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Interview: Carole Jo Utech, Event Manager for the Chicago Festival Association

By Chris Karr in Miscellaneous on Nov 20, 2006 2:30PM

Chicagoist loves the holidays in the city. Whether it's looking at the Marshall Fields Macy's store windows, shopping in the Christkindlmarket, or just enjoying a walk between the tall buildings during a moderate snowfall, there's no place that we'd rather be over the next month than right here.

Much of Chicago's success with the holidays draws upon the city's many holiday traditions. We're huge fans of seeing A Christmas Carol at the Goodman every year and being awed by the giant tree that goes up every year in the Daley Plaza. These city traditions create a continuity with holidays past, and it just feels good to be part of all of that.

Carole Jo Utech, Event Manager for CFAWhile the parade lit up Michigan Avenue this weekend, our holiday season doesn't start until we drag ourselves out at seven in the morning (on a holiday!) to State Street so that we can get a good place to watch the annual Thanksgiving Parade. We typically watch about half of the floats go by before going home to cook dinner and watching the rest of the parade on television while chopping potatoes, preparing stuffing, and checking the turkey. Thanksgiving is one of our favorite days of the year, and it's due in no small part to the ritual we've constructed for ourselves.

That said, we were fortunate last week to chat with one of the people who work hard all year to pull off the parade. We didn't have a clue about what went into the event, so it was cool to get a "behind the scenes" look at the whole shebang:

Chicagoist: Tell us who you are and what you do.

Carole Jo Utech: My name is Carole Jo Utech, and I'm the event manager for the Chicago Festival Association, and we produce the McDonald's Thanksgiving Parade.

CFA was formed eleven years ago to solely produce the parade. The parade is in its seventy-third year, and throughout that time it's been produced by different groups in the city, and we were formed eleven years ago to solely produce the parade year-round. It takes us about twelve months to put on the parade — we begin the year recruiting all the different units, then we reach out to different sponsors, and then we start looking for volunteers. We have a leadership board that works with the volunteers year-round. The leadership board is made up of forty individuals who oversee certain areas of the parade — from staging to disband to balloons to banners to equestrian units — every unit that needs to work on the parade. They meet once a month for the entire year and help coordinate all the different issues of operation, production, sponsorship and volunteer recruitment. We have a really good board this year.

This is my ninth parade for the City of Chicago.

C: How many people does it take to put on the parade?

CJU: We work with fifteen hundred volunteers on parade morning. We work with a volunteer board leadership staff — about forty individuals — and an operations staff of about a hundred individuals. We have close to five thousand participants — over a hundred and twenty units. A unit is categorized as either a balloon, an equestrian unit, specialty unit, marching band, or a float. In each of those specific units are participants. In any given parade, we're working with five to seven thousand people to bring the parade together. Volunteers, operations, and our units.

On the day of the parade, over three hundred and fifty thousand people are on the streets. We're nationally-syndicated, so there are millions of viewers at home. It's a great way to kick off the holiday season. To see the street come alive at two or three o'clock in the morning when the balloons begin getting inflated and the volunteers start showing up at five a.m. and the units start arriving by seven a.m. Before you know it, the entire staging area at Congress and Harrison streets — down by State and Harrison — all of the area is so congested with people and excitement and energy. It's a great way to start the day.

C: What should we expect this year in terms of balloons, floats, and marching bands?

CJU: McDonald's is our Title sponsor this year, and they have some amazing units in the parade. Just to name a few, they have created an inflatable with Ronald McDonald in his Giant Red Shoe and a float featuring Grimace in a snowglobe. They have been a great sponsor to work with these last few months. We also have more marching band participants this year then any other year before, representing schools from all over the country. We have the Kilgore Rangerettes from Texas which is a phenomenal performance group, and we are very excited about them being here this year. We also have the Top Hat Marching Orchestra visiting us from Ontario, a spectacular performance group. Elmo, sponsored by Macy's, is debuting in the parade this year, as well as usual favorites such as Kermit, Bert & Ernie, Tom Turkey and Rudolph.

C: How much recruiting do you have do for the parade?

CJU: We do a lot of recruiting in the early months of the year. We send out letters to all of our units who in previous years have participated and to the units who have applied. We get back hundreds of applications from different groups — bands, specialty units, floats that want to be in the parade, honored guests, celebrities. We go through the list and try to get a really good variety from year to year. Obviously, people don't want to come back every year and see the exact same parade, so we try to reach out for new variety. We try to reach out and get groups from around the country. We look for international groups. We work with a recruiting group for our marching bands, and they do a wonderful job of getting us most of our bands from outside the state of Illinois.

ABC 7 is our broadcast television station that we work with, and we break the parade down into twelve segments. In each segment, we try to have a balloon, a specialty unit, an equestrian unit, a float, and marching bands. So in every unit — every TV break — you don't see all the bands in the first break, all the floats, all the balloons. We have them dispersed throughout the event. We try to keep a balanced number of marching bands, floats, and balloons. It all comes down to a science in the end with the time that we get. With live televised events, everything is measured down to the second. It's a lot of preparation and a lot of work and a lot of fun.

C: How much of the structure of the parade is determined by the broadcast? For example, do you purposely add breaks to the parade to accommodate commercials for the people watching at home?

CJU: When we structure the segments, we put certain groups at certain points in the parade, so we don't have one break that is a three-minute commercial break and one break that would be a twelve-minute commercial break. We try to keep the time elements of each segment so that it's roughly the same time. At the top of the break, we do a stage performance in the television zone. It's a specialty group or a theatrical group. And they'll kick off the first segment. For instance, we have American Girl Theatre that has participated in our parade for many years, so they will have a certain time when they'll perform. And it will be when we come back from commercial break. Our personalities will say, "This is such-and-such group here for you to perform." They'll do their performance, and the parade keeps moving.

So, the parade isn't a constant forward motion. There is a lot of stopping. It's good for the units because not everybody has a stopped performance in the TV zone. Everyone goes through the TV zone, but when the parade is stopped for commercials, they can perform for the spectators that are along the street. This year, we have Toastmasters, which is an international speaking group, who are going to be the official announcers of the parade. Whereas spectators would only learn about what the parade units are in the TV zone, because Sue would be announcing it, we'll have a Toastmaster station set up along the blocks of the parade, and they will also announce the units as they come by. Which is an extra element that has been added to the parade that wasn't there before. We're really excited about that.

C: What is the distance between staging and the TV zone?

CJU: Staging begins at Congress and Harrison. Step-off, which is just north of staging, is at Congress and State. That is where integration happens, so in staging, we have all of our equestrian units lined up in one area, all of the floats in one area, the balloons in one area, and the bands in one area. We have an integration team that has the line-up and they know the order it comes in. In those areas, the units are lined up in the order they need to be so they can keep filtering down the route.

This integration team will be at Congress and State, and that's considered step-off. That's at 8:30. We are live on ABC 7 at 9:00 a.m. So it takes roughly a half hour for that unit to leave the staging area and walk to the TV zone. The pace varies on time, and we have marshals set up to let the units know to speed up or slow down to keep them on their time. They enter the TV zone at State and Madison. The TV zone is between Madison and Washington, and once they clear Washington, disband begins at Randolph. And they disband throughout the area north. It's just under a mile from staging to disband.

C: It was absurdly cold last year at the parade. What's the forecast for this year?

CJU: Anything is going to better than last year. It could be twenty degrees, and we would be happy. Surprisingly, a lot of our chairs and vice chairs and staff are constantly checking the weather forecast. Now, it's calling for upper-forties, partially cloudy — which is perfect parade weather. You are still running around, you still have that excitement, drinking hot chocolate, so you don't want it to be that much warmer. The partially cloudy skies are perfect for our photographers. We have a great group of photographers from the Arlington Heights photographer club. They come out and they have been working with us — this is their fourth parade. They take thousands and thousands of pictures within twelve hours. From 10 p.m. the night before, we are setting up the street. The street is closed and the logo is painted. They're out there taking those pictures, and they're out there until we're done the next day. So, I think that the weather is going to be on our side this year.

C: How much helium does this parade consume?

CJU: An enormous amount. I don't have the exact number, but it's more than you could imagine. Last year, we had Miss Piggy as one of our balloons, and as you can imagine, she was an enormous balloon. I think we ran out of helium last year, with the size of the balloons we had. That's always something that we try and make sure that we have enough of. It's one of our largest bills, actually. [We later found out that the rough number was fifty thousand cubic feet of the gaseous substance. - ed.]

C: Can you tell us about the yearly cycle that produces this parade?

CJU: Starting the day after Thanksgiving, this year, we'll open the volunteer program for volunteers to sign up. Then we work on thank-you notes to all of our volunteers, our sponsors, our partners, our vendors, and participants. We do a thank-you party at the beginning of January. Starting in February, we begin recruitment. We start with unit recruitment, and we reach out to different band groups, different specialty unit groups, equestrian groups, honored guests, and celebrities. We reach out to people that have participated in years past. Then we actually go out to events in the city and country looking at other parades. We look at different events that have units that could be interested in our parade. We send mailings out and do follow-up phone calls. Our leadership board begin to meets in February, then we meet monthly for that. They work on structuring what worked well this year, and what they want to improve for next year. They start recruiting volunteers. They start working on getting gift bag donations. So that happens monthly. We work with partners and vendors immediately — renewing contracts. A lot of the PR begins at the beginning of the summer. We close our application process for units at the end of May. By June, we let our units know if they are in or whether they should apply next year. We're starting to work with the line-up then, and we start receiving float applications, and we decide what our balloons will be. By the end of August, we have the structure down of who's going to be in the parade and who's not. We have half of all our volunteers by August, and then we drop a huge mailer to every person who's volunteered up to three years back. We contact them and reach out to them to volunteer. September and October fly by, and before you know it, it's a few days before the parade.

We pray to the weather gods somewhere in there, too.

C: How does this parade compare to others?

CJU: I love this parade, personally. This is something that I've wanted to be involved with since I saw "Miracle on Thirty-Fourth Street" when I was five years old. I make it a personal mission to tell everyone that I know about this event. I think that it's such a good way to bring in the holiday season. We have a great core group of volunteers and a strong group of units that reapply every year. We have a great operations team and a great group of sponsors who work with us, and great support from the city. It's really a family that puts on this parade. We have had excellent ratings in the last few years on television and radio.

C: For our own five year-old readers who want to do parades, can you tell us how you got involved?

CJU: I was a junior in college at NIU, and I was on a leadership board with the city of DeKalb working on events between the university and the city. I was a student-liaison. There was a woman there who I worked with on the board, and I told her — like I have told every other person in my life — that some day, I would like to help run the parade in Chicago. Maybe Macy's in New York. It's what I want to do. And she said, "Come on down and do Chicago's." I thought that she was pulling my leg, and I couldn't believe it. I called my Mom and told her that I was helping out with the parade. I went down — this was 1998 — and I started as a volunteer. The next year, I started working with disband and the next few years, I was disband manager. I oversaw everything that happened with the parade after the TV zone. I kept getting more involved and helping out where I could, and then last December, I was brought on full time to be an event manager for the parade. And my advice to anybody who has that dream at five years old and wants to stay with it is if you're really passionate about something, do everything that you can to make it happen.