Hail to the royal visit's chief organizer

Sixteen-hour days, multiple cross-country tours and delicate negotiations are de rigueur as Kevin MacLeod plots William and Kate’s first tour of Canada

Hail to the chief organizer

Photograph by Blair Gable

While Canadians planted flowers over the Victoria Day weekend, Kevin MacLeod was “brain-dead.” Pause. “Not that there’s much to go dead.”

Small wonder. The chief organizer of the upcoming royal tour of William and Kate, the new duke and duchess of Cambridge, had just finished a gruelling cross-country tour. For 16 hours a day for two weeks, he, along with Canadian and British officials, nailed down every detail of the nine-day visit. Nothing escaped inspection, from mapping the hundreds of routes the couple, and everyone in their entourage, will use to get from A to B and every point in between, to detailed seating charts for guests and standing charts for the world’s media (mustn’t forget good photo angles!).

The organizers don’t have a moment to spare. Normally, planning a cross-country tour starts close to a year in advance of the visit. This time, MacLeod, the Canadian secretary to the Queen, and his team had just over four months since the announcement was made in February. They’ve been living out of suitcases for months.

That the young couple decided to undertake a big tour just two months after billions watched them marry in Westminster Abbey is a coup for Canada. Enormous crowds are expected, all the better for William and Kate to win over the next generation of Canadians. Which all adds up to more pressure for MacLeod to get it right. While he’s got a tour de force of tour experience—he helped orchestrate his first royal tour in 1987—he doesn’t have first-hand knowledge of how Prince William or Kate operates. MacLeod last met William in 1991 when the prince was nine years old. That meant that as the draft program was being fleshed out, MacLeod—the conduit between the royal staff at St. James’s Palace, the Prime Minister’s Office and the provinces and territory—was constantly discussing options with officials at St. James’s Palace.

Adding to the pressure, international media interest is white-hot. When the names of the cities selected for the tour were announced on May 30, Heritage Minister James Moore revealed that more than 85 members of the British press had already been accredited, a dramatic increase from the 18 who came for the Queen’s tour in 2010. And that was a month before the tour’s start. The huge international press contingent presents an unprecedented way to showcase the country to a worldwide audience. MacLeod and his Canadian and British colleagues had to consider: “As much as their royal highnesses will be in the foreground, what’s in the background?”

As if the short timeline and the media interest didn’t add enough complications, royal household officials were fixated on their own big royal event, the April 29 wedding. Normally, British officials would make a preliminary trip to Canada to see the venues under discussion; this time, MacLeod, who visited each place at least three or four times, travelled to London about a week and a half before the wedding and “spent the better part of seven hours with members of the household walking through the draft outline program.”

Almost immediately after the wedding, four royal officials, including Prince William’s private secretary, Jamie Lowther-Pinkerton, who’d played a key role in planning the wedding, as well as media and security people, flew across the Atlantic for their one and only official recce with the Canadian officials. “At that point you’re really drilling down to the minutiae—times, what doors are being used,” says MacLeod. “Might this event work better if it preceded that event? How does the flow work optically? Does it continue to meet the thematic that we’ve established for the tour? If not, how do we massage it? There’s a lot of that going on in the dry run.”

The dry run would have been a lot less smooth if MacLeod and his team hadn’t been busy since February laying the groundwork. First on the agenda was to come up with an overall tone for the tour. To avoid the tedium of random ribbon cuttings, royal tours now have specific themes. In late May, the Prime Minister’s Office unveiled the theme of the June 30 to July 8 trip: “moving forward together from past accomplishments to current service to future achievements.” As MacLeod told Maclean’s, the theme will emphasize “the generational nature of the institution of the Canadian Crown—honouring the past while very much looking toward the future.” Individual events were evaluated on how they reinforce the message.

Deciding where the newlyweds would travel was another preliminary puzzle. “There’s a bit of science that goes into that,” MacLeod explains. “We’re very conscious of sharing royal tours across the country so we don’t keep going back to the same spots.” As the third high-profile royal visit in less than two years—the Queen and Prince Philip came last year; Prince Charles and Camilla, duchess of Cornwall were here in 2009—some locales skipped on previous tours made it into this one. P.E.I., which hasn’t seen royalty in 11 years, got the nod with stops in Charlottetown and Summerside. Ontario doesn’t make the cut, having been part of both recent visits. So this tour will start in Ottawa for Canada Day celebrations. Calgary gets the last stop: the opening day of its famous Stampede.

MacLeod’s many trips to P.E.I., Quebec, Alberta and the Northwest Territories involved meetings with political and vice-regal figures as well as chiefs of protocol. “One of my chief roles at the national level is to ensure the appropriate balance, so you don’t want 12 veterans’ events or 15 Aboriginal events.” And that means some delicate negotiations: “Might you be in a position to consider this type of event as opposed to that type of event?” was the diplomatic question of the day, he said.

At the first federal interdepartmental meeting, at least 45 people crowded around the table. They represented departments as varied as Canadian Heritage, Transport Canada, National Defence, the RCMP and even Parks Canada. Luckily, the core Canadian team is well seasoned—most of them were involved in running the last two complicated visits.

With the days remorselessly counting down to June 30, tour officials are hurrying to finalize the itinerary. “If you start backing up the calendar, it gives you a sense of how tight a squeeze we’re already in,” says MacLeod, who turns 60 on June 23. “All the documentation that goes with a royal tour, the daily sheets—the working bible that has all the diagrams, all the seating plans, all the movements—not only has to be finalized and clarified but it has to be printed and bound and copies sent to the U.K. three or four days before the commencement of the visit.”

The adrenalin is flowing, along with the pot of tea that is a staple in the Canadian secretary’s office. But the tour veteran knows that this is only the beginning. The real pressure starts the minute William and Kate step off the Canadian Forces jet in Ottawa. Then, for nine days, every decision made by the behind-the-scenes pro will be scrutinized and dissected by a worldwide audience.