Whether your goal is to call attention to a product, service or cause, holding an event in your downtown area is going to require excellent timing and planning if you hope to make it a success. Of course, your downtown area is unique, but no matter the size or commercial makeup of the businesses in the area, universal event rules apply. Allow plenty of time to make your plans so nothing falls through the cracks. By the way, it’s okay to pat yourself on the back after the fact when you pull off your successful event!
1. Set a date far in advance of your event. It’s never too early to pick a date since you’ll have more options and choices if you book in advance as well as opportunities to change the date(s) if it turns out the downtown area has already been heavily booked for other local events. Factor in the weather based on your area’s history and strike off dates already nabbed by entities like your municipal government and visitors and tourist bureaus. Once you choose your date, it’s wise to pick a back-up date, just in case.
2. Select a venue. Creative event planners know that the more unusual the venue, the more likely a big crowd will show up, so don’t look exclusively at banquet halls, hotels, theaters and churches. Event planners have staged events at zoos, museums, costume factories, airport hangars, rooftops, formal gardens and historical buildings open to public bookings. Grab a phone book, gather together helpers and brainstorm. Let everyone know that all ideas are fair game.
3. Pick a theme. If your downtown event is a recurring one, you may not need a new theme, so bypass this tip. On the other hand, if you’re responsible for coming up with one, don’t pick a theme that’s incompatible with the venue or location you booked. Consider a theme based on your downtown’s history, the season, an homage to one or more local heroes or borrow from a popular media idea, like holding an American Idol contest, running an auction or staging an interactive program like a murder mystery based on the history of your downtown area.
4. Generate start-up money. You can’t get an event off the ground without seed money. If you’ve already earmarked funds, good for you. If you haven’t, there are myriad options for underwriting your pre-event expenses. Ask for contributions from the community-at-large. Apply for a loan if you’ve equity to put up as collateral, or apply for a grant if you’re throwing an event associated with a cause or charity. Open a separate bank account in the name of the event and only write checks and deposit funds related to the event itself from that account so you don’t get into IRS hot water.
5. Obtain permits. If your downtown event is to be held on public property, you might need one or more permits. Some towns and cities require event organizers to “pitch” their ideas to a board or commission granting such permissions, so be prepared to put on a dog and pony show–after all municipal officials want to know exactly what you have in mind and whether it is both legal and kosher! Even if you don’t need permits, talk to a broker or agent about event insurance, since any time crowds gather, event organizers could find themselves, their business or their organization at risk if there’s no liability coverage.
6. Book vendors. Even planners who have launched their efforts early will have plenty of opportunity to comparison shop caterers, decorators, food and beverage vendors, event security, janitorial and wait staff or any of the auxiliary people and services you may need to stage your particular event. Expect to sign contracts and when you do, always ask to have a specific back-out date built into the documentation. If your event does not meet your projected attendance numbers or something catastrophic happens that requires canceling, that back-out date allows you to can cancel vendors but not incur cancellation fees. Make sure everything is in writing!
7. Prepare a PR plan. Every downtown media event requires a PR plan so you can get out the word both before and after. You can develop a paper or digital media kit that consists of a backgrounder, press release(s), Q&A sheet, personality profiles (important if a celebrity is a focal point) and incentives for press to show up, like a private meet-and-greet, open only to journalists. Sometimes, all that’s left behind after an event is a big clean-up job and post-event analysis, so if you can also add great press clips to your files, you can declare your downtown event a success!