Wednesday, October 24, 2012

You Never Stop Learning

As I click the keys on my laptop, I'm sitting at the airport in Milwaukee, just returning from a Main Street Resource Team Visit to Waterford, WI.  If you're not familiar with Waterford, it's about 40 minutes outside of Milwaukee.  They are a designated Wisconsin Main Street Community and have been practicing Main Street for almost a year and a half.  My part of the visit was to assist business owners with their marketing needs.  You know me, can't think of many things that I enjoy more than working with independent businesses, so the last couple days were a blast.

As I met the people of the community, it struck me that there are so many similarities in downtowns, no matter where they are or how long their Main Street efforts have been underway.  I met the enthusiastic Main Street faithfuls, who serve on multiple committees and believe in the positive future of their community so much, it's hard not to jump on board with their enthusiasm.  There are those that are keeping things at arms length, taking a wait-and-see attitude.  And of course, there are those that "know" exactly what needs to be done, but they aren't about to invest their time or money to do it. But as I met the cast of characters, I found myself reflecting on my journey with Main Street and what I've learned so far. 

Consistency is key.  I know it's sounds elementary, but you can't imagine the return on investment when you take the time to constantly engage your community.  It can't be an annual effort or a visit only to ask for participation or funding.  Main Street organizations need to form relationships with their stakeholders.  So you went to a business owner once to ask for support and they said no. What do you do?  Go back again...and again.  They are in your community and you need to have them on board.  And for goodness sake, if you expect them to come to you, then create opportunities like merchant meetings or networking events.

Small successes mean the most.  In Waterford, almost everyone we met told us about the Art Walk event that took place the week prior to our visit.  It was the first event put on by the Absolutely Waterford Promotions Committee. It had all the elements - strong involvement by businesses, over 500 attendees, and it accomplished the goal - to raise awareness and ring registers.  This event might not sound like a big deal, but it seemed to almost overnight reinvigorate some of the volunteers and board members that had been starting to feel overwhelmed and frustrated.  Thoughts were now turning to making the event bigger and better and creating new events using the same formula for success.  Sometimes it takes one small win to reinforce that time given to Main Street is worth its weight in gold.

Main Street is a powerful brand. The two new businesses that opened in Waterford could have gone to any downtown, but they specifically chose Waterford because they heard that Main Street was coming.  It made me think about how I'm leveraging the Main Street brand in my community?  By getting comfortable and taking it for granted, have I been missing opportunities?  (You might imagine what's on my to do list when I get back to Rochester.) The National Main Street Center is in a pivotal point in their history, soon to hire a new director who will have the important and exciting task of blazing the trail for Main Street's future.  I truly believe that with the right person, Main Street will take it's rightful place on the national stage as the premier economic development methodology for communities.

So did I come up my next big idea while I was in Waterford?  No, but I did learn that somewhere along the way I picked up a lot of ideas for helping businesses market themselves, and I was excited to share it with anyone who would listen. Most importantly for me, it affirmed what I had hoped, I'm still lucky enough to be doing what I love.  And every day offers the opportunity to learn something new.  Can't really ask for more than that.

The Downtown Geek

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Downtown R & D - When Does It Cross The Line?

Yes, we've all done it.  You've heard of a downtown event or promotion that you really liked and pulled the old R & D (Ripoff and Duplicate).  I admit it, I've done it too. But when does R & D cross the line?  I discovered the answer to that delicate question just last week.

I was poking around on Facebook the other night and came across an event that Downtown No-Name (name changed to protect the guilty) was holding called Junk in the Trunk.  Hmmm, I thought to myself.  That's funny because we have an event that we just did last month called Junk in the Trunk.  And even funnier, our logo is the back of a car with the trunk open and the event logo for Downtown No-Name's event is also a back of a car with the trunk open.  Oh, but we described ours a "community-wide resale event".  And I read their description and guess what it said - "community-wide resale event".  Okay, it's not so funny anymore. Did I mention Downtown No-Name is 30 minutes from my downtown?

So after a sleepless night, first thing the next morning, I called the Main Street Manager for Downtown No-Name to get to the bottom of this.  I wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt, so my first question was, "Hey, where did you come up with that Junk in the Trunk Event?"  Her answer?  "Oh, from you (insert nervous laugh here)."  Wrong answer.  I told her that I would have had no problem if she took the event concept, but did she have to duplicate the name, font, logo and even our description.  Her response?  "Oh, was it too much?"  Yeah, way too much.

As you might imagine I was recounting this experience to many of my friends throughout the day and one of my favorite downtown people suggested I write a blog about my experience so here we are.  I'm not saying that R & D is bad, but it has to be done carefully and thoughtfully.  At the end of the day, these ideas were someone's original thoughts somewhere along the line and that needs to be respected.  Here are some helpful tips to guide you down the R & D path.

Make it your own.  It's fine to take a concept, but you need to put your own spin on it.  This goes for any event or promotion regardless of where you got your inspiration.  The most successful events are ones that resonate with your community.  A great example of my finest R & D moment is The Big, Bright Light Show, Downtown Rochester's signature holiday event.  The inspiration for that event came from Walt Disney World's Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights at their Hollywood Studios Theme Park.  I saw an idea (a stunning 5 million light holiday display), took the parts that I liked best (the lights on the buildings) and built an event that fit the size, scale and needs of our downtown.  And I told anyone that would listen where the inspiration came from, so there wouldn't be any confusion.

Proximity.  This should be common sense, but based on my recent experience, maybe not.  Think about your market and trade area.  If there is another downtown in your market that has an idea that you love and that they do a great job with, maybe you need to accept that there isn't any room in the market for another one.  Keep in mind, I'm not talking about Farmers' Markets, Sidewalk Sales or Trick-or-Treat, etc.  Those types of events are must-have events in the "Main Street Handbook". I'm talking about those off-beat events that are unique to each downtown. 

Great ideas are products of great environments.  I've had a lot of people try to create their own version of The Big, Bright Light Show.  They see the dollars and traffic we drive to our downtown businesses and decide right then and there that this is the event for them.  I'm always happy to share our story, helpful tips and some basic dos and don'ts.  But I always caution them to look at their downtown environment to see if this event can work.  Is there an appetite or demand for this type of event?  In my town, we already had a big holiday kick-off event and the largest Christmas Parade in Michigan, so I felt like there would be support for another holiday event.  Logistics are also key.  The "magic" of our show comes from the built environment - the historic buildings, the scale and width of our Main Street and sidewalks all lend themselves to this event.  The bottom line is that great ideas have many moving parts that make them great, so look at all the angles before you decide to make one your own.

Don't misunderstand, I'm not saying that R & D is wrong, but it should be done selectively.  For those who say that every good idea has already been thought of, I say find another line of work because maybe being a Main Street Manager just isn't for you.  We're looking for creative types willing to try new things to better our communities.

Well, I'm off to trademark all of our downtown event logos...

The Downtown Geek

Monday, August 27, 2012

Downtown Events - How Do You Choose?

Junk in the Trunk, Downtown Rochester
The inspiration for this blog struck this past weekend as I was working the Information Booth for Downtown Rochester's first-ever community-wide resale event, Junk in the Trunk. (Favorite. Event. Name. Ever.) The event was created in response to many members of our community looking for us to add a "flea market" element to our already bustling Farmers' Market.

Our market is a growers-only market, meaning that everything sold at the Market must be grown or made by that vendor.  We advertise it as "Fresh From Michigan" and that distinction helps to set us apart from other markets that have sprung up in our trade area over the past few years.  Needless to say, the "flea market" concept didn't really feel like a good fit for our Market, so we never pursued it.  But much like any interesting idea that comes our way, we file it away until the right time. 

The structure of Junk in the Trunk was simple:

Step 1:  Take over downtown parking lot
Step 2:  Sell parking spaces to residents & businesses for $35 (or 2 for $50)
Step 3:  Generate funds for our organization

So as I looked out on the event, I saw full spaces and a steady crowd.  But what I was really seeing was opportunity.  I've always believed that the best time to critique an event is while you are immersed in it.  At no other time will you be as clear in your vision of what next year's event could be.  So rather than hanging out in my shady spot at the Information Booth, I ventured into the hot sun with my favorite pad & paper and got to work.  If you decide to try out my On-The-Spot Event Evaluation technique, make sure you have comfy shoes, a thick skin and follow these handy tips:

Take the time to talk to people.  Ask the attendees how they are enjoying the event.  Was there anything else they hoped to see at the event?  Would they attend if the event was held again?  Stop by your vendors and check in.  How are their sales?  Was the event what they expected?  Inevitably, you'll hear some negative comments.  It's easy to get discouraged and defensive.  Don't.  Stop, listen and cherry-pick the most valuable information to assist in your planning for the next year.

Dissect everything.  I've planned nearly 1,000 events in my career so far, but that doesn't mean that my events are flawless.  They can always be better.  Look at signage, traffic flow, parking, amenities, ambiance, everything that goes into creating the event.  Reflect on the advertising and PR that proceeded this event.  Did you get media coverage?  Was the event media worthy?

Lightning doesn't always strike.  There will be those events that are wildly successful from the moment they start.  This is the exception, not the rule, so don't get frustrated if every event isn't a rollicking success the first time.  On the other hand, tt should never be a given that an event will continue just because it had moderate success.  Set some benchmark questions that need to be answered before committing to another year:
  • Did the event meet your goals?  (Increased foot traffic, ringing the register, fundraising, friend-building)
  • Were able to execute the event within budget without cutting corners? 
  • Was it worth the time spent (planning & execution)?
The final question you need to answer - Is it sustainable?  Does the event have enough appeal to build on for future years or is it a "one-time, wham-bam, thank you ma'am" kind of thing?  You don't want to get in the business of trying out new events until one sticks.  That does nothing for your credibility and confuses your audience.

The art of downtown event planning lies in the ability to design events that connect people with your place, creating memories and feelings that will last long after the event is over.  It's never about the number of events, but rather the quality and distinctiveness of your events that contribute to the overall downtown experience you are striving to deliver every day. 

The Downtown Geek

Monday, August 6, 2012

Downtowns Can Save The World!

Passion.  It's what gets me out of bed every morning.  Passion for life and passion for the job I feel lucky to have every single day.  I wanted to take everyone on a slight detour for this blog, away from technique and best practices for downtowns.  Rather, I want to focus on why we do what we do, and why we can save the world.  Downtowns can save the world?  Yes, I do have a flair for the dramatic, but hear me out.  I have three completely random points to make my case:  a trip to New Orleans, Facebook and my 3 year-old. 

So I was watching an episode of Chopped on Food Network (yes, this is what I do when my daughter is napping).  The theme was "Pride of New Orleans", featuring four chefs from The Big Easy.  In the introduction, each chef talked about how Hurricane Katrina changed their lives and how they found their path again.  It took me back to 2006 and the National Main Streets Conference that was held in New Orleans, less than a year after Katrina.  Our first dinner was at Emeril's.  Coincidentally, this was the first day that Emeril's was open since the hurricane hit.  The restaurant was packed, the food was incredible, but it's the people that stood out in my mind.  They were all so genuinely excited that we were there.  But more importantly, that they were back where they belonged.  This trend continued as the days went on, with every business owner and resident that we encountered.  They were happy to share their Katrina stories and where the journey had taken them.  Across all the stories, the same message kept coming through.  They couldn't give up on New Orleans, it was a part of their lives, their identities, their souls. 

As many of you know, we are undergoing a complete reconstruction of our Main Street this year.  We had built an entire web site designed to be the clearing house for information about the project.  In reality, it is our Facebook Page that has been the superstar of our communications efforts.  This is where people are asking questions and looking for project information.  Our interaction numbers are off the charts.  We have capitalized on this opportunity to engage our community by not just providing standard updates, but telling the story of our project through photos, historic finds and more.  It has become a great resource for our community and given them a voice in this historic project.  It has enabled us to take what undeniably could have been a great negative and turned it into not only a positive, but an asset.  We have been overwhelmed by how our community is inspired to not only come out in support of our project but to take ownership by making the effort to spend more time and dollars downtown during this challenging time. They see value in what we do and who we are and want to do their part to make sure that downtown continues to thrive.

My daughter, Eden, is my little mini-me.  Our first 3 year-old volunteer, she does everything with me from dropping off posters to businesses, to checking The Big, Bright Light Show every evening in December.  She attends every event possible and loves every one of them.  This past weekend, we were driving around running errands.  From the backseat, I hear, "Go downtown momma, I want to see friends."  And in that comment, I found the piece to pull it all together.  My 3 year-old had identified her "third place" and it is downtown. 

So let's get back to downtowns and how they are going to save the world.  The common thread between all my stories is community.  It's what brings us together, inspires us to try new things and gives us a place to call our own.  And it is that sense of community that will define our future.  The spotlight is on downtowns once again.  People are talking small business, thinking local and searching for their place to belong. I'd like to say that it's because all of us are doing such a great job of hammering our downtown messages home.  But it's bigger than that.  The economic downturn has forced people to look at the world differently.  And in that new perspective, you find downtowns.  We've always been here, but what we represent is exactly what everyone is looking for - hope. 

Despite the economy, we are out there making it happen every day.  Our Main Street foundation has allowed us to continue to attract new development and businesses.  We provide a place for people to call their own.  A place where they can meet their neighbors, get things that they need and enjoy life.  And that, my friends, is community.  So are downtowns on track to save the world?  Maybe. Maybe not.  But it's one hell of a good start. 

The Downtown Geek

Monday, June 18, 2012

Fundraising: The Art of The Ask

Over the last few months, my life has been overtaken by a little project here in Downtown Rochester called the Main Street Makeover.  No big thing, just a $7.6 million dollar public infrastructure project that includes a complete reconstruction of our Main Street, building face to building face.  While giving me more than one sleepless night, this project has provided me many new opportunities, not the least of which is rethinking how we, as a downtown organization, approach our fundraising.  So what do a reconstruction project and fundraising have in common?  Read on...

One of the most exciting aspects of the project for me was the potential for historic finds when we opened Main Street.  While we found vintage bottles, bullet casings, buttons, pottery and a host of other goodies, the most intriguing find came a few weeks ago from the corner of a coal bin.  I got the call one morning to come over to inspect a box of papers that was found on the site by the construction workers. As I carefully pulled the pages apart, I realized I was looking at sales sheets and order forms from The Kroger Grocery & Baking Company.  The documents dated back to 1933 and to the store at the corner of Fourth & Main.

While we thought it was an amazing find for our community, we wondered if Kroger might feel the same way.  Through a friend of a friend, I was able to get a meeting with the Communications Director for Kroger in Michigan.  When he came in to review the documents, he was blown away.  As he explained to us, in the grocery business, every week is a new day, so they don't really value keeping historic records because everything was always changing.  He inquired about our plans for the documents.  We told him our Historical Commission is planning on preserving and displaying them.  He said that is what he had hoped and offered to donate $2,500 toward the project.  Now it was our turn to be blown away.  Not the point of the meeting, and certainly not anything we expected.  But obviously we had provided an investment opportunity that inspired Kroger to step up.  Hmmm....

When we first started this project, there was a lot of talk about what to keep and what to buy new in terms of the streetscape.  Because of a 50/50 match enhancement grant from the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), we were able to buy all new lightpoles, signs, traffic signals, etc.  The original plan was to let the contractor take all the items and do what they will with them. "Hey, wait!" I blurted out at that fateful MDOT meeting, "I think I could sell that stuff!".  So there I was with 35 benches, 80 cast iron lightpoles, assorted street signs, parking meters, sidewalk pavers and over 500,000 historic bricks that were excavated from beneath Main Street.  Sure, I thought it was a good idea, but would anyone really buy this stuff?

I got my answer this past weekend when we hosted the Downtown Yard Sale, with all of our items priced anywhere from $500 to just $1.  We hosted a pre-sale event on Friday from 6-8 pm, where people paid $10 to get first choice of the items, with the public sale on Saturday from 8 am - Noon.  Imagine my surprise when we realized that we had a 1/4 mile backup down the road for the sale at 5:30 pm.  When the gate opened at 6:00 pm, the next 45 minutes were an absolute blur.  People running everywhere, grabbing everything in sight.  Street signs were gone in 1 minute, lightpole disks in 5 minutes, and benches in 11 minutes flat.  We processed 65 sales in that first crazy 45 minutes.  By the end of the night, not only did we have a lot of happy customers, we raised some significant funds for our organization.  Based on the success, we are hosting a second yard sale in August! (They're giving me fire hydrants and traffic signals this time!)

So how did we do it?  We didn't market lightpoles and bricks for sale. We offered the opportunity to purchase a piece of Rochester's history.  We would have never sold these items if we just put them up on our web site or issued a press release.  We created a unique, exciting opportunity and our community responded. 

At the end of the day, our fundraising this year is already off to a rockin' start and it's only June.  So what is the invaluable lesson we've learned?  Fundraising is not about finding the right people to ask or crafting great sponsorship packages.  It's all about creating an environment that inspires investment.  If you work toward offering opportunities, you'd be surprised how people will respond.  You just have to give them a reason.

The Downtown Geek

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Has Your Main Street Program Jumped The Shark?

"Jumped the shark" is one of my all-time favorite pop culture phrases, referring to the infamous Happy Days episode where Fonzie grabbed his water skis and actually jumped over a shark.  This is widely regarded as the point at which the beloved sitcom began to go downhill.  The phrase caught on and now refers to anything that seems to be stale or outlived its appeal or usefulness.  So how do you know if your Main Street program has jumped the shark?

Are you preaching to the choir?
When you have merchant meetings are you seeing the same faces?  Engaging new businesses is as important as maintaining relationships with existing stakeholders.  You may have a great turnout in terms of attendance, but if you are not attracting new people there's a problem.  It's easy to say that people are too busy to attend, but if you create an event that demonstrates value to your businesses, you'd be surprised how many will make the time to be there.

You count success by the number of awards on your wall.
Nope.  Sorry.  Never.  Don't get me wrong, awards are awesome and certainly validate your organization's efforts.  I'm extremely proud of the wall o' fame in our office.  But you know what is a true measure of success?  When an existing business tells you they need new space because they are so busy they need to expand.  Or how about when a resident calls to offer some ideas to help your efforts and make downtown even better.  My personal favorite, the smile on a child's face when they see the Christmas lights in your downtown for the first time.  Many say that success can be measured by statistics, charts and graphs.  I prefer a much simpler approach.  If the people in your town are happy, then you are doing your job.

When was the last time you had a new idea? 
I understand the rationale of "if it's not broken, don't fix it", but I don't think that really applies to Main Street.  Downtowns are living things, full of opportunity and change.  If you are only doing the same things over and over, are you really responding to the current environment in which your downtown exists?  Further, what reasons are you giving people to continue to come to your town?  Traditions are one thing and should absolutely be maintained, but to be relevant to an increasingly distracted population, you need to keep looking forward.  Not everything has to be the next big thing or a million dollar idea.  Maybe it's a fresh approach to an existing event, or engaging an under-served market in your trade area.  Bottom line, it never hurts to have ideas.

You think you're done.
The buildings are full, streetscape looks fresh, events are attracting record crowds. What else is there to do?  Really?!? If you or your board ever actually think this, then you are done and you should move out of the way to let someone else take the reins.  It's easy to sit back and admire your achievements - goals met and successes gained.  But after that moment in your happy place, it's time to get back to work.  Just because things are the way you hoped they would be is no guarantee that they will stay that way.  New challenges are waiting for you, all you have to do is look around. 

So what motivates me to keep our program on track and make sure we aren't in danger of becoming irrelevant?   I think Walt Disney described it best, "That’s what I like about this business, the certainty that there is always something bigger and more exciting just around the bend; and the uncertainty of everything else."

The Downtown Geek

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Is Your Downtown Facebook Page Working?

Social media, specifically Facebook, has become standard operating procedure for most downtowns.  It's a fantastic way to get the word out and receive instant feedback.  Have you ever wondered why some towns have thousands of fans, while others are struggling in the hundreds?  It has nothing to do with population or the size of your marketing budget.  Here are a few ways to gauge the success of your Facebook Page.

Do you know your audience?  It's not just your city's residents, nor is it a majority of your downtown businesses.  It is a cross section of both, plus visitors, former residents and general fans of your town.  So think about your audience when you're posting.  Don't make your posts specific to one group.  If you want to communicate something specific to your merchants, use a different avenue, like an e-newsletter or go old school and distribute flyers.  If posts don't have wide appeal, you will turn off your audience.  It limits their opportunity to respond and interact with your content.  Always remember, it's supposed to be "social" media, and that never means one-way communication.

Are you consistent in your posts?  It's like having a great first date, then the guy waits three weeks to call.  Any kind of relationship that you formed is now fractured.  It's not enough to get someone to click the like button on your page.  You need to provide engaging content that not only reinforces their choice to see what you are posting, but to develop advocates and supporters who will share your page and posts with their friends.  How much is enough?  Test the waters, posting once a day, three days per week.  Experiment with different kinds of posts to see where you get the greatest response.  Whatever you are posting, always ask yourself why this would be valuable or interesting to your fans. 

Are your posts original?  If you are truly a fan of your downtown, then this should come naturally.  Realize that most people seeing your posts are not necessarily coming downtown every day.  Posting newspaper articles or announcing new businesses is fine, but neither happens with enough frequency to sustain an effective Facebook presence.  And you don't want your page to be populated with recycled information that could be found elsewhere.  Take a few minutes to walk down the street and get photos of a new business under construction, or some new merchandise being put in a downtown window.  Or rotate featuring different business as the Facebook Page of the Day.  And whatever you do, avoid the generic Shop Downtown (insert your town name here) posts.  If your posts are genuine, you will drive home that message without actually saying it.

Like anything, Facebook will only produce results based on the effort you put forth.  Focus on original content that is both informational and engaging. Having a page is a good start, but only through a consistent, authentic effort will you find success.

The Downtown Geek

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Creating the Perfect Downtown Events Calendar

Much like a recipe for your favorite dessert, crafting a perfect downtown events calendar takes many ingredients, a little bit of love and a lot of patience.  Event selection is key.  Just because an event knocks it out of the park in one city doesn't necessarily mean that it is a fit for yours.  When building an event calendar for your downtown, you want it to be uniquely yours and not a list of generic events that people can find in Anytown, USA.

Take It Slow

Event schedules are not built overnight.  You need to determine your community's appetite for events and how many your organization can execute effectively. When I started in Downtown Rochester back in 1997, we had three different events, totaling 8 event days.  Fast forward to 2012 and we are planning 25 events, totaling over 150 event days.  Every event or promotion that was added each year was based on exhaustive research and a taking a really hard look at what we believed our downtown wanted and needed.

Friend-Raising vs. Register Ringing

One of the eternal struggles of downtown event planning is striking the balance between retail events and special events.  Of course, the majority of businesses would love to have every event ring their registers.  But that isn't always practical and can be a recipe for disaster.  By continuing to push "sales" events, you run the risk of your downtown shoppers becoming fatigued by the constant "come spend money downtown" message that those events send.  That's not to say that register ringing events don't have their place in the overall event calendar, but they should be created in moderation. 

Friend-raising events are those that invite the community to experience downtown without necessarily having to spend money.  One of my favorites that many cities do, including mine, is an outdoor movies series.  We call ours Movies in the Moonlight.  The event is simple - we transform our Farmers' Market into an outdoor movie setting every Saturday in July. The movies are free and are BYOC (Bring Your Own Chair).  We average about 1,000 attendees at each movie, ranging in age from 2 to 92.  We receive great feedback from the attendees and are working on plans for our 10th season.  So how does an event like this benefit downtown?  We take the opportunity to engage our "captive" audience with all kinds of information about downtown including other upcoming events.  We also extend the opportunity to downtown businesses to advertise on-screen before the movies or to donate prizes for our contest giveaways.  Through these no-cost marketing tools, by the time the Movies in the Moonlight series is complete, we have promoted over 40 downtown businesses and events. 

How Much Is Too Much?

I think the answer to this question is really up to each downtown to answer.  When planning any event, whether it's a one-day flower sale or a summer-long public art project, you need to have buy in from your community, both businesses and residents.  How receptive are your businesses to staying open during events?  What kind of volunteer support do these events require?  How much fundraising is required to make new events happen?  These are all questions you should ask yourself before adding any event to your calendar.

So where do you start?  Conduct surveys after every event to see how they affected the businesses in terms of traffic and sales.  An annual online survey for the public is a great way to determine what events are resonating with your visitors and what else they would like to see.  Review every event every year to determine ways it could be improved.  And you should never be afraid to remove an event that isn't working in favor of trying something different.  Events are a fantastic way tell your downtown's story.  Don't miss that opportunity!

The Downtown Geek