Ed Despard Reports on IOF 2017 High Level Events Seminar

In February 2017, Ed Despard and Jay Hann attended the IOF High Level Event Seminar (HLES) in Warsaw Poland. Ed went to the conference with a lens of his interests in technology and event production, hoping to be able to bring some insights back to the U.S. for the coming season of orienteering events. Here is what he had to say about it all.

While in Poland at the IOF HLES, I had the opportunity to network and learn from the best of the best, as well as to start to understand the scale of the events being produced at the highest level in orienteering. I got the chance to see what it takes to generate the highest-level events, which appears to be a lot of formal planning, rule adherence, and use of the bulletins as deadlines. The IOF HLES focused on the consistency and quality of events, as a theme threading through the entire conference.

This was my second year attending the IOF HLES. By attending this conference, I am trying to break down some of the barriers between U.S. and European orienteering. By exposing myself to a larger community of event organizers, I get to see first-hand how other countries and other organizers are managing the task of organizing high-quality events, and continuing to do it year to year. It’s also great to make technical contacts, tapping into the greater network of orienteering outside of the U.S. where you can call on expertise when running into problems. The European event organizers are doing much higher-level events than we are at home, and they are doing them much more frequently. Our circumstances may be different, but I wanted to find out what lessons I could learn from this.

The general theme of consistency and quality was ubiquitous. I heard a lot of discussion about the framework for professionalizing World Cups and WOC, using consistent organizing committees, consistent scheduling, and the emphasis on sponsors. By having this consistency, IOF has been able to produce higher quality events, which allows them to attract more sponsors, which brings in more money, which allows for higher quality events, and the cycle continues. However, to improve this cycle an event has to get onto it, which takes institutional will, not just the effort from a few dedicated volunteers.

Along the lines of quality was the importance of "dressing" the venue. This is especially important for the IOF considering their relationship with television and production for the high-level events like WOC and World Cups. What the cameras see is how you are presenting the event. Even in the U.S. where we don’t have television cameras at orienteering events, if we as organizers look at an event through that lens, we create a better quality event for the competitors. The branding of an event needs to be accepted and held up at the top level of the event planning, because consistency is so important. When the general public walks by an event in the U.S., we need it to be clear that this is an Orienteering USA event, using banners, signs; pretend you’re decorating for a party. Branding needs to be meaningful — take the opportunity when you have to tell somebody how to get somewhere, make sure they know the thing they’re getting to is part of your event. Most importantly, all of these things give you space to promote your sponsors.

In talking to event organizers of 2016 WOC and JWOC (in Sweden and Switzerland, respectively), I was stunned by the scale of the undertaking involved. It became clear how much TV actually drives these events, and how early they start planning for TV. This isn’t about choosing a control to be the TV control; this is about designing the entire course so that it can be televised and otherwise broadcast. Even if they didn’t have TV contracts in place early on (like last year’s JWOC), they planned the event with TV in mind, and this meant that when they got the TV contract, everything was already set up for it. The TV needs drove the entire event planning.

The other thing that really stood out from this conference was how formal the schedules and procedures are. The organizers hosting these high-level events are looking to the IOF rules to plan for the events, using the bulletins as deadlines for when you need to know a certain piece of information. At 2016 JWOC, for example, they had extensive procedures written for weather contingencies, considering the unpredictability of high-altitude weather. Everything was formalized, everything was written, all the volunteers knew where to look for information, and all information was encapsulated in the bulletins.

The second day of the conference we broke into smaller groups to work through the formal planning process for events, using bulletins as the guidelines and deadlines. Before this weekend, I hadn’t thought much about the need for formalizing every piece of what we do, but when every piece of an event is written down in an organized spreadsheet, it makes it very easy to share knowledge and repeat successes from year to year. We worked through how to write event plans, schedules, contingencies, logistics, and getting every step of the process pre-planned and written down.

By using the bulletins as deadlines for your information release, you can work backwards to figure out what steps lead up to that information release. This lets the organizers set realistic deadlines for their mappers, course setters, vetters, and everyone else working for that event. In the IOF break-out groups, we built a spreadsheet with milestones and planning targets, using a 2+ year planning process for an event at a WOC scale. It was very productive to sit down with a group of skilled organizers who think about a lot of the aspects of the event very early on. One thing I noticed was that all the organizers were very technically competent and familiar with the rules. This meant that there wasn’t much argument about the way things are supposed to get done, because it is all laid out in the rules. The IOF rules and bulletins lock you into a planning process where you can’t wait until the last minute to get things done.

I also attended sessions on timing and IT, a lot of talk about TV production, touch-free punching, timing systems, and networked with a great group of experts all sharing their experiences.

What can we bring back to the U.S. from this event?
One thing that became clear was that when an organization presents their top-level events in a consistent way, this leads to a higher quality event. This requires a unified vision from the entire event organization team, who all have good experience with high-level events.

The way the IOF organizes its high-level events can scale back to what we’re doing domestically. If we apply the same planning principles, our events should run smoothly and consistently; hopefully with a sustainable model of producing high-level professional events in the U.S., we can build up to something closer to what they’re doing in Europe. The logistics are always very tight at these high-level European events, and arena production is always very good, for both TV and for spectators. As we bring some of these concepts into play at home, we need to integrate the concept of the arena/venue, including the protocol of ceremonies, and how to present every aspect of our events outside of the woods to all our audiences.

I want to bring some of these concepts to our highest-level events in the U.S.. We need to scale it in a way so that we don’t need a team of hundreds of volunteers, but we can apply the principles of the prioritization, production process, and years-long lead-up to make our events even better. When it comes to things like spectator controls, we need to plan for the iterations that will go on between course setter and arena production, as it’s much more than just placing a visible control. The spectator controls, radio/TV controls, all need integration between the course setters and the event management team, so that these controls are actually useful. We also need to think about the flow and management of spectators in the arena itself, so that people can move freely to wherever they need to be without interfering with the race. How do we maximize the social-ness of spectators, while still being able to see the finish, see the spectator controls, hear the announcer, buy food from vendors, see the podium/award ceremony, etc. We want the crowds of people to be able to build on themselves!

The biggest take-away I got from this conference was the amount of effort going into the event at the earliest stages in the forms of formal documentation and pre-planning. While European events are driven primarily by TV production, we’re freed from that in the U.S., which allows us to choose what our driving aspect should be. We already do the orienteering part well, so how do we turn that orienteering into an event that is attractive to people to watch, near and far? I want the event to grab the attention of the location it is in, so people walk by and want to be a part of it.

Something else we can do is a better job of observing and evaluating what is successful and what is not. The second part of my trip was to observe the 2017 WMOC and WCup ski orienteering in Imatra, Finland, to see what worked and what did not for the organizers. This was hugely informative in light of the upcoming 2018 WMOC and WCup ski-o we’re hosting in Vermont!

Finally, the technology piece is what I am most interested in. While a lot of the tech that we do is fun for tech geeks, it ultimately only exists to drive the announcing. The announcer needs to be the target consumer for all the technology that we put into the woods, to bring the orienteering out of the woods. He is the main conduit between the technology and the consumers. Of course we also need live results, online results, and displays, but ultimately the announcer is telling the story. So as event organizers, we must present enough information to the announcer so they have the tools they need.

My final takeaway is about the levels of expectations. Right now, our expectations are all over the map, and we really need to have a spectrum of expectations so we can place our events somewhere on that spectrum. We need a target for our expectations for our National Events, so that we know what we’re trying to meet, on a year-to-year basis.

posted 27 April 2017