Rock and woe

I think it’s probably pretty clear by now that I have a little Maine bias. I love this state, and I love watching it grow and improve. But I’m also a realist; I know that not everything that happens in Maine is perfect. Unfortunately, yesterday’s Gentlemen of the Road stopover in Portland featuring Mumford & Sons was one of those less-than-perfect events.

If you find an attendee and ask what he thought of the show, you’ll likely hear that he either loved the show or was really fed up with the event. I’ve heard them both.

I think the disconnect there depends mostly on what the person you ask did at the festival. If she found a place on the lawn, didn’t move for a few hours, and enjoyed the music, there’s a good chance she had a wonderful time. If she had to get up for any reason – to fill a water bottle, to buy some food, to use the bathroom – the story will probably be a little less rosy. That’s the takeaway from the festival: the music was incredibly good, and everything else could use some improvement.

People, people, people

Gentlemen of the Road Portland, Maine stopoverThe biggest problem of the day was that there were too many people for the venue; it was physically difficult to move from one side of the Eastern Promenade to the other. Since this was the first show of its kind on the Prom, this may have simply been a misjudgment of capacity.

With the people came secondary issues, most notably of which were lines: lines to enter the beer area, lines for food, lines for water. One line stretched the length of the venue. Some friends and I were sitting near the end of the line, and this kind of conversation among people wasn’t uncommon:

“Is this the line for beer?”

“No, it’s the line for water.”

“I thought it was the line for pizza.”

Nobody knew.

Those determined enough to enter the line ultimately waited two hours or more to grab a bite to eat or to refill their water. On an 80-degree day in direct sun, that’s not only inconvenient; it’s dangerous.

Even the toilets were inadequate: within a couple hours into the nine-hour event, some of the portable toilets started to overflow.

Poor entry management was rampant, too, with a lot of confusion about what was and wasn’t allowed in the venue. Some people with children in strollers were turned away, for example, despite numerous strollers allowed into the festival grounds.

Finding solutions

Over the last decade I’ve helped plan a number of events to various degrees. Sure, none of them have been on the same scale as the stopover, but I’ve learned it’s difficult to make all the pieces work well in a large-scale event. It’s important to learn from what went wrong in order to make future events better.

First, the Prom can’t handle as many people as it held yesterday. It’s tough to tell organizers of an event to sell fewer tickets, but at a point capacity becomes a quality and safety concern. Fewer people would mean shorter lines, easier movement, and a better overall experience.

There also needs to be more organization throughout the festival. The festival’s attendee information encouraged attendees to bring a blanket, but this took up additional space and crowded the venue even more. If blankets are allowed in the future, there should be a designated lawn area back from the stage where blankets are allowed – and only standing (or blanket-free sitting) directly in front of the stages. There should also be people to help direct attendees into appropriate lines, and there should be more direction as to where lines should form and where general movement between sections of the venue should occur. Two hours to wait in line for food or water is unacceptable.

Perhaps most importantly, there need to be enough vendors and facilities to accomodate the crowd. There should have been more food, more water stations, and more toilets.

Finally, there should be a clear outline of what is and is not allowed in the festival. No one should receive special treatment.

The importance of a good show

The issues at the Gentlemen of the Road stopover show how difficult it is to run a large-scale festival. A half-dozen bands don’t just come together to play for an afternoon; there need to be near-flawless logistics to create a great experience for everyone.

But why is the experience important? Isn’t the music the main attraction?

A poorly-run show reflects poorly on the bands, and they deserve nothing less than the best. Every band at the show was incredible. The music sounded wonderful throughout the venue, and everyone genuinely seemed to enjoy the entertainment. It’s a shame that the rest of the experience tarnished the day for a number of people at the show.

It’s not just about Mumford & Sons, though. It’s about Maine. With events like Gentlemen of the Road, we have the opportunity to bring people to our state – many for the first time. We need to make the best impression we can to bring them back again and again.

If this were a person’s first event in Maine, they may walk away thinking that Maine can’t handle large shows. That’s simply not the case. We welcome a hundred thousand people every year to the Maine Lobster Festival and to the American Folk Festival, compared to the 15,000 at Gentlemen of the Road. We can do concerts, too; we’ve had a number of near-stopover-sized Waterfront Concerts shows in Bangor, and I very rarely hear complaints from attendees. They’re masterfully done.

We can do great shows and great events in Maine, and I hope Portland continues to hold shows on the Eastern Prom. It’s a beautiful venue, and done right, it could be the home for amazing events. But if the shows continue on the Prom, there need to be major changes to leave the best impression possible on those who choose to join us here.

August 5, 2012 at 4:32 pm
Hi! I'm Justin Russell. I'm a proud Mainer living in the Bangor area. Thanks for visiting! I'd love to hear your thoughts about this post in the comments below. If you'd like to stay in touch, you can subscribe to this blog's RSS feed or follow me at @justinrussell on Twitter.

Comments

  1. LyndsyAugust 5, 2012 at 5:08 pm

    Very well said! With every event, SOMEONE will complain, but the complaints I heard were mostly based around basic needs. I’m surprised there wasn’t at least one significant medical or security issue as a result of the poor access to food, water, and restrooms.

  2. Izze gAugust 5, 2012 at 6:40 pm

    I appreciate this review so much. My best friend and I traveled from California and new York to visit Portland and see the concert. The idea of the venue was brilliant… At 1pm when we got there. It was so difficult to move anywhere and had we not arrived and staked out a spot so early, we probably wouldn’t have had as great an experience as we did.

    I, personally, stood in line for two hours for food and almost didn’t want to bother getting another beer or going to the bathroom… I missed two bands’ performances while waiting for food and the girl in front of me passed out from exhaustion and low blood sugar. Granted, as soon as I had my food (which was delicious, and vegan friendly – thumbs up for that option) I forgot how unhappy I was for those two hours.

    I also agree that it’s not fair to point the finger at the bands. I hate the idea that forever I’ll want to say “the concert was amazing — flawless musicianship — but the lines were godawful.”

    Will I jump at the chance to return to the prom for another concert? Maybe for the view.

  3. AimeeAugust 6, 2012 at 12:33 am

    I went to GOTR, I got up, used the bathroom three times (never more than a 5 minute wait), got water (20 minute wait at 2:30pm), got beer (well, true confessions – hubby got the beer while I sat on the blanket ;-)….. and still sat on the grass, relaxed, and had a fantastic time.

    I have a child, and I wouldn’t try to drive a stroller on the grassy hill of the Prom on a normal day. Seriously you’re just asking for Battleship Potemkin. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battleship_Potemkin#The_Odessa_Steps_sequence)

    Maybe our great time was the result of realistic expectations and years of experience. I’ve been to a lot of large public events, and you have to anticipate your own needs. Don’t wait until you’re ready to pass out before you go for the FREE water (BTW, walking vendors were selling bottled water on the hill – you didn’t even have to get up for it if you wanted to pay $3); if you have low blood sugar, for goodness sake, go to the first aid tent; don’t wait until you’re about to pee your pants to go and use the potties (although at no time was the wait more than 3 people deep for the potties. I waited for the bathroom 10 times as long at the last Merrill Auditorium event I went to.)

    According to the Maine Sunday Telegram, there wasn’t a single concert-related emergency or incident requiring police.

    The people sitting just behind us were in their seventies, and they were delightfully cheerful all day. Wisdom & patience of the ages, I guess.

  4. JustinAugust 6, 2012 at 8:54 am

    Thanks for the comments, everyone!

    Izze: Hope you’ll head back here again. The Prom is definitely beautiful (well, most of Maine is, really!).

    Aimee: It’s great to hear you had a good time. I’m sure lots of people (probably most of the crowd) did, and I’m really glad that the festival was successful at that level.

    What you said makes sense, too: while walking around the grounds, I noticed that the filling stations for water were often not being used. I think that goes back to the point about line confusion; if there had been better direction – either by signage or by roving staff members – I think that two-hour wait could be cut down to 15 or 20 for a lot of people. And yes, I was really happy that there was free water! Great call by the organizers there.

    In the end, I think you’re right about realistic expectations; but I think we disagree on what those should be. For a $69 one-day festival that runs nine hours through lunch and dinner with no outside food or drink and no reentry, I don’t think there should ever need to be more than, say, a thirty-minute wait for food or drink. The walking vendors were a fantastic idea, and I’d love to see more of those in the future; they could sell everything from water to soda to wraps or fries.

    And again, I’d love to see Portland do more of these shows. It’s a great opportunity for the city and for fans of amazing bands. But I think it’s important to learn from a first attempt and improve from there.

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