How to host a successful event

An event done right: Sunrise Mountain Sports in Livermore, CA

Why have my most successful events been successful? And why have my least successful events flopped?

On this page I would like to explain the factors that I’ve observed to be most important in having a “successful” event. My observations are based on the 260+ presentations that I have given since Fall 2005.

This information will be helpful for any venue on my calendar, as well as other venues that are planning to host a similar event.

Objectives

Every venue should consider what their objectives are in hosting an event. Are you trying to improve community relations, build brand awareness, educate/entertain your followers, and/or make a profit?

By better understanding your objectives, you can focus your marketing resources more efficiently and afterwards you can better determine the success of the event. For example, if you are trying to use the event to increase your membership base, then think hard about how you will convert a percentage of the audience into members. If you are trying to use the event to improve community relations, then consider how you can involve other community groups.

Defining success

Turnout is commonly used to measure the success of an event. Most of the time it is a good indication, but not always. For example, suppose that only thirty Boy Scouts and parents attend a gear and skills clinic. The organizers might initially be disappointed at this low turnout, but if the clinic helps the troop to save hundreds of dollars in regrettable gear purchases and/or if it adds tremendous value to their backpacking trips, then the event may be actually be success.

A goal of every venue should be to make a “profit”—in the short-term and/or long-term—or to at least break even. Short-term profit is calculated by subtracting event-related expenses from event-related income. Some venues instead pursue long-term profit, whereby they perceive it as a marketing/branding expense and/or they believe they will recoup the costs through the achieving of some future goal, e.g. product sales, memberships, land use policy, or improved outdoor experiences.

Scheduling

Events rarely succeed or fail due to when and how they are scheduled, but this can affect the event’s relative success or failure.

Lead time. The more advance notice, the better. At a minimum, I try to avoid scheduling events less than two months out. Ideally, I like to have 4-6 months, which offers plenty of time to seed the event in monthly newsletters, and newspaper columns and blogs, as well as for word-of-mouth to slowly spread.

Time of year. The best time of year for my events is generally the Spring, when people are starting to get excited about the upcoming backpacking season. Late-Fall and Winter are good too, since the events are an opportunity to temporarily escape from the short and cold days. I try to avoid scheduling events after about May, unless it’s a special event or if the location has a late Spring, as in the case of Colorado.

Days of the week. Mondays and Tuesdays can be tough sells. Sunday is probably even tougher, though intentionally I have never tested this assumption. Wednesday is good. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday are best. If your organization has a regular weekly or monthly meeting, it may make sense to hold the event on the same night, since your members are accustomed to blocking this night out in their calendars.

Time of day. I like to start my events at 7pm; usually they are done by 8:30-8:45pm. This gives the audience time after work to get home and have supper, without keeping them too late.

Conflicts. Avoid scheduling events if the dates conflict with other events that will steal turnout, or if the dates are in the wake of a big event that will exhaust staff and followers. Examples: school breaks, collegiate and professional sports events, annual meetings, and semi-annual clearance sales.

Marketing

Scheduling the event is fairly easy. Marketing an event takes more effort, time and thought.

The objective of marketing is to generate excitement and enthusiasm. This not only leads to bigger turnouts and (probably) greater profitability, but it also makes for a more fun event. Even though I have given 250+ presentations, I always love to walk into a venue where the audience is buzzing with excitement.

The most effective marketing is personal. This is why I rely heavily on social media, since it allows for conversation and engagement (“I’m flying to St. Louis tomorrow for my slideshow. Any suggestions for a good trail run beforehand?”) while spending less time on traditional media, e.g. newspaper and radio. And it’s also why I encourage event organizers and venue employees/staff to personally inform friends and customers (“Are you aware of the event we are hosting on Friday?), like when checking out or at the end of a phone call.

Website. Feature the event on your website prominently. Link the plug to a separate page with all of the event information. If there is an admission charge, sell tickets online in order to get early commitments; I can help with this if you don’t have a good system.

Newsletter. Include the event in your newsletter, whether it be paper or (ideally) electronic. The more inclusions, the better—start plugging the events as soon as they are scheduled, and include the events in every installment from then on.

Flyers, posters and leaflets help to raise awareness of the events. Hang flyers and posters at your venue and at high-traffic locations like coffee shops and fitness gyms. Pass out leaflets to customers in your store and to people who attend similar events, e.g. other slideshows, clinics and film festivals.

Traditional media. Fewer people now read the local newspaper or watch the locals news, but it’s still a good marketing channel, especially for older audiences. List the events in the community calendar. Contact the outdoor writer. And/or pitch the morning show.

Advertising is expensive and in general I think it offers a poor return on investment compared to other marketing channels.

Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are very effective in raising awareness and generating excitement about events. Post about the events once a week, and more frequently during the week of the events. Engage followers by, for example, asking them what they are most excited about in attending the events. And consider plugging the events by linking to one of my other blog posts and saying something like, “Learn other tips from Skurka by attending his program next week.”

Communities. Tap into established and devoted communities like Boy Scouts, hiking groups, Meetup.com groups, whiteblaze.net, and backpackinglight.com. Ideally, find a person who is respected within the community who can be the event champion—their efforts will be more efficient and effective than those of a newcomer. Better yet, give other communities a stake in the event: co-sponsor it with them, share the ticket revenue, give them a table at the door to promote their organization, let them say a few words during the introduction, etc.

Day of

You are almost there…

Room setup. Maximize the viewing experience. If you don’t have stadium-style seating or a stage, consider elevating the screen so that it’s more easily viewable. Avoid putting chairs behind pillars or other obstructions. If you are tight on room and are expecting a Scout troop, leave room in the front so they can sit on the floor.

Ticket sales. If applicable, assign one or two people to handle ticket sales at the door.

Book sales. I usually sell books during intermission and after the event. It’s helpful to have one person there to collect payment, instead of having to do it myself.