Help me be a better festival coordinator?
February 25, 2016 6:54 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for (a book? an app? an instructional video? tips & tricks?) to help me better manage priorities for my crew, artists, and volunteers during the hectic installation week for an arts festival. Am I looking for project management material? Or is there a different name for what I am seeking?

Every June I move to NM and help install a New Media Arts Festival. At this festival, my official title is 'Exhibitions Coordinator,' which essentially means that I make sure our incoming installation and performance artists have all of the resources they need to complete their installation in time to open. I also end up managing our volunteers as they come in and give them tasks.

What tends to happen is:
(1) An Artist comes in, wishes to use some equipment that is limited and requires a skilled operator (i.e., a scissor-lift), but we might have 2-5 other artists that day who also need to use said lift. I have to decide if we want to stick to the schedule our team established the day before, or address this need that has suddenly arisen.
(2) I have a good list of priorities for the day, but once everyone is here and working, other priorities pop up... I have to decide which are more important on the fly and move around resources accordingly.
(3) Similar to point #1, a piece of equipment or skilled worker is tied up with another project for artist-A. Artist-D has done all that (s)he can, and wants to know when they can use this equipment/person to be able to continue working on their installation. I have no way of telling them when this would be available; if they should go home, or if they should stick around.
(4) During install and de-install we are working 10+ hours a day to get things done. By the end of the day, I have made so many decisions I am physically and mentally drained and cannot accurately deal with any questions that may come up.

What I'm looking for are resources to help me better deal with these issues... but I'm not sure where to start looking! I've seen several books on festival management on Amazon, but these seem to be more textbook-based "what is a festival? How do you get funding for a festival? etc." and do not necessarily pertain to these skills that I am looking to hone. I've also looked into construction management since there are some similarities there, but again this does not really hit the mark for what I am looking for... any suggestions? Have you worked on a bug project like this and seen someone who had a good system in place?
posted by Rage-chel to Work & Money (4 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Hi, I have coordinated a lot of festivals.

1. Do you have an advance equipment request form for this? This would be a process, using a Google form or other web form, where you require all your exhibitors to submit their equipment needs by a specific date - a date which gives you plenty of planning time, say a month before the festival. Since presenters are often terrible about predicting their own needs, use a lot of leading questions - for instance, have a checklist of things they might need and ask them to check off what they require (forklift, power outlet, extension cord, objects wider than doors, audio/video, lighting, tables, chairs, tableclothes, etc - whatever you are equipped to provide). The form is a great communications tool that lets you spell out exactly what to expect and what you do/don't provide. Then you and your team can sort through the needs, make a floor layout and schedule, and stick to it. When someone (inevitably) arrives and says "but I need a forklift!" you can say "we didn't recieve that request on our form, but we'll put you on the punchlist for after our scheduled activities are completed and get to it if and when we can." Ideally you would task someone as Setup Coordinator and have them manage this entire process - review the forms, collate the needs, rent equipment, make schedules, and communicate with the artists as they load in.

2. I think that is just the nature of the job: plan for all you can, but leave space and staff in your schedule for the unpredicted. Delegate everything you can. If you can have a "last-minute-needs" right-hand person, or a gofer or runner, a lot of those pop-up things can be taken care of by them.

3. How about a system where you take their number and text them when it's ready? But really, improving your advance communication at load-in should help with this problem. In addition to that, perhaps you want a whiteboard/chalkboard station where you can see the roster of people waiting and the equipment operator/skilled person can write a time estimate for each project, and cross off when each is done. That way the artist can make their own decisions.

4. It really sounds like you are putting too much on yourself. As the director of a festival event, you should actually do your level best to delegate anything and everything you can. In a perfect event, the day of the event, the director should be able to float around taking stock and see that everything that needs done is already being done. of course there's no perfect event, but if you are having the experience of total depletion, it's likely you need more of a small personal army with people who you trust, and you have empowered, to make decisions. On Event Day, your time and attention should be reserved only for big decisions - emergencies, going to Plan B, large-scale failures. You should not be messing around with minutiae. Similarly, you say you greet volunteers and give them tasks. Don't do that. You need a volunteer coordinator. One of your volunteers can be a volunteer coordinator. Work with them in advance to make a task list, and ask them to pre-assign people to tasks, or develop a specific number of roles people can be slotted into (set-up, break-down, greeter, runner, green room, whatever).

5. To get better resources, try "event management" as your search term. It's an entire field and there's a lot out there about it. I am sorry I don't have a specific resource in mind, as I've learned most of this on the job, but there is a lot out there. Some of it is proprietary and some specific to conferences and business events, but you can find useful tools in any of those places and map them onto your event. Yes, it's a subset of project management, but obviously events have really specific needs that general business projects don't have, so you'll find more useful info going right for "event management."

Overall, I think you're facing what's essentially a leadership challenge. It sounds like you're trying to do everything, and you can't do everything. In your situation, in addition to designating a Volunteer Coordinator and a Setup Coordinator, I might suggest having someone on your team who's tasked as the Project Manager. This person's only job is to coordinate the project and make sure milestones are being met. The best way for them to manage that is with a Gantt chart. That chart should begin whenever your planning process begins - a year out, 6 mos. out, etc - and walk through every needed bit of the process piece by piece until load-out is over and followups done and a wash-up meeting held. It will help you understand where you're getting behind so you can fix it fast. Don't make yourself the manager of the chart - keeping you on task and schedule is something you can outsource to someone who just focuses on that, letting you focus on qualitiative issues and stop worrying about deadlines.

Ideally your small team of Volunteer, Setup and Project Manager could meet with you starting many months out to start planning how the event will run. This advance coordination is invaluable and will really raise your game and leave you all feeling less destroyed at the end.

If you don't have people right now you can see in those roles, start recruiting. This is a nice volunteer opportunity for students in production-related fields or digital media and for people who love being involved in events. Write actual short job descriptions for each role and put them out on Facebook, Craigslist, ListServs - make use of the event channels to reach an already-passionate community. Oddly, the more official and structured you are, the better and more dedicated people you get. I've observed that usually when event leaders are more laid-back and try to underplay the degree of responsibility in volunteer roles, they end up with less effective and more frustrated volunteers. Create a strong structure, and really good people will want to be part of it.

It sounds like an amazing festival. Good luck!
posted by Miko at 8:34 AM on February 25, 2016

Oh, one note to add on #1: at my last job I learned a great trick about advance setup request forms: include on the form a decent-length text box for a narrative about what the artist is planning. Just a prompt like "Please describe in as much detail as possible the installation you are planning and how you will interact with it." This tends to get the right-brainers to actually say what they are thinking of doing and often, we would catch needs they didn't list on the checklist.

So it might be a place someone says "I am bringing in a 50-inch touch table and will run my art piece on it from an HTML5 site." Oh! So, you need internet you say? They didn't say, but their narrative will help you catch it.
posted by Miko at 8:52 AM on February 25, 2016

I've been doing festival and event production for over ten years, and I am going to tell you to Stick To The Schedule. Last-minute requests, someone going over their time limit on a piece of You will drive yourself crazy. I know it's not fun to tell someone, "Hey, I know you're not done, but we have another person who needs that thing, and she's scheduled to use it now. I can book you with this thing at X time, when it will be available again." You should have a full day schedule for each piece of equipment, with built-in gaps to deal with the inevitable overages and unexpected needs.

This is a more a leadership-style thing, as well as a practice of establishing with the artists how things work at your festival. If they know that they can make last-minute requests and you scramble to accommodate, they will assume that it's ok do do so. So don't let it get to that point. Be firm and stick to what you know needs to happen so everything runs smoothly. I know that set-up and take-down can get chaotic, but having good practices in place will prevent things from spiraling totally out of control.

Also, if you are able, get an assistant. If being a whip-cracker is not your thing, find someone who is great at that to be the heavy. Having a good team is essential, as Miko says :)
posted by ananci at 9:55 AM on February 25, 2016

It is hilarious, broad satire, and about Canada, but it rings true. Geoff Berner's Festival Man is a rant about performers, managers, and the apocalyptic life of the folk festival circuit (in a country with state funding for such things.)
posted by zaelic at 3:37 AM on February 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

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