By Libby Riordan

How many event bags do you have in your closet? Better yet, do you use them? If you are anything like me, and many event participants, your stack of unused event swag is growing and you never see the bottom of the stack. It’s great to receive a t-shirt in the moment and you tell yourself that you will use this one, really. Event t-shirts are actually my favorite, yet I still find that I have so many I end up eventually wearing them to bed. I am sure that is not what the group producing the event had in mind.

It reminds me of my kid’s artwork. Especially when they first went to school. Every day they would bring home something greater, more special, and more creative, than the day before. And as it began to pile up on my desk I wondered what I would do with it all. I found myself secretly tossing away “lesser quality” artwork after they went to bed. I know, GASP! But really, how many letters of the alphabet made out of macaroni am I contractually required to keep in order to stay in “good mom” graces?

It is important to provide an item of SWAG as recognition for event participation. Participants expect it and love it. However, for loyal participants and especially key volunteers, these types of “blanket” recognition can start to feel stale and insincere. In my experience, I find that participants find low cost, highly personal recognition far more meaningful than a stock SWAG item that everyone gets. As a Crew & Volunteer Coordinator for the Susan G. Komen 3-Day® for the past 8 years I have found that the best way to recognize our volunteers’ contributions to the event is by listening to them and then acting on what I hear. Listening allows you to connect with the volunteer on a personal level that makes them feel appreciated and special and want to return to the event year after year.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when listening to your loyal participants and key volunteers.

Hear what they want- Last year we had a flavor of water in our dining tent that was very popular and ran out very quickly each night. I was chatting with a few volunteers in the beverage line about it and joked about who was taking them all. The next night I asked the caterer to set a few bottles aside and then I delivered them to those volunteers’ table. It was just water but they knew that I had listened to them and acted on what I heard. It made them feel appreciated and special.

Pay attention- What are they passionate about? What makes them excited? What makes them nervous? At the Komen 3-Day it’s clear we are connected to curing breast cancer forever. So that passion is obvious. But it’s the stories and challenges of each participant that makes them special. I have a colleague that met a new walker at the Opening Ceremony who was anxious about her first time walking and walking alone. Not only did my friend introduce her to a nearby group of walkers but she made a point to check on her at camp each evening.  Reminding her that she was not alone. Paying attention to who your participants are will help them feel welcome and safe.

Make connections– In events where we have hundreds of participants it’s obvious you won’t know everyone’s name. However, you can make an effort to find out and remember five volunteers’ names. Take the time to talk with them and learn about who they are. Perhaps they have a new puppy or a promotion at work. Connecting with them on non-event related topics will allow you to connect in a way that will create future relationships. Imagine the impact it will make if every member of your staff makes the effort to get to know five volunteers.

Don’t just say “Thank you,” show “Thank you”–  Far too often we say “thank you” to our participants in a post-event email. Make it a point to say “thank you” to each volunteer in person and with a smile. Better yet, do something that shows your gratitude. We have a great cupcake place in Atlanta and every year I deliver cupcakes to my leaders on the route. It is a great way for me to thank them “on the job” as well as a way to connect with them in their environment. An in-person thank you while they are with you will always speak louder than an email or note after the fact.

Connecting with our participants and making them feel appreciated is the key to future successful events. It’s a win-win for the event and the participants who leave feeling appreciated and wanting to come back year after year.

We’d love to hear what works for your organization. Comment on our Event 360 Facebook page, share the tried and true low cost, highly personal ways you recognize your participants.

Libby brings more than 9 years of event experience to Event 360.  In her current role, she recruits and mobilizes volunteers for the Susan G. Komen 3-Day® . In her role as a Crew and Volunteer Coordinator, she has seen firsthand the impact and dedication that volunteers make to an event. In her free time you can find her volunteering at her kid’s elementary school and the city food bank.

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