With more than 5,000 volunteers, 40+ balloons, 20 or more floats, nearly a dozen marching bands and one Santa Claus, coordinating the annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade is no easy feat.
There are plenty of moving parts to keep track of, including assigning volunteers to floats and managing balloon inventory; and since around 2003, Macy's had been using a Microsoft Access database for the job. The problem, however, was that each float and volunteer and costume had their own database, which had a limited ability to talk to one another.
"We were trying to create more links between everything that we do, and it was a little more complicated with the old Microsoft Access database," said Susan Babb, event operations and balloon program manager for the parade since 2005. "Everything was sort of separate. It was not as user friendly."
Babb could assign a volunteer to a given float, "but we couldn't then turn around and look at all the specs for that float and determine which crews would be working on that float prior [to the parade]," she said. For that, she would need to open a separate database.
In December 2007, a longtime volunteer who was familiar with Babb's database headaches recommended that she consider FileMaker Pro for coordinating the parade. Babb decided to take a look and liked what she saw.
FileMaker's user-friendly graphical user interface, for one, was a significant "aesthetic" improvement over Access, said Babb, who admits that she lacks the technical savvy of a DBA or systems analyst.
Even better, she discovered, FileMaker allowed parade staff to link previously disparate databases, so volunteers and inventory could be more easily assigned and tracked.
For example, one of Babb's biggest complaints with Microsoft Access was that she could not link two or more volunteers who wanted to work together at the parade. With Access, if Joe and Patty Smith, for example, wanted to work together on the Snoopy float, Babb would have to manually assign each volunteer.
With so many volunteers and more than 40 employees working on the parade – 18 at Macy's Manhattan office, the rest at the parade construction facility in Hoboken, N.J. – mix-ups were possible. Babb decided to make the switch to FileMaker in time to coordinate this year's parade.
FileMaker now lets Macy's tag volunteers in common groups when they sign up, so when one volunteer is assigned to a float, any other volunteers tagged to that person are assigned to that float too.
"Let's say Joe and Patty Smith want to be together. If we move Patty to the Snoopy balloon, Joe would go along with her," Babb said. "That was one of the biggest issues we faced that we solved with FileMaker."
The new database also helps Macy's manage costume inventory with real-time updates for the costume production office when volunteer assignments change. "If we change assignments for 14 people -- they used to have this costume, now they have that costume -- that's something they need to know immediately," she said, "and that's something that we get now with FileMaker."
Babb said she hopes to tap even more functionality from FileMaker Pro to further manage costume inventory for future parades.
"Our plans are to further expand our costume inventory so when we're doing assignments, we can know when we don't have the right sizes available for people," she said. "Right now, we only know that by hand, by looking at things manually, rather than having an alert pop up."
Less than a week before Thanksgiving, Babb said FileMaker has made her job a little less stressful, with few unexpected glitches.
"With any database, you have your growing pains," she said. "But they have been much less than we expected, and we are now at a point where -- in the busiest time of the year -- FileMaker has proved itself as being able to stand up in the storm."