London trip months in planning for Vikings

From shipping 20,000 pounds in advance to arranging passports for 179 people and 2,000 room nights between two hotels, the London trip was a major undertaking for Vikings staffers behind the scenes.

After months of planning – and stressing, depending on the level of responsibility – the Minnesota Vikings are settling into a routine in London as they begin preparations for Sunday's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the seventh year of the NFL's International Series in London.

But to get to the point of preparing for a game, numerous Vikings staffers have been planning the trip for months.

Two of the team's vice presidents, Lester Bagley and Steve LaCroix, were co-chairs of the Vikings' London task force, but much of the responsibility was placed on the team's operations staff.

For Luther Hippe, the director of operations, and Paul Martin, team operations coordinator, the process actually started back in 2011 before the Vikings ever agreed to play in the London game. Hippe visited the United Kingdom in 2011 for the International Series game between the Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"We came back with zero hesitation about hotels, practicing. Virgin Airlines, top of the line. Both of our hotels are as nice as we stay in the United States," Hippe said.

Martin was part of the last major pre-planning visit to London in May, joining representative from operations, public relations, food services, and sales and marketing. One of the challenges of this trip is booking two hotels. The Vikings are currently staying about an hour outside of London, but on Friday night they will move into their city hotel to be closer to Wembley Stadium, site of Sunday's game.

The extra hotel, and extra staff and family joining, made the logistical challenges of the London trip challenging for the operations guys, to say the least. Hippe was in charge of booking 2,000 room nights for the team and its traveling sponsors and had to be sure 179 passports were in order, as well as arranging transportation for the people and equipment once they hit the ground of the UK on Tuesday morning.

All the while, he was still in charge of getting the team to its two road preseason games and the first two regular-season games – both on the road.

"If it weren't for the other four road trips, it would be a lot easier, but realizing this is our fifth road trip in six weeks, it's hard to keep focused on Buffalo and San Francisco and Chicago and Detroit and then realize you're leaving for London," Hippe said in advance of the trip. "So that's what's getting a little stressful is keeping the details straight."

Martin left for London last Wednesday and started setting up as if he were preparing for training camp in Mankato, an annual chore for him. The Vikings will occupy 80 percent of their hotel outside of London. The hotel added a big tent for the weight room and training room, complete with rehabilitation machines.

When they landed in London Tuesday morning, the team went straight to an NFL Play 60 event to promote the product among school children, but on Wednesday they started back to business as usual (or at least as normal as it can get overseas). They adjusted to the six-hour difference by working their regular Wednesday schedule over there, and they had some pointers in training camp on how to deal with it.

The Vikings brought a sleep specialist from the Mayo Clinic to talk to players during training camp with suggestions on how to adjust to the time change and "making sure you're going to be able to perform at the level you normally do," general manager Rick Spielman said.

Much of the down-and-dirty work was placed on long-time equipment manager Dennis Ryan, one of the few people in the organization that had any experience with the team going over to London.

"This will be my second trip to London and I think I gained a lot of valuable experience. My first trip was in 1983," Ryan said before leaving. "I'm much more familiar now with the language they speak. We had an issue the first time around when we asked some officials at Wembley Stadium how we get our coaches to the press box. We went round and round trying to find a solution and when they finally mentioned they could bring in a crane, we realized they (thought) we wanted our busses up in the press box.

"As we return to London it's a little comforting to know that not everything has changed. I'm traveling over there with the Vikings and Queen Elizabeth is still the reigning monarch."

All jokes aside, Ryan had some detailed planning to execute that started in earnest in late June. He shipped about 20,000 pounds of material over to London well in advance, including more than 50 boxes of water and Gatorade.

"It seems like I've had a tape measure in my pocket since June and I know the measurements of every package, bag and trunk in the building," he said.

The first time the Vikings played in London, the truck hauling their equipment was late to arrive at the stadium and players had to carry various items through the stands. Back then, at the old Wembley Stadium, they dressed in what was called the "band room," Ryan said.

These days, things are different. Spielman visited London in March between the NFL Scouting Combine and pro days and said he was "shocked" at the quality of the facilities with the practice field being "immaculate."

"The reception we got over there was just incredible. From the NFL and what they put together to the people over in London and how supportive they were from every venue that we went to look at, they just rolled out the red carpet," Spielman said. "You can tell that it's a very important event."

For the Vikings, this was a chance to strengthen their brand internationally. According to NFL research, 11.3 million people in the UK identify themselves as NFL fans, which has doubled since the International Series started in 2007.

The game is put on by the NFL, so the Vikings will receive only the average of what they would for a normal home game.

Every season ticket owner of the Vikings was offered the opportunity to buy a ticket, and the Vikings sold more tickets to the game at Wembley Stadium than any other team in the seven-year history of the London series.

"It was a great opportunity for us to go over there," Spielman said. "We're trying to make it as seamless as possible so it's just like a normal home game for us. That's one of the reasons we decided to go over there early."


Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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