It may come as a surprise to new visitors at the Memphis in May International Festival's headquarters that there isn't a muddy welcome mat at the front door.
Then again, for 11 months of the year, the nonprofit organization at 88 Union Ave. isn't battling Mother Nature in Tom Lee Park, running its operation behind booming stacks of amplifiers during the Beale Street Music Festival, bathing in the fumes of a thousand slow-cooked pork butts at the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, or introducing foreign dignitaries to the treasures of Graceland.
"My friends joke that I must have the best job because I only work one month of the year," said Memphis in May's president and CEO, Jim Holt. "Actually, it's a nonstop operation. We're already working on next year's festival."
A visitor to the office suite last week could have mistakenly thought it was just another work day for the organization's 14 full-time staffers.
An eerie quiet filled the lobby decorated with framed event posters and cultural objects gathered from countries that had been honored in the past.
A few blocks away, crews had begun loading in the enormous infrastructure of a festival whose size organizers often depict through analogy.
One employee compares it to building a small city, complete with power plants, sewage systems, and transportation and emergency services. With a monthly attendance that can hit 270,000, Tom Lee Park entertains more visitors than there are residents in Knoxville, the third-largest city in Tennessee.
Another staffer likens the event to running a restaurant that is only open four weekends a year but serves a different cuisine each week.
Just how tense is the office right now? "It's not tension. It's focus and intensity," says Holt while peeking warily at the lobby's most ominous feature: a countdown clock.
As we watch, the clock shows that there remains 10 days, one hour, 35 minutes and 52 seconds -- make that 51 seconds -- left until the gates open.
"It's the best $150 investment I've made," Holt said. "It keeps people focused."
While most of the public's interest in Memphis in May centers on the concert line-up, or on getting barbecue teams ready for the week-long meat orgy, the "international" and educational component of the festival represents the community service aspect of the organization.
Showing young people there's a wide world out there (while convincing the world that Memphis is a nice place to visit) is what keeps Randy Blevins busy all year.
"I said I would never work for Memphis in May," said Blevins, who has been vice president of programming for six years. "That was my recreation time. I wanted to enjoy the music and the barbecue."
Now during May, he's tied to the phone, making sure scores of diplomats, performers and scholars from the honored country -- this year it's the Philippines -- are being taken care of.
"As we speak, we're loading in an exhibit at the National Civil Rights Museum," he said. "The museum curators always arrive first. Then come the performers and government officials. We have to make sure when they experience Memphis we blow them over with Southern hospitality."
All of this comes after spending a good portion of the year getting Memphis on the radar of foreign governments.
"When people in other countries think of the United States, they usually know nothing about the Heartland," Blevins said. "We show up at meetings and the staff will have just printed out the Wikipedia entry on Memphis. My job is to explain what we're trying to accomplish and to walk them through the event."
It's not always a simple task explaining a festival that comprises a music fest, a food competition, an international tribute and a classical music concert with fireworks.
"They'll Google Memphis in May and see people eating barbecue or crowded in front of a stage," Blevins said. "That's not what we want them to think as we're asking their country to loan us a million-dollar art exhibit."
'Gold Bond and suntan lotion'
It's only the second day of load-in and Merek Swaim, vice president of operations, is already sore.
He's in charge of everything on site: the three concert stages, 31 trailers, 71 golf carts, 180 walkie talkies, etc.
For most of the year he's in an office configuring maps of Tom Lee park, contracting vendors, working with city, state and federal agencies (from the local fire marshal to the FBI) and putting together his operations crew of about 150 people.
During the festival, he's on-site from 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day. He burns through two cell phone batteries and three walkie-talkie batteries each day.
"We live on Gold Bond (powder) and suntan lotion," he says, standing at his desk because his office chair has been moved to a trailer in the park.
Swaim's job has been a trial-by-mud since joining Memphis in May in 2009, a year of record rainfall.
"The Riverside Development Corp. said it was the worst the park ever looked after it was over," Swaim said.
In 2010, before headliner Alice in Chains was to take the stage, a huge storm hit. Tornado sirens blared and the park was evacuated.
Last year, before the barbecue contest, the Mississippi River reached a historic flood level. The park was submerged, and the festival had to be relocated to the old Mid-South fairgrounds on Tiger Lane.
"That was the hardest thing that has ever happened to me," he said. "We moved the entire event in three days. After that, I'm ready for anything. It can't get much worse than that."
In an office down the hall, Mack Weaver worries about getting soaked in the metaphorical sense.
The vice president of finance sees every May as a gamble with the elements.
With a $6.5 million annual budget, Memphis in May earns 85 percent of its annual revenue within a 45-day period.
"It all comes down to the day of the event," Weaver said. "We sell about 70 to 85 percent of our music fest tickets in advance. If there's sun, we might see an upward swing of 15 percent in total revenue. If the weather is bad, we can lose up to 60 percent. Our philosophy is to be conservative so if we have a down year, we won't have a budget crisis."
Holt has been familiar with the risks from the beginning. In 1990, as a concert promoter, he helped convince organizers to relocate music fest from Beale Street to Tom Lee Park.
"The first night it poured like crazy," Holt said. "We had a paid attendance of 2,000 people. I thought that moving the festival was the stupidest decision I had ever made in my entire life. The next day started off as overcast. Then it cleared up and 17,000 people came. It turned out to be very successful and we (the concert promoters) got a three-year contract to manage the music."
Holt took the helm of Memphis in May in 1999 when the organization was nearly $700,000 in debt, and there was no assurance it would be around another year.
"There's never a dull moment," he said.
Last Monday, Holt got the call that the legendary Jerry Lee Lewis -- a festival mainstay -- had an injury and had to cancel. As the clock counted down the time to May Day, Holt had to find a replacement -- one of the last-minute problems that arise every year.
At the end of each festival, he asks his employees to give him a "10-10 list," or 10 things that went well, and 10 things that need improvement.
"At this point, I don't see us getting too much bigger," Holt said. "Instead we believe in incremental improvement, getting better each year."
Ira Rosen, associate vice president of business development for the International Festivals and Events Association, says Memphis in May likely ranks among the top 10 of national festivals.
"Certainly there are larger music festivals, but for the kind of multi-dimensional, multi-platform event that it is, it's pretty significant," Rosen said. "It's a huge commitment that goes far beyond the staffing levels. It takes a tremendous amount of volunteer work. It's one thing to do a weekend's worth of work. But for a whole month ... I keep wanting to use the word significant. Maybe you can find a better analogy."
2012 Memphis in May International Festival
For a full list of events, go to memphisinmay.org
For tickets to the Beale Street Music Festival, World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest and the Sunset Symphony, call Ticketmaster at 1-800-745-3000 or go to the Memphis in May website.
Also, check out GoMemphis on Friday for a complete list of acts at music fest, and for interviews with key performers.
Beale Street Music Festival: In Tom Lee Park Friday through May 6. Hours are 5 p.m. until midnight on Friday, 1 p.m. until midnight on Saturday and 1-10 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets are $32.50 per day in advance, $40 at the gate. VIP Ticket packages range from $550 to $650.
International Salute to the Philippines: At the Orpheum theater, 203 S. Main, on May 10 at 7 p.m. Featuring Bayanihan, the National Dance Company of the Philippines, and a martial arts spectacle by the Worldwide Family of Modem Amis. Tickets are $15. Call Ticketmaster at 1-800-745-3000 or the Orpheum box office at (901) 525-3000.
World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest: In Tom Lee Park, May 17-19. Hours are 11 a.m.-midnight on May 17-18, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. on May 19. Tickets are $8 in advance and $9 at the gate. Call Ticketmaster at 1-800-745-3000 or memphisinmay.org/tickets
AutoZone Sunset Symphony: In Tom Lee Park on May 26. Park opens at 3 p.m.; Memphis Symphony Orchestra with the Bar-Kays perform at 7:30 p.m.; Fireworks at 9 p.m. Tickets are $8 in advance, $9 at the gate.