Barnstorming – Venues cater to political
crowds as candidates crisscross the country
Author: Pam Sherborne
Date: April 01,2008
At 6 a.m., on Feb. 8, there were only a smattering of people
waiting to get into KeyArena, Seattle, for Barack Obama’s
campaign rally that was to start at 12
noon.           
           
That seemed usual. There are always those that like to start early.
But, it wasn’t long before that “usual” became
totally
unusual.          
           
“I have been in this business for a long time and never have
I seen a crowd grow that fast and with that much excitement,”
said Alex Bennett, arena manager of events and operations.
“It was like U2 and the Rolling Stones all wrapped into
one.”
           
Between 9 and 11 a.m., tens of thousands of people lined up to see
the Democratic presidential candidate. Approximately 20,000 came
that morning. The arena has a seating capacity of
15,000.      
           
Across the country, presidential candidates have held rallies at
arenas, performing arts centers, fairs and stadiums. Not all
experienced the KeyArena phenomenon, but all faced challenges of
one kind or another. One common denominator faced by most was the
short notice they had to prepare. The lucky ones might have 10 days
notice; others just 24 hours.   
           
While most management personnel said these events are not
money-makers because they are free to the public, they do cover
their costs from rentals and the exposure can’t be
bought.     
           
Bennett said they had gotten word the Obama campaign may want to
visit the facility about a week or so out. By the time it was
firmed up, they had 48
hours.          
           
“So, you just do everything you can,” Bennett
said. 
           
When the lines started forming, they got very long, very fast.
Bennett found himself running, with radio in hand, to the end of
one line that was two miles long. It was crossing parking lots and
roadways. He finally found the end. He helped direct it so
attendees could actually find the entrance door. He communicated by
radio with other staffers who had also made mad dashes to
line’s end to
direct.          
           
“We have a 74-acre campus,” he said. “We had
students coming in for other events. It was very
hectic.   
           
“Then, when not everyone could get in, we ended up setting up
speakers outside and setting up TVs in different buildings,”
Bennett said. “At 10 a.m., I was calling to get a TV hooked
up. Then, Obama came out through a side door and addressed the
attendees standing outside. We didn’t even know he was going
to do
that.           
           
“But, everything was very successful,” he said.
“Everything went great.”   
           
Because of the early morning hour, concessions weren’t set
up. Bennett said they were selling water, “but I don’t
think anyone was prepared for the
crowds.”   
           
The staff at the Taco Bell Arena, Boise (Idaho) State, had a very
similar experience with Obama, except, said Micki Courtney, manager
of ticketing operations, they had a little more notice, about 10
days. But, they were told to expect about 8,000 on Feb. 2. They
ended up with 14,169, breaking an attendance record that had been
set by George Strait in January
2007.          
           
“We turned away about 3,500 people,” Courtney said.
“We were very surprised at the turn out. This is a very
conservative state. We didn’t think we would have this large
of a crowd. People started showing up at 5 a.m. The speech was at
8:30 a.m. It was a very cold, snowy
morning.”          
           
Courtney said their biggest challenge that morning was
reconfiguring the arena while people were flowing
inside. 
           
“We prepared a plan for reconfiguring the arena and knew that
we would need roughly half-an-hour to make the adjustment,”
Courtney said. “Our first concern was for patron safety while
we lowered the curtains. And, these are not your living room
curtains. We were also mindful of security issues inherent with
opening previously closed sections. These issues, coupled with the
logistical issues of opening the entire arena, sound, lighting,
patron services, etc., all required considerable forethought and
planning.”    
           
The biggest surprise was the overwhelming
response.           
           
“It was breaking new ground for us, that’s for
sure,” Courtney
said.           
           
Like the event in Seattle, it was not a ticketed event. Admission
was free to the public. There was some reserved seating for
volunteers, dignitaries, etc. There were no concessions set up,
again, because of the early morning hour. 
           
“I know we collected money somewhere because we did cover our
costs,” Courtney said.
           
Todd Nelson, assistant athletic director of event operations,
University of Wisconsin Kohl Center, Madison, also had a huge crowd
for his Obama rally on Feb. 13. The doors opened at 6 p.m., but
they also had lines forming on a very cold day. Attendance was
18,000, a sold out event. Concessions were set up and the building
did make
money.           
           
“The challenges were short notice on preparing, extra
security, handling all the media, etc.,” Nelson said.
“Overall, it was an extremely successful event that we were
glad to be a part of.”  
           
Carol Roberts-Spence, director of special events, Don Haskins
Center, El Paso, Texas, had about 24 hours to prepare her staff and
building for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, who ended up
drawing 12,000 there on Feb. 12. They had gotten a heads-up earlier
that it might happen.    
           
“We got confirmation at 9 p.m., on Sunday,”
Roberts-Spence said. “We were pretty much here from 9 p.m. on
that Sunday until she left at about 9 p.m. on
Tuesday.”  
           
They opened the building at 4 p.m. on Tuesday. Clinton’s
speech was preceded by speakers and
dancers.           
           
“It was interesting to see how Clinton’s campaign staff
worked with the Secret Service,” she said. “The
campaign wanted to it to look a certain way. The Secret Service was
just concerned about security. We had to move our 25-by-25 stage
literally three
times.”       
           
Susan Peterson, director of facility operations, Cobb Energy
Performing Arts Centre, Atlanta, had from Tuesday, Jan. 29 to Feb.
2 to prepare her building to host Republican presidential candidate
John McCain. The event started at 5:30, in the ballroom, with the
rally attendees gathering at 3 p.m.
           
“We got to see how many people our ballroom could hold with a
large stage and standing room only,” Peterson said. “We
maxed it out with 1,750. It was also opening night for the opera,
so our biggest challenge was keeping the opera happy with their
guests arriving at the same time the rally was finishing. They had
20-plus satellite trucks on our
property.”         
           
The staff at Park Place, Iowa Falls, found out on March 7 they
needed to serve soup to 400 when a John McCain public rally landed
at their facility on March 16.     
           
“Doing soup for 400 is not easy,” said Bridget Bryson,
sales and marketing manager. “We set it up as a buffet.
People started coming in about 10 a.m. and we put the soup out at
about 10:45. The program started at 12 noon.”
           
The room has a capacity of 800 when standing, theater-style. There
were some tables with chairs in the area where the buffet was being
served. They served tomato basil soup, wild rice and chicken soup,
and minestrone. 
           
“What impressed me was how professional his staff was,”
Bryson said. “They had very good coordination with timing.
They are a machine and very
professional.”      
           
The event wasn’t really a big money-maker for her building,
but the television exposure was great. Plus, she said, they brought
people into the building who had never been there. Her building
received other calls from other campaigns, including John Edwards,
Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.   
           
“But, we are a high-end facility,” Bryson said.
“We did suggest some other community buildings they might
want to call.”
 

Interviewed for this story: Todd Nelson, (608) 265-4133; Micki
Courtney, (208) 426-1390; Carol Roberts-Spence, (915) 747-5265;
Bridget Bryson, (319) 277-1255; Susan Peterson, (770) 916-2807;
Alex Bennett, (206) 684-7200