I was on the road April 9, driving up Highway 101 for the Santa Barbara (Calif.) Event Professionals' meeting. Those of you who saw the 2004 movie “Sideways” know how pretty this part of the world is, but I wasn't admiring the green hills and blue skies. Instead, I was listening to the radio, immersed in CNN's minute-by-minute reports on the Olympic torch relay in San Francisco.
The relay began in Olympia, Greece, on March 24 and has been in the headlines ever since. Although the relay was intended by Chinese officials to showcase the country's new prominence and prosperity, it has instead become a lightning rod for protestors angered at the country's policies. Activists think their best bet to draw attention to their causes comes with the relay, which runs through 21 cities before reaching China. Once inside China, the government media will censor such displays, observers predict.
On the relay's London leg, one protestor briefly grabbed the torch, and another shot a fire extinguisher at it. The next day in Paris, the torch had to be sheltered in a bus guarded by police on in-line skates.
It was in this superheated environment that the planners of the San Francisco leg of the relay did their work. And they did a great job.
Reacting quickly to what they saw in London and Paris only days before the torch arrived in the U.S., the San Francisco team — which included the mayor's office and the police department — developed several alternatives to the official route first publicized. In the end, the planners stayed with the original starting site — AT&T Park — but switched to one of the shorter routes. Despite the fact that demonstrators with cell phones could alert their counterparts throughout the city where the police escort was moving, planners managed to get the torch from the start to the airport, where it left for Argentina, without major incidents.
Of course, in situations like this, no one is happy — not China protestors, not China supporters and certainly not those who want the Olympics to be above politics. The best outcome is that nothing truly awful happens.
This all reminds me of a conversation I had a few months ago with veteran Australian event designer Lena Malouf, CSEP. She was pleased that the session she taught at The Special Event in January had gone well but noted that she'd spent many hours preparing for it.
Heaven knows we can't control every aspect of a special event. But an event's outcome is largely determined by the planning we do — or fail to do — before it ever starts.