How to Control Large Crowds

When you're expecting lots of guests, here's how to keep them moving—and happy—from the moment they arrive.

By Ellen Sturm Niz August 15, 2005, 12:00 AM EDT

It's great when lots of people come to your event. But living up to hot-ticket expectations requires minimizing the door rush and corralling guests from one part of an event to another. Here's how.

Staffing Up
Bringing in proper personnel is the first step. “Adequate staffing at drop-off is critical,” says David Stallbaumer, owner of Event Resources Inc., a firm that specializes in large-scale events. “Depending on how concentrated the arrival of guests is, the number of entrances and how complex the check-in process is will affect how many people you need.” The number of staffers required often depends on the number of entrances, not guests. You'll need at least two to three people checking lists at each entrance.

Melanie Young, owner of M. Young Communications, the firm behind the James Beard awards, which packs 1,700 people into the Marriott Marquis, usually has eight to 10 staffers at registration tables at events and three telling people where to go. “There are never enough directional people saying, 'Welcome,'” she says, “and it is one of the most important.phpects.”

Making sure the staff treats guests with consideration will also quicken the process. “How you treat people is key,” says Mike Zimet, owner of security firm Mike Zimet Enterprises. Staffers should be dressed professionally to garner respect and address guests in a way that encourages cooperation.

Working with local agencies, businesses, and community liaisons can help support the staff. Mike Laino, president of Festive Productions, works closely with the police department while planning the Puerto Rican Day Parade, which attracted about two million people last year. “They tell us how many restrooms we are going to need on the parade route, provide extra barricades, and take a big role in securing the safety of the people,” he says.

A Good First Impression
Planning to move guests through the front door rapidly—whether with quick tricks or simple organization—will get an event off to the right start. “You want to be able to process legitimate guests as quickly is possible,” Stallbaumer says. He suggests sending a brightly colored, easily recognizable invitation or credential so you can wave card-carrying guests into an express line. At events with valet areas (outside of Manhattan, naturally) check cars for tickets before they enter the valet area. “It's a red flag if there are more than two people in a car because most people can only bring one guest,” says Bryan Rabin of Los Angeles-based event company Rabin Rodgers.

But sometimes quick tricks won't help. “When lots of on-site check-in can't be avoided, you need a large check-in area, staffed accordingly, organized, labeled, and alphabetized, to make it faster,” Stallbaumer says.

Young creates separate lines or tables for tickets holders, will call, special guests, and press, as well as a separate area—often in the back—for event workers. “You don't want workers arriving at the same place guests are,” she says. “Workers often have very different questions from guests and can hold up the line.”

When some guests require special treatment, invite them early, or if they must arrive with everyone else, be discreet with perks to avoid upsetting others. “We usually have people look for V.I.P.s to escort them in,” Young says.

Going With the Flow
In addition to being prepared to legitimize guests quickly, laying out the entrance properly with ropes and stanchions can alleviate clusters that look unprofessional and make guests uncomfortable. Zimet suggests using barriers to create a clear entrance path. Then prescreen guests at the opening of the path and limit the number of people approaching so the door is not bombarded. Rabin also suggests creating an exit route. “If someone is not on the list, they can easily and courteously be asked to step out of line,” he says. “It only takes two to four people to block a door.” Young always creates a separate area off to the side for guest disputes so they don't delay the line.

J. B. Miller of Empire Entertainment Inc., who recently produced the Tribeca Film Festival's family day for more than 150,000, suggests creating several “obstacle courses” of turns for attendees to pass through. “You make them slow down as they approach the entrance and reduce the people coming out on the other end to a slow trickle, like a subway turnstile,” he says.

In addition, signage and staffers should direct guests so they don't bottleneck as they ponder their next moves. Candida Romanelli, show director of the New York International Auto Show, says the most challenging.phpect of the event is moving 1.2 million attendees through the ticketed entrance point. “They are lost and looking for direction,” she says. And Young adds, “When people stop to find out where to check their coats or go to the bathroom, it can hold things up.”

Keep on Movin'
To move people from one area to another, make it as clear as possible by stopping the music or making an announcement. “Kill the space you're in—close the bar, turn white lights on—and make the next space more inviting,” Stallbaumer says. “And tons of staff always helps in ushering people from one space to next.” Rabin suggests using one room divided with a curtain that opens easily. “Opening a curtain to reveal a larger room people can flow into is a very organic way to make people move,” he says.

An informative invitation can help, too. “If people know dinner starts at 7 PM, they will be finishing their cocktails at five to 7 and getting ready to move,” Stallbaumer says. Public events often use printed maps and schedules; Laino gives detailed maps to local media outlets to publish for readers, and has staffers hand out maps on the scene.

Kill Them With Kindness
No matter how well you plan, people may have to wait in lines. In this case, good guest relations are more important than ever. “To keep people happy while waiting,” Stallbaumer says, “bring elements of the event out into the check-in area, some visual or oral hint of what is going on inside—theming, entertainment, decor, food, or a cocktail.”

Show respect for people's time and don't underestimate their potential to be gracious. “Inform people why there is a delay,” says George Compas, of AAA Allstate Investigations & Security. “Be up front, and 99 percent of the time, they will understand and be fine.” At the Auto Show, Romanelli tells people waiting to see a celebrity if they are too far back to get in before the event closes. “Get presigned photos of the celebrity, so when you cut off the line you can give them something,” she says. “They will be disappointed, but at least they will walk away feeling they didn't waste their time.”

Posted 08.15.05

Illustration: Steve Olson

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