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The Return on Revelry
The Return on Revelry

Improving events ROI requires frank questions, mindful deconstruction, and continual assessment

By James Paterson


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Matt Wilson



Nicola Hunt knew she had to "challenge how things had been done" when in 2013 she became the events manager at the University of Warwick.

She and a new marketing team felt that the U.K. institution needed to do something different to better connect to its alumni and the nearly 25,000 students they saw as key future supporters.

"We chose to make our celebrations forward-looking rather than nostalgic, as we wanted to engage our stakeholders with Warwick now and in the future," Hunt says.

For the university's 50th anniversary celebration, she sought creative ideas from a wide swath of people on campus informally and in meetings. Her team attended event fairs and looked elsewhere for cutting-edge ideas. In the end, they decided to highlight the groundbreaking work of the institution with a large-scale event.

The strategy paid off.

A two-day Festival of Imagination in October 2015 featured 20 hands-on activities at an interactive discovery zone, where visitors learned about what makes robots work and the intricate world of bees by peering through a glass hive. More than 100 speakers gave lectures, hosted debates, and led demonstrations. Discussion topics ranged from surviving on other planets to exploring low-salt cuisine. A massive undertaking that required the help of about 500 student and staff volunteers, the festival was a success, attracting extensive media coverage and 8,400 visitors, including Princess Anne.

"We just looked inside our own institution first—there is a lot of creativity and expertise right on campus that you can bring to events," Hunt says. Thinking creatively about the celebration went on to "inspire a step change in our approach to events and public engagement," she adds.

The process, Hunt notes, often starts with initial planning, and sometimes it involves fundamental questions.

Start with why

"We've all heard the words ‘we need to have an event.' Yet it's worth the time to consider that [need] honestly," Hunt says.

When the turnout or energy level at an anniversary gala is too low, like at ones previously held at Warwick, or a fundraising event doesn't raise enough funds, it's often because planners didn't carefully consider the occasion's intentions—or whether it should happen at all.

"The first question has to be about why you are doing it," says MJ Herson, principal at the Herson Group located near Ithaca, New York. "Who is the audience? What do we want them to think or know? What do we want them to do?"

When the independent K–12 Latin School of Chicago wanted to highlight faculty and make a traditional gala more engaging and informative, Anne Hobbs, director of development and alumni relations, invited science teachers to lead engaging discussions about the environment.

Barbara Sabia, director of development at the Westover School in Connecticut, says as volunteer alumni, staff, and others on campus review plans, keep the desired outcomes in mind. "It will help you say ‘no' to the many ideas that come your way. That's key to an event paying off," she says.

Herson, for instance, favors short, lively videos that keep participants' attention with simple, meaningful messages, while school officials often lobby for longer movies about the school with iconic images. Other planners have fended off suggestions for serving food that will double the expense or adding guests who will not help with the specific goal.

Events should have a creative theme that supports the goal while expressing a succinct, consistent message.

Actually, do re-create the wheel

Planners should avoid replicating events or seeking to please the same small segment of stakeholders, Hobbs says. This requires objectively examining everything from the venue to the expensive brochures often ignored and left littering the room.

Westover's Sabia devotes extra time to recruiting new volunteers for committees, including students, which pays off in fresh thinking and manpower.

Upon reflection, her team determined that alumni chapter programs are often easier to manage, more intimate, and better attended than larger regional programs. In 2016, Westover convened alumni at regional functions in 16 cities to update active alumni information, gather data about graduates, and share school news, using a "Track the Lantern" theme. A familiar, iconic school lantern was brought to each event, and the oldest alumnus or alumna was asked to light it. Sabia's team also made a point of gathering feedback and debriefing after the events to improve subsequent ones.

To achieve maximum ROI, Herson says that planners need to appoint "design police" who will challenge assumptions and keep the event focused on its goals. That includes continuously monitoring the budget and speaking up when plans veer off course. For one university fundraising launch, Herson recalls, the "police" person reminded the team about a major objective—thanking key donors. "We quickly made changes," Herson says.

Watch the budget

Well-prepared budgets based on good information are obviously critical to achieving a good ROI, but Sharon McCullough, president of the Philadelphia-based Expert Events consultancy, which has worked with several colleges and universities, notes that budgets are easier to develop than to maintain. Too often, expenditures shift from one budget line to another without being tracked, or the budget flexes for unplanned needs, especially if a project is behind schedule and expediency takes precedence. Staying on schedule is key to a better ROI, she says.

Hitting scheduled milestones doesn't ensure that a budget stays on course, but proper communication—and "policing"—can minimize surprises and allow adequate time for course correction.

Vendor and entertainment costs, McCullough says, are most often where spending goes haywire, especially when clear, enforceable contracts were not signed before prices rose or when necessities weren't included in earlier discussions. (One institution found that the initial price for a gala had not included buffet staffing; another was charged for two musicians when the hired guitarist brought along a cellist who he said was critical to the performance.)

For free entertainment and programming, consider showcasing students, perhaps through performing music or presenting research, Hunt says. For Warwick's 50th anniversary fundraising launch, which had 200 guests, members of a student choir walked into the darkened room carrying lanterns and performed. "Our guests were blown away," she says. "They couldn't believe that these weren't professional musicians."

Another way to keep expenses down is to deploy staff, students, and alumni in creative outreach. They can use ready-made marketing materials and information about the project and its goals to promote events through social media. Informal networking with a loyal base is one of the most effective marketing methods, Herson says, and educational institutions—with their students and alumni—often already have online networks many businesses would envy. Some institutions ask staff and students to write personal notes to event prospects for a big occasion.

"Such involvement," Hunt says, "is also an opportunity to showcase your talented students."

Consider other ROI

"Dollars can be accounted for, and those increases can be measured," McCullough notes. "The age-old problem is justifying expenditures for nondevelopment goals, which are much harder to quantify and can take longer to track."

These "emotional ROIs," Herson says, may include engagement with the local community and volunteers, reinforcement of the mission, media relations, and general goodwill.

Meanwhile, McCullough suggests examining attendance figures, volunteer levels, and post-event feedback over a period of three to five years to get a better idea of success in these less tangible areas.

Such efforts require following up after events and staying in touch. "Promoting alumni engagement requires more than an annual invitation," she says.

For Lorna Parrett's development office at the University of Kent, event goals go beyond fundraising and alumni engagement.

"We do have a close link to fundraising," she says, "but our events strategy also positions us as a key part of what we call the ‘student journey' or ensuring students are engaged from applicant to alumni."

Some events might simply improve the campus atmosphere—such as a spring picnic that brings together alumni and students in specific departments or a midwinter music festival that features student talent and is open to the nearby community, helping improve local relations.

Parrett's office is particularly concerned about the graduation experience because it's "technically the first alumni event," and "so often it's the graduation photo that adorns the fireplace."

Beginning in January, staff invite students to meet planners to gather preliminary graduation information. They meet again in April for the pre-graduation photo booth. Students take photos holding messages they've written thanking those who supported them throughout their journey. The photos are shown on flat-screen TVs at various locations during commencement. Even with 12 department graduation events in a week, the advancement team ensures that each is special and features the graduates.

Weeks prior to the event and throughout the day the team provides written material and information on its linked social media channels about networking and career opportunities for graduates along with other benefits to continuing their relationship with the institution.

"At the end of each day we also send each graduate a personalized email, congratulating them on their achievements and providing them with information, kickstarting a series of email communications that steer them into our wider, regular communications to all alumni," Parrett says.

The team also pays close attention to VIPs at commencement events, Parrett says, and recently increased the interaction and social events between honorary degree recipients and graduates to include more networking.

Once an event is over, improve your ROI by keeping your audience talking about the event, says Breanne Matloff, senior director of development at JCC Manhattan in New York City, who managed a $77 million campaign for Pingry School in

New Jersey when she was its major gifts officer. Pingry sent an email after fundraising events and referenced the theme in periodic updates about the campaign and other alumni news. At Kent, lectures and demonstrations presented at alumni events are videotaped, archived online, and promoted. Such recaps, Matloff says, should be part of a deliberate post-event marketing effort that reinforces the message with attendees and increases returns by reaching others.

Reflect and assess

So how can you tell if the event is taking shape as planned and will pay off in financial and other ROI?

You should see change, Herson says. "If you're doing the same thing year after year and seeing the same outcomes, you're not growing." Doing everything the same way might be comfortable but probably indicates a lack of original thinking. Not everything could have been perfect the other times, Herson advises.

Nonetheless, check returns against historical information. Be objective about the level of enthusiasm, says Hobbs of the Latin School, to measure a program's performance. Are your new volunteer numbers shrinking? Are vendors or sponsors less interested in participating or less willing to be generous? Are you losing faithful attendees? Do you know? Is there time to find a way to energize them? Supporters should shift and grow, Hobbs says, but it's important to spot and address troublesome trends.

Collect data at every stage, first from the response to the initial promotional piece, then in a quick online survey right after the event, and finally by tracking the level of donations or visits to a website page with the event wrap-up. Then analyze the information and put it to work next time. Says event planner Herson: "An effective, creative concept is only as good as the analysis from which it is generated."

About the Author James Paterson

James Paterson is a Delaware-based writer. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, Baltimore Magazine, The Christian Science Monitor, and a number of other national publications.

 

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