Its 9:00 AM on a Sunday, the temperature is 30°, sky is overcast and the forecast is calling for rain with winds gusting up to 40 miles per hour. I’ve been on my feet since 3:30AM, have gone from freezing to sweating more times than I can count, and find myself standing in front of ~10,000 people—most of whom are not dressed to be waiting in the cold. Twenty volunteers with a thin yellow rope and three people carrying nothing but two-way radios are the only thing between the 10,000 cold individuals and warmth. I am somewhat intimidated.
No, that is not the story line of my most recent nightmare nor the plot of an upcoming Armageddon thriller. It was a small portion of my morning at the Bank of America Shamrock Shuffle. The Shuffle is one of a handful of events which I staff including the Chicago Marathon and RAM Racing’s Hot Chocolate 5k/15k and is not unique in terms of the hours, weather, or workload. 12-14 hours on my feet, walking an average of 15 miles in 32,000 steps starting at 3AM is the norm and usually leaves me completely exhausted, extremely hoarse, and sporting a pronounced limp. While that may seem like torture to most, I love every minute of it.
I have always enjoyed event production. From hockey tournaments at the Ice Arena I supervised in my youth to my current side gigs at races and Shannon Gail events, I've never viewed “working” any event as actual work. It’s like getting paid to have fun. It wasn't until recently that I realized just how much my operations and leadership skills are sharpened by working these events. An event takes regular business problems, adds unpredictable twists, and compresses all of that into just a few intense hours. In many ways, event production is the ultimate test of business knowledge. Think I’m crazy? Stick with me for a moment as I explain further…
- Leadership: A majority of a race event team is comprised of volunteers. They are there because they want to be, not because they need to be. The volunteers are also the face of the event. It is extremely important that they remain motivated, upbeat, and friendly. An event staff leader has to work extremely hard to make sure that team wants to stay there and feels rewarded in their work.
- Production bottlenecks: Ever try moving 15,000+ people through an intersection in less than an hour with no way to predict or influence the flow rate? I've seen bottlenecks in production before but usually the products in production don’t move independently, act unpredictably, complain openly, or irrationally try to push themselves ahead in the production line. People do all of those things and more at events.
- Quality control: A vast majority of quality control in production is identifying things that don’t belong. The difference between production and events is that products don’t attempt to openly subvert the quality control process. Participants on the other hand will stop at nothing to get into the first wave, next corral, etc. There is no limit to the length people will go to get what they want.
- Rework: In production, when you find a defective product it is sent back for rework. Again, it is assumed that the product will not try to go back through as defective. People will stop at literally nothing to subvert the process to better themselves or their situation. Redirecting people who have already purposely bypassed at least two checkpoints is no easy feat.
- Adapting to unpredictable variables: At the Shuffle, I was supposed to be assigned 20 volunteers. I assumed only 15 would show up and planned accordingly. In actuality, only 7 reported on race day. All of my plans had to be scrapped and I had to triage the most pressing needs and reassign volunteers on the fly.
Event production forces me to the ends of my knowledge and abilities. It challenges my operational skills and decision making in ways that nothing else possibly can. It is one of the few times that I cannot predict what will happen next. Events force me to move beyond my comfort zone and explore new ways of thinking. Event production is one-day operations intensive. So far I have passed each of these tests and loved every minute of it. My next one is in October. I’ll let you know how I fare then.