Building Burning Man

Case StudyEvents

building burning man

Photo credit: “Happy Mecha Women” by Jaques de Selliers

The day after Labor Day Weekend means the end of summer for most. But it’s an especially somber day for Burning Man goers, which began on August 27 and ended September 4. Regardless of your stance on the controversial festival, the finished product is undeniably incredible. A magical metropolitan of artistic expression and communal living is created seemingly out of air (or sand). Though festivals have some of their own challenges separate from corporate events, some logistical elements of this particular annual celebrations may offer universal lessons. Here’s a dissection of what goes into producing an event of this size with an even bigger emotional impact.

Founded on Principles

Burning Man is a cultural movement. The festival runs on 10 defined principles, including: Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Radical Self-Reliance, Radical Self-Expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leaving No Trace, Participation and Community. These values are esteemed very highly by devoted Burners. In fact, they are seen more as rules than ethics.

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Burning Man was born in 1986. Founders Larry Harvey and Jerry James were celebrating the Summer Solstice by burning a wooden man on Baker Beach in San Francisco. The ritual, which began with a few dozen friends, has evolved into a 70,000-person festival with worldwide fame. Nonetheless, its essence has persevered—a summer spectacle amongst flames and friends.

Although your meeting or event will likely have a different message to convey, it’s important to define ideals and stick to them. A planner’s job is to bring vision to life by capturing a unique spirit. This is often accomplished by staying true to an original premise.

Collaborative Effort, Communal Attitude

Burning Man’s community is extremely strong. This can be largely attributed to its structure, which stipulates that every person has to work. Whether it’s assembling an art instillation or devoting hours of manual labor, the experience is intended to make you get your hands dirty. Still, people are happy to help, with around 2,000 volunteering at every stage. Some of the tasks include making art cars, food service, ranger patrol and party hosting at one of the themed camps. Those who refuse to follow the golden rule are deemed “Sparkly Ponies,” since they are just there to look pretty.

The community practices powerful rituals. For instance, many hitchhike to the festival. Upon arrival, veteran Burners are greeted with a very warm welcome involving hugs while cheering “welcome home!” Throughout the festival, people offer drinks, snow cones and more hugs. The festival even has its own newspaper that covers event-related incidents. Weddings are frequently held on-site amongst steampunk goggles and dust. Burning Man culture is no joke.

Another priority is social responsibility. All proceeds from Burning Man go to artists and affiliated events all over the globe. Additionally, they enforce eco-friendly practices such as shifting desert locations yearly, in order to prevent extensive terrain damage.

A kiss by @lavictrolaarts. | Photo by @alyssapeer | #burningman #blackrockcity #brc

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Take note planners—when you bond people through a mutual activity or interest, stronger connections develop. This is even more effective if it involves a cause that your group identifies with.

Organized Craftsmanship

Burning Man puts a lot of emphasis on artistry. Although it’s a festival, the spectacle is a far cry from mayhem. In fact, the organization remains one of the largest individual art funders in the Bay Area. The New York Times has deemed it, “anarchy so well organized that there are registration forms, a media contact and a press kit.”

The atmosphere may feel wistful, but a tremendous level of effort, tactful coordination and planning goes into Burning Man. To put things further into perspective, the city’s Department of Public Works devotes three weeks to ensuring all precautions are enacted. They lay electrical cable, set-up plumbing and survey the land.

It might seem like an oxymoron, but there is also a corporate side to Burning Man planning. The company has its headquarters in San Francisco’s Mission District. The full-time, year-round staff of professionals works with a larger corporation to properly synchronize the experience. It’s surprisingly calculated.

Regardless of what you’re planning, it’s going to take a ton of work. It’s a funny truth about the planning experience—an enormous amount of stress, chaos and meticulous preparation occurs behind the scenes. Yet, as soon as the production begins, it’s all expertly hidden. Burning Man is an excellent example, proving that sometimes the more fun an event is, the more work it demands.