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The Main Event
The Main Event

Host a successful event to create buzz and draw in new customers to your store

It seems like a good idea: Host an event, bring in new customers, gain loyalty and grow. But what does it take to put on a winning weekend demonstration, class, program or large communitywide event? How can stores set themselves up for success?

In the early 1990s, Christine Osborne and her business partner were asking themselves the same questions. Osborne is the owner of Wonder Works, specialty toy stores in South Carolina that offer a huge variety of toys, games and arts and crafts supplies. Her business began with one small shop, but successful event hosting has helped her one location grow into four.

"It's about community all the way," she says. "If you do good in your heart, the sales will follow. You have to have faith and put it all out there and know you are investing in your business."

Key ingredients to a winning event

A common mistake that small businesses make when offering events is focusing on sales instead of fun. Jacob Gunter is education and gallery director for Binders Art School in Atlanta who oversees an onsite education program and puts together an art materials trade show every fall. He says the most successful events go beyond what's being taught or demonstrated. Events need something more to really work, he says.

"You have to know your purpose — that's fundamental," says Gunter. "You have to know who you are trying to engage. The event is kind of secondary — you have to offer something even bigger than the event itself."

From there, it's all about logistics, says Gunter — information gathering, assembling systems and lists and getting volunteers. Osborne starts with the big picture and works her way down to the details. "It begins with working with national vendors and targeting specific ones to work with," she says. Next, she thinks about local sponsors, entertainment, food, samples and giveaways.

As a local business owner, she likes to partner with her neighbors whenever possible. They'll often trade cupcakes or ice cream for store gift certificates. Plus, there's an added bonus. "Their names go on everything," Osborne says. "But they're all putting their heart out there and helping us do big things."

Wonder Works events are always free and charity-based. She says people literally walk though her door with ideas and often the youngest voices have inspired the biggest events.

Osborne teams with the media to spread the word, which was especially valuable in the beginning when just 100 people would join her for a small store party. But she says that by focusing on quality, her largest event is now close to outgrowing its location. Wonder Works’ two biggest yearly events, Wonderfest and Elfstravanganza, attract between 7,000 and 10,000 people and take months of planning and preparation.

Create energy and excitement

Osborne now has a promotions event coordinator who oversees her events, and the stores work with Charleston marketing firm Momentum Marketing, which helped maximize the Rainbow Loom or "Loom Boom" craze last fall.

"They were able to completely leverage it and turn it into something wild," says Emily Trogdon, Momentum Marketing's public relations director.

The stores hosted multiple Rainbow Loom classes and events, and even brought in Rainbow Loom creator Cheong Choon Ng, who took part in the annual Elfstravaganza, a craft-centered holiday event where kids had the opportunity to make bracelets for a charitable donation.

"It's all about having energy and excitement," Osborne says. "If you can bring that, the magic happens over and over and over again." Although every event is different, Gunter agrees the best events put community-building first. "I don't think sales should be ignored," he says. "But too much focus on sales can hinder the event. If you have brand loyalty, the sales will follow."

He says that when it comes to successful event planning, he is often reminded of the Simon Sineck quote: "People don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it." And community seems to be especially important when it comes to those who create — artists and crafters — whether they are adults or kids.

"For us, it's all about encouraging people with an open mind and open heart," says Osborne. "It's a lot of fun. You can feel it. You can feel the love and feel the caring."

Tips for hosting a winning event

  • Think fun and engagement instead of sales.
  • Partner with neighboring businesses; trade for food and entertainment.
  • Secure samples or freebies.
  • Target national sponsors.
  • Consider a worthy cause, helping a local charity or partnering with an existing event.
  • Work with the media to promote the event ahead of time, not just the day of.
  • Start small and focus on quality.
  • Know your purpose.
  • Recruit volunteer support.
  • Begin planning your next event as soon as possible.

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