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Cirque du Soleil: Juggling Act

By Larry Barrett Print this article Print

Danielle Savoie could not get 200 applications to talk to each other, making it hard to keep on top of a rapidly expanding series of traveling dance and acrobatics shows.

Danielle Savoie can't fold herself into a pretzel or spin around on her head. But she walks a tightrope every day managing the information systems that make it possible for the Cirque du Soleil to entertain more people each year than the Yankees and Red Sox combined.

The circus, which features astonishing acrobatics and Broadway-caliber music and dance productions, started out as a novelty in 1984 with one show and little fanfare. But this year, 11 different shows on four continents will entertain more than 7 million spectators paying up to $125 each to see a circus without animals. Savoie, the company's vice president of information technology, is struggling to keep pace.

Why? Over the past five years, the number of software applications used by Cirque du Soleil employees has ballooned from roughly 40 to more than 200. Although these tools run a wide range of operations—from handling human resources and finance to making costumes and scheduling performing artists—these applications could not share data. This shortcoming threatened productivity or even the prospects for a show to go on without major headaches if, for example, a spotlight wasn't delivered to the right place or a performer couldn't be quickly found to replace someone who had bec0me sick.

Savoie realized the organization needed to install software that would give employees access to these applications and databases without completely redesigning the system's setup, which she had pieced together on the fly.

Consider the logistics that Savoie and the Cirque's 3,300 employees must track: Six of the 11 shows are constantly in motion, touring North America, Europe, Asia and Australia. More than 250 tractor-trailers haul 700 tons of equipment around the world each day. More than 20,000 performers must be scheduled, transported and tracked for these shows. So must costumes and stage equipment. The database for just the alterations of these costumes has 4,000-plus entries and is growing every day.

This juggling act, which combines acrobats, dancers and trapeze artists with elaborate lighting and musical production, has made Cirque du Soleil a $500 million corporation in just two decades. All of which is great news for Guy Laliberte, the show's co-founder and a former fire-eating stilt-walker.

But for Savoie and her staff, Cirque du Soleil's fantastic growth and unique culture created an information systems disarray not uncommon to any organization that grows real big, real fast with neither the luxury of time nor the benefit of experience to develop an ideal plan to deploy software to manage the free-wheeling monster.

"When I got here in 2000, I was the only I.T. person," Savoie says. "Now we have 100 people on staff. Because of the way we've grown, we have to make up for lost time right now."

During this boom, Cirque du Soleil added show management software used to make or order costumes and assign artists, as well as point-of-sale systems for merchandise. Many of the applications were developed in-house because of Cirque du Soleil's unique business.

Where did Savoie start? With basic applications to support day-to-day operations in the midst of the growth spurt.

The company implemented SAP software for human resources, logistics and finance in 2000 and, later, installed a full-blown version of SAP's enterprise resource planning software for procurement, costume manufacturing, and event and artist scheduling. But it was using Microsoft Windows 2000 and Office XP for most of its other applications, including the company's Web site, its intranet, the point-of-sale system, and myriad other programs such as one to track the performers' medical records.

Most of these applications, however, couldn't communicate with each other. Moreover, the individual troupes traveling through North America or Europe were running their applications on different operating systems, and as a result, these troupes acted more like independent businesses instead of parts of a larger organization. And the arrangement made it difficult for workers across these different business units to collaborate, Savoie says.

"We had data in lots of different places, but could only combine it and analyze or utilize it manually," she recalls.

As recently as six months ago, for example, production managers on any traveling troupe arriving at its destination would begin by conducting an inventory of all the equipment needed for a given performance. The lights, speakers, stage, decorations and the posts needed to suspend the enormous tent were all tracked with paper and pen. And when the manager realized something was missing, he or she would have to pick up a phone and call back to company headquarters in Montreal to get a replacement.

Usually, the item in need made it to the location in time for the performance. When it didn't, the crew would either have to buy a replacement locally, scramble to get it from another troupe or just do without.

Equipment's one thing, but performers are harder to replace in a pinch. There is a finite number of people on the planet who can pull off the acrobatic feats that take place during a Cirque du Soleil show. There are more than a dozen Olympic medalists in the organization.

Scheduling performers based on the characters needed for each show is a full-time job. Each character has specific costume and makeup instructions, which are stored in a database. Then there's the matter of feeding the performers and support staff. In these traveling "cities," more than 300 meals are prepared each day requiring thousands of pounds of meat, seafood and fresh produce.

This article was originally published on 2005-06-10
Senior Writer
Larry, of San Carlos, Calif., was a senior writer and editor at CNet, writing analysis, breaking news and opinion stories. He was technology reporter at the San Jose Business Journal from 1996-1997. He graduated with a B.A. from San Jose State University where he was also executive editor of the daily student newspaper.
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