Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

November 2012

CMP Series: Minding Mother Nature

By Sarah Beauchamp, Assistant Editor

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

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