It’s the quintessential philosophical question for a frazzled event planner: If you throw an amazing event but nobody hears about it, did it really happen? With all the work that goes into organizing a conference, gala or festival, getting the word out to the right audience is critical. But what works for one group won’t reach another. So we talked to some top-notch event planners and marketers to find out what works, what’s worth the investment in time and money, and how to make an event a success even before the doors open.
TYPE OF EVENT: Annual fundraising gala
EVENT NAME: Children’s Cancer Association’s 17th Annual Wonderball Gala
LOCATION: Oregon Convention Center
PLANNER: Abby Guyer, Children’s Cancer Association (CCA)
The 2017 gala’s Age of Aquarius theme was inspired by the love and optimism of the Woodstock generation. The evening featured silent and live auctions, a seated dinner and Summer of Love–era tunes (complete with sitar music). Live performances included a rendition of Jimi Hendrix’s “Star-Spangled Banner,” performed by CCA board member Chris Funk, of the band The Decemberists. As he played, an oversized CCA-themed American flag was unfurled behind him. New York–based cabaret singer Amber Martin ended the evening with a rousing set of Janis Joplin songs.
To further set the mood for jams, the stage was designed to look like concert scaffolding. Additional décor showcased Indian tapestries, marigold garlands and prayer flags with the reimagined—and completely appropriate— protest slogan “Cancer Is Not Healthy for Children and Other Living Things.” Catering included a Moroccan menu and Age of Aquarius–themed cocktails. For the late-night revelers in the group, there was an after-party with DJ Anjali at Spirit of 77.
Following a keynote speech by CCA’s founder and chief joy officer, Regina Ellis, the Wonderball held a record-breaking paddle raise led by auctioneer Kelly Russell of Artisan Auctions.
CCA marketing partners included the Oregon Convention Center (A/V and video), Outlaw Lighting (lighting), Carlson Audio (audio), True West (stage production), Greg Tamblyn (production manager), and Chris Funk and Seann McKeel (musical direction and artistic support).
The Wonderball was made possible by the presenting sponsor, Regence BlueCross Blue Shield of Oregon. Additional sponsors included PDX Property Group and Randall Children’s Hospital at Legacy Emanuel.
Each year’s event and word of mouth are the primary marketing tools for the next year’s gala, says Abby Guyer, vice president of brand for CCA. Having had a great time, they want to come back the next year and bring their friends and colleagues.
“As a nonprofit, we do minimal marketing and advertising leading up to Wonderball. A free sales force in the form of board members and supporters who buy and host tables does the heavy lifting,” says Guyer.
The event website includes links to bid on silent auction items ahead of the event, which builds excitement and gets the bidding started. It also allows attendees a sneak peek at what to expect.
For those of us who are still trying to decipher dress codes—such as black tie, black tie optional, creative black tie, cocktail, business casual, casual dressy, etcetera, etcetera—the website also includes a “mood board” to help attendees get a feel for the evening’s theme and attire.
“Those individuals who are already deeply committed to the cause sponsor tables and then sell the seats to friends and colleagues. We do run a full-page ad in the Portland Business Journal to thank our sponsors leading up to the event,” says Guyer.
Also in the months leading up to Wonderball, CCA sends a save the date email blast to all its past supporters and attendees, announcing the theme. A sizzle reel of event highlights is created each year to send as a thank-you to supporters who couldn’t attend, as well as board members. Wonderball guests included community and business leaders, professional musicians, professional athletes, hospital partners, and friends of CCA as well as CCA families.
Last year, 850 people attended Wonderball and the organization raised $1.4 million. “That’s about 100 more than attended the previous year. It is CCA’s most profitable event of the year, and attendance has increased over time, all based on word of mouth and our volunteer ticket-sales force,” says Guyer.
TYPE OF EVENT: Public festival/fundraiser
EVENT NAME: Waterfront Blues Festival
LOCATION: Tom McCall Waterfront Park, Portland
PLANNER: Christina Fuller, Fuller Events
In addition to hosting Oregon’s biggest fireworks show, the Waterfront Blues Festival lays claim to being the largest festival of blues, soul, funk, and rhythm and blues west of the Mississippi. The festival, which has been around for 30 years, features 100 acts on four stages, performing over four days, and also includes river cruises and dozens of vendors. The dates vary a little each year, but always include the Fourth of July. The festival also serves as a fundraiser for the Oregon Food Bank.
“We rely heavily on our media partners. They do a lot of the heavy lifting for us: television, radio and print,” says Christina Fuller, owner of Fuller Events, the company that produces the festival.
TV partner KOIN produces standard 15- and 30-second ads, but also does hour-long segments featuring the festival, which has become a beloved Portland institution. “That long history means a lot of people have a story to tell about the festival, and the media partners find meaningful ways to tell those stories,” says Fuller. Last year the festival leaned on its TV and radio partners for a blast announcing ticket sales. “We focused energy on the loud megaphone partners, using them to just push, push, push, and we saw the result in more ticket sales out of the gate.”
In addition, the festival reaches out to blues and zydeco associations around the country, buying small ads in newsletters and magazines. The producers also court niche music publications to write about the festival.
On the digital side, the festival does some focused buys. “Targeted Facebook ads have been very successful. But the bulk of the social media work is accomplished organically. Our attendees become just as good as social marketers as anyone else. We’ll post something, and they’ll repost and share until the cows come home. … They are our streetmarketing teams,” says Fuller.
Performers at the festival also typically spread the word to their own fan bases, adding to the social media reach.
“Last year marked the first time in its 30 years that the festival got serious about its branding. We’d never had a strong visual identity or logo, and that’s a piece we felt was missing. Beyond a new logo, the festival worked on a streamlined website. Our previous site was really outdated and wasn’t mobile friendly. That’s an absolute must today —and one festivalgoers expect to be able to navigate using their phones,” says Fuller.
The Waterfront Blues Festival enjoyed the most obvious return on its marketing investment: packed houses. “We get to capacity most days. Upwards of 100,000 attended the festival last year. Three years ago, the festival moved to a ticketed format, rather than a suggested donation. Attendance dipped just a bit, but has held steady. Over three decades, the festival has raised $10 million and collected 20 million pounds of food for the Oregon Food Bank, and has even hosted several weddings,” says Fuller.
TYPE OF EVENT: Business conference
EVENT NAME: Withheld at client request
PLANNER: Caroline Kay, C.KAY International
Based in Seattle and London, C.KAY International planned and managed an international business conference in London for a corporate client in the information technology industry. The purpose of the annual event is to introduce new products and services to roughly 400 international customers, prospects and suppliers, as well as to provide attendees with industry education and ample opportunities for networking. Conference content included keynote addresses by industry leaders and experts, educational workshops, a trade show and networking activities.
C.Kay International marketed to previous years’ delegates, as well as new prospective attendees, primarily through email blasts and social media, such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.
A key element in the marketing strategy for the conference was sizzle video reels: high-production-quality videos with lively clips of the previous year’s conference highlights. The videos were shared via email and social media. Marketing efforts for the conference were successful, and the event reached its target-audience size.
Repeat and new sponsors were attracted to participate in the event via direct-sales contact, email and social marketing. Once on board, the sponsors engaged in marketing the event to prospective attendees, as well.
The client viewed the conference as an effective business-development event. Postevent surveys gave the event high marks, with the majority of attendees indicating interest in attending the next year. Sponsorship also reached target levels, and 75 percent of sponsors supported the following year’s conference.