You’ve heard of the Most Interesting Man in the World, right? Well, I’ve met him, and his name is Max Marshall.
As one of my most well-traveled friends, I’ve been looking forward to introducing you to Max for a while. Jack of all professions, culinary connoisseur, deep and provocative thinker, expert conversationalist, and visitor of 108 countries and counting, Max is a fascinating guy. He’s the type of person who has CouchSurfed with strangers on almost every continent, who greets you with the excited news that he’s decided to trek and camp across Canada’s remote Baffin Island, and who will prepare you an authentic Peruvian dinner from scratch while keeping your pisco sour glass filled to the brim.
We first met in 2010 in Dawson City, Yukon Territory, where we were both working as tour directors, and I’m happy to say that our friendship has flourished beautifully since then. I can always count on Max for great conversation over excellent cuisine, and I love that he challenges me to think about things from angles I hadn’t before considered.
Today, Max was kind enough to let me interview him about just one aspect of his extraordinary life: his work with the Olympics. Welcome to the third installment in our series of Travel Career Snapshots!
Hi, Max! Thanks so much for joining me here on Full Life, Full Passport and sharing your story. Let’s start by learning a little bit about who you are outside of your work.
Thanks, Gwen, happy to chat with you! I grew up between Manhattan and a small, lakeside community in northern New Jersey. I studied international economics, Spanish, and Mandarin at The College of New Jersey, during which time I spent a year in Beijing. (Can you tell I wanted to travel?) I then earned a Masters of Environmental Management in Energy at Duke University and an MBA from the University of North Carolina, spending one semester in Cape Town, South Africa (you’re probably sensing a trend).
I am, evidently, one of those restless people who has to try all things once. I’ve worked in everything from film and television production, bartending, Olympics hospitality, Super Bowl transportation logistics, Alaskan tourism, electric utilities, Wall Street banking, and Airbnb management, to my current project building an eco-retreat and farm-to-table Moroccan restaurant in the beachside jungle of Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica. Life is my museum, and I’m trying my best to visit every gallery.
As long as I’ve known you, you’ve always been up for an adventure! Where did your passion for travel come from?
Have you ever been to New Jersey?? Some places just beg you to get out more… I’m kidding. New Jersey is beautiful. Sometimes.
As a boy, I had a shelf full of atlases. Back in the pre-smartphone days when kids would hang out in their rooms playing records and reading books, I became a scholar of Rand McNally. Exotic names like Kamchatka and Lesotho stoked the flames of my imagination, just as bizarre topographical features beckoned me to visit, like the seemingly endless, unexplored Greenlandic fjords and the way that the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Norte fits snugly into the socket of West Africa’s Cameroon. Some things just need to be seen in person to be believed, like the existence of North Dakota.
My obsession with food also played a part. Growing up with the culinary abundance and variety of New York City, where a spin-the-globe-and-point-to-a-country decision for dinner is just a take-out delivery phone call away, I have been compelled since birth to seek out authentic culinary experiences worldwide. Though, after living on five continents and visiting 108 countries, I still haven’t tried the smoked halibut and Chinook salmon roe in Kamchatka. But I will.
While you have certainly done your fair share of working abroad, today I want to talk specifically about your time at the Olympics. Can you tell me a little about what you do during the Games and which Olympics you’ve worked?
Every two years I work in high-end Olympics hospitality. Many of the world’s largest companies are involved with the Games as a venue for brand awareness and large corporate events, requiring an unparalleled degree of logistical planning to execute. Additionally, there are many families and individual spectators who want to attend the Games with all of their ticketing, accommodations, dining, sightseeing, and transportation needs taken care of for them at the highest level of hospitality available. I specialize in transportation logistics for both corporate and private clients, managing fleets of motorcoaches, vans, and luxury small vehicles (sometimes armored), as well as the drivers who deliver those services. I’ve worked in Beijing, Vancouver, Rio de Janeiro, and Pyeongchang, South Korea, and I’m gearing up for Tokyo, which should be magnificent.
How did you find this opportunity, and what attracted you to it?
As I mentioned earlier, in 2007 I was living in Beijing studying Mandarin. In the run-up to the 2008 Summer Olympics, I was desperate to have a reason to stay in town that would also allow me to afford my apartment all summer on a student’s budget. As is pretty typical in New Jersey, a friend of my mom knew somebody who worked at an Italian restaurant who knew somebody who attended that restaurant frequently who owned some company that did some work with the Olympics. Bada bing, bada boom – I got the job.
In reality, I could speak Chinese and English, and I knew the streets of Beijing like the back of my hand (this was before Google Maps and ubiquitous iPhones). Their transportation department needed that expertise.
What does your work schedule look like during the Games? I’m sure it’s not your typical 9-to-5.
Hah! Well, I usually arrive a few weeks before the Games start to get the lay of the land. The next 30 days involve lots of coffee, zero sleep, and being on call 24-7. Sometimes the sleep I do get comes in brief stints under my desk. In transportation, the clock doesn’t stop. People are always moving during the Games. But adrenaline and caffeine are a magical combination, and somehow we all survive.
Typical day? I come into the office around 5:00 AM to take care of some logistical planning that I won’t be able to tackle once the first groups start gathering for the day. By 7:00 AM, the drivers have arrived for their briefing. By 8:00 AM, the guests are out the door on their way to one of the events.
Throughout the day, I’m monitoring guests’ itineraries, dispatching vehicles, talking to drivers, putting out fires, finding solutions to blocked roads and unplanned diplomat convoys, and planning the schedule for the next day. Hopefully, I get to sneak away for a few power naps while everything is in others’ hands. Then, maybe I’ll find some food. The guests get back from their final event around 11:00 PM. Some stay out until 3:00 AM bar hopping with the athletes they just met at a medal ceremony. By 4:00 AM, it’s time for my daily 1-hour nap.
What are some of your favorite aspects of working at the Olympics?
Being part of the largest, most watched event on Earth is always a rush. The people you meet are from all over the world and the best in their field, whether it’s my logistics coworkers, the athletes, or even the corporate executives and politicians who make things happen on a global scale.
Aside from the people, the opportunity to live in a new country for a month or two every two years is the oh-so-satisfying dopamine/adrenaline hit I need to temporarily satiate my addiction to constant exploration. Learning new languages, eating new food, and getting to know the locals that we work with… It’s just another part in that whole “life is a museum” metaphor I mentioned earlier.
Are there any downsides?
Yes. It’s damn exhausting. I’m sure I lose a few years of my life every time I do an Olympics. But hey, it’s not the years in your life, it’s the life in your years, right? Right?
There are many hours of thankless work that go into the job. If you’re doing it right, the work should seem effortless and seamless to the clients, which means that recognition only comes after the fact. If you’re still standing, you still have all of your hair, and you haven’t surrendered and flown yourself home, then you know you’ve done a good job. (Did I mention my hair is mostly gone?)
Of course, there’s also the fact that most successful people in this industry are extremely Type-A. It does lead to personality clashes, which are exacerbated by lack of sleep and too much caffeine.
Yours is just one of many roles available during these events. What other temporary positions did you encounter that people might be interested in pursuing?
There are thousands of volunteers at the Games. Their roles can range from parking lot attendant at a rural regional bus depot nowhere near the events (unlucky) to the person who greets the athletes coming home from a competition at the Athlete’s Village (luckier).
Within the event space, there are roles in food and beverage planning, sightseeing, ticket sales, venue management, broadcasting and media, blogging, journalism, photography, and more. Anything that you can think of that you would need for a major event to be successful exists at the Olympics. Most of the staff are local, though. The few who come from abroad are usually well-seasoned in their particular industry or just very lucky.
Is there anything about working with the Olympics or the Games themselves that those of us on the outside would be surprised to know?
Absolutely. It’s far more corporate than many people imagine. The stories that are told about individual athletes and teams are often curated by news stations to gain viewers for advertising sales. There is a lot of corruption.
At the same time, many of those stories are true, and meeting the athletes can be very humbling when you realize how much of their lives have been dedicated to this one moment. There are organizations made up of veteran athletes whose mission is to help the younger athletes return to civilian life after their career ends (some when they are still teenagers). In that sense, there’s a sort of PTSD recovery period for many athletes who return home to find that they aren’t prepared for readjusting to life without their sport. This alumni network does a lot of good, and it’s very supportive.
Many athletes don’t come from wealth, and even with lots of success, there is no guarantee that that success will lead them and their family to financial gain. These are real young people who have an unbelievable degree of passion and perseverance. They are usually quite inspiring. And often wild partiers.
What makes you successful in this line of work?
Success in events is entirely correlated with strong attention to detail, good problem solving skills, being extremely well organized, knowing when to admit you’re wrong, and having a good attitude. Microsoft Excel skills are a plus, too. There are a ton of spreadsheets involved.
What are one or two things someone should know before committing to a job like this?
Don’t do this for the money. Do it because there’s no other experience on Earth like it, and the people you meet will be part of your life forever. And please don’t be a picky eater.
Is there an exciting, provocative, or funny story from your work that you’d like to share? I’m sure it’s like a crazy other world in the Olympic Village!
In Beijing, the agency that provided hundreds of small vehicles for our fleet only gave us one key per vehicle. When you’re running dozens of multi-million dollar programs, having only one key is not an option. If there’s a possibility of a driver losing a key or locking himself out, or locking the guests in, it will 100% happen. You need to be prepared for all contingencies.
The fastest solution I could come up with was to ride my electric bike to the closest hutong alleyway neighborhood to find the local locksmith, who was undoubtedly a migrant from a rural province who had never spoken to a foreigner before. I asked him if he could make a copy of one of the keys, and he did, for like 25 cents.
When the key worked, I asked if he’d like a big job for the next few days. He said sure. I brought him to our car lot and explained that we would like him to help us make about 1,000 copies of keys for our entire fleet. He almost fainted upon realizing that he would be making in two days what he would probably make in two months otherwise. He ran home, grabbed his key machine and a little wooden stool, and sat in the same spot making keys with a huge smile on his face for the next 48 hours without stopping for sleep or food or water. I’ll never forget the image of him grinning on that stool with a mountain of unshaped keys at his side almost as tall as he was!
In Vancouver it doesn’t snow. Don’t host a winter Olympics there.
I have no idea how the Olympics actually happened in Rio. From my perspective, it was 30 days of absolute chaos and samba music, and then I somehow woke up back in my bed in New York.
And the Olympic Village in Pyeongchang had robots that spoke 7 languages.
Olympics aside, what is your favorite or most trusted piece of travel advice?
Eat everything. Talk to everyone. Bring ear plugs.
Is there anything else you’d like people to know about you, your work, or any of the places you’ve been?
I’ll take this opportunity to promote my current project, thank you! I’m now living in Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica, where I’m building a new hotel project on 20 acres of jungle land near one of the most beautiful beaches in the country. The project is called Téva, which means “nature” in Hebrew.
We have comfortable accommodations nestled into the woods. Azulëo is our restaurant that serves Moroccan- and Costa Rican-inspired dishes with ingredients pulled right from our permaculture garden. We’ve placed private spaces throughout the trail system for quiet meditation, yoga, music circles, camp fires, and celebrations. And to top it all off, we’re building a treehouse-style craft brewery that uses local ingredients to make totally unique beers. It’s called Matapalo, named after a giant fig tree that will be the centerpiece growing out of the middle of our brewery. Come check it out! www.tevacostarica.com and @tevacostarica on Instagram 🙂
Thanks so much for a fascinating interview, Max! I can’t wait to hear about your next adventure!
**All photos were provided by Max.
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This Travel Career Snapshot was first published on April 23, 2019, and was last updated on April 23, 2020.
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