Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade Wrangles a Ballooning Database Operation

For years, the Macy's Parade and Entertainment Group office used to collect paper applications for all the volunteer staff and simply kept all those unwieldy physical files in drawers and boxes. Three years ago, the office moved to a Microsoft Access database system, but it proved difficult for many people to use. So this year the venerable FileMaker Pro 9 came to the rescue.

Rain or shine, Macy's will stage the 82nd edition of its world-famous Thanksgiving Day Parade on Central Park West in New York City the morning of Nov. 27.
And, as it does with just about everything else in the world, IT will have played a major role in the organization and presentation of the 2.5-mile-long event, which will be viewed by about 3 million people in person and an estimated 45 million on NBC television around the world.
More than 5,000 Macy's department store employees, family members and assorted volunteers will be donning costumes, holding down the lines on those dirigible-like balloon characters, helping to seat audience members and performing any number of other tasks.
The Macy's Parade and Entertainment Group manages all the information on the people who work at the huge event, including thousands of volunteers and all the logistics required to ensure the smooth flow of all the helium balloons, floats, singers, dancers, performers and celebrities along the streets of New York City into Herald Square.
Information involving all those workers and their duties on event day must pass through the desk of Susan Babb, co-director of the parade.
For years, her office used to collect paper applications for all the volunteer staff and simply kept all those unwieldy physical files in drawers and boxes. Three years ago, the office moved to a Microsoft Access 2000 database system, which offered obvious advantages over the old one but was still difficult for some people to use.
"Long, long ago, they used to be done on little index cards, similar to the Dewey Decimal System [the old library book filing system]," Babb said with a laugh. "We have been upgrading in the past three years -- first with Microsoft Access 2000, and more recently with Filemaker Pro."

Venerable FileMaker Pro to the Rescue
Babb's office, along with Macy's Parade Studio in Hoboken, N.J., this year switched over to a networked version of FileMaker Pro 9 for a large number of tasks, including costume inventory and assignment, float and balloon inventory and location, and volunteer history and assignment.
FileMaker, a company now owned by Apple Computer, has been around a long time -- since the early 1990s -- and is older than Access. But it proved to be just what the administrator ordered.

Click here to view a Quicktime video of Susan Babb describing her use
of FileMaker Pro 9 for administration of parade duties.

Before FileMaker Pro was deployed, the operation of the Access database required programming knowledge beyond the basic consumer level, Babb said. This caused delays and resulted in the need to export all work from Access queries into Microsoft Excel documents to find specific information in a user-friendly manner.
Time-consuming tasks, such as assigning volunteers parade responsibilities have been reduced from about 10 days to just one or two days, Babb said.
"We had been working with an older version of Access (2000). We had a volunteer who had worked with FileMaker in the past and suggested using it," Babb said.
There were a few aspects of the organization of the parade with which Macy's had run into problems, Babb said.
"The older version of Access -- I am not familiar with the more updated version -- was too complex. It wasn't user-friendly. The average user had to have a lot of computer knowledge in order to build queries, things like that," Babb said.
A second issue was the fact that everyone working on the Access database at the same time had to "shut out of it before you could save and make your changes," Babb said. "We actually had a file corrupt last year, in November, like two weeks before the parade, and no one could use the system for a full day."
Another problem was enabling the Macy's volunteers to work with familiar faces.

"When they work at the event, mostly want to work alongside their family and friends. It becomes complicated using the older system. FileMaker has allowed us to create groups of people, each with a number, that identifies people who would like to be connected together," Babb said.
"So that when we are assigning people to tasks, we can move large groups of people together, who want to be together. The software now does it all at once, too."
Admin Time Cut Way Down
Previously, Babb said, it would take anywhere from three to four days to assign 1,600 balloon handlers. "This year, it took me about six hours," she said.
"We've seen some great improvement in operations this year," Babb said. "We're planning to expand the use of the software for next year to keep sizes of costumes for repeate volunteers, the number of handlers for each balloon, and others."
FileMaker Pro has the ability to important and export files from a Web site, and Babb said that Macy's is planning to institute that for next year, so that volunteers can complete their "paperwork" online.
An 82-year-old institution is finally moving into the Internet age.

Chris Preimesberger

Chris Preimesberger

Chris Preimesberger is Editor of Features & Analysis at eWEEK, responsible in large part for the publication's coverage areas. In his 12 years and more than 3,900 stories at eWEEK, he has...