Monday, August 29, 2011

Successful Events - It's All About Selection

Ever wonder why an event is a smash hit in one town, but completely falls flat in another?  Event selection is the key to making sure that you are spending your time and dollars wisely.  Before you add a new event to your downtown's calendar, make sure you can answer some key questions.

Find Your Event Sweet Spot - Who is your target market?  Families, young singles, teens, baby boomers?  The tendency is to say all of the above but it is rare to design an event that has wide enough appeal to hit all those markets. (Not impossible, but that's a blog post for another day).  What does the crowd look like at your events?  When people are calling to get more information, what kind of things are they interested in (i.e. children's activities, alcohol availability, entertainment, etc.).  Pay attention to the feedback you receive through your social media channels as well.  This approach should give you the clues you need to design an effective event calendar.  Design events for the market you have, not the market you want.

What's The Point?  Is the point of the event to raise money, ring registers or raise awareness?  It could be a combination of any of these, but you should be able to identify the primary purpose.  To me, it's all about balance.  You don't want to overdo the "sale" events because of the negative consequences it can bring (customers wait for the next sale, because there are so many).  Conversely, it's impractical to only host friend-raising events because the value is much harder to measure and these types of events are only a part of your overall promotional effort.  The best event calendars I see have a mix both fundraising and friend-raising, with some retail events sprinkled in.

Can You Execute It?  There are tons of great event ideas out there.  But the single difference between a successful event and an epic failure comes down to one thing - execution.  Whenever I'm thinking of adding a new event, these items are part of my evaluation.   Logistics - Develop a sketch in your mind of what the event looks like.  What do you need to bring in to make the event happen (i.e. electricity, rental items, signage, etc.)?  Community Support - Determine how much support do you need to run the event.  Volunteers are key.  What do you need from the businesses and are your expectations realistic?  Make sure you are not setting yourself up for failure before you even get started.  And finally, the dreaded "B" word, Budget.  Do you have the dollars to do it right?  Identify any opportunities within the event that could generate revenue to offset costs. 

Last, but certainly not least, what is the "right" number of events for a downtown?  It varies from town to town, and it depends on the willingness of your businesses and the appetite of your event-goers.  In Downtown Rochester, our calendar has grown over the past 14 years from 3 events to now over 100 event days annually.  Learn from each event, and build your calendar gradually.  Don't be afraid to make the hard decisions to eliminate events that, while they have some nostalgia, have run their course.  Events are a key element of any downtown revitalization program and, when well-executed, can deliver significant traffic, dollars and awareness to your downtown.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Secrets of a Downtown Manager

I never intended to be a downtown manager.  In my six years with the Rochester Downtown Development Authority (DDA) as the Marketing Manager, the Director position came available three times and I never applied.  Each time, I would ask myself, why would I want that job?  I never had a good answer to the question, so I stayed in my little promotions world.

Fast forward to 2005.  I had left the DDA two-and-a-half years prior to try my luck in the private sector.  Once again, the Director position was available (fourth time in nine years).  A few downtown merchants tracked me down to see if I was interested in applying.  Of course, I said no.  Why in the world would I want that job?  But for some reason, I actually had an answer this time.  As a matter of fact, not only did I have the answer, but I had a lot of ideas too.  So I threw my hat in the ring.  After two panel interviews and one incredibly painful public interview, no one was more surprised than me to hear my phone ring at 10:15 pm that fateful night to say I got the job.

So here I am six years later, reflecting on this unexpected journey.  I thought I would share a few of the things that I have learned that give me a reason to get out of bed every morning. 

You have to ask for help.  Your job is to make things look effortless, even though you know there are hundreds of moving parts behind the scenes to pull off your programs.  It's easy to fall into the trap of waiting for people to step up because they must know you can't do it by yourself.  It creates a dangerous cycle that is frustrating and self-defeating.  The bottom line is that they don't know unless you tell them.  Communication is the greatest tool that a downtown manager has in their arsenal.

And here's a bonus tip for working with volunteers - never ask them to do anything you wouldn't do yourself.  Whether it's picking up trash, passing out flyers or calling for donations, you better be in there shoulder-to-shoulder with them.  It sets the tone for your organization's work ethic and your volunteer retention will be off the charts. 

Find your happy place. If you are hoping for your Board to swoon every time you land a big donor or present a killer proposal, you'll have a long wait.  The bottom line is that the Main Street Program is not about you (anyone who knows me will realize this is a bold statement for me to make).  It's about the community and everything your organization is doing to make it a vibrant, viable place to be.  It can't ever be about just one person, because what happens when that person leaves?

That's not to say that your efforts are not recognized, but it's up to you to find that place of satisfaction.  Maybe it's a particular committee or volunteer group.  For me, it's my merchants.  This is your place to go to to get your warm fuzzy.  It reminds me of the movie Soapdish (highly underrated soap opera spoof with a star-studded cast).  Whenever the lead character (Sally Field) feels like she is losing her star power, she and her assistant (Whoopi Goldberg) head out the Paramus Mall.  Her assistant pretends to be a fan and creates a frenzy of photos and autograph hounds.  This might be an extreme example, but it perfectly illustrates my point.  Just because people don't tell you every minute of every day that you are appreciated, it doesn't mean that they don't think it. 

You have to love it.  This is not a 9 to 5, punch-your-time-card kind of job.  A friend of mine once told me that being in this business is a calling and I couldn't agree more.  It gets into your blood and becomes a part of your soul.  If you're just doing it for the paycheck or because it might be fun, you're not doing it for the right reasons and most likely, you won't be at your job very long.  Knowing that I have the opportunity to make a difference is all the motivation I need to kick ass and take names each and every day.  That's not to say that there aren't good days and bad days, but as long as the good outnumber the bad, I can handle it.

So what is the most important thing that I learned over the last six years?  I learned it my first day on the job. Taking risks will deliver the greatest rewards.  If I hadn't taken the chance at this job, I would have missed out on one of the best experiences of my life.  I love the people that I am fortunate enough to work with and the amazing projects that keep coming our way.  Most of all, every day when I get out of bed, I am proud to say that I work for Downtown Rochester.

The Downtown Geek