hour period each day when I could just let my body unwind. And you know what? I never lost a client or had anyone complain.

2. Treat your body like a holy grail, not a disposable paper cup. This means more than just the daily workouts. It means eating and sleeping right. It has been proven, for example, that getting a good night's rest rather than pulling an all-nighter to study for exams is more successful for college students. The same goes for event planners. Resist the temptation to work to excess. Opt instead for a proper night's sleep. On the nutrition front, skip the temptation to eat fast-food when in a hurry or on the job. Instead, opt for bringing your own food from home, good energy food like fresh apples, dried prunes/dates/apricots, healthy sandwiches. Skip the high calorie soft drinks and opt for water instead. Well, OK, the occasional coffee did indeed keep me going in rough times, but I still tried to eat well.

3. Master technology; don't let technology master you. Although I realize how important cell phones are, I strongly suggest minimizing their use on the job (i.e. while at an event). This can be highly stressful. I have found that they seem to now be used often as an excuse for lack of planning. Try to have everything - and I mean everything - perfectly organized before beginning event setup. Don't arrive at a venue still wondering what time supplers will arrive or if they will arrive with the right equipment. That should all have been sorted out long before the day. For sure, a cell phone is great for onsite emergencies: someone is lost or delayed by traffic, but mostly, I firmly believe just about everything can be done beforehand. Likewise, don't use the phone as an excuse to multi-task and work on other events while you are onsite. Keep your focus and worry about those at another time. You don't need extraneous stress during an event.

4. Plan to take at least one good vacation every year - without your cell phone or laptop. Yes, it can be done. I should know. When I married my wife many years ago, we agreed that we would take an annual holiday - just the two of us, no kids - for at least a week or two. We have stuck to that. I never took a phone or computer with me on those holidays and never lost a client or had an insurmountable problem. It really is amazing what your staff can do if given the right responsibility and authority.

I could go on with other tips, but these have served me well. Yes, things were still stressful but not so bad that there was no escape.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Sacral Symbolism and Special Events

Did you ever wonder how important symbols are to our everyday lives? Believe it or not, they are often the central focus of our many activities. They also form a key part of special events.

Sacral symbolism lies at the very heart of understanding ritual, and ritual, as I have mentioned before, is very significant in special events. As Paul Avis states, “At its simplest, a symbol means imagining one thing in the form of another.”[i] He goes on to say, “It belongs to symbols to mediate a reality or meaning that transcends the symbol itself. This need not necessarily be a supernatural reality, the subject of theology, the sphere of divinity. The transcendent realm may be the spirit of a nation, a tradition, a cultural legacy, an ethical or political ideal. But it always carries a value greater than the individual. The crucial point about symbolism is that there is no access to this transcendent realm apart from its symbols.”[ii] In other words, not only may a “sacred” symbol be religious such as the Christian cross or the star of David, it may also be a national flag, monuments, a company logo, or in the case of American football, cheerleaders, mascots, and team logos. In ancient spectacles it could be the coat of arms or symbol of a sovereign, crowns and headdresses, jewelry, ritual paraphernalia such as obsidian knives, special offerings or sacrifices such as bulls or goats (or humans), statues, chariots, weaponry, and much more.

When you think about the events we all organize in this industry, especially corporate events, it becomes apparent how important symbols are to their success. Product launches, sales meetings, incentive programs, conference opening and closing ceremonies, and of course all types of sporting events, all have at their heart some form of symbol: corporate logos, product shapes and colours, spokespersons, a charismatic president, even lifestyles. Are these really much different from religious symbols? I don't think they are. The rituals associated with them often mimic religious rituals in their execution. For example, I have produced numerous corporate events for companies such as Toyota, Mary Kay, IBM, insurance conglomerates, and pharmaceuticals and the reverence paid to the corporate culture is no less strict - or inspiring - than that of any mainstream religion. From the procession to dinner to the fanfare of a new product announcement to the climax of the president's "homily," the orders of service are uncannily similar. This is secular religion at its finest.

The subject has been studied to some extent by scholars, particularly over the last 20 or so years. However, I have not seen too much written about the similarities of corporate special events to religious events that incorporate many sacral symbols. I believe it is in our best interest when creating such events to bear in mind the close connections with religion and the ways in which humans react to religious or sacral symbolism. Being able to manipulate the event to take advantage of these connections might prove beneficial.

[i] Avis, P. (1999). God and the Creative Imagination: Metaphor, Symbol, and Myth in Religion and Theology. London: Routledge. p. 103.
[ii] Ibid. Avis. p. 106.

Monday, 6 April 2009

New Vancouver Convention Centre

Yesterday I visited the open house at the new, expanded convention centre in Vancouver, Canada. It is a magnificent facility with one of the most beautiful settings in the world. Now, admittedly, that is a little biased because I have not seen all the other facilities. However, I am familiar with meeting spaces and this has been extremely well designed, with optimum opportunities for viewing a panorama of sea and mountains. Together with the older facility next door, the total space available puts Vancouver in a highly competitive position near the top of global meeting destinations. See my Flickr site for more photos at

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Production War Story of the Month

You can imagine that with 19 years of producing special events I must have a few war stories. I thought it might make for a light-hearted break in the heavy stuff to insert one of these every so often into my blog, so here goes.

We were presenting an evening of what might be loosely termed Asian entertainment. A large stage had been set up on one wall of a hotel ballroom and on this we were to provide a combination of continuous background music and live, interactive acts representing a variety of Asian cultures, throughout the event. Since it was a stand-up reception, the guests were eating and drinking while milling around and networking with colleagues. It was very crowded and the stage was a focal point around which people stood and chatted, on which they placed their plates and glasses, and near which it was almost impossible to move. Being the main organizer of the entertainment, I was required to be near the stage for most of the event, ensuring that the acts came and went according to our schedule.

For continuous background music during this event we had engaged two young – but very accomplished – Japanese koto lute players who were to play from the back of the stage for most of the event and to accompany some of the main acts. (Note: A koto lute is a traditional Japanese stringed musical instrument played with the musician in a kneeling or sitting position.) The girls were dressed in traditional Japanese kimonos and looked very pretty – but very innocent.

Eventually it came time to bring up one of the main acts for the evening, an illusionist named “The Amazing Jozef.” Now Jozef was a fairly elderly magician. To add to his appeal, he was accompanied by an extremely attractive female assistant attired in a diaphanous outfit that rendered her almost the spitting image of Jeannie in the old “I Dream of Jeannie” television show. (In fact, since I cannot remember her name, we will call her that for purposes of the story.) Jeannie came with her own added appeal - a 20-foot long python. Pythons, as readers may recall, are constrictors, and feed on birds and mammals, killing them by squeezing them to death. They will not usually attack humans unless startled or provoked (i.e. by sudden movements). Naturally, this combination of beauty and potential terror brought a huge crowd to the stage which, once the show had begun, trapped me in a position near the back of the stage. I could not move.

The show went fairly smoothly, with Jozef performing a number of old but uniquely conceived illusions, and alternately working with Jeannie and the python, gradually building towards the show’s climax. For his final illusion, Jozef had Jeannie lying rigidly on top of a vertical sword, an illusion that required his utmost attention. This meant leaving the snake unattended. Presumably being somewhat bored by his resulting lack of participation in the show and perhaps just a touch hungry, the snake decided to explore the back part of the stage, slowly slithering towards the two koto players who had continued to play background music during Jozef’s show. Jeannie, being totally incapacitated, had no clue where the snake was, Jozef was preoccupied, and only I remained to do something. Unfortunately, I was completely trapped by the audience and unable to communicate with Jozef. The audience was enthralled by the show and nobody seemed to care that the snake was on the loose. That is, except the girls playing the kotos. As the snake gradually moved closer to them, their eyes became fixed in a stare of terror and I was half-expecting them to scream and run from the stage at any second. If they did, it would be a question of whether or not they could outrun the snake. Amazingly, they held their ground – and continued to play, not missing a beat. At the last second, with the snake no more than about two feet from them, Jozef for no explained reason, turned around, took one step, and casually picked up the snake, thus saving the girls from becoming an unrehearsed component of the finale!

I learned some lessons from this seemingly minor incident. The first was small: Don’t ever leave an old magician, a beautiful assistant, and a large snake on their own and out of shouting distance. The second was more profound: One needs to develop tenacity or “staying power” to carry on, as my young musicians did, in the face of life’s adversities. Oh, yes, for producers out there, get good communication equipment and use enough people to manage the show properly.

Monday, 16 March 2009

A Rant About Planners and Technical Production

This must be my month for rants. Lots I want to get off my chest.

This one has been bothering me for a long time. I produced events for over 19 years and now teach event production. I have noticed a disturbing trend towards ignorance and lack of concern on the part of many event planners and students towards the technical areas of audio systems, lighting, and visual presentation technology (i.e., A-V by another name). Here comes the part that a lot of readers are not going to like. It is gender-based. That's right. The females shy away from the technical equipment and anything to do with it as if it were a venomous snake waiting to strike them dead. Since most planners tend to be female - at least that has been my experience, around 80 or 90 % - that means just about everyone. I thought naively that we were in an age of enlightenment now, but apparently not. What is going on here? Are we still really dividing up jobs based on pink vs blue, transformers vs Barbie dolls, fluffy decor vs the technical stuff?

I have noted regularly that in presentations I give - especially at conferences - audiences ask where they can obtain more in-depth information. Well, folks, that knowledge involves the technical areas in many cases. Certainly, a lot of technical people I know have done a bang-up job of presenting seminars in these areas, but in many cases they are barely scratching the surface of what I would call a necessary base level of technical knowledge.

I compare this to an airline pilot who can fly the plane but knows nothing about aerodynamics or gas turbine engine theory. Sooner or later, this lack of knowledge is going to get him/her in trouble. I doubt that Capt. Sullivan could have landed his plane on the Hudson without knowing a fair bit about aerodynamics and the reaction of the plane to the required tail-down attitude needed for a successful water landing.

Why is this basic technical knowledge necessary? Well, let's take a look at what might happen, because a lot of it is about risk - and it goes WAY beyond knowing how to tape electrical cords down. Here is a sample list of potential scenarios:

1. A truss loaded with lighting gear falls from a venue ceiling, injuring a number of event attendees. If this happened, you can be sure that the event planner would be near the top of the list of defendants in an expensive law suit for liability. Remember that the planner is responsible and liable for all his/her subcontractors and anything that they do. That means that the planner should be able to provide documentation that has been completed to prove that the loading on the truss was safe and calculated properly, as well as proof that the rigging was done by someone qualified. Do you have this information for all your events where rigging is done? By the way, do a search on the Internet for event disasters and you might be surprised at the number of trussing collapses.

2. Your incentive house client - yes the one with loads of money - cannot understand why a 2-hour sound check is needed for the stage show and dance that is to follow their expensive dinner. Do you:

a) Calmly and confidently explain the need for setting up the monitor mixes for the large band and the requirement to EQ the venue to avoid feedback, plus ensuring that all equipment is functioning properly, OR

b) Sheepishly admit to complete ignorance about audio systems while introducing your client to an overworked, tattooed, pony-tailed audio tech who has no time or interest in talking? (OK - a bit cliched for the tech, but it does happen) Would your client still be a client and have confidence in you the next time around?

3. As a wedding planner, you have been contracted to provide all technical services for a huge, 500-person Italian wedding. The groom's family is from North America but the bride's is from Italy. Both sides want you to show old analog videos and PowerPoint shows from the couple's childhood. They are bringing them to the event. Unfortunately, you know nothing about the different video standards or the formats for good still images. When the A-V tech tries to play the Italian videos they won't work on his equipment and when the PowerPoint slides are shown, the quality of the photos is so bad, nobody can tell who the people are. If you had known even some basic information about international video standards and about the optimum resolution needed for large image projection, this catastrophe could have been avoided by asking the right questions at the beginning.

4. You are dumbstruck when your much smaller competitor wins a big contract by proposing the use of some new and amazing automated lighting in a unique way. Did you know that these products were on the market or if so, how they could enhance your creativity? Maybe you missed that presentation at the last event conference or maybe you missed the suggestion to visit your lighting supplier for a briefing. Sure, you always thought that the lighting supplier would do all the thinking for you. Guess again. It's your problem.

I mention the above with all due respect and apologies to some extremely creative and talented females who are technical producers in the event industry and certainly some planners as well. However, I still firmly believe that they are in the minority. Ladies, it's time to get serious if you intend to make this your chosen career path. Don't miss that next technical lecture or, for that matter, any opportunity to learn about the technical side of our industry. Embrace it with enthusiasm as you have done all other aspects. It will help not only you but also the credibility of the entire industry.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Perception of Meetings and Events in This Economy

I know there has been a lot written about our industry advocating to the US and Canadian governments about how important meetings are to the economy, but I just have to say something about a hotel manager I recently saw interviewed on Canadian TV.

There was a top-level government meeting being held in an upscale resort on Vancouver Island in BC and the media of course jumped on it as being a waste of tax dollars and unnecessary at this time. They tried to interview the resort manager who basically told them to get lost because they were uninvited. I could not believe that a manager in an industry whose livelihood depends on positive publicity had the stupidity to treat the media in that manner. Instead of trying to explain why the meeting was held and all the positive economic spinoffs of meetings, he took a defensive attitude and actually made matters worse. Furthermore, a government official who was also interviewed made absolutely no attempt to explain why such a meeting was important and what meetings and events mean to the economy. These are people who should know better!!

Another sad aspect of this whole fiasco are the media themselves, who are unbelievably near-sighted. Vancouver is hosting the Winter Olympics in 2010 and there is expected to be a ton of spinoffs in meetings and events because of the resultant publicity. In fact, that is the main reason Vancouver sought the Olympics in the first place. The media, who have been complaining all along about how much money the Olympics cost and what are we going to get out of all of the spending, is now bad-mouthing the very area that will indeed yield positive economic benefits.

No wonder our economy is in such a mess! Doesn't anybody have any brains out there?

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Ritual and Performance in Special Events

Catherine Bell, one of the world’s foremost scholars on ritual, organized ritual activities into six main characteristics: formalism, traditionalism, invariance, rule-governance, sacral symbolism, and performance.[i] In my previous blog entry, I talked about one of these, invariance, at a corporate special event. In this blog, I want to discuss the importance of performance.

This refers to what ritual has in common with theatrical performances, dramatic spectacles, and public events. As Bell says, comparisons of ritual with performance “rest on a recognition that the performative dimension per se – that is, the deliberate, self-conscious ‘doing’ of highly symbolic actions in public – is the key to what makes ritual, theater, and spectacle what they are.” She goes on to state what those of us in the event management industry have known for a long time, that “performances communicate on multiple sensory levels, usually involving highly visual imagery, dramatic sounds, and sometimes even tactile, olfactory, and gustatory stimulation. By marching with a crowd, crying over a tragic drama, or applauding an unconvincing politician, even the less enthusiastic participants of the audience are cognitively and emotionally pulled into a complex sensory experience that can also communicate a variety of messages. Hence, the power of performance lies in great part in the effect of the heightened multisensory experience it affords: one is not being told or shown something so much as one is led to experience something.” As I have mentioned before, our ancestors learned very quickly that events influence people and good performances, whether by politicians, priests, army generals, or real performers, can be used to emotionally draw audiences in to buying any message if the event is organized well.

Emile Durkheim, sometimes regarded as the founder of sociology, had it right when he first theorized that performing rituals created and sustained “social solidarity.”[ii] Anthropologist Victor Turner further defined the communal spirit generated by social groups participating in rituals – or as I would prefer to call them – events, with the term communitas. He discusses this concept in his many writings but one statement best explains it. “Is there any one of us who has not known this moment when compatible people – friends, congeners – obtain a flash of lucid mutual understanding on the existential level, when they feel that all problems, not just their problems, could be resolved---.”[iii] What these scholars theorized through direct observation of primitive peoples has now been reinforced through the research of biogenetic structuralists (Biogenetic structuralism is a complicated name but a promising field that applies knowledge of human evolution to cultural behavior. Interdisciplinary, it brings together anthropology, psychology, and the neurosciences.). In summary, here is the logic of their current thinking:

1. Modern humans are “hardwired” for ritual behavior.[iv]
2. Ritual behavior overcomes social distance between individuals and helps to coordinate group action.[v]
3. Emotions weight decisions and influence actions.
4. Emotions may be elicited by sensory stimuli.[vi]
5. Rituals with high levels of sensory stimuli, (e.g. rhythmic drivers such as music and dance), will therefore be the most effective in bringing social groups and individuals together and in motivating action.

In short, it has finally been proven that highly performance-driven ritual activities should be the most effective in conveying messages. So what does this mean for special events? Quite simply, it means that the judicious use of highly rhythmic music and dance can greatly enhance the reception of a message, whether that message is a secular one (e.g., how to generate more sales, feeling patriotic, giving to charity) or a religious one (e.g., feeling closer to God). As I said, those of us who have produced events already know this. We just did not know the science behind it.

[i] Bell, C. (1997). Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions. NY: Oxford University Press. pp. 138-169.
[ii] Durkheim, E. (1965). The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. New York: Free Press.
[iii] Turner, V. (1982). From Ritual to Theater: The Human Seriousness of Play. New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications. pp. 44-48.
[iv] Karecki, M. (1997). Discovering the Roots of Ritual. Missionalia.
[v] Guthrie, C. (2000). Neurology, Ritual, and Religion: An Initial Exploration. Retrieved August 1, 2008, from
[vi] Alcorta, C.S. and Sosis, R. (2005). Ritual, Emotion, and Sacred Symbols: The Evolution of Religion as an Adaptive Complex. Human Nature, Winter 2005, Vol.16, No.4. pp. 323-359.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Ritual and Special Events

Because of my current research into the history of celebration, I have lately become interested in the impact that ritual has on special events.

Many of us often think of ritual in terms of one of its most limiting definitions, "a state or condition characterized by the presence of established procedure or routine." What is also fascinating is how close this is to the definition of an addiction as "the condition of being habitually or compulsively occupied with or involved in something" and the definition of an obsession as "something that preoccupies a person to the exclusion of other things."

Here's an example. We get up and check the Blackberry and Facebook before breakfast every day, then again at coffee break, at lunch, and perhaps several more times during the work day. Is this simply ritual or has it transformed into addiction or obsession? Where does ritual end and addiction or obsession start? If we don't perform a ritual, does it screw up our mind? Do we have to get to the point where doing without it would literally have physical and psychological consequences for it to be labelled an addiction or an obsession?

So what does this have to do with events? Plenty, because ritual is a big part of almost every special event nowadays. Think of a football game. Let's imagine you are a football fan and attend every game of your favourite team. At the game, you love to watch the cheerleaders and have a couple of beers, screaming with everyone else as the heavy rock music urges the crowd on. Every aspect of the game and what you do is really just ritual, from the cheerleaders to the beer to the rock music and the ritual coin toss and kick-off, as well as the players doing victory dances in the end zone. Take all of this away and what would happen to you and to the other fans? Would you still go to games? Would there be "withdrawal symptoms?" I hazard a guess that there would be, just like an addiction. Are you obsessed with the game? Probably, if you have to give up all other activities at all costs to attend. Therein lies the relationship of the three: ritual, addiction, obsession.

What about other event types like an annual corporate dinner? Here's an example from my own experience of producing such an event. It was a business association that one year decided to hold an awards banquet to honour senior businesspeople in the community. As it turned out, the event was so successful that they decided to make it an annual affair. I continued to do all the production work for this event for about 16 years until I sold my company. The interesting thing about the event was that the format and location remained exactly the same year in and year out. Oddly, in spite of this, the event sold out every year, and the association had the audacity to sell an entire table for more than the cost of a table full of single seats only, with attendees happily contributing! It was held in the same hotel ballroom, the physical setup always included two small stages of the same size at opposite corners of the room, there was always a short 20-minute entertainment segment to end the event, and it followed a strict invariant running order with speeches, awards, and meal courses planned in exactly the same order and at the same times each year. It also began with a reception in another part of the hotel and a special procession to dinner with guests being led by some sort of musical group every year. The only thing that changed was the overall theme of the event which was manifested in creative décor and unusual customized entertainment. This event had become a true example of one containing clear ritual activity. While the transformation to personal addiction or obsession was never a possibility, there was a distinct possibility that the business association would have suffered some sort of "corporate withdrawal" if the event had been cancelled.

To summarize, what most of us in the industry don't realize, is that we are integral parts of events that depend on ritual activity. This ritual activity is really the "glue" that holds everything together. It is often how well we recognize and manage these rituals that will lead to event success or failure. It behooves us to learn about ritual behaviour.

More to come.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Why We Celebrate: Part Three

The second group of key players in an event, participants, can be a mixture of actual owner/organizers, external and unrelated entertainers or other entities, and spectators. Their reasons are primarily psychological and commercial. From a psychological standpoint, anyone who has been a performer can understand the concept of flow. “In the flow state, action follows upon action according to an internal logic that seems to need no conscious intervention by the actor. He experiences it as a unified flowing from one moment to the next, in which he is in control of his actions, and in which there is little distinction between self and environment, between stimulus and response, or between past, present, and future.”[i] Most performers at some point in their careers experience this. If they are highly trained, it undoubtedly occurs on a regular basis. For the performer, it is a very desirable mental state, somewhat metaphysical and even transcendental. For them, it is a feeling of wanting to remain “in the moment.”[ii]

Performers also need to have a psychological connection with the audience. This is the ultimate validation for their existence that performers seek. It means that first, the audience has indeed “received the message” (i.e. the message desired by the event owners), and second, the art form and method of delivery are appreciated. This is usually obvious to the performer through the audience’s rapt attention, sustained applause, or laughter at appropriate times. Of course, the simple commercial reason of being paid for their performance is still important to professional entertainers, and whether or not they buy into the organizer’s main reason for holding the event may be irrelevant.

Numerous modern studies have confirmed repeatedly why spectators or audiences, the third group of key players, attend public events or spectacles. These can be generally lumped into social, educational, and psychological reasons. They include the opportunity to socialize, to gain knowledge, to experience high quality art, and to be emotionally rewarded or personally fulfilled (e.g. excitement, ego enhancement). Interestingly, for those familiar with Maslow's hierarchy of needs, these correspond almost perfectly with the higher social needs. What this means for event organizers is that although their reasons may be religious, political, social, educational, or commercial, it does not matter and the chances for a successful event are decreased unless the reasons for the audience’s attendance are matched. And they must be matched through the skillful interpretation of the main message by the participants. Since it is unlikely that human nature has changed over the centuries, audiences of other cultures and eras were likely motivated by the same reasons as audiences of today.

[i] Czikszentmihalyi, M. (1975). Beyond Boredom and Anxiety. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. pp.35-36.
[ii] Matthews, D. (2008). Special Event Production: The Resources. Oxford: Elsevier Inc. pp.14-15.