In the Suburbs: Lessons learned about drawing a crowd -- or not
Updated 9:55 am, Sunday, February 15, 2015
Last Saturday, I attended a parenting workshop at the Bridgeport charter school where I teach. It was run by Westport psychologist Robert Selverstone and included a lot of valuable information for parents. Sadly, only a handful of them showed up.
Why the low attendance?
There were no logical answers. The school had promoted the event within plenty of time through mailings, texts, emails and word-of-mouth efforts. It was in the late morning on a Saturday and included lunch, so parents had time for errands before and after the workshop.
The next day, my wife and I went to a phenomenal event called "Footsteps of Mandela" at the Klein Auditorium in Bridgeport. The music and readings were fabulous, the audience was energized and the entertainers were top-notch. But there were a lot of empty seats, which really surprised me. I hope the event made a profit. It was so worthwhile.
"Footsteps of Mandela" was heavily promoted with advertising and social media directed at diverse populations across Fairfield County. It should have been a sellout, as far as I'm concerned, but it wasn't. The weather was a little iffy, but no snow had started so there was plenty of opportunity for walk-ins.
As a public-relations and event-planning professional who has put together hundreds of events -- some exciting, some mediocre -- over the past 35 years, I never cease to be amazed by two things: overwhelming response to events that don't seem all that compelling; and complete apathy toward amazing events that should sell out.
When hearing about events, I try to listen carefully for pitfalls and potential roadblocks to success. Think about the communications tools available today-- Internet radio, network and public radio, online news sites, Twitter, email blasts and what's left of the traditional print media.
I ask a lot of questions. Is there a celebrity involved? Will our event be competing with another on the same day? Who are we trying to attract? In the case of a press conference, do we really need to have an event at all or would we be better off with a simple press announcement and making our client available for interviews?
I have found when it comes to planning local and regional events during the school year, evenings are always a challenge. People's lives are chaos. PTAs, museums, libraries and various organizations all seem to plan their meetings and events between 7 and 9 p.m. on Monday through Thursday. Parents whose children are involved in sports and other activities often are torn between going to the game/concert/play or attending a program on better parenting or the warning signs of youth drug use.
During the three years I spent at the Fairfield Museum and History Center, we offered some amazing evening programs and book clubs during the week, and attendance ranged from very few to nearly 100, depending on the exhibition on display. Sunday programs usually worked well during the spring and summer months.
Book signings can go either way. Generally, these are Saturday events, but some are conducted in the evening. Children's book authors or illustrators seem to be the most popular. Novelists and specialists such as cookbook authors, health and fitness writers and psychologists can draw well, also. One of the most creative and successful book-signing events I attended was at the Delamar Hotel in the Southport section of Fairfield. The evening, a package, was very well publicized, included a copy of the book, which covered excellent Fairfield County eateries; and an incredible dinner at the hotel's French restaurant. My wife and I loved the evening, and we met some amazing people.
I recently publicized a '50s dance as a favor for the owner of an area diner, and it really generated a lot of interest because the media loved the idea of good old-fashioned "sock hop." We had some great coverage on various online news sites and the best part of the evening, which attracted about 70 people, was when News 12 arrived.
There are no magic formulas for predicting the success of any event, but the more creative a planner can be, the more sensitive to what's happening that day or evening and the more aggressive in promoting the event, the better chance for success. And to the planners: Don't be daunted if an event doesn't work. Try to figure out what happened and the next event is likely to be much better.
Steven Gaynes "In the Suburbs" appears each Friday. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.