Managing In A Pandemic
Guest Feature: Ashley Brown
Ashley Brown has been in the industry for over 15 years in festival management and logistics. About three years ago, in addition to festival management, she started tour managing for electronic artist Deadmau5. With experience on both sides of the stage, Ashley has traveled worldwide on tour from Saudi Arabia to Australia and has worked in the live event industry in over 25 countries. In 2016, Ashley and her business partner started CSP (Chris Schroeder Productions) when they left their full-time jobs at React Presents. She has since enjoyed working on projects such as the Indianapolis 500 Concert Series (Carb & Legends Day + Snake Pit), Spring Awakening, Mamby on the Beach, Wakaan Music Festival, and KAABOO Del Mar, to name a few. As a jack of all trades, Ashley specializes in artist relations, ticketing, site operations management, accounting, and travel logistics.
It’s been a weird year. Shows look a little different than they used to, and our industry has been decimated. I have been lucky enough to be part of a new company during this trying time, At The Drive Inn (ATDI), with partners that I trust and appreciate, and who challenge me on a daily basis to become a better partner, manager, organizer, and person. Our company is made up of talent buyers, tour and logistics managers, and production directors that meld extremely well together, utilizing everyone’s individual strengths to become a very well-rounded team. We’ve been able to put people back to work and find a way to bring some sense of “normalcy” back to an uncertain, unprecedented time. Our first show began back in July with Big Gigantic & NGHTMRE, and since then we’ve branched across all genres with an artist lineup that included Billy Strings, Jeff Tweedy, Trampled by Turtles, Deadmau5, Quinn XCII & Chelsea Cutler, Adventure Club, Rezz, Ganja White Night, and Gramatik. We produced shows at two very different venues – from the traditional drive-in movie theatre in McHenry, IL to a blank-slate parking lot at SeatGeek Stadium just outside of Chicago.
Here are a few things I’ve learned over the past 23 drive-in shows we’ve produced since July:
Set the rules, and lead by example
2020 has been the year of rules – the good, bad, and ugly. If you want to survive (in more ways than one), it’s important to understand there will be some additional guidelines that we have never thought about, or even considered in the live event industry. Taking temperatures upon arrival at staff check-in? The new normal. Face masks at all times on-site, even if you’re more than 6 feet away from the nearest person? Required. Purchasing enough hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, and disposable masks to cover an army? Check. The first thing we do when arriving on-site is a check-in with our labor coordinator and COVID compliance officer, fill out a wellness form, and submit to a temperature check. Everyone does it – from the stagehands to the parking staff, to upper management. We were lucky with our team and patrons in Illinois, the state has had a mask mandate since early May and has actually been enforcing it. It’s been easy for us to follow these guidelines, and for our patrons to follow them because it’s become a way of life. Other markets aren’t so lucky. We had a “production only” contract at an event in Indiana recently, and it was quickly decided by the venue management team that mask enforcement was just not going to happen – they had to decide between altercations and fist-fights between guests and security or just allowing people in their parking spots to hangout uncovered. The most important thing we’ve done as ATDI is lead by example – if the guests see proper mask-wearing employees from the moment they enter the venue, to the moment of departure, it’s much easier to enforce.
Hire a team you trust, and that trusts you
It’s not a secret that margins are small with drive-ins – we don’t have concessions, there’s definitely no alcohol sales at the moment, and artists are working door deals the majority of the time. Department sizes are smaller, and managers are working with less staff than you would typically see at a similar event pre-pandemic. I have personally found success by surrounding myself with amazing leaders that don’t need to be micromanaged and are immediately ready to jump in and assist other departments the moment the flag is raised. Parking needed a few extra bodies? Our production manager is in the front row assisting until the rush has ended. Artist Hospitality has an urgent request and no runner available? The assistant event manager is in the car immediately to help. I am so grateful to have a team that asks, “what can I do?” instead of “that’s not my department.” Those types of personalities don’t last long around here – my favorite response when people ask what my title is would be “glorified trash picker-upper.” We are all so grateful and happy to be working, and it’s important to me to make sure our team feels empowered to make decisions and give advice and recommendations on how we can all continue to make events like this happen. Events look a bit different these days, but it still takes a small army to pull them off safely and professionally.
Make a schedule and stick to it – then prepare for the unexpected
The best piece of advice I received was from my father, who happens to have run an arena for the past 33 years. He said “just remember, there’s always going to be some things out of your control. You can plan for days, weeks, months, and years but something will happen that you can’t control – and how you react to it will be the deciding factor.” I live by schedules, my team knows my day sheets are always on point, my favorite line is “have you checked Master Tour?” and even though I may repeat myself a million times, there’s always a reason behind talking through timing out loud. The biggest tip I have for anyone tackling a drive-in (or any event for that matter) is build in extra time. We ALWAYS open up gates at least 30 minutes early before posted door time. Fans are used to camping car searches that take hours to get in, and they want the best spot possible, so they are going to arrive early. Your local municipality and traffic management team will be very appreciative if you can get ahead of the 300 cars showing up at the same time, blocking intersections, and snarling the neighborhood area. Also, be prepared to change the schedule on the fly – the weather in the Midwest can be extremely unpredictable - the wind, thunderstorms, or even hurricane remnants can impact your show quickly. We’ve had to put headlining artists on early to ensure the safety of the artist AND the crowd. Build-in wiggle room.
Always be willing to improve and change as you learn what works and what doesn’t
My favorite saying is – “if we aren’t getting any better and learning from each event, then what are we even doing?” You’re not always going to get it right the first time, especially in a climate where mandates, advisories, health guidelines, etc are changing on a daily basis. It’s important to be flexible, be open, take a look at what your partners and other markets are doing, and adjust accordingly. We actually had an artist camp come through early on and recommend wristbanding our first four to five rows of patrons to allow for additional accountability when fans start wandering from car to car during the show. We implemented this immediately, and our social distance team managers told me it was a game-changer on crowd management, and the patron disposition when we needed to do “wristband checks” with security. The front row guests appreciated the extra attention since they paid a premium to be there, and our security and Social Distance Ambassadors (SDA) loved having an easy way to identify sections and hold guests accountable. We’re still making tweaks every show – and I love that we are becoming a well-oiled machine, but the key is to stay oiled, and not get stuck in old ways.
Overall, we had a great first season as a drive-in company navigating the “new normal” and producing safe, quality events for a variety of fans. We are already looking forward to Spring 2021, even with the headlines of the vaccine nearing completion, the realist inside of me understands that concerts will not return immediately to the standing room only events everyone knows and loves. Being able to think on your toes, make changes in real-time, and stay up-to-date with CDC and government guidelines is going to quickly identify the companies that are able to survive in these tough times. I will not lie to you, it takes about ten times more effort to put on a show these days, and nine out of ten times you won’t be successful, but staying the course and understanding how important it is to put people back to work at the end of the day makes it all worthwhile.