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ALL-HANDS-ON-DECK

BY KELLI GUSTAFSON

Neu·ron /ˈn(y)o͝orän/ Noun : a basic nerve cell that builds the nervous system and transmits information throughout the body.  

Just like a neuron sending and receiving information throughout our body while calculating a response, the Event Command Centre is the cell that keeps Rogers Place pulsating. At only 120 square feet, this small space overlooks the bowl, with the ability to see every nook and cranny of the building - thanks in large part to closed-circuit television (CCTV).

Next time you're attending a game or concert at the newest hub for entertainment in downtown Edmonton, you may just spot the small glow on the Media Level that's emitting from the dozens of video screens illuminating this small, yet powerful room. 

Behind these screens sits a team vital to the successful operation of every event that takes place underneath the roof at the arena. Home to the Event Commander - a role often assumed by Rogers Place Director of Security Kevin Kobi and Assistant General Manager, Guest Experience and Events, Steinunn Parsons - the Event Command Centre operates based on the Incident Command System (ICS).

"ICS was developed in the 1970s following a series of wildfires in California," explained Kobi.

Recognizing that a deficiency in communication led to the downfall of deploying accessible resources efficiently and effectively, ICS was developed as a response. 

"ICS is a platform used primarily by emergency services, but it is also being used for things like the Olympics or other major events," said Kobi.

Facilitating on-site management, allowing information to 'flow-up' through the Event Command Centre, ICS provides large teams with the opportunity to organize an effective response for any given situation.

"Anytime there is a request in-venue, it comes up to Event Command and we dispatch it out. It allows us to be aware of an issue and allows us to determine the priority," said Kobi. "It's been tried and tested, it's been fine-tuned and it works. We've had a number of events where we were in a far better position to respond and deal with those events, rather than various departments acting in isolation."

"It is the heart of the building," added Parsons. "We have a big picture view of what's happening in every part of the building, so when we make decisions about incidents, we understand the full picture."

Although ICS is not as common among many venues, Kobi and Parsons were confident that bringing ICS to Rogers Place would allow for a smoother and safer operation of the venue.

And they were right. 

THE FLIP

Between Oilers games and Oil Kings games alone, there is a live event taking place at Rogers Place nearly every-other night of the week. With concerts on top of what can already be described as a tight schedule, Rogers Place has seen more than one million fans pass through its doors after opening a mere six months ago.

From ingress and egress, traffic, parking, fire code and safety regulations, to replacing a burnt-out lightbulb or fixing a broken chair, there are a lot of issues - both big and small - that must be monitored in and around the building on any given day. Furthermore, for each event that takes place at the new home of the orange and blue faithful, extensive planning and preparation must be conducted.

Parsons described the months of planning that went into the coordination of the nine Garth Brooks shows that were held at Rogers Place, over the course of only six days, as being all-encompassing.

"There was a lot of planning, lots of spreadsheets, lots of meetings and assigning responsibility, but also an 'all-hands-on-deck' approach," she said.  

Although NHL and WHL game days are conducted in a similar fashion as any other live event held at Rogers Place, some key differences go into organizing a concert. The first big difference being the ice - or lack thereof.

"The first thing we do is cover the ice," said Rogers Place Operations and Maintenance Manager, Kyle Lamkey.

Using fiberglass boards to insulate and ensure the NHL quality-ice is maintained, with refrigeration from below, the ice surface is completely covered in just under 75 minutes. 

"While they're putting the floor in, we can take away the retractable seating," explained Rogers Place Event Manager, Andrea Carroll Papirny.

With more than 16 years of experience in the Live Entertainment industry guiding her, Papirny stresses the importance of planning and utilizing time wisely.

In the case of Garth Brooks, the tour was expected to arrive a few short hours after the Oilers-Flyers game was wrapping up on the night of Thursday, February 16.

"There are lots of moving parts. There's the conversions crew, the housekeeping crew, and the food and beverage team," said Papirny. "Typically we allot six hours to convert from the ice to concert mode." 

Once Lamkey and his conversions crew finished installing the in-fill flooring, they turned their attention to removing the glass and dasher boards, which generally takes an additional hour-and-a-half.

"Typically, all of our conversions [from ice to concert mode] are about the same, but timelines change," said Lamkey. "This one was a little more challenging because [the tour] was going to roll their trucks up at 2:00 AM, and once the first truck arrives the pressure's on to give them the floor." 

With the Oilers game ending around 10:30 PM that night, many of the Rogers Place crew were just beginning their shifts.

"There are many variables that come with NHL games, like overtime. If there's overtime, how does that delay things?" Lamkey asked.

The answer is to over-prepare.   

"It's just planning," explained Lamkey. "You stage everything that needs to go out on the floor in the marshaling area and you try to keep it organized."

At approximately 2:30 AM on Friday, February 17, you would have found Papirny standing at the East Loading Dock inside Rogers Place, beaming with pride.

"We basically did what we normally do in six hours, in under four hours!" she grinned as she recalled those early hours on Friday morning. "By the time they were staging trucks (preparing trucks to unload), the concert floor was done, all the glass was removed and retractable seating was put away."

Next up is 'chalking'.

"Then they'll do an analysis of the building, check where the stage is going, get all their measurements and then they'll begin to chalk," said Papirny.

Chalking is the process where the Head Rigger from the tour begins to mark on the venue floor exactly where everything will be set up once it rolls off of the trucks.

With a total of 21 trucks rolling in for Garth's tour, some extra help is required on-location. This is where the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, or IATSE, come in.

"IATSE are our local support for stage hands," explained Papirny. "They help with unloading trucks, rigging, setting up, etc."

As most of the city was asleep, nearly 100 IATSE members and tour crew at Rogers Place worked throughout the night to prepare for what would soon become a historic - and banner-worthy - moment for the city of Edmonton. 


    

 

GARTHMANIA

With nine sold-out shows at Rogers Place, Garth Brooks completely shattered his Edmonton ticket sales record (previously set in 1996). 

"I'd love to tell you that this is typical, but this is unbelievable!" said the country music superstar.

His return to Edmonton after 21 years was unmistakably well-received.

The excitement was not limited to the fans attending his shows, but the entire city seemingly transformed during what had been fondly dubbed by many as 'Garthmania'.

From local TV news anchors singing renditions of "Friends in Low Places" to Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson declaring Friday, February 17, 2017 as "Garth Brooks Day," - while sporting a black cowboy hat befitting of the occasion - the entire city seemed to be celebrating Brooks' return.  

"The excitement from all our frontline staff has just been unreal," said Lamkey.

"This is really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us all," added Papirny. "We are so lucky as a team that we were able to have this experience and have him, after 21 years, come back to Edmonton."

But this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity also met Rogers Place with some new challenges that put the venue to the test. 

Although every event at Rogers Place can offer new situations or issues that arise, the biggest challenge during Garth Brooks was the turnover of the building in an extremely short timeframe during his double-show days.

"This is where coordination through Event Command was critical to our success," said Kobi.

The building not only had to plan and prepare to transition approximately 18,000 people out of the building, while bringing another 18,000 in, but they also needed to restock, clean and reset - all within 30 minutes.

"It was a really strong coordinated effort on behalf of the venue team," said Parsons. "Everyone had a responsibility, but everyone also helped each other out."

With eyes up in Event Command, it was all-hands-on-deck below.

"We had our General Manager helping to vacuum suites, we had our Director of Ticketing helping pick up garbage - it was true teamwork," smiled Parsons.

She added, "The first day [Saturday] we turned-over the building in just under 45 minutes and the second day [Sunday] was about 30 minutes. So we shaved a good 15 minutes off of our time. The tour told us that we were the fastest flip in any market they'd seen. Considering we've only been open for six months, that's a huge kudos to our team."

The venue surpassed this record on the following Saturday, with a turnover in just 25 minutes. 

Photo by: Andy Devlin / Edmonton Oilers

Papirny commented, "Not only did we continually meet the tour's expectations, but we exceeded them."

But while the team inside the building worked to restock and reset, another team was hard at work outside, coordinating egress and staging fans for ingress.

In order to open gates for the new fans arriving at the second show, the team had to be sure all the fans from the first show had exited the building. Furthermore, the venue partnered with Edmonton Police Services (EPS) to assist in coordinating the crowd, ensuring a smooth and organized transition took place.

"I planned for, at any given time, 30,000 people to be in and around our building during that transition period," said Kobi.

That's nearly the same amount of passengers that 82 Boeing 747s can carry.

"Based on the volume of people that we would have around Rogers Place, we knew we'd have to close 104 Ave," added Kobi. 

This is where the collaborative effort between the venue and EPS played an important role in the transition.

With a Police Commander operating from the Event Command Centre inside Rogers Place, the team was able to orchestrate crowd flow, utilizing 104 Ave as pedestrian laneways, while safely staging lines of fans to prepare for ingress.

"I met with EPS in the weeks leading up to the Garth Brooks shows and we developed a plan," explained Kobi. "It's critical that we work collaboratively to execute that plan. They can't execute that plan in isolation, nor can we."

While those up in Event Command are the eyes and the ears of the building - using CCTV to watch and radio to communicate - it is those who are on the ground that carry out the direction from above.

And on the ground is exactly where you will find Lamkey and Papriny's team.

If any issues or repairs around the building are reported up to Event Command, Lamkey will be notified and his team will deploy.

"In between shows we do a lot of chair repairs, so my team will deploy to fix those," he said. "We also do a reset of the 1,600 chairs on the floor, making sure we haven't infringed on any fire regulations."

With more than 16,000 bags of popcorn sold and 30,000 cans of Molson Canadian sold during the concert run, restocking was also something to be considered.

"They had overnight crews dealing with restocking because we had to keep up with the high demand, so all of our teams have to work together," said Papriny.

"Until you actually see it in motion, it's just a plan on a piece of paper," she added. "But it's everyone that we work with that puts that plan and that piece of paper to action - and we nailed it!"

Despite the stress of a tight schedule, it was still all smiles from the Rogers Place team.

"Everyone was happy," said Parsons. "Everyone was excited, and that's what made this successful!"

"I mean, he's Garth Brooks!" beamed Lamkey.

THAT'S A WRAP

From running around checking signage, to responding to the needs of guests and the tour, Papriny found herself taking a moment to soak it all in.

"I remember we were standing in the middle of the show for the start - partly because we want to make sure all the proper lights are off - and we're standing there and it's just this unreal feeling," she recalled. "With this many people, this much energy, this much craziness going on, it was just unreal."

For the Rogers Place team to see their months of planning and preparation finally come to fruition, they felt that their hard work had now paid off.

"Every single person that's come to the building, Garth Brooks fan or not, leaves saying 'wow,'" Lamkey observed.

"The one thing that's incredible about this show is there's no pyro. It's just a performer singing his songs," added Papriny. "And there's not a lot of people out there that can do it the way Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood do what they do."

But before the tour came to a close, Rogers Place left the country music superstar with an unforgettable send-off. 

During the show on Friday, February 24, Trisha interrupted her own set to invite Oilers Entertainment Group (OEG) CEO and Vice Chair Bob Nicholson, and Rogers Place General Manager Susan Darrington, up onto the stage. 

Thanking both Garth and Trisha for the incredible energy they brought to Rogers Place, Nicholson and Darrington revealed the newest banner to decorate the Rogers Place rafters - commemorating the nine sold-out concerts.

"That's awesome!" Garth said, overcome by emotion.

In a special video message from Wayne Gretzky, the Great One himself congratulated Garth and Trisha on their achievement.

The crowd erupted in an electrifying cheer as he added, "As you can tell, we have the greatest fans in Edmonton, and in Alberta!"

Even without the banner as a permanent reminder, fans and those involved in the success of the nine Garth Brooks shows at Rogers Place will not soon be forgetting the excitement created by 'Garthmania'.

"The relationship of Garth Brooks to Rogers Place will go down in history," said Papirny.

Whether you were a fan amongst the crowd at one of the Garth Brooks shows, or a fan anticipating an upcoming Oilers game, Rogers Place offers an unforgettable experience in more ways than one.  

"I think everyone has something they can look forward to," said Lamkey. "To see this building come alive, it's amazing."

As the tour wrapped and the last of the tour trucks drove off, Event Command finally fell silent.

However, not all was quiet, as a new Rogers Place crew was just beginning their shift - uncovering the ice, preparing for the next big event.