Behind the Scenes at Obama's Commencement Address
As the scorching sun goes down over Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Ariz., Brad Kramer doesn’t take his eyes off the crowd. Over 65,000 people have gathered to listen to President Barack Obama address Arizona State University’s (ASU) graduating class, and as president and CEO of event management company PRO EM, it’s Kramer’s job to ensure a flawless experience for all.
Every waving hand, every gesture and movement could be cause for concern. He watches the purple shirts too — the hundreds of PRO EM staffers and hired security guards ensuring the safety and proper management of the event. Everyone has a place, everyone has a job, and with the safety and enjoyment of thousands in his hands, Kramer can’t blink an eyelash.
“Someone tell the guy in section three to pull up his pants,” comes the chatter over his radio. He continues to listen as his team quickly moves to handle the situation. PRO EM is not in charge of security per se — after all there are swarms of Secret Service and other government agents covering all corners of the event — but the company is responsible for the experience.
“This is a high-visibility event for ASU,” says Kramer. “It’s important to us that ASU looks good.”
It’s not the first time PRO EM has managed an event at Sun Devil Stadium; the company frequently manages football games for the university. But this event is different. Instead of setting up operations and check-in in the adjacent Wells Fargo Arena, PRO EM was relegated to the parking garage while the Secret Service set up stations in the arena. The additional security also posed an interesting challenge as more than half of the regular entry gates were closed off for security reasons.
“ASU normally has five gates and now we’re down to two,” said Tora Pasesa, vice president of administration and quality assurance for PRO EM. “We have to keep the crowd happy and moving in a safe, organized way.”
Part of ensuring safety also meant making sure everyone got enough water and shade — not an easy task for a crowd that large in an outdoor stadium in Phoenix’s 100-degree heat.
“This is not a typical football crowd,” said Kramer. “At a football game, normally three quarters of the crowd has been here before. But today we’re dealing with a lot of out-of-towners and elderly people not accustomed to this heat.”
To complicate matters, the Secret Service would not allow any water through the gates. To ensure everyone stayed hydrated, PRO EM set up three “cool zones” throughout the stadium in which anyone could receive free water — a life saver for some who walked a mile just to get to the stadium and then sat in the sun for over four hours.
As the relentless Phoenix sun finally set over the stadium and the gates closed after the last few stragglers, the anticipation began to build in the crowd. Air Force One was spotted flying overhead on its way to the airport. Soon, the president’s motorcade was seen pulling into the secured area. Sharp shooters on the rooftops readied themselves; purple shirts throughout the arena kept careful watch; the crowd stood up and craned their necks to catch a glimpse of the country’s chief executive. Finally, they did.
As Obama entered the stage, the stadium erupted with cheers. Camera flashes exploded across the stands and didn’t subside throughout Obama’s time onstage, where he expressed the importance of pursuing dreams and helping others.
Even after the president finishes speaking, Kramer continues to scan the crowd, slightly more relaxed now that the president’s visit has gone off without a hitch. His eyes show signs of weariness, yet there is a sparkle of delight.
Was it all worth it? Absolutely, says Kramer. “I just love being a part of it.”
Aubrey Blankenship is the senior editor and art director of Event Solutions. Contact: email@example.com