Raise The Roof And Get It Down

 

While launching our first ship, I was tasked with leading the build of a concert stage and roof for our fly-on act – 80’s New Wave icons ABC Band with Martin Fry.

 

Orchestrating the build of a stage and roof on land is a challenge in and of itself. Many elements come into play. You have to consider space and show needs, budget, safely rigging the structure, and the logistics of moving people and equipment to meet those demands in a typically very tight timeline. Now, imagine trying to accomplish all of those things on a brand new cruise ship launched by a brand new company in a foreign port during the tail-end of a pandemic.

 

I started by investigating the location of the concert and met with our local riggers as well as rigging consultants to see if we could raise a structure ourselves using points on the pool deck.  Unfortunately, the tie-offs couldn’t bear the weight leaving us with the only option of erecting a conventional truss structure and flying a roof with ballast support. This led to new challenges.  We couldn’t float safely with a temporary stage on deck 15 and we had no place to stow it at sea, so the roof needed to be loaded, built, derigged, and offloaded before we set sail. Getting the stage components to deck 15 posed its own challenge. Tight corridors and elevators that are just shy of 1M x 2M left us to cap components sizes, find an alternative to heavy stone ballasts and required a whole lot of travel through the vessel. This concerned our deck department who insisted that all parts be craned on and off to prevent damage to the interior of the ship.

 

Craning a stage onto a cruise ship.

Building a stage on a cruise ship.

Building a stage on a cruise ship.

Cruise ship concert with stage.

Craning a stage off a cruise ship

 

This raised new logistical challenges.  First, we had to investigate pushing the ship’s departure back with the captain, company, and port by at least four hours to meet our project timeline. For those that don’t know. This is not a rubber-stamp request as tides, weather, and port traffic all impact when ships can come and go from the dock. Second, we had to meet with the port agents and a local craning company to discuss crane positioning, the load, lift, and do a risk assessment. All of these items required a sign-off by the captain, company, port, stage, and crane companies before we could move forward.

 

As these clarences moved through their proper channels, other show logistical pieces needed to be handled. The transportation of backline gear to the port, to the ship at dock, through the provision door, and up to deck 15 before the show had unique challenges. We needed to create a timeline to connect those outside the ship (stevedores, port security, etc.) with those inside the vessel (clearance officer, hotel department, technicians, etc.) to move the items from land to the vessel. We then needed to get clearance for backline vehicles and drivers to enter the port and approach Scarlet Lady at the dock.

 

Further security clearance and COVID testing needed to be orchestrated for all individuals boarding the vessel including stage riggers, crane spotters, the band, and their entourage. Inside Scarlet, multiple departments were brought into the project. The deck department to assist with clearing the stage area, helping us protect the deck, filling and draining water ballasts, and roping off safe zones for craning. Security, the clearance officer, hotel department, and ship doctor were prepped for the arrival of local labor, and screening equipment being craned and forklifted onto the vessel. Catering and rider requirements were organized with food and beverage. Sailor Services and crew engagement were briefed on the project to make customers and crew aware of the day’s activities, itinerary changes, and safe areas during crane movement. Accounting was informed of cost centers for each piece of the build. Finally, the technical team briefed on the backline gear, stage set-up, and how to integrate their technical needs with onboard equipment.

 

Due to weather patterns, we didn’t receive the official “green light” to proceed until 24-hours before the concert date, but our teams were ready thanks to over-preparedness.  The crane was in place as the ship docked that morning. However, a miscommunication led to a two-hour delay in getting items lifted onto the ship. Despite this challenge, the build continued moving forward safely and on-the-fly schedule changes led to us falling only twenty minutes behind for our backline load goal and eventually one hour ahead for a completed soundcheck.

 

The show was great. The artists were happy, the organizers thrilled, and excited fans were jumping in the pool during the encore. However, with nowhere to go after the show cruise ship guests remained near the stage as the house lights came on. With time working against us, we went into crowd control mode. I asked FOH to turn off all music and to bring on the brightest white lights we had to demonstrate the show as over to lingering fans. I then used polite, yet assertive, communication to push patrons close to the stage back as technicians roped off the area to create a safe workspace for teardown.  The roofing company began embarking the vessel as local labor pushed road cases back down to the provisioning door. Within minutes, they began tearing down the stage as myself and the deck team roped off safe areas on Decks 16, 15, and 7 for crane operations. The entire derig operation was so efficient that we had craned off the last pieces of stage safely nearly two hours ahead of our load-out end time.

 

This 22 hour marathon day was nearly two months in the making and a huge team effort thanks to our Virgin Voyages team, our friends at the Portsmouth Port, CPS Staging, Imagine Cruising, the band, and their management teams. It was a remarkable undertaking for a new ship under a new brand operating in a foreign market and everyone should be proud of their contributions.  🤘

 

Could the Return to a Pre-Pandemic Concert Experience Take Longer Than We Think?

 

The increased speed of the vaccine rollout has given many in the live events industry an overly optimistic outlook regarding the swift return to pre-pandemic packed shows. The primary focus thus far has been on how venues need to adjust to “The New Normal” and if they can balance new health mandates against their already razor-thin margins. While the vaccine may relax some of these mandates and allow operators to increase capacity, it does not address the shift we may be facing in the macro-economic demand curve of live events.

 

In December of 2020, The Washington Post found nearly 12 million renters would owe an average of $5,850 in back rent and utilities by January of 2021. According to Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, that could equate to almost $70 billion in unpaid debt – “a painful amount that renters, landlords and utility companies will have to sort out.” The US government has been working to provide relief for this housing crisis. Just last week, newly elected US President Joe Biden extended the federal eviction moratorium, which is set to expire on Jan. 31, through at least March 31. In addition to this pause, US Congress had provided $25 billion in rental assistance through their December 2020 stimulus package with Biden asking for an additional $25 billion in his future bill.

 

These cash infusions will chip away at that growing $70 billion debt, but will ultimately come up short and relief will take time to trickle down to concert fans. Likely falling at a time when venues start to re-open at more profitable capacities. This “perfect storm” could leave venues across the country looking to pack their houses against a large portion of their consumer base conflicted over purchasing concert tickets or catching up on their physiological and safety needs. And as Maslow has taught us many will opt to catch up on those basic needs first.

 

This conflict is not a new phenomenon. There are always demographic segments facing the choice of want versus need. However, businesses usually adjust their marketing approach to capitalize on the segments free of that conflict. This is not the case today where a disproportionate percentage of the entire world population has been shaken by the economic impacts of the pandemic. This leaves venue owners to fight over a very small percentage with the necessary disposable income to fork-over.

 

How can concert promoters face this challenge?  First, it is imperative that the majors such as Live Nation, AEG, and NIVA begin to focus their lobbying efforts on getting that second $25 billion round of housing assistance passed. Without it, the suggested rental shortfall is just shy of $50 billion and growing. This would, in essence, double the time for the collective concert fan segment to catch-up on their basic needs and be able to regularly support live events. Second, the industry will have to accept that the supply/demand curve will shift when we return to operations. With fewer fans with adequate resources to attend shows, the only solution is to reduce the price of tickets. Promoters, suppliers, artists, and managers will have to work together to find that new equilibrium and then adjust as the consumer pool emerges from its COVID-catch-up. Ultimately, we will return to those pre-pandemic levels.  However, it is going to take time and compassion for concert fans to get there.

The Power of Queueing Theory for The Concert Venue

Photo by Krizjohn Rosales from Pexels

 

In a recent post, I stated: “5,000 plus people trying to enter through less than four security lines is a safety concern in my opinion.” I want to use this post to help explain that statement and why I believe it.

 

I am fascinated by the science of management and even though the business of rock and roll may seem anything but. Venue operations math can help us develop ways to enhance the concert experience for fans, artists, and venue owners. One of these concepts is through the use of queuing theory.

 

Queuing theory is the mathematical study of waiting lines or queues. The formula may appear complex. However, there are a number of calculators online that will help you get the answers you need without understanding some pretty heady math that looks something like this from Portland State University.

 

 

Let’s move past these formulas and focus on how this can apply to your concert venue operations.

 

Part of the concert customer’s experience is entering the venue. This includes driving to the property, finding parking, and then going through security to gain entrance to the facility. This last element (security screening and entering the facility) present a unique challenge in that the operations team must weigh the customer experience of waiting in line against the demands of the security team to properly vet each patron. Part of establishing that balance is pinpointing how many security lanes you need per: (1) the venue capacity; (2) the arrival rate of guests; (3) the average security screen time; and (4) the cost of “x” amount of lanes, which can include equipment, such as screeners, and personnel.

 

You could achieve these results by speculating but guessing wrong could impact your operations in a few ways. For instance, your fans would likely end up waiting in line too long if you are underequipped. This could lead to lost consumer confidence and ultimately dipping revenues as word spreads about this negative aspect of the fan experience you provide. On the other hand, over equipping can lead to increased overhead and less profitability for the venue. Another unsustainable outcome. Luckily, there is a baseline to be found for virtually any venue and it is attained through a queuing theory calculation.

 

Let’s say that your venue’s capacity is 5,000. You open doors two hours before the show and a VIP lane an hour before that. You also know that a good chunk of your fans do not make it in on time due to traffic, family emergencies, etc. Taken together, you can estimate it would take four hours for the bulk of your customers to get through the gates. Your security team ensures that they can vet the average patron in 45 seconds or less and your observations say they are correct. Let’s place this information into our online queuing theory calculator.

 

We start by selecting the M/M/C model for a single queue with “C” amount of servers. Next, we need to average the number of people coming in per hour. To keep things simple, we will stick with a discrete probability. This means that we just divide 5,000 people by four hours, which is 1,250 patrons coming through the gates per hour. That is highly unlikely, but at this point, we are just looking for a baseline. We can adjust per our observations at a later time.

 

Place 1,250 under Arrivals/ Hour, which is Lambda in the calculator. Since your security team estimated they can vet each person in 45 seconds, that equates to 80 patrons per hour. Place 80 under Services/Hour, which is Mu.

 

Now let’s pick security lanes. Place four under the Number of Servers (C) and click Calculate. You will receive the following warning. “The queues will tend to infinity as Lambda is greater or equal than 4 times Mu.” This is telling us that you do not have enough servers to operate efficiently. It is NOT telling you it can’t be done. Rather, it is saying that there will be a back-up of the line. Remember, we are looking for a balance between customer experience, safety, and cost from which to start our ops planning. Further trial and error by selecting servers reveal that the optimal number of lanes is 16 based on these variables. At this level, your customer would walk directly into one of those lanes and spend (on average) 1.782 minutes waiting in line and another 45 seconds being screened. For a total service time just shy of three minutes. That is where you find the best customer experience at the lowest operations cost for a safe entrance into your venue.

 

Remember, this is your starting point. It is not saying anything less than 16 lanes for this size venue will fail. Rather, it is telling us that any number of security screeners below that will lead to a back-up of your line. I used a more advanced Excel calculator to find the average time your customer would wait if you only had four open lanes and found it to be between 27 and 30 minutes. This gives us a window. At four lanes, your customer could wait a half hour to get in while 16 lanes could lead to a zero wait time for the majority of your guests.

 

It is now up to you and your team to determine the balance between how long you want those customers to wait against the cost and logistics of adding more lanes. To do this you must take into account the price of additional screening stations (equipment and manpower) and if you have enough entrance points to accommodate their use. You could then analyze your open doors’ timeframe and how the line flows. Do more people come in at a certain time? Do you find that a large percentage of your clientele do not make it before the show? Finally, you could survey your customers about their experience. Did they have an issue waiting in line longer than 10, 15, 20, or 30 minutes? With this additional data, you are now more equipped to strike a balance between cost, customer experience, and the safety of your guests.

 

It all starts with queuing theory.

Don’t Overwhelm Venue Security with a Mismanaged Queue

 

Let’s face it.  We live in a radically different world where large groups have become targets for people with nefarious intent. As someone who not only works in live entertainment but spends his free time attending countless shows, I keep my head on a swivel around any crowd.  I watch for people demonstrating behaviors “outside the norm” such as loaners in places they shouldn’t be, excessive alpha-male behavior, and individuals who look extremely nervous or agitated. Once inside any venue, I seek out escape routes and tell my friends, where to meet, should we get separated if something happens.

 

One of the things that scare the hell out of me is when I watch ill-prepared operations teams mismanage patrons entering a venue. Here are a few examples I have witnessed in the past twelve months.

 

  • At one venue, patrons were let through security but the doors were not open yet. This led to a bottleneck between the security screening station and the doors. The team continued to push guests into this bottleneck, which led to the scanners misfiring. Rather than pausing the line, security screeners allowed patrons to enter without adequate checks in place.
  • At another concert, I walked through the metal detector. It went off and the person just looked at me and waved me through with no additional measures.
  • At a third show, I put all of my belongings inside my hat and placed the package in one of the plastic bins. A security guard simply looked down and slid my items through checkout without further analysis.

 

All of these situations shared a commonality – the entrance team was ill-prepared for the mass of people coming into the venue. Each team lacked one or more of the following elements: (1) not enough entrance lanes; (2) no senior team members directing employees on how to handle the influx; (3) employees capable of communicating to large masses of people; (4) improper queue set-up and direction. Let’s dive into each element.

 

Not enough entrance points: 5,000 plus people trying to enter through less than four security lines is a safety concern in my opinion. Even if your queues are properly set-up, your patrons informed of the security protocols ahead of time via email and social media, and your security team well trained. Employees get overwhelmed in these situations. I have yet to meet anyone who is 100% comfortable dealing with 5,000 people. Much less that many in the one to two hours before a show. When people get overwhelmed, they stop thinking rationally and the brain looks to reduce that pressure. This can lead to a bad decision to speed-up the vetting process and put everyone at risk.

 

No senior team members directing employees on how to handle the influx: The concert experience is best looked at in three phases – ingress, show, egress. Leadership must learn to allocate the proper amount of people for each phase. To do this, managers must be available to assess and allocate resources “on-the-fly.”

 

Employees who are capable of communicating to large masses of people: I see it time and time again. There are just one or two employees at the entrance of a show. They act reserved and operate from a “responsive” position waiting for customers to ask them questions. These individuals need to work from a mass-communication standpoint by proactively vocalizing to the crowd where the lanes start. Where the VIP entrance is. To have their tickets ready on their mobile devices, etc. When asked questions from confused guests, these employees need to be trained to answer quickly and efficiently so they can return to repeating the rules to the mass entering the facility.

 

Improper queue set-up and direction: If possible, queues should be set up as straight as possible. Try creating distance between the end of the queue and the screening area. You can do this by leaving space between the stanchions and the screener’s table or by adding a second table to create more space. This will craft a barrier between the queue and the screening personnel, help them feel less overwhelmed by the crowd, and mitigate scanner misfires. Signs for lane entrances should be placed overhead (about seven-plus feet) so guests can see where to go from a distance. Finally, your queue team should be proactive in directing people into open lanes to create efficient traffic flow.

 

Talk to your team after the show to understand what they felt what went right… what went wrong… and what could be done better for the next time. Take the extra time to speak with your security team. Find out if they felt overwhelmed and if they had adequate time to vet patrons entering the facility. Finally, survey your customers about their experience. You want both your employees and guests to feel safe and secure, so they can rock out with you for years to come.

Jousts, Right Hands, and Consumer Behavior

 

The following is a postulation I developed after attending a joust at a Renaissance Festival. I noticed something interesting about the crowd and their disproportionate nature at the venue. More data collection and analysis would be needed to prove my theories, but there may be an opportunity for venue owners to consider these two elements of social behavior.

 

The Most Important Revenue Driver for Your Venue – Ancillary Sales

 

Unlike ticket sales, which are fixed. Ancillary income can include multiple revenue streams and is only limited by your operations team’s imagination. In addition, ancillary income can help you keep the doors open and make money in less-than-ideal concert situations.