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5 Tips for Mastering a Massive Event

With 40,000 attendees at the Delta Sigma Theta national convention, planning played a key role in the event running smoothly.

By Beth Kormanik August 28, 2013, 7:15 AM EDT

Centerplate served 49,780 meals over a three-day period for the Delta Sigma Theta national convention at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in July.

Photo: Mike B. Photography

With more than 40,000 registered attendees, planning for the 51st Delta Sigma Theta national convention last month at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center was a major effort.

Consider these figures: 45,000 chairs were set up in five halls in theater-style sets within eight hours, then three halls changed over to a 16,000 banquet-style configuration with 1,600 tables within six hours. Convention center caterer Centerplate NBSE served 49,780 meals over a three-day period, using more than three miles of baking sheet pans and 42 refrigeration trucks for storage. The caterer coordinated more than 3,100 servers and used 139,000 plates, 139,000 forks, 94,500 knives, and 50,000 spoons. Staging equipment included 9,000 feet of truss, 350 chain motors, more than 500 scoop lights, 60 digital video screens, 64 projectors, and 40 dimmer racks.

Gregory O’Dell, president and C.E.O. of Events DC, shared how his team helped pull off the massive event.

1. Plan changeovers carefully

We do these changeovers all the time, but not on this scale or in that time. We went over the programming thoroughly with the Delta Sigma Theta client. In these events, planning is critical. We can execute as long as it's a great plan. We spent a lot of time with them advising them and giving them suggestions on what to do not only as it relates to this building but at venues across the city.

2. Consider crowd flow

We had to spend a lot of time on crowd management. We had a command center monitoring people on closed-circuit TV for crowd flow. We have a command center for every event, but this one was more massive. A public safety team provides a briefing to every client before we get started. They go over what the evacuation plan would be.

3. Recruit extra staff

From July 15 to 17 we served almost 50,000 meals. I can't recall in my time serving that many meals in a three-day time period. It was a massive planning effort. Centerplate generally has a certain number of managers to support our events in the building, but for this they recruited managers from all across the country to support them. We had a great level of management to support the 3,100 servers. We used a local church nearby to get the servers ready and to the right place.

4. Expect the unexpected

On the final night, we had word that Prince George's County had a threat of a water main failure. Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center was to host one of the sorority's regional dinners for 6,800. We found out literally the night before. They could have cancelled event, gone forward with National Harbor, or gone somewhere else. It wasn't until late in the evening that the choice was made [to relocate to the convention center]. At the 11th hour, we had to accommodate them and do a changeover from a plenary setup to a dinner, and do food prep. We set up passed hors d'oeuvres and food stations. [The guests] enjoyed the networking. It did so well that the sorority may change the final night from a dinner to a reception.

5. Reflect on your success

It gives our team a lot of confidence in terms of what we can accomplish. When you're faced with extraordinary circumstances, it's a sense of pride that we can deliver. I joke with my team that now that they have done this, I expect nothing less.

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