Trump’s turbulent Tulsa rally – and what it can tell event planners

On Saturday night Donald Trump held a rally in Tulsa. That much we know. The story of the event is fascinating, slightly horrifying, and – as ever with anything involving Trump – a little chaotic, so bear with me.

The rally, held at the Bank of Oklahoma Center, was the first event of its kind since lockdown began in many US states. Most reports have suggested that the 19,000 capacity venue was far from full. The Tulsa fire brigade says there were 6,000 people in attendance; as you would expect, Trump’s team says there were many more.

Hours before the rally began, Trump’s team revealed that six staff members involved in organising the event had tested positive for Covid-19. For most event planners, this would be the cue to cancel – not so the US president. The show must go on.

The event had been planned to extend outside the venue, with Trump addressing the gathered masses who couldn’t get into the event. However, that part of the event was cancelled when it became apparent that these people didn’t exist. Before the event, the Trump 2020 team said it had received one million ticket requests, which seemed unlikely given the visible banks of empty seats inside the arena.

Then came the claims that Tik-Tok users and K-Pop fans had mobilised on social media to book tickets without intending to turn up so as to produce empty seats. Basically, the charge was that the President got punked by a bunch of teenagers.

Could it be true? Trump’s team has denied it, insisting it weeded out bogus reservations and blaming the media for dissuading supporters from attending. Low numbers have also been attributed to fear of Covid-19 and the President’s waning popularity.

Inside the arena, attendees were given a temperature check, hand sanitiser and a mask on entering. However, reports and pictures showed few people wearing masks and even fewer observing any kind of social distancing. Those attending the rally all knew what the risks were – they had even signed a waiver protecting the Trump campaign from responsibility for any illness.

Clearly Trump’s Tulsa event is not going to become any kind of blueprint for the event industry’s response to the current crisis. In a region with rising Covid-19 cases, inviting thousands of people to gather together inside for hours on end is not something our industry ought to be looking to replicate, to put it mildly.

Indeed, many have suggested that the Tulsa rally could end up being a so-called superspreader event. We can only hope that it is not – but the Oklahoman Covid-19 figures over the next few weeks will give some indication of what the cost of organising a large event in a pandemic really is.