14 Things We Learned from Hosting a Presidential Debate

Thomas & Mack Building at UNLVManaging conferences and events is no small feat. There are many moving pieces for any conference and we all learn as we go along. Now imagine what you would learn about your team and events in general from an event on steroids... like a Presidential Debate.

Such was the case at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.

The Student Union and Event Services at UNLV hosted an event to top most events. While some of their experiences may not be repeated again, the lessons learned can be carried on to help serve other groups. 

We are excited to share their thoughts about about what they learned from hosting a Presidential Debate on campus.

Thank you to the UNLV Photo Services for the photos of the UNLV campus.

Hosting a Presidential Debate on Campus

Behind the scenes of the presidential debateThe final Presidential Debate was held on the campus of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas on October 19, 2016.

71.6 million television viewers tuned in, making it the 3rd most-watched debate in US history.

The role of the Student Union and Event Services Department was to oversee the large, on-campus network of media set-ups including CNN, MSNBC, and Bloomberg News, as well as campus “watch parties” inside the Student Union for students, faculty, staff, and alumni. 

The Business Impact

The impact of this event was greater than just the prep of an event. 

Installing the Presidential Debate bannerBehind the scenes, all event requests in the 6 months leading up to the debate had to be screened and vetted before clients were permitted to enter into an agreement to reserve space. This meant talking with many political and not-for-profit groups to explain the evaluation process, as well as the contracting, insurance, and payment procedures.

The role of our team was to remain neutral in the event reservation process and allow the on-campus Debate Committee to decide when access to space was permitted.

On the event side, after a year of planning, contracting, diagramming, logistics, and scheduling, the week finally week arrived!

The Student Union and Event Services team shifted into a 24-hour operation and covered three days of set-up, the event day, and the tear-down that included everything from protesters and road closures to sound stages and balloon arches, and more barricades than the staff had ever seen. 

Lessons Learned

Here are some tips and lessons learned from the experience:

  1. For security reasons, a fence is set-up around the main arena, and there will be large scale Installation work at UNLVmedia set-ups outside the fence that will need an Event Manager and a great deal of catering. A very limited number of people are permitted inside the main arena.
  2. Collect signed contracts, insurance and payment from all media outlets before they arrive on campus.
  3. Charge full price for services. The student fee-funded areas could not subsidize outside groups.
  4. Be flexible. Things change at the last minute, and then change again. 
  5. Expect heavy equipment (e.g. fork lifts, scissor lifts) to set-up media stages and signage. The footprint of media set-ups expands on-site.
  6. Divide and conquer by assigning a point person for each media set-up. Prepare for last minute pop-up media outlets to arrive unannounced and have additional professional staff on hand to assist. It is important to determine what your facility and staff can handle, as media will often ask for the moon and the stars.
  7. If you decide to permit around-the-clock building access, devise a plan for 24-hour staffing and extended hours for food service 
  8. Set-up a hospitality room for professional and student staff to help with late closures and early openings. This will help the staff get needed rest and nourishment. Also, review traffic detours and parking plans due to closures.
  9. Have a media concierge booth to assist with answering questions.
  10. Many students took the entire week off and avoided coming to campus, however, the community presence was strong on campus. As a public institution, we could not control who came to onto campus.
  11. The Police and Secret Service presence was high around campus. Have a plan in place with the police department to handle protests and demonstrations.
  12. Inform student staff of the logistics and FAQs, so they can answer questions at the Student Union Information desk.
  13. Plan on hosting viewing parties on-campus for students, faculty, and staff. Although there are terrific academic tie-ins, the debate itself is not open to the general public, nor students, faculty and staff. A very limited number of tickets will be handed out.
  14. Media requests popped up at the last minute. This also included major celebrity appearances on campus, which had to be facilitated by the Student Union and Event Services team. There was great university political pressure to get things done and look favorable for the school, even if that meant bending the normal processes.

Looking Back and Looking Ahead

UNLV Hosted the Final Presidental DebateThe Presidential Debate was an all-staff effort where the Student Union and Event Services team worked with local police and Secret Service to ensure the safety of campus and visiting guests. 

Thanks to the hard work of the team, the event was a logistical success.

The Convention and Visitors Bureau predicts an economic upswing as a result of the Debate, as well as a positive psychological impact. UNLV went through very tough times during the recession that included huge cutbacks and furloughs, and the Debate was a project that people united behind.

For a few hours, the world focused its eyes on Las Vegas from an educational and civic engagement angle.

Moreover, many people who visited UNLV’s campus saw the level of customer service that a certified one-stop-shop format can provide to clients. Not only has the experience made the staff a stronger team, we have developed relationships across campus and with the community that will be a great benefit for future events.

The positive feedback has been very uplifting and motivational for the Student Union and Event Services Team. 


Laura Lafferty

Written by Laura Lafferty

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