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The Do LaB: Kevin Rowell

As the co-founder of Natural Builders, a cutting-edge green building and contracting company, Kevin Rowell traveled around the world building large scale art installations before joining The Do LaB team in 2014 as their Director of Operations. 

Since coming on board with The Do LaB, Kevin has been involved in every aspect of the on-site builds for Lighting in a Bottle, Woogie Weekend, and Dirtybird Campout. Kevin sat down with XLIVE for a wide-ranging interview to discuss his transition into a festival operations career, the state of safety/security in the live events industry, and how Do LaB continues to innovate their events in a crowded festival landscape. 

You have had a fascinating career that is far from the typical festival operations background prior to joining The Do LaB. Were there any particular experiences in your career that inspired that journey into the festival world?

Before I started working for Do LaB, I co-founded and owned a natural building contracting company called Natural Builders where I spent 10 years working in green building and development around the world including a few art installations that started to pique my curiosity in large scale structures. It was in 2007-2008 that I became friends and eventually roommates with Gerard Minakawa from Bamboo DNA. Gerard was creating these beautiful bamboo structures and environments that I really admired and it wasnt long before we started working on a few of the same jobs together and becoming friends. My first real foray into festivals came in 2008 when Philip Blaine was working at Goldenvoice and reached out to us about building an art installation at Coachella. Neither Gerard or myself had ever built anything of that size or scope before but we managed to pull it off and got positive reviews for our work there. We kept doing projects at Coachella and over the years I became friendly with the Do LaB team as they continued to expand their art installation work at Coachella. 

So was that when the proverbial lightbulb went off in your head that working on festival operations was something that you wanted to pursue full-time?

Not immediately but as the years progressed I got more interested in the full picture of working in festivals and realized that my background in contracting/international development had a lot of crossover. Since I come from a non-traditional contracting background, I certainly had some knowledge of the unique process of creating complex structures without any formal building codes which has been beneficial in my current job. That type of situation also necessitates the need for unique cost analysis and processes that you dont really see outside of festivals. There is also a massive amount of crew management that has to happen to accelerate the process from the initial conception of an installation to putting together the structure at a festival. I also found that my operations background with Natural Builders follows many of the same cut and dry scenarios that you see at festivals where peak efficiency is the model (permits, traffic, security/medical) that leads to successful projects and events. Eventually after getting to know their management team, I found that my philosophy on personal growth, development, and community was so similar to the people at Do LaB that I decided to put down my construction business to work full time for the them beginning in 2012 when I started building structures for Lightning in a Bottle. 

Over the past four years Ive become very close with the entire Do LaB team and its nice to have a working environment with a group of people that encourage collaboration and also enjoy the opportunity to share and discuss ideas on life outside of work. Ive seen that sometimes with larger event companies that theres not always a mutually respectful relationship between the production and management teams but Ive never felt that way at Do LaB because were willing to have that consistent dialogue amongst various departments within the organization since everyone here feels like family. I truly believe that our ability to have that internal dialogue is what cultivates the unique experiences that people have at our events.

When you begin the process of putting together ideas for the physical manifestation of a festival each year, do you ever feel that you have to start from a completely blank canvas or are you comfortable reusing ideas that have worked well at past Do LaB events?

We like to tackle operations from a fresh perspective each year but you also have to be conscious of whats worked in the past. From an operations standpoint, weve tried to streamline our processes by putting together standardized templates for vendors across the board so that our team can manage the vendors and make sure they are doing their job. These templates cover everything from sanitation management to IT infrastructure. 

As a group we try for an integrative approach to innovation - production, marketing, operations, and talent are all part of the decision making process so that we each have the opportunity to make an impact on the entire web of the festival.  We also make sure that every member of the organization contributes to our post-event wrap up reports. All feedback is taken very seriously, whether it comes from our volunteers or senior management. Thats how were able to improve our festivals each year. Its all about taking the creative vision and learning how to create a festival production cycle - 4 months out to 4 days out - that can be turned into a simple user system that can be used to put together amazing experiences each year. 

Live event safety has unfortunately become a big topic of conversation after the events of Paris and Orlando. Is there anything that can be done from a production standpoint to ensure that attendees feel they are in a safe and secure environment where they can leave the outside world behind?

People want to know that the people who are putting together the events care about them so we do everything we can to respond to any and all scenarios. Thats everything from car inspections to ensure that attendees arent bringing in weapons to drones that fly overhead to make sure that fire lanes are maintained. Patron and team awareness is our best defense. We go through an entire training between production, operations, and security to make sure that everyone is on the same page. How do you respond to a fight? How do you respond to an overdose?

We have counter response liaisons and medical/security teams that we work with constantly and a comprehensive emergency reaction protocol in the form of a 50 page document that helps us handle complex scenarios that our management team goes through trainings to implement. Our team also creates a shortform guide for each event in conjunction with management so that all team members can be prepared for any and all scenarios, whether thats an attendee medical issue or a natural disaster. 

As new festivals continue to sprout up each year do you ever find it difficult to create a unique festival environment when so many up and coming festivals cite Lighting in a Bottle as their inspiration for creating their own events?

Thats always a challenge but I certainly think its helpful that most of our management team is somewhere between their 20s and 40s, so none of us ever think that we can be complacent and that weve figured the festival business out. We have almost two decades of experiences to rely on but we dont think we have the perfect formula either. For that reason, we feel the need to innovate on a consistent basis and be on the cutting edge so that our performers and fans want to come back to our events the following year. Were always asking ourselves how can we make our events even better? 

From a production standpoint, its critical that our structures are always audience-centric. Our production team wants our attendees to feel like they are part of the show so we take every element of the fan experience into consideration from integrated LED lighting on the structures to how we create shade on the dance floors of the stages. That even holds true for our water stations at Do LaB events. We believe in providing free water for all attendees and build our own water stations so that they fit into the environment of the festival artistically. Theres not a single element of the festival experience that we arent looking into as a team because we exist to serve our fans and make their experience more enjoyable.

We get quite a few attendees at XLIVE that are in the process of putting together their first or second festival.  What advice would you give to young festival organizers as they attempt to create unique experiences that set them apart in the eyes of both musicians and fans?

The advice I would give to young production companies is to realize that the difficulty of putting on a festival isnt in having a cool idea, its in about creating a fun environment while taking care of the necessities for fans. Thats what keeps people coming back. For example, at Dirtybird Campout last year we brought together performers and fans by creating games and activities that allowed DJs and attendees to be in the same place together and make them equals, even playing kickball together. That probably sounds simple in terms of execution but there are few festivals that actively encourage breaking down the traditional barriers between performers and attendees.

Were very lucky because I never worry about our events getting dull since our attendee base is aging and getting younger simultaneously as people that grew up at Lightning in a Bottle start to bring their own kids. Thats a fortunate position to be in and it helps our events stay vibrant.

All these years later, I still love going to the gates right before the festival opens to chat with attendees so that I can hear their stories about why they came, what they enjoyed, and who they are looking forward to seeing. If young festival producers can create an environment like that, its truly the best part of organizing an event and will sustain you over the long haul.

Interested in learning more about production and execution of live events? REGISTER NOW for XLIVE and view the full agenda 

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