Written by Alison Finkel Photo by Gameface Media
I have been involved with the Susan G Komen 3-Day® for a long time. This year marks my 16th season working on the program. Beginning as a Volunteer Coordinator at Pallotta Teamworks all the way to managing the program as an Account Director at Event 360, it has been the backbone of my professional career. It is the source of many of my proudest achievements and the foundation for lifelong friendships.
I truly love the Komen 3-Day – the community of long time participants, the feeling of being in another world when you step onto one of our campsites, the ability to share in moments of pain and moments of triumph with strangers who feel like close friends. And it’s a cause that is close to my heart.
So, it’s why in the face of increasing competition, lackluster registration performance, and changing market dynamics, my team worked with Susan G. Komen® to devise a plan to double-down on some of our strengths and make investments in event experience. This meant focusing on the aspects of the 3-Day® that make it magical and life-changing. And, that by making that investment, we could not only surprise and delight some of our most dedicated participants, but we could also breathe new life into an aging brand.
At this week’s Peer to Peer Professional Forum, I had the opportunity present this work as a case study, along with Chrissy Mathews, the 3-Day’s Program Manager at Komen. We shared why making an investment in event experience is a crucial part of a registration and retention strategy. We also shared a fairly simple framework for defining event experience and grading your own event – or potential future event – on how well you’re achieving this objective. Here is what we covered in our session:
Defining Event Experience:
All events are experiential by definition. But ‘Event Experience’ is what makes your program memorable. It is what helps it stand out amongst the competition. For some programs there is an easy connection – think Zombies or barbed wire and beer or Santa hats and polar bears. For most programs though, event experience is more subtle. It is about creating something that speaks to your core community, enhances their connection with each other and to your cause, and cultivates loyal advocates and long-time participants.
A few years ago, we talked about this concept of ‘experience’ as icing on the cake. At the time, we meant that as long as we delivered on core infrastructure like tents, tables, and barricades, we were meeting objectives. Today though, with increasing competition, aging events, emerging technologies, and more, delivering a great on-event experience is more important than ever before.
Identity – A List and an Audit:
In thinking about your event, what are the characteristics, descriptive language, even sacred cows that are a part of it? Who is your target audience? And, perhaps most importantly, where are the magic moments already happening on your event and what are they?
Once you’ve compiled that list, take a good look at your event and do an audit against that list. If your list includes words like fun and family friendly, what kinds of activities do you have focused on kids? If you’re aiming to attract the aspiring athlete, does your technology, perks, and plans help them to meet their goals? Where are the holes? Where are the opportunities?
On the 3-Day, our program had a very strong foundation: lasting and inspiring symbols, dedicated volunteers, crazy teams with crazier names and costumes, and more. But, beyond the bones, we realized we came up lacking. Although we describe the 3-Day as a family reunion, summer camp for grown-ups, a life-changing experience, we realized we needed to do more than provide basic infrastructure to live have the event experience match up to these ideals. A simple search of key words like “family reunion” on Pinterest revealed thousands of idyllic images that were much more appealing than the look of our 3-Day campsite.
That, coupled with a realization that the presence of social media and our participant’s desire to have more opportunities to broadcast their 3-Day experience in real time, led us towards implementing a series of changes.
Because the 3-Day is so expansive – in miles, time commitment, number of key locations, and much more, it was clear we’d need to pick and choose how and where to invest in event experience. To do this, we created a three-step framework for implementing our ideas:
- Frame it: Pick a few key components rather than trying to reinvent everything. Focus energy and resources on things that will have impact.
- Dress it: Make the ordinary extraordinary. It’s as much about the icing as it is about the cake.
- Connect it: Make sure the investments you make create excitement for your long-time participants and new participants alike. These elements demonstrate what the event is ultimately about.
Here are a few examples of our work at the 3-Day:
Our Opening Ceremony tends to take place in large, open spaces. Scenery is second to the practical concern of traffic management. Because of that, it felt like our stage was sort of dropped into a vast parking lot. We created a series of six giant panels, called mural walls, used to create an amphitheater. They define the ceremony space and set it apart from everything else. We adjust their placement so the area inside the circle always feels full and busy. This helps the excitement of the morning bounce off the walls and back into the crowd. The walls create huge and vibrant photo opportunities for Facebook and Instagram, and the messages printed on the panels foretells of the unique journey of the 3-Day.
While this was arguably the most expensive experience investment made to the program, and also something of an engineering feat, the mural walls were so present and powerful that we were able to cut out other, peripheral dressing at the site and focus all of the attention in the space on the walls.
We looked for ways to make our campsite feel a little more welcoming and comfortable to our participants after their long day on the route. We did this with 100 little gestures that added up to a lot of smiles. One change that really stood out was adding a trail mix bar in our Main Street space. Turns out that a baggie of chocolate chips and dried apricots is a great way to say “We appreciate you” to someone who has just walked 20 miles. Giving our participants something other than the event food they were used to out on the route, made a big difference!
The other surprisingly impactful change was choosing round tables rather than long rows of rectangular tables for the dining tent and using real linens as opposed to the plastic table cloths we’ve been using. We wanted the dining space to feel more like a party than an army mess tent and just by changing the configuration of the space, we achieved it. Walkers noted that it felt friendlier, roomier, and warmer that way. This was a great reminder that small changes can make a big difference.
We also looked to create more deliberate ways for walkers to interact with the 3-Day through social media. Whether it was photo banners, Instagram challenges, or hashtags, we wanted to inspire our walkers to share their experiences throughout the weekend. We encouraged them to sign up to follow our blog and Facebook pages so they could continue to be connected to the 3-Day community long after their event ended.
These are just a few of the examples of how we invested time and energy into thinking about participant experience and creating ‘moments within the moments’ on the 3-Day. Taken together, anecdotal feedback and post event survey scores showed that we were mostly successful in our investments. Past participants, who are much harder to please, were more satisfied with the event. All participants indicated they were more likely to recommend the event to others – and more likely to do the event again themselves.
I was also happily surprised by how much the 3-Day staff got inspired by the idea of enhancing event experience. Rather than a one-time investment, it has become a part of our vernacular and a big part of our planning for the 2015 series.
After working on the 3-Day for 16 years, I’m delighted that the event can still feel new to me. If I feel this way, than I know we’re doing right by our participants. Based on the success we’ve seen, I encourage you to think about event experience not as a separate part of your event program, but as something integrated into every aspect of planning. P2P – Event Experience Brainstorming Exercise – Use this worksheet to help you get started. From recruitment and cultivation through execution, there are lots of opportunities there. My guess is you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the results.
As a founding member of Event 360, Alison Finkel (Vice President, Susan G. Komen Accounts) has a deep knowledge of every stage of a project life cycle, including marketing and recruitment, customer service and relationship building, fundraising, volunteer coordination, event planning and on-site execution.