Logistics: Perfect planning and execution -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Logistics: Perfect planning and execution

By Aileen Pistone

The logistics of planning a special event runs the gamut of everything involving volunteers outside of the actual preparation and construction of the houses. For this article I will define logistics as that which supports volunteer participation at an accelerated build site—transportation, lodging, meals, security, emergency services, entertainment, merchandise availability, toilet facilities, crisis management preparation and weather considerations—among many other crucial details.

Having run logistics for many Habitat special builds around the world, I’ve learned that it all comes down to two phases: planning and execution. Lack of proper leadership for either will lead to many sleepless nights and staff burnout. How do you avoid this and how can you do everything in your power to reach your goals and maintain an enthusiastic, amicable team?

One resource that has been used at several Jimmy Carter Work Projects (JCWPs) is the hiring of an external event company to assist with many of the logistics areas. This is a great idea, though I recommend you take the following three points into consideration. (If you are doing a smaller event and cannot afford an external hire, regardless, please take the first and third points into consideration, and then see the sidebar for tips on planning.)
1. Internal staff

Dedicate someone from your team to work with the event company constantly. An event company can put an excellent event together, but the company needs to understand the internal workings of a Habitat event. Helpful tips:

  • The person whom you have designated to work with the event company should be an exceptional planner and implementer, with an eye for detail. You probably won’t find an event company that meets all of your logistics needs, so the designated person on your staff will have to pick up the slack and complete the additional tasks. For example, emergency services may be something the event company does not have any experience with, and you therefore, may not want the company managing this area.
  • Before beginning the process of hiring an event company, the designated person should work closely with the finance team to prepare a realistic budget for your event. This will also give you something to check figures against with the event company.

    In an African country, an event company was not upfront with us about commissions. It is OK if the company charges commissions, but you should be aware of this, so that you are not paying a large sum on top of what the company is making off every booking it undertakes for you. By taking the time to determine actual costs when designing your budget, you will be better able to see any red flags.
  • The designated person on your staff should set the deadlines that the event company will adhere to. Send the event company a format, and expect weekly reports from them. Meet with them at least once a week. The person working with the event company will be responsible for helping to determine who you will use for each logistics area (i.e., caterer, transport provider, etc.,) based on what the event company brings to you, and the HFHI policies of at least 3 quotes should be honored.

2. Hiring the right event company
Hiring the best event company for your needs is crucial. You can hire the best in the business, but they need to be the best for you. Helpful tips:

  • A select few from your team should together give each event company in the running a presentation of what you envision for the event and what your needs are. Be specific. You can show pictures from other events, but do not leave them with printed documents to take with them. The company needs to do its homework.
  • Let the company come back to you with a formal proposal about the services it can provide and the cost. The company should also include photos of past events it has done and multiple references.
  • Hopefully you have now narrowed the list down to three or less companies. Visit the company’s offices; see how the company’s staff operates—are they on time for your meetings, professional and courteous? Pay attention to the details and remember that if the company can’t get a proposal meeting right and its staff isn’t dealing with the details in its office, the company will not get the event right.

    In an Asian country, I visited the offices of the top event company in a city of 13 million. It was a very disorganized office and its staff forgot they had scheduled a meeting with us. This visit proved crucial in our decision-making process. We did not use them.
  • Check the references the company has provided. Experience speaks loudest; you do not want your event to be new territory for a company. This step is crucial to your understanding of what the company is truly capable of. For example, the company needs prior experience with serving back-to-back meals for more people than you are expecting.

3 Contracts! Contracts! Contracts!
Without contracts in place you have absolutely no guarantee that you will receive what a company has committed to. This can be scary as the project nears and there is no progress. I have learned the hard way what needs to be included.

While working on an event in Latin America, we gave the final check to the event company upon completion of the project so final payments to the hotels could be made. The company disappeared with the money. Until that point the company had performed fairly well. We had no way of seeing what was coming. For the next event, we withheld a final amount (written into our contract with them) until the event company had closed all of the transactions on our behalf. It worked.

  • Your overall contract with the company should include as many details as possible, with payment periods based on deliverables set by your scheduling.
  • Review individual contracts for each deliverable. For example, within the event company contract it may be clear that the company is responsible for signing the contract with and paying the transport company, but your office must review and approve the contract before it is signed. As well as having payment periods based on deliverables, these smaller contracts should have every last possible detail that you can come up with, from what the drivers will wear, to how often the buses will be cleaned and where they will stop, etc. This will assure you a headache-free event; but above all, will give grounds for recovering costs if all was not delivered as promised.
  • Legal needs to be a part of the contract process. Ideally, your national or local program should have someone already in place (paid on retainer or on contract, not by the hour). This person needs to be responsible for reviewing your contracts. Be sure the legal person reviews the contract between your organization and the event company. A good event company will also have its own legal team involved.

Planning an event without an event company
If you are like most of us who work for HFHI, you get the job done yourself and do not have the luxury or budget to hire an event or logistics company to assist you. If this is the case, take the following points into consideration

1. Staff and hires

Hire, or select from your team, someone who is a visionary, organized, and calm under pressure, a team player, and a detailed thinker with the ability to step back and see the bigger picture. Having some of the qualities doesn’t cut it; take the time to find the right person. It will be worth it. This is your logistics lead and he/she needs to be aware of the following:

2. Timeliness of planning

Creating your critical path, schedule and/or timeline needs to be done at least 6 months before the event. If you want to get your budget right, get your planning right. The system you use to create and to track your logistics needs to be usable and something that you refer to regularly and can share with anyone at anytime wanting to see the status of items.

3. Consider everything

Visualize your event as if you were a volunteer: Who greets you? What is in your hands? What do you see? Where do you stay? Walk through each step a volunteer would take. Take each of these pieces and break them down into smaller components. Split these duties among your team, but the leader needs to know and be responsible for keeping each detail on the schedule.

4. What’s your back-up?

Be prepared for emergencies—accidents, food that doesn’t arrive, buses that breakdown, volunteers that are lost. What’s your back-up plan? A part of this involves another crucial element to being prepared…a CMT.

5. Crisis Management Team (CMT)

This is a crucial team within any event and operates in a crisis management role. This team is made up of key leadership from each of the top decision-making areas of the event (as well as external support such as security lead, first-aid lead, catering lead, legal representative, etc, depending upon the exact emergency). They know that they can be called to meet at any time during an event and together will make the decisions to handle a crisis appropriately. No one necessarily knows about this team, except for those who are a part of it.

6. Team approach and communication

Logistics is one part of a larger team that makes a special event possible. Take the time to understand what each area is focusing on and share your resources. For example, construction and logistics can support each other in many ways, but it begins with great communication and team work from day one. For example, I couldn’t have built 72 toilets for over 3,000 people to use in the middle of the country-side in a country without portable toilets or running water, if I hadn’t had the support of the construction team. This support was based on our working relationship months prior.

7. Contracts

If it’s not in writing, it’s not going to happen. You will sleep better before your event knowing that you have contracts signed with every vendor or company that you are expecting support from before/during/after your event. Your vendors will also take you more seriously and professionally. (See the contract details in the logistics article for more tips.) Along these same lines, keep as much in writing as possible. It’s easy to call someone on the phone, but if you can also get an e-mail confirmation of the call details, all the better.

These are just a few tips for proper logistics planning and execution that will hopefully help you to keep all of your volunteers happy and returning for more volunteer opportunities with your program. Good luck!

Aileen Pistone has been involved with several major HFH special events over the years and has been responsible for the logistics and/or project management of the events.