Up Up and Away!

By Ron Rosenberg

We work hard, and often, spend more hours in a day on work than we'd like to. But we also play hard and like to make the most of our free time.

On the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, there was going to be a large balloon festival about 20 minutes from our house! There would be a  "mass launch" at around 6:30 pm, and there would also be food concessions and beer trucks - all in all, it sounded like a perfect way to start a long holiday weekend.

Parking was going to be limited, so we left the house at around 5:00 pm, planning to park at the remote lot, take the shuttle bus, and arrive at the event location at around 5:30 pm. That was the plan anyway. Unfortunately that's not quite how things unfolded.

Welcome to the Parking Lot - Well, Kind of...

We arrived on schedule at the exit to the facility where we would park but were stopped by traffic and then crawled, in bumper-to-bumper traffic, for the next 20 minutes, creeping along the last quarter mile until we could get to the parking lot.

There were no police at the intersection of the highway exit and the main road; and, since traffic was coming from all directions, it was basically a free-for-all. Even at the final turn into the parking lot, where there were two policemen directing traffic, things were at a virtual standstill because the staff working in the parking lot seemed positively clueless as to what they were supposed to be doing.

Shuttle? What Shuttle?!

We finally got to the entrance of the parking lot, paid our $10, parked the car, and went off in search of the shuttle that would take us the final two miles to the event location.

We saw a very long line and asked some people waiting if they were on line for the shuttle. They answered that they were, but they hadn't seen a single shuttle bus the whole time they'd been waiting - 25 minutes so far!

We estimated how many people were on the line, did some quick math, and determined that if we waited for the shuttle to arrive, we'd certainly miss the mass ascension of the balloons at 6:30 pm. So we did what virtually everyone else appeared to be doing: we started walking.

Fortunately, walking two miles isn't a huge problem for us since we routinely bike between 20 and 60 miles several times a week.

Take It Easy...

But as we took notice of the other people on this hilly walk, we became a bit concerned. We saw grandparents pushing a toddler in a stroller, an elderly couple walking with the assistance of canes, and many people who appeared to be carrying significantly more weight than was healthy.

Had it been even five degrees warmer, I suspect we would have seen people dropping like flies from heat exhaustion. I mean, there were some good-sized hills along the way, and the sun was still high in the sky and hot.

The launch itself was awesome – every color imaginable, transforming from individual piles of fabric into 40 beautiful fully inflated balloons taking off one after the other.

The pilots were all going to land at a specified location, deflate and repack the balloons, and return to the original site for a "balloon glow" after sunset, where the re-inflated balloons would be lit from the inside.

We really enjoyed what we had seen already, and decided to forgo the balloon glow and call it an evening. We looked around for the shuttle to catch a ride back to the parking lot, but, you guessed it, there were none to be found, so we walked another two miles back to our car.

Lessons Learned

It can be really easy to spot the "low-hanging fruit" - the somewhat obvious problems that have clear solutions, like pulling the tables on the buffet line away from the wall so people can access the food from two sides instead of just one.

In the case of the balloon festival, they had simply underestimated the number of people who would be attending and weren't prepared with an appropriate number of police, volunteers, and, yes, shuttle buses.

But more importantly, what they really lacked was a contingency plan. Since this was the first time they had produced this event, there were many unknowns, and the first time you try anything new, it's very difficult to anticipate everything that can happen.

But you have to at least consider what could go wrong and have a "Plan B" in place to deal with those situations.

For example, during a program at a major conference in Chicago, my co-presenter had a problem with the final copy of our PowerPoint presentation, which was loaded onto the laptop in the room.

The problem was that her IT person had failed to load the source files for three videos that were part of the presentation. Of course, when my co-presenter checked the slides on her own computer, everything looked correct because the video files were there on her desktop computer. It was only when we ran through the slides on the computer at the event that we discovered the issue.

That was the bad news.

The good news was that we were in the meeting room over two hours in advance of the start of our session - more than enough time for me to locate the videos, download them to my own computer, and incorporate them into the slides we were going to use.

No one who attended our session had even the faintest idea that there had been a major problem - because we had allowed ourselves enough time - a "Plan B" - to deal with any unexpected problems.

What Can Cause Problems for You?

The thing about contingency planning is that you have to actually, well, plan. Take a few minutes and look closely at an upcoming event, product launch, or project, and think about what could go wrong.

Because despite your best efforts and meticulous planning, something will go wrong. The only question is whether you'll be prepared to react and respond or now.