When MinneapolismetroConnections decided on a M*A*S*H-themed reception, complete with cast lookalikes, tents — even a helicopter — Harriet Island in St. Paul fit the bill perfectly. “The building sits on the Mississippi River, so attendees have beautiful views of the river and the St. Paul skyline,” says Sam Thompson, metroConnections president.
Finding the site was the easy part; organizing the event meant that Thompson had to work through the St. Paul Park and Recreation Board, because the pavilion sits on public land. That meant pulling permits, cooperating with what can sometimes be a maze of public agencies, and ensuring that the event followed 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 needed 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 guide a planner through the process. “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 key, as it's not always obvious what entity governs the venue. In Philadelphia, for example, the Philadelphia Museum of Art is owned by the city of Philadelphia, but the museum has its own special events department with which a meeting planner can work. On the other hand, when SAP America held an event that spilled down the steps and into the plaza in front of the museum, it needed to work with the special events department of the Fairmont Park Commission. In that case, the city's Special Events Committee also needed to approve the event and issue permits.
Go With the Flow
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.
For example, Patrick Sullivan, president of PRA Destination Management, N.Y., and president-elect of the Society of Incentive & Travel Executives, worked with an automobile company that took over part of a street in New York's Greenwich Village and brought in vintage cars for attendees to view and take short tours in. The company also brought in food and beverage and live entertainment.
“But it had to be a little earlier in the evening than [the company] wanted,” he notes. “We had to be careful about noise because it was a residential street.”
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 events at City Hall Plaza can be an issue “because they typically want to do a sound check in the afternoon for an evening event, but 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 somewhat risky proposition, or the night before the actual event, which could involve additional fees.
What Can Go Wrong?
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, the result of a burgeoning film industry.
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 for a corporate group to take an escorted walk 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.”
What It Costs
Beyond needed permits, meeting planners might also encounter fees to use a public space that go beyond the ordinary fees associated with holding an event. Liability insurance is a given, and security deposits or usage fees are not uncommon. But on top of that, there can also be fees for the extra city support personnel that might be required.
“There are assessment fees based on how much support the city will need to handle the influx of this activity in its city,” 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 department, sanitation department, building department, and so on. If police or barricades are needed, for example, the city will bill you for that.”
Companies 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 might be hit with the fees for aeration and reseeding to take care of the lawn,” says Rhodes.
In some cities there might be fees for something as simple as 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, additional sanitation workers to clean up after the event, and so on.
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.
All Colors of Red Tape
While every city is different, booking a public space could require permits for the following:
Food and Beverage: A caterer typically handles these permits.
Alcohol: Rules vary dramatically 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 the opposite of 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 Desti-nation Management, N.Y., 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: Requires its own 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.