How do you organise an event visited by 1 million people? I went to the office of San Francisco Pride and interviewed George Ridgely, the executive director of San Francisco Pride.
George can you introduce yourself and can you tell me about your background in the events industry?
I’m the executive director of San Francisco Pride. I’ve been involved in events since the early 2000s. Prior to SF Pride, this is my second year at Pride, I was the operations manager for Bay to Breakers which is an old running event (7.5 miles race) here in San Francisco. I was with that organisation for a decade. I was also the executive director of Castro Street Fair and I also started my own private event company and we produced smaller events and fundraisers for the LGBT community and organised events for Salesforce and Dreamforce.
What is the production process for events? Where do you start?
With the smaller events I was usually hired as a producer so the client already had some kind of event in mind or they had a budget in mind. So that’s literally where we would start.
What is your intended size of the audience and size of your budget and try to work within those perimeters. In those cases I would meet up with the client. If I were to be the client and create an event from scratch I would want to have a really good understanding of what the concept is. Is it going to be a dance party, a cocktail party, a sit down dinner, a fundraiser etc. You need to have a good understanding of the culture and content of the event. Work from there to find your venue or place that’s going to work within the budget for your event.
So it all comes back again to the nature of the event you want to produce and what the costs are going to be of that. You work backwards from that as you can than figure out how much money you need to raise. Are you going to fund your event through ticket sales, private donors, partnerships with sponsors, or some combination of those? The latter is what typically the case is.
What is your advice about raising money for your event?
It starts with the vision for your event. You need to be able to take that vision to a sponsor and sell them on your concept and why they want to be included. Their first question will probably be who your audience is and how many people you are expecting. They want to make sure that your event is something that they want to associate their brand with as well.
It’s a bit like a chicken-and-egg story. What comes first: the funding or the event idea? I think it’s always the idea but you need to have it fully formed in order to sell it. And it’s a lot of work just to come up with the idea!
What is the importance of having specific objectives for your event and for your organisation? Within your current organisation how do you work toward these objectives?
The bigger events I have worked with such as San Francisco Pride, Bay to Breakers, Castro Street Fair, they are all historical events. So I stepped into these events that already had an identity, an audience, and are well attended. I can’t say I started something from scratch so I can only learn from what has been done in the past. But with all of these events it is about the camaraderie of the people that are at the event. Whether you are running a race together or celebrating a mutual cause or, in the case of the Castro Street Fair it is a community event.
Is organising an established event trickier to organise?
It depends on how it was managed before. It really does depend on who came before you and what the legacy of the event is. I can’t say it is harder or easier. It’s difficult to create change in something that has longevity. Using Bay to Breakers as an example, there have been people in the organisation that have been doing it for 40 years. Me coming in as the operations director after someone who has done it for 35 years…they know more than I do. Even the audience know more about it than me at that point. It is than important to listen to them and ask them what they like about the event and what they don’t like about it so you can affect change.
San Francisco Pride is a large outdoor event with an estimated audience size of 1 million people. How far in advance do you start planning your event?
An event the size of San Francisco Pride, but even Bay to Breakers or Castro Street Fair, is year-round planning. Sure there are some slower times but there is never a time that you are not planning. There’s a time that you are gearing up for the event, which is typically the most intense part of event planning. The day of the event is typically not as intense as the two months leading up to the event.
When I first started working with Bay to Breakers and I didn’t really have a concept of what to expect someone warned me ‘if you think today was hard, tomorrow is going to be twice as hard, and the day after that is going to be even harder’. It is a bit like an earthquake as it gets harder and harder.
What are the things that make it so hard, so stressful? What are the things that typically go wrong?
I couldn’t pinpoint one thing. There are a million things that can go wrong. It also depends on the size and scope of your event. The street fair, for example, is an outdoor event contained within 6 blocks. So you’re dealing with displacing traffic and public transport, displacing people access to their businesses and homes. You’re typically moving in over night and having to build the infrastructure and stages within a 6 hours window.
You’ve got about 3 hours at the end to completely tear it down and open the streets back up. And yet it’s a little bit easier in a contained space than, say San Francisco Pride that cover all of downtown San Francisco from the Ferry Building to Civic Centre, plus a huge event site at Civic Centre.
But you still have the same issues such as re-routing traffic and public transport, displacing residents and their access to their businesses and homes. With Bay to Breakers you literally cross the entire city, from once side of the bay to the other side. We had to close every north-south road with the exception of two streets for 5 hours. That’s a huge amount of coordination with the police and city council. Depending on your event a lot of your coordination might be with city officials about the impact you’re going to have on the city.
How easy is it to get licenses and permits for events that have such an impact on the city? What do you, the event organiser, discuss with the licensor to get all the correct permits?
It’s not easy. It depends also in what municipality you are working in. My experience is with San Francisco and here we have a department within City Government that is responsible for closing down the streets and you go to that department to get your street closure permits. On top of that you have to work with the police on your event safety, with another department about the clean-up, with the transport department about rerouting public transport, with the fire department about any permits you need, with the health department if you are serving food or alcohol, if you’re serving alcohol you deal with another department as well.
If you are just starting out as an event planner and you have no experience with all of this I would advice you to hire a consultant who can walk you through the process or hire an event producer that has that kind of experience. Where I think the experience is most valuable is to hire someone who has been through all these steps and knows what questions need to be asked. The City will guide you to some degree but they will not hold your hand throughout the process.
There are a lot of events taking place in San Francisco. How cooperative is the city of San Francisco when it comes to outdoor events?
I think the city is very open to it as they recognise that it’s part of the fabric of San Francisco. It’s part of why people want to come to the city or live in the city as there something happening every weekend.
The city has to walk a fine delicate line as well as there are sometimes several events happening simultaneously. The Castro Street Fair 40th anniversary took place in the same weekend as Fleet Week, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, and a Giants baseball game. There was so much going on that weekend that collectively we had shut down San Francisco.
So yes, the city is supportive but it is on the event producer at the end of the day that they pay attention to all the details and not to rely on the city to take care of those details.
Event production and logistics: where do you start when you build up your event site?
That’s totally going to depend on your event site, when you get access to your site and when you have to relinquish your site. For Castro Street Fair we would take ownership of the street at 4am and we would immediately start putting in our stages, tenting and infrastructure for the event. Two hours later your exhibitors start to arrive and set up. The event would start at 11am and ends at 6pm. It was my responsibility to have the streets open again two hours later. It’s a huge turn around to set that event up and tear it down.
Bay to Breakers was a combination of that. Our finish line was on the Great Highway. We closed that road at midnight the night before the race. We had that road for about 8 hours before the race would start. The race goes through Golden Gate Park and we would be able to set up a day, or even two days, in advance. Time we used to put in fencing or dumpsters. In downtown area we would start building up less than 24 hours in advance. So it really depends on your venue. I know that festivals like Outside Lands or Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, both taking place in Golden Gate Park, start their set up several days in advance.
The Castro Street Fair is a 40,000 – 50,000 capacity event. How many staff and volunteers are working at that event?
There are about 20 staff member working at the Fair. There are several hundreds of volunteers working at Castro Street Fair. Probably close to a 1,000. It really depends on what needs to be done. A lot of the volunteers are collecting donations at the gates. Volunteers don’t necessarily do anything specific logistically.
How many security personnel do you need for a 50,000 capacity event?
That depends on multiple factors. Are you serving alcohol or not? Are you charging an entrance fee or not? It depends on how many stages and venues you have. How big the crowds are around those stages and venues. It also depends on what your audience is like and how they behave. The city guides you with that as well.
How important is sponsorship for an event or festival?
Depending on what your mix of income is I think it is extremely important. You need to look at different factors. Is your event a ticketed event or is it free? Do you want to cost of organising this event to be covered by ticket sales? Or do you want it to be a mix? Typically it is a mix hence your sponsors play a huge role.
That bring me back to the beginning, you need to think about what you want from your sponsor. You need to make sure they are part of the fabric of the event.
How do you establish that? Are you contacting companies or are they contacting you?
Typically it’s both. For a new event you will have to do all the outreach, as companies do not know you. An established event can have companies knocking on the door because companies want to be involved. That has been the case in the larger events that I have worked with. With the smaller events I had to do a lot more outreach.
When you reach out to companies what do they want to hear from you? How do you convince them to sponsor your event or festival?
Really know and understand what it is you want to create and have a compelling story to tell. A compelling story as to why they should be involved in your event.
Look for partners that make sense. If you’re a running event you might want to reach out to running apparel or shoe apparel. That makes more sense than reaching out to a chocolatier. Or not…they do hand out chocolate bars at marathons.
You can also reach out to a sponsor with a cool idea what you think they can do at your event. What I have experienced with the events that I have organised is that companies, with great products, do approach you and tell you that you can hand out their product. "Isn’t it great that you can hand out 1,000 items at your event? Everyone will love it!"
But you have to look at that and ask yourself: what does that mean for the event? Logistically speaking you want to know when you will receive the items and where you will store it. How are you going to distribute them and what kind of waste do they create?
At the end of the day you want to make sure that the benefits of handing out these items outweigh the costs and logistics you occur.
What are you looking for in sponsorship? Is it financial, services, in-kind?
Probably all kinds of sponsorship but you need to look at what your needs are. At the end of the day if you’re trying to meet your bottom line and you need cash than I would focus my energy on that. If you're a brand new event and people don’t know about you, getting media partners that can help you get your message out would typically be an in-kind trade versus someone giving you cash.
Depending on what your needs are, let’s take the race as an example in terms of products. Runners need water so it makes sense to find a water sponsor that can hydrate your runners. Basically you need to look at what sponsorship makes sense for your event.
How do you promote your events?
It comes down to what your goal is. Quite often the goal is the goal to build your audience or to increase your audience and get people interested in coming to your event. I assume that’s typically your goal. I’ve worked for events where that’s not a problem. The audience is already there so marketing and outreach might be more about explaining to your audience what they can expect once they get to the event. Like who is performing at your event or what the culture of your event is.
If you are selling the event, you’re selling tickets or registration to the event; you want to make sure you use all avenues available to you. I can’t say that one avenue (TV, radio, newspaper, social media, etc.) is more prevalent to the other. It’s like any other advertising you see for any other product or service. Social media is important but so is print. TV might make sense for your event. Or radio. It really depends on your event and your audience.
What advice would you give to a future event planner? What does it take to become a successful event planner?
The two things you absolutely need, personality-wise, is be extremely organised. You need to think of everything that could possibly happen and plan for it and have a plan B in case your first plan doesn’t work. Some people will tell you that you need a plan C and a plan D. I personally think that can sometimes be too overwhelming to have so many contingency plans.
The second trade I think you need to have is that you need to remain calm. It’s going to be stressful and it’s going to be overwhelming. Your vibe, whether it is one of high energy or high stress, will translate to everyone around you and people will feed off that energy. It’s critical that you remain calm under pressure.
The third trade is that you need to be able to come up with snap decisions. You need to take a moment, examine the situation of what is happening and come up with the best possible solution at that time. Don’t feel pressured to make that decision too quick. Sometimes you have to make quick decisions but it doesn't mean you have to make it instantly.