PokerStars Festival Dublin: How to organise a PokerStars Festival
If you head over to the PokerStars Live page and click on the festival tab, some fast maths will reveal that there are a total of 13 festivals listed. It all means that Dave Curtis - the Live Events Manager for Europe - is constantly busy. He's also responsible for organising the burgeoning success that are the MegaStack events and it means he's on the road for almost 50% of the year.
But just what is it that goes into planning a PokerStars Festival? There's far more than you think and with so many moving parts, planning starts as long as 18 months before a card is pitched. During some rare downtime we talked to Curtis about just what it takes to make a Festival a reality.
T minus 18 months
Planning starts well in advance of a tournament taking place as the whole PokerStars schedule needs to be considered. "Almost 12 to 18 months in advance we look at our calendar, we have to look at time slots as to where particular events are going to go," Curtis explains.
Whilst Curtis and Jonathan Raab - the business development manager for Europe - are working on Festivals, there's another team working on the Championship event and these have to be considered when planning the Festival stops. "This year we've taken a global approach so we have to be mindful of other events," he notes.
Prior to the rebranding Curtis was in charge of the UKIPT and Estrellas tours and Raab worked across multiple tours, most notably the Eureka tour. Between them they have a lot of experience of what works when. "Once we decide the pockets of time that suit a festival event we then have to discuss it with the marketing teams within PokerStars," says Curtis. "A good example of this is that last year we went to Bucharest because Romania was a recently licensed poker market. We held our first live event in Romania and it coincided with the launch of the Real Kid Poker documentary and we had Daniel Negreanu there. We wanted to show the people of Romania how good a show we can put on and we wanted to show the local regulators how well we're organised and what we can bring to the local community."
As well as the actual poker element of the events, Curtis points out that they're also about bringing people to cities and bringing money to the local economy and they are factors that have to be considered when looking at where to hold an event.
Going somewhere new - be it a country or venue - brings with it a new set of problems that have nothing to do with how to play ace-queen from under the gun. "Firstly you have to look at the law of the land. We don't skirt any convention; we don't do shades of grey," he states seriously. "We have to be sure we're fully compliant in that country. That's number one. We also need to look at the tax implications, that we're inline with whatever duties we're required to pay. We need to make sure we're inline with legislation and know if there are any special permissions required."
Those permissions include such legal issues as needing the various licences for putting on an event, from a bar licence to a gambling licence and much more. Much like poker rules, these aren't always the same and differ from territory to territory.
Once these important legal issues are established the team can zoom in on where to host the tournament, with the planning starting as soon as possible and there are many factors that go into the equation of ensuring a venue is suitable. "This is down to location, space, availability of hotel rooms, what the local night life will be. It's what we call the player journey," says Curtis and involves going deeper than just focusing on the tournament experience. "We need to think about what happens from the minute a player qualifies to the minute they arrive at the tournament. How do they get to the airport? Are there good transport links? Can we negotiate decent rates for the hotel rooms? Can we ensure there are decent facilities nearby, a gym a pool, activities, everything. We have to look at that journey from a players' point of view."
T minus 12 months
It's a lot of work and Curtis, Raab and the team will tap into their extensive contacts list and outsource parts of the planning process. "Sometimes in a location we will work with a partner," Curtis explains. "There are often casinos and established poker clubs already in locations we're planning to host tournaments. We will ask them to make a recommendation and we'll also ask PokerStars Travel."
After narrowing down the options, It's then time for Curtis to get out his well worn passport. "We will then arrange to visit the particular venues and talk to any/all of the casino management, the hotel owner and the local regulator. We will go and pick the venue, we try and limit it to a couple of visits to decide on the venue as there's a relentless schedule of live events."
It'll be a team with many departments represented that conducts these visits. As well as Curtis there will be someone from the poker operations side, such as Toby Stone (tournament director), a member of the design studio to provide guidance at how the venue can look and together they work through a checklist of issues which broadly encompass security, design, layout, logistics and the player experience. Curtis reals off a few of the considerations.
• How many tables we can have?
• Where will the entrance to the tournament room will be?
• Where can the player party be held?
• Where can we put the projectors that display the tournament information?
• Where we can store the chips?
• Where can the equipment trucks can park?
• Is there a secure area for the equipment?
• Are there any concerns over player security?
• Are there any technology issues, such as needing to provide additional internet bandwith?
Curtis has a simple mantra if any issues crop up. "Whatever problems we're faced with, we always believe there's an answer."
T minus nine months
At this point the live events team start working with the online poker team. Specifically, about satellites, when they should run, how many and trying to avoid clashes with other events. They also reach out to the design team to work on any special branding needed for the event, such as banners, pop up display material and more.
This is also the time when the important paperwork is put in order. Contracts will be issued to the venue, the hotel and the partners and any permissions from the local governments and tax authorities are secured. Depending on the venue this can be an intensive process as Curtis explains. "In can be difficult going to a new venue, but somewhere like Marbella, where we've hosted events for a few years, we will have a good idea of how many hotel rooms will be required. Somewhere like Bucharest, which was a new venue, we need to weigh up the cost of hotel rooms and what the demand will be. Will it be more of a locals event or will there be a wider reach? We have to look at what's best for staff and the dealers. How many will we need? Will we be using local dealers? Or the GPTL dealer database? In Marbella for instance, you have to be licensed locally to be able to deal."
T minus six months
At this stage there's plenty of behind the scenes activities that helps ramp up the interest in the event as it gets closer. "We'll provide information to help set up the web pages for the events and have input on how all the details go up and how the communications about the event go out to the players," explains the Irishman. "This involves coordinating with a lot of different teams. It goes down to the smallest details like briefing in graphics for the websites, the social media team and the blog team. Getting tweets out about the event, sending mailers out to existing players and working on organising freerolls, they're all part of the planning at this stage."
T minus three months
With just three months to go the level of activity around an event increases, as does the hours Curtis needs to devote to it. "At this stage we're juggling a lot of balls! Studio (design), social media, marketing, online satellites, legal issues, briefing the registrations staff so they can answer any player queries that they receive. At this stage we produce a fact file that they can use. All these elements are up in the air at the same time!"
The finer points about the actual place where the poker will be played are also dealt with. "We produce an AutoCAD drawing so that we know the exact amount of tables that can fit in a room and what design elements can also fit in the tournament room."
With that ticked off, It's at this stage that the team really start to lock down the tournament schedule. "Space is the biggest issue," he says. "It defines what we can and can't do when it comes to the tournament schedule. For the Festivals we've pretty much stuck with the same schedule that Toby Stone introduced to the UKIPT from its inception. There have been changes since, Toby will track what events are popular and look at innovative formats. He's constantly looking at reformatting the schedule based on what does and doesn't work."
The most recent innovation is the Day 1C turbo format in the Main Event. Any player busting out of Day 1A or 1B may enter Day 1C, it has the same structure as the other opening flights, but with shorter levels. "It's something Jonathan Raab bought into the Eureka Poker Tour and we adapted it, says Curtis. "Then there's the MegaStack," he continues. "It's an event we launched this year and have now incorporated into the festival stops. The MegaStack has bought a whole new dynamic to what I do. I'm overseeing all the MegaStack events as well as the festivals, which is close to 30 events."
T minus one month
By this stage in the process the team have a good idea of how many players are going to show up to an event. "You see the activity online, you know how many people have qualified online. You get good feedback from your interactions on social media, as a finger in the wind gauge I can see how many queries I get directly from players," Curtis tells me. "We also get information from our partners, so in Marbella the local casino ran satellites. They tell us how many players have bought in the event in advance. We also know from the hotel partners how many rooms have been filled, so we have a very good idea of the likely attendance."
T minus one week
At this stage is it all hands to the pump and panic stations? Not so much. "My catchphrase in the office is 'pressure is for tyres!' There is a certain pressure but by this stage a lot of the hard work is done. There's intense pressure on getting contracts signed and agreements with local authorities and legal departments. Getting all that signed off. That's all done well ahead of time. All the hard yards and work is done already."
That's not to say there are problems to deal with, it's just that they aren't on a business critical level. "At this stage of the event you have issues, but they're standard stuff to us. Dropouts, registrations, people wanting to change start days or hotels, that kind of thing."
Heading to a new venue can have its complications though. "Venues and hotels will always tell you 'yes we will, yes we can.' Then when you turn up, you find out 'no they can't' and you have to fix it. The team give me stick because I have an internet speed measurement app on my phone. When I go to a new hotel I actually go up every single floor and take measurements with my phone. I walk to the most extreme areas on each floor and measure the internet speed."
If that sounds a little unhinged, It's because player feedback indicates how important stable and reliable internet is to the players. "When I talk to the venue about the internet I have to drill it in to them how important this element is. I use the analogy that players would rather have no hot water than no internet. They really would. It is the most important thing to them. I have to be a bit OCD about that."
The Event itself
So the event is finally here, whilst the players will turn up the day of, or the night before, their first event, Curtis is on the scene well before that. If a Festival begins on a Monday, he'll likely be in town from the Friday, because the set-up is extensive. Take the Marbella festival for example. "We had two 40 foot trailers with various equipment. The set-up team arrive and we start at 6am. The branding, which has been tailor-made for the venue has to be set-up, the tables have to be bought in and arranged. The setting up of the registration area, the press area too. What none of the players see is the equipment room, the chips and cards. Nobody gets in there. We set it up in a very specific way by specific people with the correct clearance. Then there's checking for sound, power and more."
And this set-up process doesn't always go smoothly! "I remember going to Edinburgh once and the venue had agreed to get some external parking bollards dropped so we could get the equipment trucks close to the venue," he begins. "That didn't happen. So we were about 300 feet of cobbled street away from the entrance, through which we had to transport every single table. The cobbles were so bad that we couldn't use the trollies to transport the tables, so we had to carry every single table. Then when we got to the entrance the lifts weren't working so we had to carry the tables up three flights of stairs. We eventually got about 30 people to help us. We had to hire in staff to help, but we got it done. We always get there."
It's not the only issue that can occur, Curtis reels of a list of issues that he's seen. They include power outages, fire alarms going off, punches thrown, paramedics called and so on. "You have to be ready for the unexpected, but the way I look at it is that there are no surprises. Even if the most extraordinary incident occurs then you have to keep calm. There is always a solution, there is always a plan B."
Asked about his most important task during the event itself and Curtis is unequivocal in his answer. "My number one responsibility is the players. I need to ensure that the security measures are in place, that there are enough dealers, that the registrations process is set up correctly and that the hotel is ready. That element is daily and ongoing throughout the tournament. During the event we're also handling player requests. For example, if a player wants to move their Main Event start day from 1A to 1B we help facilitate that. A live event is a moving animal and you have to adapt. For instance, the MegaStack in Marbella got 761 players. That meant we had to extend it by a day and we had to work out where we could hold the final day's play."
A semi-serious poker player Curtis played in the first ever UKIPT, which was held in Galway in December 2009. "I was a player," he says firmly. "When I plan I always think as a player."
Ten-handed play is a hot topic, with players clearly not in favour of having to play 10-handed "You try and do everything for players, if we didn't run Day 1 of the Marbella Main Event as a 10-handed tournament I would speculate that 100 to 120 players wouldn't have been able to play. That's the choice you've got. For somewhere like Marbella that choice purely comes down to space. I know 10-handed isn't as fun as nine handed, but then I genuinely know players that prefer 10-handed play. They feel it suits them better. Some of our stops are so big that it's just impossible to run eight or nine handed tournaments."
Long after the winner's photo has been taken and the players have disappeared, Curtis is still there. "The very second the last tournament finishes we (the logistics team) come in. We're like ants over a leaf. We swarm in and derig the venue. For a tournament such as the Marbella Festival it'll take two and a half days to complete. I could do it in a day but it would mean working 24-hours and having twice the amount of staff and making special security announcements."
And after the derig, he's gone, on the road again and onto the next tournament.