Ink-Dipped Advice: Event Participation

 

I recently worked, with one of my clients, on an event night. She was one of multiple vendors participating in an evening by a “media group” that promised shopping, drinks, food, and entertainment to those buying tickets.

The event itself would run for three hours in the evening; the setup was four hours in the afternoon immediately prior. The vendor fee got us booth space, and listing in the event’s media, dinner for the two of us working the event, and an additional ad in the organizer’s media conglomerate.  We had to pay an additional fee for an electrical tie-in. We were asked to supply 600 of an item for the swag bags, and one item to raffle off.

As a writer, my usual part in that would have been to amplify the media, using our own channels to spread the word via blog posts, social media, email blasts, etc., which I did. My client asked me to work the event with her, and I agreed, even though it’s not technically part of the writing I do for her.

It puzzled me why people would pay a fee to shop, but, going in to this holiday season, that’s the big trend in my area. I’ve counted more than a dozen similar events coming up.

It’s all material, and I figured that I’d learn something from the experience.

The contract was pretty clear and straightforward. This is what they expect; this is what they provide. Should have been a breeze, right? There’s a contract. It’s all spelled out, in black and white. It’s signed. It’s paid for, in advance.

Even during the prep, there were warning signs. Every time we had a question, we were passed to a different member of this “media group.” They kept changing the parameters of the raffle. We were excluded from one of the entertainment events that was specific to the business, supposedly because my client “showed no interest in the initial conversation.” When my client says it never came up in the initial conversation, I believe my client over this “media group.” She’s sharp, and it was something we would have discussed.

We spent some time deciding what to bring, and we did a dry run of the booth set up at our facility.

We arrived at the facility in the afternoon, only a few minutes past the set-up start time. We were in a shabby, badly lit “ballroom” whose carpet was threadbare and stained. The so-called “booths” were rows of tables set back-to back, with aisles in between. Not that they were even finished setting up, even though event staff had all morning so to do. We were in the back corner, facing away from the rest of the facility and the entertainment, facing the loading dock.

We moved out their table, and set up our own displays, staying within our designated space. We’d also brought our own lighting (thank goodness, because the overhead fluorescents weren’t doing anybody any favors).

No thought had been given to the curation of vendors. It was higgedly-piggedly. An investment firm was the booth backing us; an accountant was beside us. That, too, puzzled me. Why where they at a shopping event? Other than they had mountains of logo swag to give away? There were also several “vendors” who were inappropriate to an event with alcohol and shopping, in my opinion.

In other words, instead of being a curated event, the organizers were happy to take money from anyone who wanted to pay.

I asked about the details of the meal, and the response was, “oh, the food will be set up in a back room during the event. Just go grab a plate however long there’s still food and bring it back to your booth.”

Wait, what?

Since when does only feeding people until you “run out of food” constitute “providing dinner” as specified in the contract? And since when is stuffing one’s face in front of customers professional behavior?

Instead of lanyards or name tags for vendors, they stamped our hands. So now we’re at a middle school dance?

 We took a break (I used it to eat at home, as well as change).

I got back to the venue about a half hour before the doors opened, to get last minute tweaks done and get settled. Only they’d already started letting people in. No security. Nothing. We were lucky our booth hadn’t been stripped.

When the event officially “started,” they dimmed the overhead lights, put on rotating red, green, and yellow disco lights. Also, they’d set up one of the speakers beside our booth space, which meant we had difficulty talking to each other or to customers.

When we asked them to turn down the speaker a bit, they turned it up instead.

When it was time for the raffle, I approached one of the organizers and asked when I should give the information to the DJ to announce it. She said, “Oh, you just have to call back everyone who’s put in a ticket to your booth and announce it in a loud voice there. He’s not doing it. He HAS a script already.”

Say what? 

Granted, the raffle parameters had changed four times in the preceding four weeks. But that was NEVER one of the options.

So I hunted down the DJ myself, explained there had been some confusion about the raffle, and could I impose on him to announce our winner?

He was delighted so to do. In fact, he was the only person at the entire event who was lovely to deal with.

We got plenty of compliments on our set up; we also heard from attendees that it was both better than last year’s event (the thought of that makes me shudder) and that they were frustrated because it had been advertised as drinks being part of the ticket price, but instead it was a cash bar. Not only was it a cash bar, but it only accepted CASH, not credit or debit cards.

I have been to other events at this facility. They insist on events only using their kitchen and their liquor. Which is why none of the local craft breweries or food specialists could participate in this event. But they have always set up payment by card.

When the shopping part of the evening was done, we broke down and were done in 10 minutes. We made maybe a third of what we needed to in order to break even. And to say it offered us “exposure” is laughable.

As I always say when I’m offered “exposure” instead of payment for my work, “People die of exposure. Show me the cash.”

I’ve followed up on the timeline for the ad that was part of the package, so we’ll see if that’s of any use.

Other vendors with whom we spoke were unhappy, too. I don’t know of anyone who even made close to what it cost them to participate. Not to mention that vendors were treated like an inconvenience instead of as the engine driving the event.

I don’t feel the organizers lived up to the contract terms. My current client is certainly not going to participate next year. And, as a consultant, when asked by other clients about the value of participating, I will say, “None.”

I’ve participated in huge events, such as ABA (what is now Book Expo) and other Javits Center events in New York, and the Frankfurt Book Festival. I’ve attended holiday craft festivals and fairs all over the world, including locally.

Never have I participated in  or attended anything so poorly run where both vendors and attendees were treated as though they were an inconvenience. 

Every event with multiple moveable pieces is a challenge. But well-run events share the following:

—They value the vendors who participate;

—They value the attendees;

—Without both of the above, there is no event, and they know it.

—Communication is clear and channels are kept open;

—The vendor works with the same person or a limited number of people during the process;

—If changes are necessary in the parameters of the event, they are brought up as soon as the decision is made, with the option for the vendor to exit with a refund, not declared as a given only when questioned on the change as it becomes an impediment to the vendor or attendee’s participation;

—The organizers provide what is agreed in the contract;

—The organizers create a secure environment on multiple levels, without safety issues.

—The organizers actually solve problems on the floor during the event, rather than shrugging and basically telling everyone too bad for you.

I was right. It was a learning experience. And some of that experience is being fictionalized into an upcoming novel.

But it’s certainly an experience I do not intend to repeat in my actual life.

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