When I think of Camping Operations, my first inclination is a fun summer evening with some cool music and a campfire under the stars. Then you add thousands of college kids, a crap load of booze, raging hormones, inclement weather, clean shitters, and 24/7 food and entertainment options. And pretty quickly the role of Camping Operations Director goes from slightly weird camp counselor, to full on City Planner. The reality is that it's one of the most grueling positions, with a crap load of liability when it comes to some of the largest camping festivals in the country.
The bottom-line: whomever is managing that, has to be seriously buttoned-up.
Meet Firefly Music Festival Operations Director Josh Mohr: Rockin' the Fanny Pack like a Boss while working on Warrior Dash.
LET'S SET THE SCENE
So of course we had to sit down with Josh Mohr at Firefly Music Festival (no need to remind you that Firefly had over 60,000 campers this year - so he definitely would have some great insight). I was also really curious how someone with no prior music festival and camping knowledge could jump right into a major undertaking.
Photo cred: Firefly
HERE'S A FEW FIREFLY FACTS
- First signed band: The Black Keys
- 2017 headliners: The Weeknd, Chance the Rapper, Muse, Twenty One Pilots, Bob Dylan
- Number of festival attendees: 90,000
- Number of campers: 60,000
- Dover campground size: 600 acres
Photo cred: Firefly
So, you mind if we just jump in?
Absolutely. Yeah, go ahead.
Cool, man. So, where did you grow up?
I grew up in a small farm town called Yorkville, an hour west of Chicago. I went to school in Illinois and started working after college in commercial construction management. I did that for three or four years and then started up with Red Frog.
How long have you been with Red Frog?
I'm coming up on five years now. I've been fortunate to have a number of different roles with Red Frog.
When I was working construction, I got really burned out. At the time I was doing triathlons quite a bit and I wanted to do my own races. I looked up race director jobs and then found Red Frog had an event coordinator internship available. When I got the internship, I helped out with the Warrior Dash, which is a bit like triathlons. I was also fortunate that right after my internship started, they announced Firefly 2012 and I got in at the right time.
Firefly Music Festival Operations Director Josh Mohr: I'm curious if the mini was part of his advance or if he brought it with him.
If you were a piece of event equipment, what would you be and why?
Probably a zip tie. They're pretty versatile, and they can definitely save you, especially with doing events outside. You can get pretty creative with zip ties.
Are there any camping stats for Firefly that still just blow your mind?
I think it's just the volume of people that come in such a short period of time. I've been our camping director for five years. So, I've seen it grow quite a bit. It's the craziest 48 to 50 hours of time that I could ever imagine. It's pretty much from Wednesday at 6:00 AM all the way til Friday. We've slowly adjusted our scheduling and load-in times each year to try to best accommodate our campers, but also try to minimize the impact on the local community. We start camping on Wednesday, so we have to be considerate of the surrounding community who are still working Wednesday, Thursday, Friday.
Photo cred: Randy Mohr
So, loading in off one of the main thoroughfares is definitely a burden, but we've done our best to try to minimize that burden. We have something like 16,000 campsites loaded into the grounds in a two-day period. It's pretty crazy. Especially when you're tired and you're just like, "Oh yeah. It looks like the traffic's dwindling down," and then a big rush of cars will come in. It's exciting. We work with some awesome vendors and really incredible public safety organizations that really work. I think we all work really well together and try to keep each other sane for those few days of load in.
How many campers do you guys end up having each year?
Last year, we had close to 60,000 campers. We have four different camping options that they can choose from. That includes group campsites that accommodates up to 40 people, tent camping and RV camping, and our glamping sites. We have one of the largest glamping festivals in the country, which includes cots with pillows and blankets, electricity, and private showers. We have lots of options for our campers.
We try to accommodate as many different types of campers as we can. Our general tent camping and Wednesday tent camping are two of our most popular ones. We've seen that those are the really hardcore festival-goers and more power to them because it's a grind being there for six days.
Last year was the first year that we did group camping. We saw that because we're in close proximity to so many major cities that there were a lot of people who took buses, trains, carpool, and showed up without a vehicle. They didn't really have a use for a standard 10 foot by 30 foot tent site so we created group campsites that are 40 foot by 40 foot areas. You can get up to 25 people in it. We want it to be fluid and be able to accommodate anyone.
Light beer, good tunes. Photo cred: Firefly
With the wide range of options, does that create more challenges?
Yeah. It slowly gets easier each year. We're learning what Firefly is becoming and who our patrons are. We make sure that all of our vendors and staff are trained to understand all of our camping options. It's a challenge.
Since we have so many camping options and packages with different arrival times, its been a huge learning curve for our staff as well as the public safety and traffic agencies we work with. Dover has been a NASCAR town for decades, and while both are large volume events with camping, they are quite different. Each year the trust between our organizations grows and we are able to work together much more cohesively. Last year was a breakthrough year for us where everyone truly "got it." The agencies we work with were making changes on the fly in the field that benefited load in and our patrons.
How many different vendors are you working with?
Anything from our tent and fencing vendors to our parking staff to market vendors that are selling different goods and food and beverage vendors. There's more than a hundred different vendors.
We try to have the same vendors and partners work within camping and in the festival because the campgrounds are more integrated into the festival. When the festival closes, campers and everyone have to exit. Then we'll have six to eight thousand Day Tripper vehicles come in each day for people who are staying locally or at hotels. So, we have some vendors that are specific to camping.
How big is your internal team networks on camping then?
The core team that I have is about 12 people who help set up, maintain and teardown the Hub. The Hub provides campers with anything they need outside of the festival gates.
The Hub includes an on-site market with fresh produce and snacks, plus access to merch and the exclusive Hub stage only available to campers. Photo by Firefly.
The team helps set up decor and signage and makes sure that the tollbooth is set up. I help get that set up with our vendors. I am the only full-time camping staff, though. We'll hire contract workers and we have quite a few awesome folks that come back each year, which is incredible, when they can. Then in general, with all of our vendors, and event day staff, it's probably closer to 100 people that help work on camping.
Do you have camping for other events or is it primarily just Firefly?
Just Firefly for now. I definitely try to push it for other events that I think would benefit from it.
How far out from the start of the event are you starting to think about ramping up for camping?
You know what? After Firefly, we usually take a couple days off just to re-gather all of our energy and sanity. We usually do about a month of debriefs after Firefly, through mid-July. Then we'll usually start up in September to start planning for next year's Firefly and that includes camping. We have a lot of permitting required so we tackle that first and any big picture logistics we want to accomplish.
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When you think about the entire camping process, managing and overseeing it, what tends to be the biggest challenges?
The biggest challenge for me is trying to have our patrons read the pre-event materials that we send them. That could be anything from what to do with their wristbands to understanding campground entry locations. If directions aren't read, it can negatively affect their experience. So we try to communicate as much as we can with our patrons ahead of the event to make it as smooth as possible.
I'm curious, what do you think the most key information is to relay to campers immediately upon signup?
We try to over-communicate to our campers. Especially as it gets closer to the event, we communicate details that pertain to how you're going to get there or what to do when you get there. We will communicate traffic routes and shuttles to patrons, because the directions are very specific depending on what camping credential they have. Information is blasted out in our ticketing package, emails, social media and our website. You can't miss it.
Photo cred: @fireflymusicfestival
Has there been anything that you've been surprised about when it comes to things to do inside the campgrounds?
I think the hours that people are awake is something that has surprised me the most. I'm pretty much not getting any sleep Wednesday through Friday just because our loading goes 24 hours a day. We'll have our headphone disco going from midnight to 4:00 a.m. We start at midnight because that's when we shut down our stages in camping to keep the outside noise down for the city. I'll usually get outside around 5 a.m. on Saturday, and there's still people moving around like zombies. Then, people are usually getting back up at seven in the morning for another round. It's pretty crazy.
Headphone disco keeps the party going and the music limited to headsets for Dover residents. Photo cred: Firefly
If you are attending Firefly and you are camping, what's one activity that you know you would be at?
So, we started a partnership with Delaware Tourism to build sand valleyball courts right in our North Hub to integrate more activities. It's become extremely popular because the Delaware beaches are killer and it's promoting Delaware as a travel destination. Now we're offering intramural fields, including frisbee and soccer, so people can keep having fun and enjoy the outdoors.
Photo cred: Firefly
So, how are you tracking capacity?
Yeah, we definitely do on-site tracking. With our parking and traffic company, they'll give us multiple times and hour counts on lots. They'll physically drive through and count. One of the best benefits about working with the Dover International Speedway is that they have a solid infrastructure already in place. So, we have cameras around the speedway and in our north campgrounds, as well as the festival. It's beneficial for doing physical counts of cars that are left in the main parking lot overnight or going in.
When someone gets scanned for check-in, we get an hourly report so we know how many general tent campers or premium glampers checked in during that hour. When the festival's open, we receive gate counts so we know how many people are checking in throughout the gates. It's really beneficial having those cameras because we can say, "Okay, well, we had a hundred people check in for premium glamping and we still have 50 sites left, but there's only 20 sites left based off of the camera view." Accuracy is extremely important when you're limited on space.
If you had to give other camp managers advice on this process what advice would you give?
Really try to over-communicate on all aspects of the event. Be as concise and clear on what you want your campers to do. If you can set that expectation as early as possible so that they know exactly where they're going to be camping or they know the exact route they should be taking it can save a ton of headaches.
Photo cred: Firefly
It also really helps to have all that information available to temporary staff. If you have emails, the website, and a printed-out pamphlet that you have available to both staff and campers, it's really handy. The staff can easily say, "Hey, you know what? No, you actually can't have an open fire. It says it right here. That's the rule that we have to abide by."
What is your biggest stress when it comes to the overall process?
Load in. The load in during the event is pretty stressful. Ultimately, we don't want to have our patrons upset if they hit traffic. And we don't want to upset the community either if they hit Firefly traffic. It's a big stress factor because you have 16,000 campsites getting loaded in over a two or three-day period. It's inevitably going to cause some anxiety. We've gotten so much better each year by working with the Department of Transportation and state and local police. It's gotten better, but it's by no means perfect.
Photo cred: Firefly
Then, I'm knocking on wood, but the last two years we've had rain during load in. It just adds another level of stress. Once everyone's in and to their campsites the stress has completely gone away. That's really when you can start enjoying yourself and catch up with your staff that's working the Hub or on tasks that you may not have been able to get done before load in. That's definitely one of the lows, but you can get picked up pretty quick.
If you were to fast-forward five years from now, how do you see the camping experience evolving?
I would love to see camping grow a little bit more. Ultimately, if people are staying on-site and their access to the festival is that much closer, they're going to engage and immerse themselves in the weekend a little bit more versus someone who's staying in a hotel or driving. In five years, I'd like to see us create a cohesive experience so that fans are experiencing new activities day and night from the festival to the campgrounds. Ultimately in the end, we're just trying to make the best weekend we can for people.
Mission accomplished. Photo cred: Firefly
In your work life, are you insecure about anything?
Honestly, the biggest insecurity that I think I have and a lot of the staff that I work with have is that none of us came from the music or festival industry. We all came from very different backgrounds. I was in construction. There's people who worked for sports teams, people who came directly from college, whatever. When we started with Firefly, we were going off of other festivals that we've attended. We were going off of the Warrior Dash events that we did. We realized that there's really no true textbook way of doing things. So, I think the insecurity that I have is just like, "Is there a different way of doing this? Is there a more efficient way of doing this?"
Do you have any parting wisdom for those in the festival and event world?
One of my former mentors told me this analogy that I hated at the time but it works. You're juggling glass balls and you're juggling rubber balls. Your main goal is to not drop the glass balls. The rubber balls can drop, because there are things that happen that aren't the end of the world. So, that was always an analogy that I tried to think about when things aren't going as well as I'd like them to.
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