By Forsyth Barr Stadium | Posted: Monday November 2, 2015

Behind the scenes with Vinnie Johnson - The man tasked with the job of guarding Stadium events.

Vinnie Johnson is relaxed and warm, good with people, funny and engaging, not someone who comes across as your stereotypical security guard. For concerts at the Stadium, Vinnie has the job of guarding the stage and artists’ tunnel, and for rugby games he looks after the players’ tunnel, a job with considerable responsibility which requires experience, judgement and great people skills.

When Neil Diamond and his band performed at the Stadium on 24 October, to a crowd of more than 13,000, Vinnie was in his usual role, working for Armourguard Security supervising the six other professional security guards in front of the stage and at the sound desk in the middle of the pitch, and checking in with the guards at the tunnel entrance and at the door leading into the backstage area. The event was another great night for the Stadium, with a happy and excited crowd, and a concert successfully delivered, but behind the scenes, for the security staff it was all about preparation, planning and communication.

Vinnie’s work started at 6.30pm the night before, when the 20 Armourguard staff received their briefing from their supervisor Kieran Hight. Because Armourguard has trained volunteers to assist with managing and assisting customers at Stadium events, the professional security guards are often in a leadership role. They usually manage a group of volunteers assigned to a particular section of the Stadium and step in when a problem arises or guidance is needed. For the Neil Diamond concert there were 121 volunteers from 14 community groups including Onyx Militaires Marching, sports teams, Canteen, schools, playcentres, and Koru Care. Armourguard pays a donation to each group for the work they do and since many of the groups are keen to continue for years, they become very experienced and knowledgeable in their roles.

At the briefing on the night before the concert Kieran emphasised the point that the Armourguard staff were in a leadership role, overseeing and assisting the volunteers assigned to them. He handed out a 14 page event summary which included maps of the venue and surrounding streets including the seating arrangements, entrances, parking, and food and beverage outlets, plus health and safety requirements, a timetable, the mobile phone numbers of key people and details of accreditation for contractors and employees.

For the first time many of the customers were to be issued with wristbands, as a trial run for the Fleetwood Mac concert three weeks later when everyone would receive them. So that was highlighted as a new challenge. Also a new system for dealing with issues was being introduced and all guards and volunteers needed to know their role in making sure it worked on the night.

For this concert there was the number of requests received for disabled seating. All the bookings for people with disabilities had been worked out but there was always the possibility that some people may request special seating on the night.

Kieran repeated his instruction that the guards were to be strong leaders and pro-active and told them ‘Excellence is not a skill, it’s an attitude’. This was the big picture overview, and Vinnie was there to see how it all worked on this particular night, learn about the introduction of wristbands and the new issues procedure, and give feedback or make suggestions along with the other guards.

But on the night of the concert Vinnie’s job was different from everyone else’s as he was supervising experienced guards who were stationed at critical spots protecting Neil Diamond, his band and the sound system, and not volunteers. Because he would be directly in front of the stage during the concert, he dressed all in black for the night – shirt, tie, trousers, jacket and shoes – ready to blend into the shadows. Like all the Armourguard staff he had a radio telephone for communication.

The pre-concert briefing three hours before the concert covered the location where guests could collect their tickets, wheelchair access, the use of megaphones at three of the gates, the location of fire extinguishers, and Neil Diamond’s requirements. People could dance only directly in front of their seats or in a designated area at the side of the pitch. At his most recent shows he had performed five songs as an encore, so it was important to be prepared for that. Kieran encouraged the guards to have fun and keep the volunteers vocal – talking and interacting with the customers.

Then Vinnie gathered his small group of guards, handed out their headphones, and reminded them that it was their job to stop people dancing where they shouldn’t, and to prevent anyone from climbing the barrier in front of the first row of seats and trying to climb onto the stage. If they had any problems they should call the rapid response team or Control.

He led his guards along the edge of the pitch to the front of the stage where they positioned chairs for themselves facing the audience. Then once they were in their positions for the night, he had a one on one briefing with each guard. If anyone wanted to throw something like flowers or any other item (use your imagination here) onto the stage for Neil Diamond, the guards were instructed to take the item and say they would pass it on.

At 6.30pm the gates opened and the crowd flooded in, finding their seats and refreshments. Vinnie talked with the guard stationed at the sound desk in the middle of the pitch and outlined her responsibilities, then he checked out the artists’ tunnel and the back of the stage, and talked with the guards located there about their roles.

Then it was just a matter of circulating around the area in front of the stage and the route that Neil Diamond and the band would take to reach the stage and checking out what was happening, and answering any questions the guards had.

The band joined their instruments onstage and the word went out that Neil Diamond was ready to leave the dressing room and make his way to the stage. Vinnie then had to make sure that no-one was standing in the space between the tunnel exit and the stage door, and that the large gates leading onto the pitch were closed, so the star could make the short trip without cameras flashing.

The concert began with ‘Soolaimon’, progressed through ‘Kentucky Woman’, ‘Red Red Wine’, ‘Shilo’, ‘Song Sung Blue’, and stopped after nearly two hours with ‘I Am . . . I Said’. The crowd which had been dancing and cheering went wild and Neil Diamond responded with a spirited encore of five songs including ‘Sweet Caroline’ and ‘Heartlight’, making a set list of 29 songs altogether. He gave a very generous and engaging performance, his band was excellent and the audience appeared very satisfied when the concert finally ended at 10.40 pm.

Vinnie cleared the way for Neil Diamond to exit the stage in privacy, the band departed, and the show was over. The guards in front of the stage, at the sound system, tunnel and stage entrance had done a great job, Neil Diamond’s own security guard had sat with Vinnie in the shadows directly below the stage, and everything went according to plan in those areas.

As the large group of sound system, lighting and stage set dismantlers entered the Stadium to take everything down and pack it away, and the happy crowd headed out to their cars, Vinnie gathered his team of guards for a debrief on how the night went.

In his words ‘It was a good night’.