O'Hare Airstrip Becomes Art Gallery and Stage for After School Matters Gala

Hosting a 2,300-guest gala on an airport runway presented plenty of challenges for staffers at the After School Matters Gala—even after all 1,060 of them had cleared security.

By Jenny Berg September 23, 2008, 12:33 PM EDT

The After School Matters Gala

Photo: Rick Aguilar

After School Matters Gala
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“The next time someone uses this runway, hopefully it'll be Air Force One," said an O'Hare employee at Friday night's After School Matters Gala, a fund-raiser for the nonprofit organization devoted to providing after-school activities for local teens. But instead of the president and his posse, the airport's not-yet-complete Runway 9 Left/27 Right was overrun with trolleys, 2,300 local philanthropists, and a 100,000-square-foot tent. 

“The After School Matters Gala is known for occupying unique venues," said Kim Snoddy, the nonprofit's director of events. Still, Snoddy and her team were somewhat hesitant last November when they received a call from the commissioner of the O'Hare modernization program, asking if they'd be interested in hosting their gala on the airport's newest runway, due for completion on November 20. (Mayor Daley hopes to inaugurate the runway with an Air Force One landing, as he announced in a press conference earlier this year.)

“We thought we'd go out and see the site, but I wasn't sure that it would work,” Snoddy said. “We had all these concerns: 'Is it too far away. Will it be too noisy, what about security?'“ But when she actually saw the runway, some of Snoddy's hesitations were put to rest. “It was located at the perimeter of O'Hare, so I saw that we wouldn't have to go into the innards of the airport," she said, adding that the noise from overhead planes wasn't as obstructive as she had imagined. Still, the neighboring runway was closed on the night of the actual event to ensure that planes weren't flying too close to the festivities.

With the venue chosen, the gala's planning efforts began in earnest last January. Knowing that the event would involve a speech from Chicago's first lady, Maggie Daley, who champions the cause, and a staged performance from the After School Matters teens, Snoddy enlisted Event Creative to produce the evening's sound, staging, and lighting. Associated event management and production company Event Architects also came on board to assist with staffing and guest interface.

According to Event Creative's Sean Cannon, a shorter-than-usual setup schedule was one of the challenges involved in working with the unusual venue. “Normally, we have two weeks to do a project," he said. But because the new runway is almost constantly being used for testing before its November opening, the Event Creative crew only had a six-day window in which to erect the tent, which comprised a temporary art gallery to showcase the teens' work, a stage area, and a dinner tent—not to mention 34 video and plasma screens that had to all be in sync throughout the evening to show sponsors' logos and footage from the event. Other challenges involved accounting for details that the venue couldn't provide: With no electricity or plumbing on the runway, Cannon and his crew had to bring in restroom trailers and 10 generators.

But Snoddy and Cannon both said that the greatest challenge of the planning process was dealing with security. More than 1,000 staffers involved with the gala had to be checked against a terrorist watch list prior to the event, leaving  planners responsible for procuring each staffer's name, address, make and model of vehicle, and license plate number. Some 2,300 guests also had to clear security.

In the end, the gala raised $3.7 million for After School Matters, exceeding the evening's goal. 

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