How One Vendor Experienced the Pope's Visit to Philadelphia

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“I learned that, even with the largest security detail in U.S. history, it is possible to make an event happen without a hitch,” Gerald Czaja says of last September’s World Meeting of Families Congress in Philadelphia. As senior client solutions manager at Freeman Audio Visual, Czaja submitted the winning bid for the delivery and installation of Simultaneous Interpretation Systems in four languages for the World Meeting of Families at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, as well as the pope’s message to the visiting bishops at the Chapel of St. Martin at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood.

When Pope Francis accepted the invitation to be part of the WMOF from Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and Archbishop Charles Chaput, the game changed. No stranger to high-security events, Czaja soon learned that the pontiff’s arrival would bring with it a bevy of checkpoints, check-ins and outright transportation checkmates. Czaja had to register his entire crew with Secret Service, as well as navigate the security demands of FBI and other federal authorities, including Pennsylvania State Police, the Philadelphia Police Department and Vatican authorities.

Czaja realized it would take months of preparation. He and his team worked with the client, Talley Management Group of Mount Royal, New Jersey, on budgeting for the technology.

He’d thought of everything during the runup to the event: staffing, both internal and translators for the events; flights, hotels, and general travel arrangements; security clearances for the staff. However, no amount of planning would have guaranteed Czaja a smooth journey from start to finish.

With National Guard checkpoints set up across Philadelphia, a “papal box” had been established, which denied access to anyone not holding proper credentials. The security zone, also known as the “traffic box,” extended east to west from the Delaware River to 38th Street. Its southern border ran from South Street and its northern border and went along Spring Garden Street, Ridge Avenue and Girard Avenue. Maneuvering in, out and through the papal box proved a challenge for Czaja and his crew. “We provided eight interpreters with A/V techs and booths with equipment for 20,000 attendees,” he says. “Figuring out how to move trucks into and out of the security zones was a huge undertaking.”

Freeman’s manager of digital delivery, Philip Bradley, agreed, citing ever-changing security, both in Philadelphia and at the seminary, as the single biggest challenge to Freeman’s work during WMOF. “Fortunately for me,” Bradley says, “with many years’ experience dealing with large international—even political meetings—I was well prepared to deal with the security and their changes. I’ve worked on G7/G8 summits, as well as working with Pope John Paul in the ‘80s in Canada, where I started working with Freeman.”

The obstacles did not let up until the very last moment for Czaja, Bradley and the team from Freeman. Their final event took place on Sunday morning at St. Charles Seminary, where Pope Francis was to address a group of Bishops visiting from around the world.

Czaja’s entire team—interpreters, A/V techs, Freeman staff—were scheduled to depart for various destinations across the globe immediately following the pope’s address. In order to coordinate the logistics, Czaja found himself sending his whole crew and all the equipment on a bus to Wynnewood without him. He needed to remain behind to manage one last detail: luggage. Security measures meant that no one could bring their luggage along to the seminary; leaving it unattended outside the perimeter was not an option.

Quickly, Czaja reached out to client Kathy Baumer of Talley Management. Together with Downtown Marriott staff and the Philadelphia Chief of Police Charles Ramsey, Baumer arranged for the Freeman contingent’s luggage to travel, via police escort, to the seminary where they’d drop off Czaja. The luggage was then spirited away to Philadelphia Airport Marriott and locked in an empty conference room until it was retrieved by its owners. After the pope’s address, Freeman’s team members broke down the equipment and, one by one, made their way to the Airport Marriott, collected belongings and took reserved shuttles to departure gates at Philadelphia International.

As for takeaways, Czaja says, “Never start planning too early. Even with all the things that were planned for, small things still happen. I also learned to be flexible and always know that the show will go on. When we couldn’t move the crew’s luggage out of the city, I learned that Philly will find the way. I stayed patient and they jumped in to find the way!”

“The show went fantastic by all accounts,” Czaja says. “My client was pleased with the work that we did. The thing that is most important to a client is to provide a great product and to be flexible during an event. We came in at the original budget, which means we did a great job on the front end.” Czaja sums up his experience at the World Meeting of Families with six simple, yet meaningful words: “Great clients make for great events.”

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