Ground Control: How One Festival-Goer's Love of Helping Others Became a Movement
If you’ve ever been to an Insomniac event, then you’ve probably had a run-in with Ground Control , the collective that meanders through the crowds, clad in bright purple tanks and arms full of kandi. They've probably given you a festival map, a bottle of water while wandering Electric Daisy Carnival's Dandelion Forest, or even a high five as you passed them while heading to kineticFIELD. Always with a smile and the warmth of old friends, Ground Control has everyone’s safety in mind, and that is how they keep festival patrons happy, healthy, and hydrated.
Ground Control is more than your typical festival guest services team. They understand festivals inside and out because they are part of the electronic dance music community. They’re fellow ravers, friends and family who devote their time to ensure anyone who needs medical attention, or help getting to a stage, receives it swiftly. “Whether it’s helping someone find the Mayan Art car or escorting them to a medical tent, everything we do helps headliners have a better festival experience,” Ground Control member Lexi Drexler mentions in a Ground Control newsletter. Their positive energy radiates throughout the festival, leaving us with pleasurable feelings that makes us think about our next Insomniac event.
Behind this group of dedicated, enthusiastic people is Laura Newton. She founded Ground Control in 2011, only a year after her first Insomniac festival, Electric Daisy Carnival in Los Angeles. “I was dazzled by the sheer happiness and compassion that seemed to envelop every person,” Laura recalls when she first fell in love with the festival community. “It was a folk music festival [Strawberry Music Festival at Camp Mather in Yosemite National Park], which is a far cry from Insomniac’s events. It dawned on me that the sensation was not unique but an inherent trait of music festivals.”
Through her connections and a chance of luck, the Cal State Long Beach graduate was able to blend the aspects of the culture she loved with her propensity to help others with the idea to create a group that united like-minded individuals who wanted to lend helping hands or hugs to everyone they encountered at festivals. “I was fortunate enough to grow up with mentors, one of them being someone who had connections with Insomniac, and I was able to pitch to Pasquale [Rotella, CEO and founder of Insomniac Events]. I was 19 at the time and was flattered that he understood what we wanted to accomplish.” Ground Control was officially alive.
So what does it take for a young festival-goer to start an organization overseeing the health and safety of thousands of partiers at a massive music festival? When you don’t have the necessary experience to handle it all yourself, you have to look to others for guidance. “I was blessed to have incredible mentors to assist in kick-starting our first team. Pasquale took me under his wing and I always had his team’s support.”
Ground Control began operations with 30 close friends at Beyond Wonderland in Southern California. As the company and the festival grew, so did the team. Laura now manages an average of 450 Guest Services and Ground Control members each festival season, and has employed well over 3,000. “Between Beyond Wonderland SoCal, EDC New York, and EDC Las Vegas, we will fill approximately 500 Ground Control positions,” she mentioned, regarding the 2016 season. “A lot of these team members will work two or all three of the events, and a great deal are repeat staff that have dedicated their time and energy to Insomniac for multiple seasons.” This goes to show how dedicated these people are, despite the abundance of stress that are associated with festival operations. “Festival operations are not for the faint of heart because of the long hours,” Laura says. “The biggest challenge [of working festivals] is knowing who to talk to and to be smart about the tasks. We’re very fortunate to have a tight-knit, loyal team of veteran staff members who help take the new hires under their wing each season.”
Every season, 1,000 hopefuls apply for a couple dozen different kinds of positions within Guest Services and Ground Control, and if you’re selected to join “the heartbeat of Insomniac,” you become part of a life experience that you can’t get anywhere else. It’s a tough job, but Insomniac staff prepare well enough to ensure all hires – new or old – receive proper training that will help them excel in these positions. The two-hour process of check-in, orientation, radio distribution, team venue tour, and deployment are some of the hardest parts of Ground Control shifts for management. “Orientation sets the pace and tone for the rest of the weekend and is often the most challenging part of my day. If I miss a piece of pertinent information or have difficulty motivating the team, it can damper our ability to succeed as a cohesive unit.”
Should pre-event activities run smoothly, everything thereafter is usually smooth sailing – though, as we all know, anything can happen at a live event. During the event, teams are dispersed throughout the venue for assigned tasks each hour. You'll see them pouring water at the free water refill stations, checking port-a-potties to make sure attendees aren’t passed out unnoticed, or staffing Ground Control Oasis where you can lounge in hammocks and escape the heat. They’re stationed at first aid tents, ADA check-in locations, and VIP areas; they're in such abundance that finding a Ground Control team member never feels like a game of "Where's Waldo."
Another savvy skill Ground Control members are taught is to recognize signs of emotional or physical distress during festivals. If a festival-goer is having a bad psychedelic trip, or accidentally rolls his or her ankle, Ground Control reacts responsibly and professionally, “as soon as perfect, not as soon as possible,” which is Ground Control’s mantra for their expeditious communication in urgent situations. Currently there is a ground swell of support for harm reduction and safety, with organizations like DanceSafe advocating for drug testing kits and education at festivals. While Insomniac does not offer these types of services, Ground Control do exhibit the skills necessary for harm reduction. You won’t be detained or arrested if you head to the medical tent because you’re having a bad trip. You won’t get in trouble for bringing someone overdosing to the medical tent. It is a challenge to help people in need because of these misconceptions, but with Ground Control’s friendly and trustworthy demeanor, any festival-goer ends up feeling safe in their care. That’s how Ground Control keeps people happy and healthy.
As Insomniac continues to produce more festivals beyond its West Coast home base, Ground Control continues to spread its ethos and culture to newer communities. “It’s a wonderful feeling to work with the Insomniac family. I travel, save lives, and make friends all over the world,” says Mike of Guest Services. EDC has been Insomniac’s flagship brand since 1997, expanding sister festivals to several other countries including Mexico, the United Kingdom, Brazil, and Japan. Smaller events like Crush, Insomniac’s Valentine’s Day rave, have even branched their way to other U.S. markets such as Dallas and Arizona; at a recent Crush event in Arizona, Ground Control partnered with Relentless Beats. “It was a beautiful meeting of the minds and incredible to interact and work with those teams,” Mike says.
If you yearn for a future career in the festival world, becoming part of Ground Control could help get you there. Your experience will teach interpersonal skills that provide confidence in communicating with strangers, and can even help you acquire connections to build your own network. You get exclusive opportunities to participate in professional events, such as staff mixers, Insomniac panels, as well as have coffee with Insomniac executives. “Ground Control and Guest Services would not exist without the support of all the incredible individuals that have joined our team throughout the years. I also don’t think it’s possible to express how fortunate I am to have incredible mentors. I want to pay it forward and create opportunities for my team to learn and grow, just like my mentors have for me.”
Laura has now worked over 70 Insomniac festivals and has managed too many staff members to count but, as the Ground Control family grows, the familial connection also continues to strengthen. When you build bonds between like-minded people for the overall cause of helping others have fun, the job doesn’t feel like a job anymore. The “job” becomes an adventure, one filled with stories you’ll remember for the rest of your life. “I recall bursting into tears when a Ground Control team member texted me a picture of his EMT certification that had arrived in the mail moments earlier. Something I did or said inspired him to make a change in his life and pursue a new career. His words, 'Thanks for starting Ground Control, I don’t know what I’d be doing without it' are ingrained in my mind and inspire me to keep pushing forward.”
This article was originally published in 2016. It has since been updated.