One late night during season nine of American Ninja Warrior, a soggy crew stood under an awning in Kansas City. Kristen Stabile, Executive in Charge of Production for the show, broke the news we were all suspicious was coming. The rain wasn’t going to stop, so production would.
American Ninja Warrior would not be able to finish the taping the episode that night. That meant the entire crew would need to stay in the city a day longer than they planned.
“Don’t bother Nicole,” Kristen warned. “She’s got enough going on and she’s working on it.”
That was the first moment it dawned on me that someone’s job was to make sure this whole chaotic, wild circus got to each city on time and had a place to put their heads whenever sleep was possible.
Nicole Christo has been the Travel Manager for American Ninja Warrior since season six. A weather delay like that meant Nicole was responsible for changing hundreds of flights and finding hundreds of hotel rooms in the next few hours, and then communicate those changes to the almost 200 traveling crew members.
But even if she’s not handling a last minute accommodation crisis, her role is no small task. I recently had a chance to chat with Nicole, and Juli Michallyszyn, the Travel Coordinator, about their jobs as the unsung heroes of the American Ninja Warrior crew.
1.) They’re some of the first people to know where the show will tape each season.
Once they have an idea of where the show plans to head, they need to make sure they can carve out a comfortable home for the crew. Nicole and Juli work closely with A. Smith and Co., the production company behind American Ninja Warrior, as each season starts to come into focus.
“I jump on pretty much as soon as they start the scout process for the next season,” said Nicole. “Once they lock in the cities, then I start the search for the hotel blocks. We basically handle getting everyone in and out of every city. Accommodations, rental cars, car service. Anything travel related.”
2.) The role requires them to stay super-organized.
You know how it’s a struggle just to keep a family of four on track while traveling? Imagine being personally responsible for about 200 people’s itineraries. It requires Nicole and Juli to stay on call 24 hours a day and even travel along with the show.
“It’s a lot of logistics and it’s a lot of things people don’t think about. It’s a lot of things to organize and keep track of,” Nicole shared.
“I hear this all the time from the crew,” Juli added. “I could never do your job.’ I’m like, ‘Well, you could. But you have to be really organized. You need to have good grids. You need to know when people are traveling.’ Sometimes it is a call at seven in the morning going, ‘I missed my flight!’ Or, ‘I’m stuck in Dallas.’
It’s logistics for everyone. Being on top of everything at the same time. Which we like because it means we’re available for our crew. When someone calls me and they’re delayed, I want to know so I can give them the best. If they’ve missed their flight and don’t know what to do, telling them to just get to the airport. Saying it’s okay. Things happen.”
3.) Step one, they have to get everyone to each city.
That is an over-simplification of a big, broad stroke of their job, but it’s a way to grasp what they’re up to every day. The crew behind American Ninja Warrior don’t all come from one location. They arrange flights from all over the country, to the taping location, and then get everyone back home, or off to another job. This isn’t cookie-cutter booking. They’re almost travel concierges for the entire crew.
Nicole broke it down. “With Ninja, it’s constant preparing. It’s not only day-to-day stuff in the current city. But it’s planning the next city. Getting the hotel room list together, putting itineraries together. Booking all the flights. Keeping track of all the costs. Getting the rental cars booked. Airport shuttles. Shuttles in, shuttles out. Car service. It’s a constant, constant.
These people have stuff going on. Other jobs. We always ask them if they have a flight in mind, or offer options. We don’t want to book something that doesn’t work for them. We’re pretty good about accommodating flight requests.”
4.) It’s important for the crew to feel as comfortable as possible.
You’ve heard before that the Ninja Warrior community is a family, but that applies to the crew as well as the competitors. The crew spends weeks away from their families every year. Nicole and Juli don’t take that lightly. Instead, they make it part of their job to help everyone feel as at home on the road as possible.
“A lot of the crew, in between the cities, they take other work. But what’s cool is that they all come back to Ninja,” Nicole said. “They’re all excited to come back to Ninja. That makes our job easier, when people are excited to travel somewhere, and to do it together. It’s hard being away from your house and your family and your pets. Be on the road and work overnights. It’s hard.
That’s why I try to make their travel as seamless as possible. I love finding the hotel for the crew. Somewhere people can walk around, get food. Pharmacy nearby. On their off days, they can go and do stuff and see the city. They’re not just cooped up at the hotel.
With the new schedule, people will actually have idle days. That’s why I like to do the city guides. I like to look up fun things to do in every city.”
Juli chimed in to illustrate the care Nicole shows the crew. “She (Nicole) usually does a city guide for the crew before they land in the cities so they know what’s within walkable distance - grocery stores, restaurants. Making sure people are picked up. Working with the transportation team. Making sure people are getting picked up from the airport and brought where they need to go.”
5.) But wait! It’s more than just the Qualifying cities.
That footage of a Ninja hugging their kids back at home, or training in their local gym? Nicole and Juli make sure the crew get there to capture that as well. Those are called “Hometowns.”
“What’s worked in the past few seasons is, in-between cities, there are two to three small groups that go out to do background stories on the Ninjas,” explained Nicole. “That could take them to Alaska. That could take them to San Diego. Pretty much everywhere. We help do the travel logistics for those little teams. Who are literally leaving LA, landing in Salmon, Idaho, and then shooting, spending the night, and then getting on a plane to Philly.
When we do USA vs The World, we have international hometowns. Then you’re working on an overnight schedule and different time zones.”
6.) They’re at the mercy of so many factors.
Just like on the course, American Ninja Warrior has a habit of throwing some unexpected obstacles at the crew, which Nicole and Juli need to navigate.
First is simply finding enough space in each city for the crew to sleep.
“Daytona Beach, for example, that was one of the toughest cities. We were there over the big cheerleading competition. ALL of the hotels were sold out. That took me a long time to find almost 200 rooms for everyone. We were split into six hotels. We also had to fly people into Orlando and drive an hour because Daytona Beach didn’t have great options,” Nicole said.
Then, of course, there’s the weather. Weather before, during, and after production either delaying and changing flights to and from the locations, or delaying taping, as I first experienced in Kansas City. In addition to the taping delay, the crew’s hotel was completely sold out the next night. That meant everyone needed to get out of there and find a new place to stay.
“Kansas City was a tough one for me,” Nicole said while laughing. “I don’t think I had slept in about three days. It was calling hotels. Scrounging up five rooms here, ten rooms there. It worked out in the end. It always works out in the end.
It’s hard to predict and plan. I got to the point where I’m always kind of expecting the worst. In Oklahoma City last year, from the get-go, there was a chance this may be THE city, because of the weather, that time of year, we’re outside overnight. We pre-researched stuff with the hotel way in advance.”
(Oklahoma City DID end up with a weather delay during season 11!)
7.) But they always stay focused.
That kind of pressure is enough to cause anyone just a bit of anxiety. Nicole and Juli take it in stride to make sure the crew is well looked after.
Nicole shared, “I love this show and I love working on it. I try not to stress out too much about it. That (Kansas City) was a time, whoo, it was just hard to get everything done. You have people with no where to go! Where are they going to sleep tonight? They don’t have a flight home yet! You have to love it.”
Juli added that the stress comes with the territory for their industry. “I feel like if you talk to anyone who works in production, it takes a certain person to know, ‘Hey, we’re going to get through this.’ Just push through it and not get too stressed out about this.”
“It will get done. We’re going to get them home,” Nicole said, confidently. “It’s going to work out with the end.”
8.) They genuinely love this team.
Nicole reiterated a common feeling behind-the-scenes of American Ninja Warrior. Everyone wants to be there. “One thing I love about Ninja is that so many of crew have been on the show for so long. People love working on Ninja.
I think the group of people, the loyalty to the show. How so many people have come back season after season. I feel like we’re a traveling circus. We set up shop and then we film. Then we truck it to the next place. It’s like a family. That’s what’s nice.
The travel aspect and the overnight aspect. With so many people doing it at the same time season after season, has really built a strong group.”
Juli agreed. “The people who work on the show love the show. The people who work on the show, love the people who work on the show. I think the combination brings people back.”
American Ninja Warrior is just a couple of weeks away from the next travel season. That means Nicole and Juli are hard at work arranging to reunited the crew for the first time this year in Los Angeles on March 13 and 14. They’re one more important part of the huge system that has to come together to bring us all a new season of Ninja Warrior this summer.