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7 Event Management Lessons from the 2009 Presidential Inauguration

Posted on January 8, 2017 at 9:40 AM

On January 20, 2017, the city of Washington DC will host the most sacred ceremony in the US democracy - the peaceful transition of power from onepresident to another. The last transition in 2009 attracted an estimated 1.8 million spectators from around the country. At about 3x the population of the city of Washington DC, it was the largest crowd in DC history, and probably the largest in US history. Through extraordinary preparation and heroic work by law enforcement, fire, EMS, transportation, National Guard and others, it turned out to be a shining moment for the city instead of a crowd management disaster. In my job working for DC Mayor Fenty, I was fortunate enough to have a front row seat for those preparations. Here are the 5 lessons in event management I learned from that experience.

 

Question Assumptions - DC hosts presidential inaugurations every year, so it has a tested roadmap on how to do it. For this one, however, we threw out the old assumptions about typical crowd size, which had reliably been between 250,000-500,000 every time. We saw the examples of the abnormally large crowds at other campaign events that season as a wake up call that the crowd size this time would be different. Whenever we took out a part of the existing plans, we questioned whether that would still work under a much larger assumed crowd size.

Test Rumors - We started hearing rumors that thousands of charter busses were going to be rented to bring people to the inauguration – or up to 10 times as many as usually come to a huge assembly on the Mall. If true, it was a major curve ball that would impact much of the rest of the planning. Before we changed everything, we sent a SurveyMonkey email out to all of the charter bus companies east of the Mississippi River to see if the rumors were true. Sure enough, thousands replied that they were coming and were planning on parking in their favorite shady spot right on the Mall that they use whenever they come. The rumors were true and we had a serious problem because the road closures and security zones made bus parking a different game this time.

Define Success - If we didn’t figure something out, tens of thousands of Americans who traveled many hours on a bus to personally witness, maybe with their kid hoisted on their shoulders, an event they never thought they would see in their lifetime, would have been stuck in a massive bus traffic jam, probably not even able to stop and see it on television. We didn’t know how we would get those folks to the event, but we knew failure was not an option. Success was getting each and every visitor safely to the event and back on their bus headed home. To achieve that, we would have to ask extraordinary efforts by a lot of folks, so we used that picture to help communicate the need.

Boil Down the Problem - Because the traditional way was off the table, we had to restart from square one. We broke down the big problem into the pieces we needed to solve. At its core we needed to find a solution that met three needs: 1) a space where every bus could stop to unload their customers, 2) that space needed to be next to a transportation option that would get people to the Mall, and 3) each bus would need to be at an exact pre-arranged point and time at the end of the event so its passengers could find their right bus. That last one was a tough one when you think about tens of thousands of people finding their exact bus out of hundreds of busses. People could easily hop on the wrong bus and end up in a very different place than they started from.

Brainstorm Solutions - Once we boiled it down to that, we were able to brainstorm a bunch of different ideas, including some pretty wild ones. Then we figured out the only way that would meet all three needs that was maybe the most radical – closing down hundreds of blocks of downtown DC streets to turn them into temporary bus parking lots within walking distance of the Mall. Instead of finding more subway trains, shuttle busses or other means of transport for the last mile to the event, the answer was much simpler - we had to have people transport themselves.

 

Ask for Help - Once we came up with the plan for the busses, we knew we couldn't get it done with the resources we had, since the local agencies were already maxed out taking care of all the other things to prepare for inauguration crowds. We ended up deploying the National Guard to close down the downtown streets to turn them into temporary bus parking lots. We then enlisted hundreds of citizen volunteers to stand in the dark cold wee hours of that morning to guide buses to their parking spots and give the passengers a map of where their bus was parked. It was a massive effort.

Coordinate Execution at the Top - To ensure all the preparations were coordinated and on track, the mayor held 10 CapStat sessions over the months on the topic of inauguration readiness. Each CapStat session was kind of like a Cabinet meeting with the heads of the relevant agencies around the same table looking at the key information the CapStat team of analysts gathered from them to track progress, and the mayor asking questions and giving orders. By having all the principals in one spot looking at the same data, problem-solving, decision-making and accountability were fast-tracked and avoided getting lost in normal bureaucratic communication channels.

From all this preparation, the story that day was about a successful and peaceful transition of presidential power, and not about bad things that can happen when massive crowds gather in confined spaces. We counted 3000+ buses that pre-registered to park in our temporary lots that day, representing 150,000 passengers, with more likely showing up un-registered. While there were hiccups elsewhere that day, not a single person who came in on a charter bus got turned away, got left behind or went on the wrong bus.

Categories: Crisis Management, Project Management, Operational Excellence