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