Last Updated on October 7, 2021
Way back in 1969 at a farm outside of White Lake, New York, four young men hosted a music festival. Hundreds of thousands of fans attended, and what followed was one of the most legendarily debauched events of all time, one that ended up being an icon of the 1960s. We called it Woodstock.
From an event planning perspective, Woodstock was also one of the most poorly planned, poorly executed events of all time, fraught with missed deadlines, legal blunders, and a trail of liability.
The festival was originally organized by John Roberts, Joel Rosenman, Artie Kornfield, and Mike Lang. Roberts was the money; the heir to a pharmaceutical fortune, he and his friend Rosenman were on the lookout for an idea that would allow them to increase their fortunes exponentially. They put out an ad in the New York Times – “young men with unlimited capital looking for interesting, legitimate investment opportunities and business propositions.” As luck would have it, Kornfield and Lang responded. They proposed to host a music festival – one of the largest the country had seen.
Rosenman and Roberts loved the idea, and soon began printing tickets ($7 for one day, $13 for two, and $18 for three). They then set to work organizing catering, hiring security, and signing on musicians. On the surface, they were doing everything right.
Unfortunately, everything still went completely wrong. Originally slated to be held in an industrial park in Walkill, New York, the city’s residents and council took legal action eventually forcing the festival out just a month before the event. Although the men were able to secure Max Yasgur’s dairy farm as a venue, they were forced to rush construction and much of the event grounds weren’t properly finished in time. Maybe if they’d chosen differently what to finish and what not to finish.
The organizers quickly realized they’d grotesquely oversold the event – they estimated demand at 50,000, but allowed ticket sales reached to 200,000. This is where the fact that the entrance and security gates weren’t completed on time compounds the issue; people without tickets could walk into the festival grounds without paying or being turned away. This free access exponentially increased attendance – from 200,000 up to half a million.
Then Mother Nature turned a high-pressure situation upside down. A rainstorm turned the festival grounds into a muddy-mire. Security was a nightmare, the physical space was a nightmare and there were far too few personnel to manage everything effectively. They had nowhere near enough food or water to satisfy the needs of all their attendees. Furthermore, most of the vendors hired had little experience managing events or anything of Woodstock’s scale. Everything pushed their resources to the limit.
Woodstock’s issues with security are legendary. They hired the Hell’s Angels to police the crowds and when a fight broke out near the stage, and a gun was pulled, one person dies. Meanwhile all Hell breaks loose and the Hell’s Angels are seen largely responsible for escalating the violence rather than for bringing things under control.
As the weekend wears on, major safety issues cropped up from almost every possible angle. Hungry, dehydrated attendees consumed copious amounts of drugs and alcohol. Overcrowding, intoxication and grossly limited resources caused fights and injuries. Transportation in and out of the area was impossible. Highways became parking lots. While now we recognize images of helicopters airlifting performers to the stage, we forget that medical responses to serious injury were similarly hindered by a dramatic restriction of movement.
The end result of all this for most attendees was a legendary experience – literally the most popular music event ever hosted. The end result of it for the hosts…they were completely in the lurch. Over a million dollars in debt (approximately $62 million by today’s standards), they were also struck with over seventy separate lawsuits. Even once they’d paid everything off, the group was still $100,000 in debt. Roberts’ pharmaceutical fortune was effectively gone.
So, how did Woodstock change event management? What can an event management professional take away from this event?
- Before committing to a venue, make sure everything is squared away with the city in which the venue is located. Don’t commit to a location before you know for certain you’re welcome there.
- Manage your ticket sales. If you’re estimating an attendance rate of 50,000 and your venue has a capacity of 50,000; then only sell 50,000 tickets.
- Avoid making last-minute decisions. Last minute decisions are forced and often have hidden consequences. Opening the gates and making Woodstock free burned these organizers.
- Check your vendors and partners before signing them on. In the case of Woodstock, most of the companies hired for concessions had little experience if any.
- Good logistical planning is often what keeps everyone safe. The Woodstock group made major mistakes related to logistics; how X-number of people would come and go from the venue, park, sleep, eat, etc.
Woodstock remains one of the most legendary events ever hosted…but it was also among the most poorly managed. Although most everyone who attended had a great time and have stories that have yet to be replicated in the modern-day, it completely ruined the men who organized it.
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