Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

CMP Series: Minding Mother Nature

by By Sarah Beauchamp, Assistant Editor | Nov 01, 2012
The 2011 Indiana State Fair and the 2012 Lollapalooza music festival offer valuable lessons in creating an effective crisis-management plan - and implementing it when the weather gets deadly.

The 2011 Indiana State Fair and the 2012 Lollapalooza music festival offer valuable lessons in creating an effective crisis-management plan - and implementing it when the weather gets deadly.

As the winds began to pick up in downtown Chicago on the second day of the 2012 Lollapalooza music festival, organizers were prepared. The forecast had called for extreme winds and rain - gusts of more than 70 miles per hour, and precipitation (including hail), heavy enough to cause flash floods, according to the National Weather Service. Since the three-day event put down roots in Chicago’s Grant Park back in 2005, Lollapalooza had never been evacuated - not even last year, during hours of torrential downpours.

But the festival, held this year on Aug. 3–5, generally attracts upward of 160,000 attendees over the three days - and with more than 60,000 concertgoers enjoying themselves in Grant Park that Saturday, Aug. 4, and 42 artists set to perform, Lollapalooza’s organizers and Chicago safety officials had a difficult decision to make. “Responses are coordinated among Chicago police, fire, and the OEMC [Chicago’s Office of Emergency Management and Communication],” said Delores Robinson, the OEMC’s director of news affairs, “to determine, when an emergency situation arises, weather or otherwise, what warrants the termination of event festivities.”

That decision did not come without months of preparation - as experienced meeting professionals know. “With any major event, outdoors and indoors, when you’re planning, you should anticipate what potential problems you can have,” said Charlie Fisher of Witt Associates, a Washington, D.C.–based crisis-management consulting firm. “Outdoors, what types of issues could potentially occur with weather? If indoors, what happens when you lose power? Identify what your potential threats are, and develop a comprehensive emergency-management plan that very clearly lays it out.”

Witt Associates recently conducted an eight-month independent assessment of emergency preparedness by the organizers of the Indiana State Fair, where seven people were killed and more than 50 were injured when a stage collapsed during harsh winds in August 2011. While Fisher wasn't involved with Lollapalooza in any way, he shared general thoughts on event-based crisis management with Convene.

And, in fact, the incident that Fisher’s team investigated loomed large as C3 Presents, the production company that puts on Lollapalooza, and the OEMC prepared this year’s crisis-management plan. Any kind of tragedy similar to what happened at the Indiana State Fair, Robinson said, is something that “emergency planners and cities and states that have large events will take into thought.” Fisher agreed: “Nowadays, there is much more of a focus on situational awareness regarding weather.”

Warming up the Crowd

C3 and the OEMC had anticipated severe weather at Lollapalooza this year, and made it a point to send out early warnings. “OEMC is always monitoring the weather throughout the year,” Robinson said. “And we also monitor the event activities and work closely with the National Weather Service from our operation center before and during the event.”

In the days leading up to the festival, the OEMC sent out press releases regarding safety precautions and shared emergency-plan details on its website, including how during Lollapalooza there would be “visible public blue and white signage installed to direct people to designated extreme weather shelters during severe weather conditions.” The OEMC also warned, via its website, that all attendees should be “safe and prepared while attending Lollapalooza,” and alerted Chicago drivers and residents to expect “traffic disruptions and increased crowds in the area.” Attendees also were able to sign up for free real-time traffic and weather alerts at notifychicago.org.

Lollapalooza organizers also equipped Grant Park with five on-site weather monitors to track the anticipated storms. And the OEMC and C3 had plans in place for heat-related emergencies such as heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and dehydration, equipping the venue with cooling buses and water stations - which became unnecessary once the torrential rains began on Saturday. Taking those kinds of precautions is part of what Fisher called “the actual process” for crisis management. “[It’s] just taking the time to think about the situations,” he said, “and what the potential threats are.”

Making the Final Call

But oftentimes, the most crucial aspect of a crisis-management strategy is designating who will make the tough calls. That was the case at the 2011 Indiana State Fair, when severe weather threatened to interfere with the band Sugarland’s performance on Saturday, Aug. 13. The fair director and the band’s tour manager disagreed with police, who wanted to cancel the performance. “By the time fair organizers were on their way to evacuate the concert,” Fisher said, “the stage was already collapsing.”

With Lollapalooza 2012 approaching, C3 Presents and Chicago safety officials faced criticism from the Chicago Tribune for their crisis-management plan because it left the final call for evacuation up to both parties. When it comes to that, Fisher said, there shouldn't be any confusion or disagreement, which can happen when more than one person or organization is making the decision. However, after seven years of working together, C3 and Chicago safety officials maintained that they would agree on any decision that had to be made. They had spent months working together to devise a severe-weather strategy. “Any decision to evacuate is a joint decision by city officials as well as C3 partners,” Robinson said. “However, OEMC has the authority to take whatever steps necessary to ensure the safety of attendees and Chicago residents.”

With this kind of shared decision-making responsibility, Fisher said, it’s important to agree that one entity will have the final say. “With every comprehensive plan,” Fisher said, “if something happens, the plan needs to lay out what you’re going to do and, specifically, who is going to make that decision.”

And it goes without saying that time is of the essence in crisis situations. “The first of all the protocols,” Fisher said, “is that if severe weather is approaching and, for example, you've got a crowd of 15,000 people, you need to know how long it will take you to pull out of there - don’t wait until the storm is already there.”

C3 and the OEMC pulled the trigger at just the right time, making the decision to evacuate Grant Park at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, after news from the National Weather Service and readings from on-site weather monitors warned of severe thunderstorms. Not long after, winds in excess of 60 miles per hour whipped through downtown Chicago and torrential downpours flooded the lawns at Grant Park. “It took a while for the storm to actually hit the city,” said Lollapalooza attendee Ashley Reaser, “but once it did, I was personally very happy to be indoors.”

All attendees, plus nearly 3,000 staff, performers, and vendors were safely evacuated in 38 minutes, according to Lollapalooza’s website. “Working in conjunction with event planners and designated security detail to aid and monitor activities, and the advanced planning and on-site presence,” Robinson said, “contributed to an effective evacuation without injury or incident.”

Sending Out an SOS


One of the things that made Lollapalooza’s response so effective was that organizers got the word out through multiple channels - a practice that Fisher said is key to any crisis response. “Whether it be joint command or a single individual,” Fisher said, “it’s important to lay out specific steps to communicate that decision.”

Equally important, Fisher said, is to be aware of your audience, and make sure that communication methods will be effective in a time of emergency. “Everybody acts differently,” Robinson said, “so there were various modes of communication used to inform the audience.” C3 and the OEMC made several announcements at each performance stage over the public-address system, displayed evacuation messages on the Jumbotron screens at Grant Park, and posted announcements on Lollapalooza’s website, Facebook page, and Twitter stream. They also employed an official event app this year through which concertgoers could receive messages about any emergencies or schedule changes. When the evacuation call was made, text messages were sent out to more than 40,000 attendees who subscribed to the app.

Those various messages were crucial for informing Reaser and her group. “My friend received a notification through the Lollapalooza app on her phone that let us know that the park was being evacuated,” Reaser said. And “as soon as the band [we were watching] had finished their song, an announcement came on over the loud speakers and told everyone to leave immediately, and to look for Lollapalooza staff and police officers for directions.”

That’s where another one of Fisher’s crisis-management best practices comes into effect. When it comes to picking emergency meeting spots, he said, “Use places where everyone knows what they are and where they are. These things can really make a difference.” Reaser and her friends, while seeking shelter at a friend’s apartment, ended up following the Lollapalooza hashtag on Twitter for more information, which is how they found out that festival organizers were letting people back into Grant Park at 6 p.m.

Dress Rehearsal

“A major critical component,” Fisher said, “is not to develop the plan in a vacuum. ... Rely on your local first responders - police, firefighters, EMS. They should be involved in helping you develop your plans, and specifically understand what they have to do.”

Even if something is implied in your emergency plan, it’s vital to write it down in detail, especially if it’s an inaugural event, or if you haven’t worked with a particular organization or in a particular city before. Specific wording was key in Lollapalooza’s emergency plan. “It’s stated that there is a joint decision between the various partners,” Robinson said, “but that OEMC can take any steps necessary to ensure the safety of the city of Chicago. That’s spelled out in the plan.”

A huge downfall of the Indiana State Fair’s emergency plan, according to Fisher, was its lack of detail. “What we found in the Indiana State Fair, prior to the stage collapse, was that they had a plan, but it wasn't very detailed, not very robust,” Fisher said. “More importantly, they didn't use it when they had a situation occur.”

Which is why practice makes perfect. “What we really recommend,” Fisher said, “is you need to develop the plans along with your partners and then train your staff - especially people who have a specific role - on what their roles are and what the plans are all together, and to conduct an exercise and test it. Test knowledge of the plan. Those exercises usually result in minor tweaks to the plan.”

The Show Must Go On


“The re-entry back into the park was very quick,” Reaser said. “Primarily because they were not checking bags and scanning wristbands. I’m guessing there were several people without tickets who were able to get in that night because of the lax security after the evacuation, but given the situation, I was fine being able to have immediate access back into the park.”

Because of the suspended schedule, Lollapalooza canceled some performances, pushed others back, and shortened others. To make up for lost time, the city allowed the festival to run a half-hour past curfew. Shows continued until 10:30 p.m. that evening, at which point organizers shut things down - right in the middle of some sets - so as not to overly disturb city residents. “It seemed like they made every effort to reschedule bands for new times,” Reaser said. “I definitely think the Lollapalooza team made the best decision they could have given the circumstances, and once we were back in the park, everyone seemed to be having a great time, even with all of the mud.”

And, in some cases, because of the mud. News sources and bloggers reported that the spirit of attendees returning to the festival was jubilant. Some people embraced the weather, dancing in the rain and sliding in the mud once shows began again. Others kept a safer distance, no longer able to access front-row seats because of deep pools of water and muck. The show went on into the night with great performances by acts like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Frank Ocean.

“I think the most important thing they did,” Fisher said of Lollapalooza’s organizers, “is they had a bad-weather forecast and they made the decision to shut down the show, which is a tough thing to do. But they made a decision in the interest of safety.” Robinson added: “Mother Nature will do what she wants to do. In the end, we agreed upon the evacuation in the safety and best interest of the public.” 
Sidebar: How the Disaster Conference Plans for Disaster

When the International Disaster Conference & Expo (IDCE) needed a permanent home, New Orleans was a logical choice. “After Hurricane Katrina,” said Tim Hemphill, vice president of marketing for New Orleans’ Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, “our Governor’s Office of Homeland Security & Emergency Preparedness [GOHSEP] garnered a lot of national attention.”

Professionals in the world of emergency management flocked to New Orleans to learn more. “Because of Louisiana’s - and New Orleans’ in particular - body of knowledge as it comes to emergency preparedness,” Hemphill said, “this was a perfect place for this annual event to take place. It was a natural fit.”

When IDCE debuted this past January, it was jointly owned by the convention center and Imago Productions. But with next year’s show, slated for Jan. 8–10, the convention center will be the sole owner of IDCE. As a result, IDCE 2013’s crisis-management plan will be the same as the convention center’s. “We have an emergency evacuation plan in place that is coordinated with the [New Orleans] Convention & Visitors Bureau,” Hemphill said, “because it integrates with the city’s evacuation plan.”

In the event of an emergency, the convention center has public-safety officials in the lobby to assist attendees and emergency phones throughout the building. As part of the city’s master plan, Hemphill said, “there are certain hotels for people to muster at, and transportation is planned for those people to be evacuated outside of the zone of influence.”

GOHSEP tracks major storms weeks and days in advance, and alerts the convention center when a storm is strong enough that evacuation might be necessary. It hasn’t happened yet, but that doesn’t mean IDCE isn’t ready. “We practice the plan every year,” Hemphill said. “Everybody has a plan for when a storm’s approaching. Certain actions are triggered, and in the event that we are displaced from the building, then we have backup plans in place so we can operate as if we are in the office. We practice it yearly before every storm season.”
Earn Your CEU Hour
Here’s how to earn your CEU hour. Once you finish reading this CMP Series article, read the following material:

  • “Crisis Essentials,” a crisis-management handbook from Tourism Victoria, available at convn.org/crisis-essentials.
  • “Incident Management Checklist,” from SunGard Availability Services, available at convn.org/crisis-checklist.
  • To earn one hour of CEU credit, visit pcma.org/convenecmp to answer questions about the information contained in this CMP Series article and the additional material.
  • To earn additional credit, you can take more more tests in our series here: pcma.co/ConveneCEUs
  • To earn additional credit, you can take more more tests in our series here: pcma.co/ConveneCEUs

The Certified Meeting Professional (CMP) is a registered trademark of the Convention Industry Council.

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