The whole world is watching
BY SARAH FISTER GALE ILLUSTRATION BY JUSTIN RENTERIA
Debating the readiness of the Olympics host city has become as much a part of the games’ tradition as the lighting of the flame or the parade of nations.
This year's megaevent in London, England hadn't even begun before questions started swirling about the state of preparations in the 2016 host city of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Despite all the handwringing, history says the Rio games, like its predecessors, will start on time and provide the expected spectacle.
Whether it's the Olympics, political conventions or massive citywide festivals, megaevents simply don't allow for scheduling slipups. The show must go on—no matter what.
But that doesn't do much to mitigate the other big risk: the oh-so-fickle opinions of stakeholders.
“Most risks are connected to public perception regarding preparations for the event,” says Michal Olszewski, project management office director for PL.2012, coordinator and overseer of Polish preparations for the Euro 2012 football tournament.
Stakeholders can be merciless—and noisy—if it looks like a megaevent team is faltering. Publicizing key milestones met along the way not only quells criticism, but it helps teams stay on track. The sheer scope of megaevents makes that a daunting task; they often require massive build-outs of specialized facilities and extensive supporting infrastructure.
Megaevent project leaders must apply the same rigor that an organization would use to manage any megaproject, says Jorge A. Dueñas Lozano, project manager on the organizing committee of the 2011 Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico. In preparation for the event—which featured more than 6,000 athletes from 42 countries—Mr. Dueñas oversaw a portfolio of 18 programs, with up to 108 projects under each of them.
“You must have advanced project management coordination for this kind of event, so you know what's happening and where the money is to make sure every milestone is delivered on time,” Mr. Dueñas says. “Without effective project management, it would be chaos.”
And as the event date nears, the need for greater control and project oversight coordination increases, says Andrew Binns, CIO of the 2012 Democratic National Convention Committee in Charlotte, North Carolina, USA. His work on the convention began 18 months before the 3 September kickoff. “At first, we just set a goal of general tasks and milestones,” he explains. “When we got to two months out, these items became much more specific and detailed.”
TRUST BUT VERIFY
Overseeing so many projects on such a rigid schedule can be hard, says Arnaldo Nardone, sales, marketing and convention director at the Radisson Hotel and Conference Center in Montevideo, Uruguay. “One of the biggest project management challenges for a megaevent is the logistics,” he says. “For large events, you may be managing a thousand people, all focused on different tasks and multiple venues.”
To stay on track, megavent leaders must delegate responsibilities and trust their team to deliver the needed results, whether that means negotiating hotel rates to meet the budget or tracking down 1,000 desks to accommodate an influx of conference attendees.
“While I oversee the entire operation, I rely heavily on my team of deputy directors, project managers and help-desk managers,” Mr. Binns says, noting that collaboration between those groups is a cornerstone of the whole operation.
It's the only way to deal with the swirling mix of project requirements facing Mike Butz, senior managing director for open championships and association relations for the U.S. Golf Association (USGA), Far Hills, New Jersey, USA, as he manages the annual men's U.S. Open Championship. Planning for the next seven tournaments—each at a different venue—is in progress. “We've got projects in every planning stage, depending on when and where the events are taking place,” he says.
Separate teams are responsible for corporate hospitality sales and fulfillment; ticket sales, event promotions, logistics coordination and implementation; catering and concessions; and construction of the hundreds of temporary facilities required for each project. And depending on which event a group is working on, it might have thousands of tasks and goals to focus on.
“Every venue is different, but they all need to follow a specific time-frame,” he says. “We work backward from the event to make sure everything will be done on schedule.”
Megaevents, by their very nature, often take place in densely populated urban areas, adding a slew of public stakeholders to the mix. Local, state and federal government agencies and organizations may be involved in everything from transportation to security.
Michal Olszewski, PL.2012, Warsaw, Poland
PHOTO BY SYLWIA SZUDER
“WE GET ONE SHOT TO DO THE CONVENTION RIGHT, AND WE HAVE TO MAKE IT WORK IN FRONT OF THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE IN PERSON AND MILLIONS OF PEOPLE ON TELEVISION.”
—Andrew Binns, 2012 Democratic National Convention Committee, Charlotte, North Carolina, USA
Next year's U.S. Open, for example, is slated to be held just outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA, a crowded residential environment with limited spectator parking nearby. So the USGA plans to use remote parking lots at a stadium 15-20 minutes away, with shuttle and rail service to the course. Before the team agreed to the venue, it secured the support of the state and local governments, as well as police and transportation departments to manage traffic and transportation between the two sites.
Though such a commitment can be costly to the host city, hosting a megaevent can bring economic benefits. Following the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China, for example, the direct contribution of travel and tourism to GDP rose 6.4 percent, according to U.K. market intelligence firm Key Note. Those kind of numbers can be a powerful selling tool for the team as it works to convince city officials to pay for the additional staffing. “We have to make sure we have the right support locally, or it won't work,” Mr. Butz says.
In the run-up to the Pan Am Games, Mr. Dueñas' team met regularly with the governor of the state of Jalisco and leaders from the Pan American Sports Organization, which represents the Olympic committees of 42 North and Latin American nations.
The team also shared its plans with sports organizations around the world and received feedback from experts who'd managed similar projects in the past. “As we designed our stadiums, they gave us advice on key needs and design techniques,” he says.
THE BEST LAID PLANS…
There are no second chances on megaevents. “We get one shot to do the convention right, and we have to make it work in front of thousands of people in person and millions of people on television,” Mr. Binns says.
That means securing a backup for every piece of equipment so all presentations at the conference can be delivered on schedule, regardless of technical glitches.
At the 2012 Democratic National Convention, that meant moving President Barack Obama's speech indoors due to weather concerns.
At the U.S. Open, it means developing backup plans, including a precise way how to move as many as 60,000 players, officials and spectators out of harm's way in case of severe weather.
And at the Radisson, it means thinking outside the box in the face of an unusual crisis. Two days before the kickoff of the 2011 meetings industry trade show FIEXPO Latin America in Punta del Este, Uruguay, the Puyehue volcano erupted. The resulting ash cloud shut down airports across South America and stranded thousands of participants in other cities.
Rather than cancel the conference, Mr. Nardone's team bought more than a hundred ferry tickets for participants traveling from Argentina.
About 100 people remained stuck in Brazil, which was too far away for busing, so the team set up a virtual event at a local hotel. It also arranged for a local event coordinator to launch a series of networking activities so the Brazilians still felt like they were a part of the event.
“You can't give up when things like that happen,” he says. “You have to do what you can to solve the problem, and if you have a really strong team you will find solutions.”
SECURING THE LEGACY
The project isn't over when the event ends and all the attendees go home. Planners still have a lot of work to do, measuring the results of their efforts and recording lessons learned for the next time around, notes Mr. Binns. His team will write extensive exit memos for the next planning team, and his group created an archiving system to give the 2016 convention team access to all of their project documents.
“Make sure you are flexible when you need to be,” he advises, “but know that you can—and you must—put your foot down when necessary.”
In London, the Olympic Delivery Authority worked to capture lessons learned and document best practices as a way to help the construction industry in the United Kingdom. The organization created a website with reports, tools and templates, and case studies in 10 construction-related areas, including project and program management.
Those efforts help ensure that long after the last attendee has gone home, megaevents leave a lasting legacy on the local—and project—landscape. PM
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