To the Point

Planning for the Worst

How one company attempted to recover from a disaster of an event — while it was unfolding.

It was every event professional’s worst nightmare. In July, Niantic Labs threw a huge party to celebrate the first year of its mega-hit augmented-reality game, Pokémon Go. When 20,000 eager fans — some from around the world — gathered in Chicago’s Grant Park to play the game together, overloaded cell towers and problems with both software and servers prevented many from even logging on. And many who did get on were plagued by errors and delays.

Attendees were dumbfounded, frustrated, and irate. Niantic CEO John Hanke was booed when he took the stage. Several weeks later, a class-action lawsuit was led against Niantic to recoup attendees’ travel expenses.

Could something like this happen at one of your events? We all would like to think it couldn’t. But all kinds of disasters — natural, technical, and, yes, human-made — can and do happen. It certainly raises the importance of crisis planning and being nimble enough to react swiftly and adjust on the fly.

While many people have pointed out Niantic’s planning errors, the company’s response provides some positive lessons. First of all, Niantic was quick to acknowledge the problems, from the top down. The company also scrambled to resolve internal glitches, but when they realized the cellular-access issue couldn’t be fixed, they announced a number of remedies on the spot.

Those olive branches weren’t just empty offers. They included full-ticket refunds for all registered attendees, regardless of whether they were able to play or not. All registered attendees also received $100 in in-game bonuses and had a highly valued character added to their account. Niantic also expanded the range of special game features to a two-mile radius outside of Grant Park. There are stories of many attendees meeting up in the surrounding streets, where cellphone signals weren’t as overcrowded, and getting to play with the special features as planned.

Those remedies were communicated in several ways, but perhaps what spoke most loudly was how Niantic’s staff — including CEO Hanke — worked the fest all day long to personally deliver the message. One blogger acknowledged that Hanke “walked the event in the morning and then sat for hours beneath the pounding sun signing autographs, chatting, and handling an enormous amount of frustration from attendees.” That effort alone surely won over more than a few attendees, although admittedly not the group behind the lawsuit.

Time will tell how Niantic will fare. The company postponed Pokémon Go events that it had scheduled for Europe in August in light of the Chicago event’s disastrous outcome. As one in a string of recent festival ops (including the Fyre Festival disaster in April), this event has no doubt prompted many of us to rethink what could possibly go wrong at our own events — and to recheck our crisis-response plans.

Deborah Sexton

Deborah Sexton is president and CEO of PCMA.