It's tricky to plan an outdoor event for thousands of people when Mother Nature can be fickle. But Erin Johnson, who will be directing her first universitywide Commencement ceremony at Johns Hopkins on May 25, is ready.
Johnson knows that local weather can be unpredictable. She'll start scanning the forecasts more than a week in advance, then talk frequently with a local meteorologist in the days leading up to the big event.
The major worry is the potential for a severe storm with high winds, lightning, and thunder. The processional is slated to start at 9 a.m., a time less likely than late afternoon for bad storms or excessive heat. Rain isn't pleasant, but it's OK; it alone won't prompt a postponement. In fact, there are 30,000 ponchos currently in storage for anybody who needs one.
"We'll start having 5 a.m. weather calls with the meteorologist a couple of days leading up to the ceremony," she says. "If it looks like it's going to storm—anything that puts people in danger—we have rain dates." (For the universitywide ceremony this year, the rain date is Friday, May 26. Should any individual school ceremonies scheduled to take place outdoors earlier in the week have to be postponed because of weather, the change would bump all the events down the line.) "We ordered the ponchos last year, and luckily we didn't need them. I'm hoping we don't need them again this year."
Last year Johnson was a new hire, having arrived at JHU less than a month before Commencement. She wasn't in charge then, although she was involved. It wasn't her first outdoor event, but it was her first outdoor commencement, having arranged only indoor graduations during her previous job at University of Maryland Baltimore County.
She learned about the need for contingency plans right away: JHU's 2022 ceremony had to be pushed back a day when a major storm tore through the area. "It was so bad; there was a huge tree down across the main road," she recalls.
She's hoping for a gentler experience this year, though she knows she's almost certainly in for some sleepless nights beforehand. "I've done other outdoor events, but this is the first one with a big ceremony and a big stage being built and everything," she says. "It's very nerve-wracking."
In addition to the weather, there are countless other things to worry about. Does every graduate have a chair? (An estimated 1,700 of the more than 11,000 undergraduate and graduate students receiving degrees this year are expected to attend the ceremony.) Are there enough seats for family and friends? Can everyone get through the metal detectors in enough time? Did I order the right signage?
What if a speaker is late, or sick? Who stands where? Does the production company have the music files? Do the volunteers have all the supplies they need—"we rely on the help of about 150 volunteers to make the day run smoothly"—and have they all had the necessary training? Are the copies of the script on the podium?
"The week before the ceremony, many more concerns will come to me around 3 a.m.," she says. "Some of the littlest things, like Is the regalia for the stage party steamed and ready to go? will just pop into my head in my sleep. Honestly, none of the details is actually small; they all need to be right."
She adds: "It's really important to also point out that I have a really good team. It's not just me. There are four others." That would be Eileen Fader, senior director of Special Events; Liz Ganze, assistant director for university events; Maura Callahan, senior special events coordinator; and Bailey Galindo, development coordinator for university events. "We work really hard, and we work really well together," she says.
Johnson wasn't always an event planner. Her entry into the field was an accident.
It happened in 2009, in Boston, at the annual meeting of the Society for Integrative Comparative Biology. She was an underwriter and account manager who had just taken a temporary job for an organization that helps scientific societies plan and execute their meetings. Suddenly, her career trajectory took an unexpected turn.
"I took what was supposed to be a three-month job managing memberships and registration for their annual meetings. I was enjoying the work," she says. "When they needed help at one of the annual meetings, I did a lot of the on-site work, arranging the catering, doing the registration. I would go into the different meeting rooms and make sure [they were] set up correctly. I ran the registration desk and greeted everyone."
Arranging these gatherings can be daunting. "There is a tremendous amount of work that has to be done ahead of time," she says. "It could take months, or even a year, to plan an event that lasts only three days. There are so many pieces that go together. For example, picking the right hotel for the meeting, picking the right speakers for each section, picking the right host hotels for the attendees. The food, everything from the breakfasts and snacks in the meeting rooms to the big awards dinner. The scope of it can be quite overwhelming."
And she loves it. "I realized doing this kind of thing is what made me happy," she says. "When you go to one of these meetings, there's not one day that is like any other day. You're interacting with people, most of them happy to be there. Yes, you do deal with some grumpy people, too, but for the most part, the gatherings were a lot of fun. It's a fun experience that everyone comes together for."
Before coming to JHU, she worked for more than 10 years at UMBC as associate director of Special Events. In that role, she managed on-site indoor commencements and multiple other events, including university retreats, the annual alumni awards ceremony, board of regents and board of visitors meetings, alumni and donor relations events, and groundbreaking/ribbon-cutting ceremonies.
Among other things, she organized a lecture and VIP dinner for Jean Michel Cousteau, the French oceanographic explorer, environmentalist, educator, and film producer, and the first son of legendary ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau—a singular experience, she says. "One of the instructors brought him in for the lecture, and we did a big dinner for him. He's an amazing person. I remember that he and I talked about wine the whole night."
Earlier, between 2002 and 2008, she had worked in the mortgage industry as an account executive and underwriter—which, admittedly, was not nearly as much fun as what she is doing now. "Even with the sleepless nights and nervous apprehension, planning these events, which are so important to so many people, is just about the most satisfying thing I've ever done," she says.
She lives in Baltimore with two rescue animals, a cat and a dog, and enjoys Ravens games—she is a huge fan—as well as all the activities the city offers, including the Sunday morning Baltimore Farmers' Market and two of her personal favorites, the Creative Alliance's Great Halloween Lantern Parade in Patterson Park and the American Visionary Art Museum's Kinetic Sculpture Race, which takes place in part there. "Living close to Patterson Park, I am lucky to be able to enjoy so many great events," she says. And she doesn't have to organize any of them.