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The Element of Surprise – A Humbling Teacher

by Menzie Pittman • in
  • November 2018
  • Small Business Matters
• Created: November 5, 2018

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When you embark on a new, creative undertaking, it’s possible that success may be your biggest downfall. It lulls you into a false sense of confidence, so when you say, “Yes, we have taken everything into consideration and we are prepared.” That is the time you need look no further than the weather to be quickly reminded that we are never truly prepared for the elements of surprise.

Too Big to Fail

The Pilgrimage Festival takes place every September just outside of Nashville in Franklin, Tennessee, and it celebrates the music and culture of the area. This year, Mother Nature provided this cultural celebration with the opportunity to recognize a few design flaws.

Historically, the organization of this event has seemed fluid; when problems have arisen they were addressed quickly and effectively. For example, last year the temperature broke the mid-nineties, putting the attendees at risk for various heat-related issues. Immediate steps were taken to increase the number of watering stations. That speedy decision promptly dispelled complaints and won great praise from the patrons.

Rain or Shine

Harlinsdale Farm Park – an old, respected horse farm, currently owned by the Town of Franklin – hosts Pilgrimage. In their fourth year, thanks to respected artists such as Justin Timberlake, the festival attendance had grown exponentially – from roughly 14,000 to an estimated 28,000. Keep in mind, the festival parks eighty percent of the cars on grass at the Harlinsdale property.

This year, when inclement weather and lightning interrupted the festival, Pilgrimage wasn’t sure whether to suspend performances and re-open, or completely cancel the rest of Saturday’s show. Around three o’clock the organizers made the announcement for patrons to go to their vehicles and wait for further instructions. We all did wait – literally, for hours.

The First Surprise Pilgrimage Encountered

When 28,000 people sit in their cars under those circumstances, what do they do? Everyone and his brother decides to get on their cell phones. Cell service is then overloaded and the signals disappear entirely. What does that mean exactly? In trending mode, the festival communicated though a phone app, text announcements, and phone messages. Now all communications had come to a screeching halt. Also, because of the rain, there was no longer a public address system, or outside lighting, and as it darkened, the festival’s problems escalated.

The Second Surprise Pilgrimage Encountered

After patrons sit in their cars for a few hours waiting for the official announcement but have no communication or direction from their host, they suffer a loss of civility. Add to that problem low-paid, young labor deciding they don’t want to direct traffic in the rain, toss in families that have children who have had to wait in cars for hours with limited access to restrooms – bingo! You have the perfect storm. The fight to get out of the parking lots became as competitive as the L.A. freeways during a problematic rush hour.

The Third and Fourth Surprise-Raining on Sunday

I use the title of the Keith Urban song “Raining on Sunday” for the third and fourth surprises for the festival organizers. If someone advertises an event as “rain or shine” and sells tickets accordingly, your patrons expect you to keep your word.

The town has huge money invested in Harlinsdale Farm Park. However, few, if any of the festival attendees understand the fact that after a night of heavy rain, parking the cars on the grass the next day would devastate the grounds. While the organizers did not share that specific information with the patrons, what they did say is that the town had made a request that the festival on Sunday be cancelled due to “unsafe conditions.” Sunday brought gentle rains, no lightning, and many upset patrons.

Now the Fourth Surprise

Probably pressured by the city to cancel the Sunday events, Pilgrimage elected not to impose the rain or shine agreement and, as you can imagine, folks plastered the Pilgrimage social media pages with a firestorm of criticism.

At that point, Pilgrimage had a major PR problem on top of everything else. At first they offered a fifty percent refund to two-day ticket holders. Obviously, Sunday ticket holders were offered 100 percent refund, but patrons had only experienced half of the first day’s entertainment, and none of the second. Realizing the inequity of the return policy, the ticket holders immediately harshly criticized the promoters’ suggested refund, and only then did Pilgrimage adjust the refund to a 75 percent refund for the two-day pass holders.

Lessons Learned (Hopefully):

Never guarantee something that’s beyond your control. You can’t control weather, and you can’t control municipalities or their decisions.

Always return what you truly owe

Had Pilgrimage done that first, they would have saved a lot of face.

Always have a ‘Plan B’

Perhaps a better plan would have been to use a shuttle system for parking (with event partners) where the patrons could access a hard surface parking area instead of grass. That would cause Pilgrimage to incur additional expense, but look at the expenses now. The bottom line: the promoters were aware of the rain prediction and should have prepared with an alternative plan.

Final Thought

In business, surprises are not usually like birthday parties; you are well-served never to make promises you can’t keep.

Menzie Pittman is the owner and director of education at Contemporary Music Center in Virginia (CMC). Following a performance and teaching career spanning more than 32 years, he founded CMC in 1989 and continues to perform, teach, and oversee daily operations. He has 50 years of musical experience as a drummer and drum instructor. Menzie is a frequent speaker at NAMM’s Idea Center.


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