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If you had to, could you double your staff in one weekend for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity?
That’s what many companies are going through as they prepare for the more than 1 million people visiting Philadelphia this weekend. Most of the visitors are coming to see Pope Francis and attend the World Meeting of Families, the world’s largest Catholic gathering of families, held every three years. Pope Francis will appear at the World Meeting’s closing ceremonies Sept. 26 and will celebrate Mass the following day.
The influx, which local reports estimate will yield a $420-million economic impact (including 100,000 short-term jobs), is both a privilege and a headache to the many businesses involved.
The privilege, they say, is participating firsthand in a transcendent, singular event. “It’s not just a religious occasion, it’s a cultural moment,” notes Jonah Berger, Wharton professor and bestselling author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On. “It’s something people want to be a part of, whether just to see it, or to be able to tell their kids they were there.”
The rarity of the occasion has rendered most of the businesses happy to be there–even if they feel underpaid. Scott Mirkin, founder of ESM Productions, told the New York Times his company is earning $450,000 to orchestrate the Mass–less than half of what he’d hoped to make. “He was willing to sacrifice pay to be part of a historic event,” notes the New York Times.
One of Mirkin’s longtime partners, Light Action Productions based in New Castle, Delaware, is supplying the staging, structure, and video support for the event. Founder Scott Humphrey, 52, who launched the 40-employee company from a Dodge van in 1984, says the morale and upbeat energy surrounding the event–among his employees and the partners they’re working with–is higher than anything he’s ever seen.
“The attitude is a lot more positive than your typical live event,” he says. “In Philly, right now, it’s a whole different vibe with the people involved.” Words like this are not faint praise, coming from Humphrey. In his more than 30 years in business, Light Action has handled events at Super Bowls, Olympics, and national conventions for both major political parties. “The geographical size of this event is larger than anything we’ve ever done,” he says.
Of course, the sheer size of the event–combined with numerous street closures–is it’s is also bringing a fair share of headaches for many of the businesses. One of the items still remaining on Light Action’s list–as of Thursday afternoon–is setting up 42 video screens around the city. In some cases, the company will be laying down wire two or three miles long to carry video transmissions. One wire will run from the Philadelphia Museum of Art to Independence Mall.
All of which would be no small task without working around road closures and countless other companies performing their own pope-preparation tasks. One of those companies, Bicycle Transit Systems, believes the mixture of closures and one million visitors will produce a weekend of unprecedented ridership for Indego, the bike sharing entity it runs for Philadelphia. (Founded in 2013, Bicycle Transit Systems also runs a bike-sharing service in Oklahoma City.)
But that doesn’t mean Indego can simply staff its 70 bike sharing stations (600 total bicycles) like it normally does. Because of the street closures, Indego has removed 15 stations from its map, including those at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Independence Mall, closest to the Mass service scheduled for Sunday.
To compensate for the closed stations, Indego is providing “corral” service at four fully-staffed stations where it’s anticipating the most traffic. Employees there will be in constant communication with each other to make sure there are always enough bikes in the system. In the event one station is running low, Indego will “corral” the bikes from another of the three stations.
To make sure it’s fully staffed for the weekend, Indego has doubled its staff from 20 to 40. They’re also conducting extensive trainings to make sure the staff is fully ready for anything that might arise.
While the company has handled previous events in Philadelphia, it’s never handled anything like this. A typical day for Indego might yield 2,000 total rides throughout the city. On a weekend with an event luring out-of-towners–such as July 4th weekend or the recent Made in America Music Festival–that total usually jumps to 2,400 per day.
But for an event like this, Indego frankly has no idea what to expect. “It’s difficult to know how [visitors] are going to use it,” says general manager Peter Hoban. “We’re just using our knowledge of the system and how people have used it so far.”
Each station will have mechanics on hand to do quick repairs. Indego is also adding staff on its phone and email customer service teams. From July 4th and the Made in America event, Hoban learned that communication is the most important thing to teach trainees and new employees. If an employee can’t answer a customer question, what matters is if that employee can quickly reach an employee who does.
“No one has experienced the pope coming to town– that’s unique,” says Hoban. “But we have had a few events, which have given us a little bit of an idea what to expect.”