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