In 2014, a previous agency I worked for was opening a small, seasonal waterpark with a year-round Olympic-sized competition pool. It had been a whirlwind process and we were unsure until the very end of construction whether we'd meet our Memorial Weekend opening date.
It was important to our elected officials that everyone in the community would be able to experience the waterpark for free on opening day, so my full-time site staff advertised that there would be three, two-hour sessions available. Community members could RSVP ahead of time via an online form.
A few days before the event, I checked to see how many had RSVP'd. There were a few more entries than we had anticipated, so we informed the community that we were full for RSVP's and if they'd still like to attend for free, they'd need to wait in the standby line after the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
Having an enormous amount of anticipation for your facility’s opening is always the goal, so we were pleased.
At 5:45 on the morning of the grand opening, my staff informed me that though the form was disabled, they had allowed each person who RSVP'd to register six people. I rushed to my computer to determine how many had RSVP'd. Instead of the 6,000 people we thought were coming, we actually had 14,000 who had reserved spots in the waterpark for the day!
We immediately emailed all the guests who had RSVP'd, to let them know there was an error and that the RSVP line also would be first-come, first-served. We also made this offer: if they wanted to opt out of their two-hour free session on grand opening day, we would invite them for one free day at the waterpark any time during the inaugural season. While many were initially upset that their plans for the day were disrupted (and rightly so!), they were excited to receive an entire free day of their choosing instead.
I wish I could say this was the end of the excitement that day, but it was not. We used an online program that allows you to copy/paste the schedule from one week to another. The manager who created the schedule for the grand opening week had used the normal operations schedule, but on this special day, we were starting earlier than usual. During the 9 a.m. ribbon-cutting ceremony, the aquatics coordinator texted me that she had not checked the schedule earlier and that staff was not scheduled until 10:30 a.m. We had 15 minutes to find 20 staff members to operate the waterpark!
I calmly walked out of the ceremony, then sprinted to the waterpark office. We were able to stall the opening about 10 minutes by clever use of our mascot, making it possible to round up enough staff members to safely operate the park.
I've opened many facilities in my career, but that one might be the most memorable!
Develop a 15-minute increment opening plan. Had we implemented a detailed plan, we would've noticed that we didn't have enough staff scheduled for the first grand opening session.
Have multiple check-in points. Grand openings are anything but typical and can be stressful. Check with your staff (even full-time, experienced ones) to make sure they have all bases covered. Questions that might seem obvious, such as “Please confirm we have 20 lifeguards scheduled at 9 a.m. on May 29,” likely would've stopped at least one of our issues from occurring.
Be ready to adapt when something goes awry. Special events will always have something that does not go as anticipated. A great team has planned profusely to limit these incidents and can adapt and make things happen as needed to respond to day-of issues.