(De Facto) Job Description: Production Manager, Des Moines Arts Festival
Your job is to build a city that supports 200,000+ people.
You’ll have two days (and a limited budget) to bring in and set up electricity, water, communications, trash collection, ATMs, restrooms, and more. Build art galleries, restaurants, bars, entertainment venues, stores to sell merchandise, hospitality suites, offices, first aid stations, and more. Hire and manage security, construction workers, electricians, entertainers, sound technicians, food vendors, street cleaners, parking attendants, and more. Recruit and manage 1,300+ volunteers and over 30 non-profit organizations. Source suppliers for tents, banners, beer, wine, soda, water, ice, barricades, fencing, moving trucks, golf carts, radios, fireworks, and more. You’ll have to secure all the appropriate permissions, permits, licenses, as well as insurance coverage. Coordinate with local authorities, regulators, and the fire department to make sure you are in compliance will all city, county, and state regulations. All of this has to be orchestrated so that everyone has what they need, when they need it, or the whole thing could fall apart. This new city must be sustainable for three days while promoting an atmosphere conducive to purchasing fine art. Then you’ll have twelve hours to tear it all down and leave no trace that it was ever there.
If anything goes wrong, it’s your fault. If everything goes smoothly, you get to thank your volunteers.
Friday – January 17th, 8 a.m.
The Deep End of the Pool. It’s 6° outside and the sun broke past the horizon just 22 minutes ago. The sky is dark and the 2014 polar vortex is in full effect. But I have summer on my mind, the last weekend in June to be precise. It’s my first day on the job as Production Manager for the Des Moines Arts Festival, one of two full-time positions working on the event.
I’ve been handed a map encompassing seven square blocks of downtown Des Moines, a production timeline with a list of 960 tasks to accomplish, and a three-ring binder that has 6″ of paper crammed into its 5″ capacity. This production binder, affectionately (and perhaps sacrilegiously) nicknamed “The Bible,” contains the details of last year’s Festival. I have a very short window of time to digest all this information and produce a Festival that’s not only better than previous Festivals, but better than any other festival in the world. That last part is just my own personal goal, but hey, if you’re going to dream…
I quickly learn that, while I have many years of operations experience, a festival is a world unto its own. Every aspect of the event has to be recreated each year. And you only have one shot at getting it right. Most businesses have time to make a decision, implement a plan, and tweak it over a period of time to perfect the process. There’s no time to tweak during a three-day festival. Not until next year, anyway.
Tuesday – February 4th
High Hopes. Another unique aspect of a festival is that, since you essentially rebuild the event site each year, you have substantial control over what is brought onto and taken off the festival grounds. This presents an opportunity to implement sustainable practices into the event. Our Festival has previously incorporated some “green” practices into the event and even has two excellent volunteers acting as Chairs of the Sustainability Committee. The three of us began working with a group of students from Drake University in Des Moines to develop a comprehensive sustainability guide for our Festival. We will meet over lunch at a local Vietnamese restaurant every Tuesday until the end of the semester. I love Pho!
Wednesday – February 5th
Crossed Fingers. Professional artists will always be the cornerstone of the Des Moines Arts Festival, but live music is an important part of the weekend. Friday and Saturday nights draw large crowds to our main stage where national acts headline a full day of programming. Our Festival is completely free to attend, including these performances, but the crowds help generate revenue by quenching their thirst while watching the show. So it’s important for us to book the right bands and have them scheduled far enough in advance to effectively promote the shows.
We discuss potential headlining acts with our booking agent and agree upon a deadline of May 1st to have both nights booked. I’m told that we’ve had difficulty with the timeliness of our agent in the past, but I am assured this year will be different.
Tuesday – March 4th
Finding Good Talent. Cheap. Two interns have been working with us since the beginning of the year to help us get prepared. We start interviewing candidates for two more intern positions that open up in May. It’s a long and discouraging process, but we finally find two that are talented and, for a mere pittance, willing to work until their hands bleed.
Tuesday – March 25th
One of our two interns has decided that helping produce a Festival isn’t in her future after all. Great. Time to start interviewing again.
Wednesday – March 26th
A Little Nervous. I attend my first “Street Use” meeting at City Hall. This meeting is attended by members from the Des Moines Police Department, Fire Department, Parks & Recreation, Public Works, Traffic & Transportation, City Manager’s Office, and about half a dozen more officials from around the city. They are all looking at me. They want to hear my plan for shutting down the streets for five days. The answers I give will determine whether I get a thumbs up or thumbs down to close the streets. Everything seems to go well. Apparently I’ll know for sure sometime in June.
Saturday – March 29th
Inferno. The historic Younkers building, a downtown Des Moines landmark built in 1899, burns to the ground in the middle of the night. I happen to be in Chicago for the weekend and get the news via a text message. Why did someone bother to notify me? Because the smoldering pile of rubble that was once the beautiful Younkers building is adjacent to our office. And since the two buildings shared a wall and an open walkway, our building is off limits…indefinitely. Perfect. Everything I’ve accomplished during the past two-and-a-half months is either smoke damaged, water damaged, or both.
We move into a temporary office space the following Monday. It will take a few days to get computers and email up and running, but at least we have a place to work.
Thursday – April 10th
Office Grab. Because the safety of our previous office building is still uncertain, we are given ten minutes to race into the building and grab what we need. The whole time I feel like I’m in an episode of Supermarket Sweep, except that I’m wearing a hard hat and protective eyewear. I grab my files and last year’s production binder and head out. Only when I’m back outside do I remember the half-gallon of milk that’s still in the fridge under my desk. Gross.
Earlier that day I met with a Captain from the Des Moines Fire Department to discuss tent permits and fire regulations. While we’re talking, I’m also trying to figure out a way to get my two-year-old son a ride in a REAL FIRE ENGINE!
Thursday – April 17th
Vital Components. Our staff is very small, so we hire a group of strong and energetic workers to help out during the week of the event. This production crew transports items to and from our warehouse and office to the Festival grounds. They also help set up and tear down the event site and assist during the Festival where needed. I meet with the coordinator for this group and arrange to have a team available. This crew will be my go-to team during the Festival.
Tuesday – April 22nd
Our sustainability plans are moving along, albeit more slowly than I would like. It turns out that information is hard to come by regarding sustainable events in the US. On top of that, one of my Sustainability Chairs has moved to St. Louis.
To keep things moving along, I have several conversations and meetings with the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Natural Resources, local utility providers, waste management organizations, and several state and local groups dedicated to environmental concerns. I really feel that if I can make a difference at our event, then I can help educate other festivals and make a positive impact far greater than just three days at the end of June.
Thursday – May 1st
We have been meeting with our booking agent each week trying to secure headlining acts for Friday and Saturday nights. Today is the deadline. No acts are booked. Not even close.
The rest of the month is spent finalizing the details of the event and tying up loose ends.
Friday – June 13th
It’s two weeks before the Festival and we finally find out who our headlining acts will be. Not much time to promote the shows and drum up attendance, but we’ll make it work. We have to.
Friday – June 20th
Opening day of the Festival is in one week. I just got a notice that my street closure request has been approved. Whew!
My fortune cookie from lunch offers a reassuring message: “You are going to pass a difficult test.”
Saturday – June 21st
Mark the Site. The last Saturday before the Festival is spent marking out the event site. We take our site map, a 300′-long tape measure, a box of spray chalk, and mark out the location of every single structure that will be built for the Festival the following week. This is a long and tedious, but necessary, task. I start to get excited knowing that in six days, the streets will be completely transformed and tens of thousands of people will be walking around the site that I built. Hmmm. Actually, now I’m a little nervous.
Week of the Festival
Monday – June 23rd
Iowa Everglades. It’s been a wet June. We’ve had 7¼” of rain so far and we just got a little more yesterday. The chalk lines are still (mostly) visible, but the grassy areas of the site could use a solid week of sunshine to dry out. I don’t have a week. I have to start setting up tents in two days. And instead of sunshine, the forecast calls for thunderstorms at the end of the week. Some could be severe.
Wednesday – June 25th, 9 a.m.
Game On. The streets are closed and the Festival site is teeming with people building this, hanging that, and moving whatever. I will spend the next five days with the ear bud for my cell phone stuck in one ear and a speaker mic for a two-way radio by my other ear. Often I’ll be talking into both at the same time, answering questions and coordinating the build-out of the site. There are a lot of moving parts, but the load-in and initial setup goes fairly smoothly. Well, there was that one little incident involving one of my production crew members backing a 26′ Ryder truck into (and destroying) a fence. Oh, and I’m still waiting on some of my banners to be delivered.
Thursday – June 26th
Thunderstruck. With only two days to set up, every minute counts. But when there’s lightning all around, you have to make sure everyone is away from metal scaffolding and that the banner-hanging crew puts down the 10′-long lightning rods they’re carrying. Necessary measures, but that lost time further compresses an already tight timeline. When the lightning stops, everyone races out and tries to get as much done as possible before the next batch of storms comes through. This happens about five times throughout the day. By 11 p.m., everyone is soaking wet and tired. We all retreat to our hotel rooms three blocks away.
Friday – June 27th, 7 a.m.
Where Are My Banners? The Festival opens in four hours and we still have six hours of work to accomplish. Earlier this morning, thunderstorms dropped an inch of rain on the site and there’s a lot of standing water to clean up. After a quick on-site breakfast and production meeting with our staff, the production crew, and an amazing group of volunteers that make up our Event Management Team, everyone rushes to work and makes the impossible happen.
I get the rest of my banners about an hour before the Festival opens. We rush to get everything hung before crowds of eager festival-goers start to arrive.
By noon, food vendors are serving lunch to office workers from nearby buildings, artists are engaging with buyers, musicians are entertaining crowds on three stages, and I’m walking around the site wrapping up details and making sure each person has what they need. The Festival is in full swing and everyone seems to be smiling. I’m really proud of our team.
Friday – June 27th, 10:30 p.m.
The Best Laid Plans. Rain and foot traffic today, and over the past few days, has turned the grassy areas of the site into a muddy mess. We decide to shut down one entire section of the site due to safety concerns. This means abandoning one of our performance stages and cancelling all of the entertainers that were scheduled to perform. It also means relocating a handful of sponsor tents to other areas of the site. We head back to the hotel around midnight.
Saturday – June 28th, 7:30 a.m.
My 8 a.m. production meeting will have to be delayed. Turns out two separate television stations want interviews. I haven’t even had coffee yet, but somehow I manage to talk about the world-class art that shouldn’t be missed as well as the great lineup of music still to come. I’m even able to discuss some of the sustainable practices we implemented into the Festival.
Saturday – June 28th, 4 p.m.
Take Cover. Kansas is experiencing tornados and quarter-size hail. There are heavy rains with wind speeds of 55 MPH in Nebraska. And it’s coming our way. We decide to close the Festival for a few hours to let the storm pass.
Saturday – June 28th, 7 p.m.
After a three-hour onslaught of wind and rain, the entire team is scattered across the site opening tents and cleaning up pools of water. I turn around and see the streets once again full of people. The sun has broken through the clouds and there is an amazing, buoyant energy that seems to permeate the entire Festival grounds. And, as if on cue, the most beautiful rainbow I’ve ever seen appears high above us. It’s going to be a good evening.
Saturday – June 28th, 10 p.m.
Proud. I’m on the phone with my Fireworks crew. As the headlining band hits their final note, I give them the go-ahead to light up the sky. I look across the crowd and see thousands of people staring at the shimmering lights. At that one, defining moment, I let out a little smile and say to myself, “I did that.”
Radio silence is one of the best sounds during a festival. It means that everything is taken care of and there are no emergencies to attend to. But I break radio silence to thank everyone and to remind them to look around the site that has come together under some difficult and intense circumstances, “You did that.”
Sunday – June 29th, 7:30 a.m.
Lucky. I’m tired. Really tired. I’m driving to the site this morning because I may need my car to transport a few items back to our office. On the way, I turn south onto 6th Street—a one-way street heading north. As I round the corner, I see a city bus barreling towards me about 50′ away. A quick shift into reverse and an evasive maneuver back around the corner saves my life. I’m awake now.
Sunday – June 29th, 4 p.m.
Tear Down. There is a strong potential for rain, so the Festival closes an hour early allowing the artists to pack up their work and tents before everything gets wet. This gives me exactly 13 hours to tear down the site so the streets can reopen at 5 a.m. I assign responsibilities to my weather-worn but dedicated team, and we get to work.
Monday – June 30th, 5 a.m.
Late-Night Hitch. After a long night/morning of hauling everything off the site, the streets are clear and open for traffic at 5 a.m. There was one hiccup, however. A simple oversight at around 12:30 a.m. resulted in my production crew being locked out of our warehouse. The solution was to appropriate a nearby parking lot for temporary storage. This normally wouldn’t be a big problem—just transfer everything later in the morning when we can get back into the warehouse. But the forecast for today calls for torrential downpours accompanied by hail. Really? Because that’s exactly what we need right now.
Monday – June 30th, 2 p.m.
The forecast was right. Heavy rain and hail beat down on us mercilessly while we load the final items into the trucks. In all, we got almost 4″ of rain and hail over the course of the event.
Monday – June 30th, 4 p.m.
Release. The last piece of equipment was just picked up a short while ago and I am having a beer with one of my production guys. I feel beat up and utterly exhausted, but I’m finally able to relax. I get an unexpected hug from behind. It’s my wife. I completely break down in her arms.
Monday – September 29th
Recognition. Two months have passed since the Festival. We have been busy wrapping up details and preparing for the International Festival and Events Association (IFEA) Convention. I’ll be giving a presentation on sustainability to other festival and event professionals tomorrow morning. Among other things, I will be talking about how we reduced our landfill waste by nearly 30% this year. Maybe I can help change the world after all.
At the awards ceremony, the Des Moines Arts Festival wins the Gold Grand Pinnacle Award, our industry’s highest honor, recognizing outstanding festivals and events from around the world. There are a lot of great events. To be included among the top is a little overwhelming for me. I think back to everything I put into the Festival and everything it gave back to me. I can’t wait until next year.
Acknowledgement. The past 8½ months have been a physical and emotional roller coaster ride of successes and setbacks. There were certainly times when felt I was in over my head. But that’s when the only choice is to fight harder than ever to stay afloat. I continue to grow as a person and am forever changed by the challenges I overcome. To look back and see what’s been accomplished, it’s clear the struggles were worth it.
Not everything went right this year, and much of it was my fault. But a lot of things went as planned. In so many ways, I have our volunteers to thank for that. Without them, there would be no Festival.
I have been guilty in the past of asking the question, “What do you do the other 362 days of the year?” The simple answer is, “Prepare.” Prepare, so that during the three days of the Festival, all 200,000+ guests, artists, entertainers, volunteers, and sponsors have an amazing experience they hope will never end. And just maybe, if you can pull it off, you’ll be rewarded with the Best Festival in the World.
~ James Bruton