What Planners Can Learn from the Olympics

Event planning takeaways to reflect on as the ceremonies draw to a close

For winter and summer Olympic events alike, viewers tune in to be enamored with and entertained by pure athletic prowess. But while figure and speed skaters, skiers and hockey players are undoubtedly the stars of the five-ring circus, the spectacle occurring outside the stadium is equally impressive. 

Here's a snapshot of what it takes to put on just the American broadcast of the Winter Games in Pyeongchang, by the event planning numbers:

  • 550 cameras with more than 2,400 hours of coverage (1,800 of those hours livestreaming)
  • 2,500 employees working in Pyeongchang
  • 1,000 NBC Sports employees in the U.S. working on coverage
  • 127 miles of cable 
  • 102 medal events (the most for any Winter Olympics)
  • 89 NBC commentators (requiring housing, hair and makeup, etc.)
  • 2 helicopters providing aerial footage

The takeaways (both of what to do and what not to do) from an event as massive as the Olympics are virtually endless. As this year's ceremonies draw to a close, we highlight some key learnings for event planners.

Crunch the Numbers

Staying within time and budget constraints is difficult for anyone (be it a planner, a corporation or a family), so Olympic organizers know they have to get ahead of the games. These winter Olympics tackled a logistical baseline-transportation-by looking at the sheer numbers of people who had to be transported from the country's largest city, Seoul, to PyeongChang, and realized that the existing infrastructure was insufficient. Enter the Korea Train Express, a brand-new, high-speed link that can transport nearly 21,000 passengers each day while shaving around 90 minutes off travel time between the two hubs. Had they not looked at the numbers years in advance, the transit arteries could have been catastrophically clogged.

To emulate their success, you'll need to forecast your event as accurately as possible. A 2015 Harvard Business Review article recommends listing three to five goals that you hope to achieve. If those goals don't align with the numbers you're working with, which goals should take precedence? Which goals-like transportation, in the case of PyeongChang-are non-negotiable? Yes, thematic décor would be aesthetically pleasing, but is it really as important as a high-quality entrée? 

Know Your Audience 

The care and feeding of athletes is already a tightly choreographed dance-competitors often have a specific regimen that ensures they have the fuel they need to be at their best. Now try complicating this by attempting to cater to athletes from literally all around the world-what's standard for athletes from one corner of the world could be disconcerting for others. (Just ask British gymnast Louis Smith, who recounts being faced with sliced sheep's tongue in Ukraine.)

So the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, had a built-in advantage: The city's legacy of multinational cuisine made it a natural fit for filling the bellies of global athletes. By ensuring that familiar, competition-friendly foods were readily available, the organizers were able to show their understanding of the critical role cuisine plays for athletes.

The gist for planners: Understand and anticipate the needs of your audience. Serving foods that are familiar (or purposefully exotic) to your attendees is one clear takeaway here, but apply that logic to other aspects of your event. Soap and candle takeaway gifts might seem like a nice gesture that can incite a smile or two, but are they really necessary for, say, your corporate and financial clients? 

Take into Account Cultural Nuances--and Aim for Universality Whenever Possible 

Of course, organizing the Olympics isn't all mishaps and blunders. If anything, the event is a shining example of multiculturalism on a grand scale. With a few exceptions, and despite cross-country beef, warfare and uncertain political climates, countries come together to compete in pure athleticism. 

The key to a successful multicultural event, according to a Harvard Business Review piece, is being aware of cultural nuances but not obsessing over them. Just articulate what attendees can expect long before your meeting starts so the agenda and menu aren't a surprise.