Fit for a queen




by Louis la Plante

When Queen Elizabeth II told a reporter she wanted all Britons involved in her Diamond Jubilee celebration, Kristine Szulik took her at her word.

Held in early June, the four-day fete of the queen's 60 years on the throne included museum exhibitions, concerts at Buckingham Palace, a digital time capsule and a flotilla on the Thames that drew a million spectators.

That was quite an affair, but Ms. Szulik came up with a giant project of her own. As project director of Chester: The Giant City, a community interest company in Chester, England, she drew on local traditions and some unlikely volunteers to create a parade of 14-foot (4.3-meter) queens. Constructed from wood, metal and fiberglass, the 60 towering structures gave a performance worthy of a monarch.

The event's visitors swelled the city of Chester to twice its normal population, generating £1 million in a single day. Even the queen of all stakeholders, Elizabeth II herself, took note.


Though the Giant City organization is just three years old, its namesake dancing giants have been part of the city's history since the 14th century, when they were used to ward off evil spirits during solstice celebrations.

These days, the giants still make appearances, including in a cultural program for the 2012 London Olympics. But the Diamond Jubilee parade was Giant City's most ambitious project yet, and it came with an added twist, says Ms. Szulik. Each giant would be sponsored by a not-for-profit organization, whose members—including the homeless, drug addicts and mentally disabled—would build the structures.

“We saw it as a way to help integrate the people we serve into mainstream society,” says Sandra Pollitt, coordinator at Live, a local not-forprofit working with disabled children and young people. For Live, the project offered an unusual and engaging way to teach skills such as samba drumming, sewing and jewelry-making to the 100 participants and volunteers who helped on the group's giant.


Labor was free, but the cost of materials for each giant was £3,500. Drawing from its own budget and business donations, Giant City allocated £2,000 for each giant. The individual groups were then responsible for raising the balance. To secure buy-in, Ms. Szulik and her team pitched future uses of the giants at other special events. Giant City also stepped in with additional funds where necessary.

But Ms. Szulik knew fundraising shortfalls would put the group at financial risk. Giant City had “no buffer zone at the bank, no overdraft facility, no credit, no access to loans,” Ms. Szulik says. “Our mantra was ‘cash is king’ all the way through this project. To keep our cash flowing, we recycled everything where possible and bartered with our neighbors.”

The group exchanged use of its parking lot for a security guard at night, for example. These types of transactions allowed Giant City to pump more funds into the Jubilee project.


Along with the budget, Ms. Szulik also carefully tracked the schedule. After all, it's not as if the team could ask the queen to move the date of her Diamond Jubilee.

Giants typically could be constructed in a week “if we were working with a group of professionals and we were working 9 to 5, Monday through Friday,” she says. But because the nearly 2,000 volunteers on the project kept irregular hours, each giant took two to three months.

To help groups keep to the schedule, Ms. Szulik and her team supplied organizations with instructions and workshops on construction, dressmaking, hat-making, sculpting, painting and jewelry-making.

The lessons they gave showed how to use different materials such as vinyl siding, which has flexibility needed to shape the giant queens' torsos. It needed to be heated and molded into place.


Four months into the project, Ms. Szulik realized her team was spread too thin. “We had to streamline,” she says. “We realized we needed people to come to us, instead of us going out to them.”

She posted two technical experts at Giant City headquarters to take calls. Workshops also were brought in-house, reducing travel time for employees and allowing them to focus on parade logistics.

External stakeholders also posed a challenge. They were less interested in how the giants looked and more concerned about how the parade would help—or hurt—their business. Retail store and restaurant owners along the parade route were especially worried. “One of the risks is that people will crowd the street and not go shopping,” says Ms. Szulik.

To mitigate that risk, the Giant City team developed an event schedule that built in time for parade-goers to patronize local businesses. Organizers also kept the route short—roughly 800 yards (732 meters) along Chester's main street. To encourage visitors to linger in the area, giants waiting to proceed in the parade loitered on the three main shopping streets surrounding the route.

And about a month before the event, volunteers went to every business along the parade route to ensure retail stakeholders were prepared for the influx of visitors.

Parade day drew 70,000 people, a number spurred by the appearance of several giants in commercials during the highly rated Britain's Got Talent television show. Parade-watchers made a day out of the festivities, spending nearly £1 million at retail stores and restaurants—almost double that of an average day.

Even the guest of honor was impressed, as the team learned when it met the monarch at Buckingham Palace. “She thought the giant models of the queen were excellent and the project was outstanding,” Ms. Szulik says. “And to actually have the queen tell you that was the highlight.” PM




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