Precautionary Steps Ease Last-Minute Event Changes
By Selena Chavis
In 2008 and 2009, the U.S. Open faced the same challenge—rain. And both years US Tennis Association (USTA) event planners were forced to make tough decisions about how to complete its women’s and men’s semi-final and finals events.
Not an easy task, said Danny Zausner, managing director of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, N.Y., pointing to the scale of the event on all levels. “Due to the rain, three events (men’s semi-finals, women’s finals, and men’s finals) were postponed,” he said. “The ultimate goal is to play the finals on the final’s weekend…when it rains like that, you can’t play tennis.”
Each of the events had to be moved up a day, and while that may not seem such a major delay, it can potentially have damaging effects on attendance, media coverage and players’ schedules. Zausner pointed to the fact that thousands of ticket holders had to change their schedules, and broadcast partners had to determine if they could still run the event during the new time. Also a major consideration was how sponsors would respond. Zausner noted that “much like all of our partners, [sponsors] are understanding of the fact that this is completely out of our control.”
In this case, broadcast partner CBS was unable to reschedule the women’s finals at the new time, but ESPN came through. Spectator numbers fortunately stayed strong for the event despite the changes, he said. “The crowds were identical to the ‘07, ‘06 and ‘05 numbers. I think it says a lot about the tennis patron.”
While the TV viewers for the U.S. Open remained strong, last-minute major changes to an event can be a planner’s worst nightmare. So much work goes into dotting all the I’s and crossing all the T’s to pull off a successful event that the entire effort can end in complete disarray when faced with circumstances beyond control. “We hurt more for the volunteers than anyone else,” said Randy Watkins, tournament director with PGA Tour (Professional Golf Association) Viking Classic, an event that had to be cancelled this past November due to weather. “They travel around the country to just come and help.”
When it comes to sporting events, weather is often the culprit, but other things also play into the need for effective contingency planning. Safety of participants was a major factor in the cancellation of day two at the BASS Northern Open in September 2009. Unsafe weather conditions including high winds resulted in rough waters at first light—a northeast wind at 15 to 20 knots—prompting tournament officials to keep competitors from launching. The decision was made in the best interest of all concerned, according to BASS spokesman Doug Grassian.
“With a fishing tournament, you are constantly worried about the weather. While BASS anglers are used to competing in tough conditions, the safety of the anglers is BASS’ first priority,” he said, noting that the organization errs on the side of caution. “We are put in this situation occasionally, so we have a contingency plan in place if there is a possibility that the weather will affect our competition. In this particular instance, we shortened the event to a two-day tournament.”
Planners emphasized that even the best-laid contingency plans have to be tweaked to fit particular circumstances, including such unpredictable factors as security risks, compromised safety of attendees, traffic and venue scheduling conflicts. “With our sport, clearly weather conditions are something that needs to be addressed. But a good contingency plan should expect the unexpected and have guidelines to follow in these extreme cases,” Grassian said. “Without a clear plan of action, there tends to be a lot of scrambling, which leads to careless mistakes.”
Effectively communicating all courses of action to appropriate stakeholders is at the forefront of most contingency planning, according to industry professionals. Watkins said that when the decision was made to cancel the PGA Tour Viking Classic, communication was the first step, and it occurred in phases. “The first piece of information went to the tour headquarters. Then the players were informed,” he said. “As soon as players were told, we immediately had a press conference stating the decision to cancel the tournament. Then it was up to me to notify sponsors and spread the word of the events that would still happen.”
The decision to cancel the tournament did not come easy, Watkins said, pointing out that the tournament committee had no choice because a “perfect storm” of rain over a three-week period left the course unplayable. Physically moving the event from the Annandale Golf Club in Mississippi or rescheduling players for the next week also proved impossible. “These are the best players in the world,” he said. “The golf course has got to be playable for them. We reviewed every option, and ultimately, it was impossible.”
One of the redeeming qualities of the PGA Tour Viking Classic for sponsors and spectators was the fact that it involved more than just the golf tournament. Celebrity chef demonstrations were still held and well attended all through the weekend, Watkins said. “Our event is uniquely different in that we have skilled professionals who come and entertain our fans. That’s an important contingency because our event is not totally dependent on golf,” he said, adding that the Viking hospitality arena was full each night from Thursday to Sunday. “We still were fully engaged in our week, and our fans and sponsors still had something to look forward to. A question every planner should consider is, ‘Can I offer additional events that are not weather dependent?’”
The fact that the events still occurred through the weekend was key to the tournament not losing all of its sponsorship dollars, Watkins said. Another important factor revolved around the contract to play the tournament in the same place again next year. Watkins said a credit toward the 2010 event will be offered to all sponsors, depending on their sponsorship level and what they received. “I intend to do a one-on-one with each sponsor, which will be an overwhelming task for me…but it’s crucial,” he said. “If this had been the final year of the contract, it would have been much more difficult. This event is so important to our area. The message we deliver is so important.”