How to navigate bureaucracy when planning an event in a public venue
When the BIO 2005 annual convention held an event at the Philadelphia Museum of Art that spilled down the steps and into the plaza in front of the facility, the meeting planner not only had to work with the museum's special-events department, but also had to coordinate with the special-events department of the Fairmont Park Commission. And the city's Special Events Committee also needed to approve the event and issue permits.
Events in public venues can add excitement to a conference, but they can mean extra work for planners — pulling permits, cooperating with what can sometimes be a maze of public agencies, and ensuring that the event follows city regulations.
“The process can be like the case of the hundred blocked doors,” says Dusty Rhodes, president and founder of Conventures Inc., a Boston-based special-events company that organizes events nationwide. “You not only have to unlock all the doors, but you have to do it in the right order.”
Where does a planner start? A destination management company or event production company is the obvious choice. “In many municipalities, it helps to have an experienced navigator,” says Rhodes. “You can't just walk in and ask for the list of permits, because it can be sequential. For example, you might not be able to get an occupancy permit until you get the assembly permit.”
For smaller, less complicated events, a convention and visitors bureau can be a great help. “We'll hold a planner's hand as much as possible and guide them to the appropriate person,” says Philomena Petro, CMP, vice president of convention services for the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We'll also do the initial legwork and lay the groundwork for introductions to the right people.” Those introductions can be a great time-saver, as it's not always obvious what entity governs the venue.
One of the keys to creating a successful event in a public space is to have some flexibility during the planning stages, especially when a band or other entertainment is involved. Many public spaces, especially parks, have set closing times that cannot be adjusted. At other times, there can be restrictions on sound.
Sound and time restrictions can come into play even before the event. In Boston, for example, Julie Burns, director of arts, tourism, and special events for the city, says sound checks for evening events at City Hall Plaza can be an issue because “people are working in City Hall and the surrounding financial district. Sound checks are too loud for the middle of the work day.” In that case, a sound check can either be done right before the event, a risky proposition, or the night before the actual event, which could involve additional fees.
Expect the Unexpected
What else might planners encounter? In New Orleans, Mary Beth Romig, spokeswoman for the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau, says that groups in the French Quarter have sometimes encountered film crews that already have plans to be on the street where they want to hold an event.
An outdoor function can be subject to the whims of other city agencies. That's what happened when Katie Rogers, director of sales for event production company Eventworks, Los Angeles, planned an escorted walk for a group from its hotel to a nearby function center. Shortly before the event, “the city started tearing up the road,” she says. “We scrambled and got permission to cover the roadworks with burlap and create a natural barrier between the road and where the attendees were walking. But we couldn't do it until the night before, and obviously that cost money that wasn't originally budgeted.”
Most importantly, planners need to be cognizant that public spaces remain public, even when a group is holding a function. “Even though they have a permit and have the space set aside, they are still in the public realm,” says Burns. “People will be walking by, there could be bystanders who stop to watch, and there might even be people who are commenting on the event.”
Count on More Fees
Meeting planners may also encounter fees to use a public space. Liability insurance is a given, and security deposits or usage fees are not uncommon. On top of that, there can be fees for the extra city support personnel that may be required.
“There are assessment fees based on how much support the city will need to handle this activity,” says Robert Hulsmeyer, senior partner of New York-based Empire Force Events Inc. “When you submit an application, they take the permit request form and forward it to the police; fire, sanitation, and building departments; and so on. If police or barricades are needed, for example, the city will bill you for that.”
Organizations might also have to pay for any damage or potential damage to a site. “If you have a meeting of 400 people outside and they tromp on the grass, the planner could be hit with the fees for aeration and reseeding to take care of the lawn,” says Rhodes.
In some cities, there may be fees for signage for sponsors. “If you have three pharmaceutical companies that each want to put up a banner, some public agencies will look to get a tax or a fee from those entities for putting up the banners,” she says.
What do all these fees add up to? They could be as minimal as $25 for a simple permit, to hundreds and even thousands of dollars for additional police security or to reroute traffic, fire department presence, security deposits, sanitation workers to clean up after the event, etc.
Hulsmeyer cites one extreme example: To launch the movie Pocahontas in New York's Central Park in 1995, the Walt Disney Co. paid $1 million to the New York Department of Parks and Recreation.
While every city is different, booking a public space could require permits for these items.
Food and Beverage: A caterer typically handles these permits.
Alcohol: Rules vary depending on the location of the event and the city. In New Orleans, anyone can carry a beverage outside in an open plastic container, which is not the case in many cities.
Street or Sidewalk Closing: A permit is always required if any or all of a street or sidewalk is going to be closed. Even if the event itself is not taking place in the street, setup sometimes requires permits for partial street closures when large trucks are needed.
Patrick Sullivan, president of PRA Destination Management, New York, recalls an event where he did a red-carpet entry to a venue and his client didn't want attendees to have to walk between pedestrians to enter. “We had to get a permit to block off that part of the sidewalk and security to ensure that pedestrians didn't enter the area.” They wouldn't have needed a permit if they had allowed pedestrians to cross.
Staging, Tenting, and Scaffolding: Structures of any kind require permits from the building department.
Fire: Use of fire requires a permit from the fire department, whether it's a barbecue pit or fireworks over the water.
Sound: The police department is often the go-to for a permit for a band. A special permit is also often required from the fire department if a generator is used to power the band.