If everything goes according to plan, blustery winds and frigid temperatures won’t snuff out a Grecian flame that began traveling across Canada last week in the 106-day kick-off event for the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic Games.
The responsibility for the relay’s success falls on Ignition Inc., a small family-owned business that has found success by making itself an expert in an unusual niche: The Atlanta company has organized six Olympic torch relays since 1998, often battling elements that make the event a challenge befitting the Games themselves.
For last year’s Beijing Olympics, Ignition had to manage China’s bumpy roads and poor infrastructure. In Turin, Italy, in 2006, the company resorted to scooters to travel steep and narrow roads. And for Athens’s international torch relay in 2004, the company shepherded torch bearers through 27 countries in 35 days, dealing with the logistical hassle of securing visas, clearing security and dealing with a multitude of languages nearly every step of the way.
“They have found a nice little niche,” says Ken Bernhardt, a marketing professor at Robinson College of Business of Georgia State University, who says the company’s strength lies in its ability to pull a part-time work force. “Ignition is the poster child of how to do it well.”
The marketing company, which has 53 employees and $23 million in annual revenue, manages the often-chaotic event for Coca-Cola Co.,
a main sponsor of the Olympic Torch Relay. In 1996, the International Olympic Committee opened up the traditional touring of the Olympic flame as a commercial property that could be sponsored; since then, Coca-Cola has sponsored the event for every Olympics except the 2000 Games in Sydney.
Ignition’s co-founder, Susan McWhorter Driscoll, was a marketing director at Coca-Cola and directed its first sponsorship of a torch relay for Atlanta’s 1996 Games. A year later, she and husband Mark Driscoll founded Ignition to host future sporting events, eventually turning over day-to-day operations in 2007 to their nephew, Mike Hersom, who is Ignition’s president, and his wife, Cindy-Ann Hersom, who serves as Ignition’s chief marketing officer.
Coca-Cola says it works with Ignition because of the company’s “specialty expertise.” The Olympics torch relay is one of Ignition’s largest businesses, but the company also provides event-based marketing for a few corporate clients like BlackBerry maker Research In Motion Ltd.
Ignition’s main task is to engineer a party-like atmosphere throughout the communities that the torch travels. In past Olympics, that’s been difficult because of language and cultural barriers, or because of rules imposed by the host country. In China, for example, Ignition wasn’t permitted to hand out Coca-Cola products, shake people’s hands or distribute flagsâits usual methods of firing up crowds. Instead, Ignition’s staff hired locals to engage Chinese fans by singing, cheering and dancing while riding on the relay’s caravan of vehicles.
Ignition’s biggest challenge in the Canadian relay is expected to be the weatherâsnow, blizzards and 50 mile-per-hour winds are anticipatedâand the sheer distance of the event, which will require 40% of the relay to be run at night. By day, Ignition, which hires hundreds of local workers along the way, must rally crowds and host two community celebrations daily.
And that will be tough, says Mr. Hersom. “This will be bloody cold,” he says. “It’s incredibly difficult to keep these people motivated.”
The weather will also make it difficult to keep the torch lit. The entourage will carry several backup flames in a truck that follows the runnerâall of which were lit from the mother flame in Olympia, Greece.
The Vancouver Olympics is the longest torch relay that Ignition has managed in a single country.To counteract torch-relay fatigue this year, Amanda Daniels, Ignition’s vice president of global projects, has set up a team whose main job is to motivate employees, from evening massages and movie nights to helping with laundry and giving a huge Christmas celebration. “It’s quite a logistical challenge for sure,” Ms. Daniels says.
Write to Raymund Flandez at firstname.lastname@example.org
Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page A24