A couple of years ago we had the idea to set up an event for the people of Loughborough, Cake.
For the 2 years that followed we ran events bi-monthly with attendances up to 120 people and speakers from all different industries including a Rugby World Cup winning forward, an award winning international sports journalist and Bang & Olufsen’s Global Customer Experience Manager. We punched above our weight you could say.
However like all good things, Cake came to an end in December last year, so after a rollercoaster couple of years I felt it was the right time to lay out what we learnt organising the event and helping to build a local community.
So let’s start (as Simon Sinek would say) with the why. Then chat through some questions you should ask yourself, and finally we can discuss why I think it worked, what we created and what I learnt on the way. I’ll try and keep it short and sweet, I promise.
Why run an event?
If I had to give a single answer as to why we set up Cake, I would have to say give something back to the local business community personally and as a organisation.
I gained a lot from Loughborough, I met Pete my business partner at the University and a year later I met my wife Anna there as well. So felt it was about time we gave something back!
On top of this we really wanted to inspire people to better themselves, do something they enjoyed with their life and meet new people.
Plus I made a list at the start of 2015 with the aim to speak at an event before the year was out, so I figured the easiest way to gain experience was to learn from others, and gain the confidence to get up there myself by compering the event.
Should I run an event?
To be honest we jumped in pretty quickly after we had the initial idea for Cake. Pete and I discussed it one lunch time in early 2015 and by the next day I had already begun talking to friends about it to see what they thought. As it turns out all of them were in, but they (along with Pete and myself) did have a few questions.
Firstly, did we have the time?
This is a tough one straight away. Events take up far more time than you can imagine and we really didn’t want to create something shit, and there is nothing worse than a shitty meet up. Well there are but you catch my drift, so we needed to make sure we could dedicate enough time to make sure we did it well.
What did it mean for us if the event tanks?
This was quite a big one for Pete and myself. We have built a good reputation with 5or6 in Loughborough and the Midlands as an agency that based our design on research and understanding, so if we got this wrong it impacts on our livelihoods. Which is actually worse than a shitty meet up. Just.
What did we want the event to be?
Who did we want to attract? How much (if anything) did we want to charge? Why would people come? To answer all these questions we put ourselves on the other side of the equation and based it on the outcomes. Who did we want to meet there? How much would we want to pay? Why would we attend the event? Once we answered these questions we built the event from there.
How much would it cost to run?
With our image of the ideal event in mind we sat down and costed it out to run and then created what we could. We knew we wanted it to be free which meant that the money to pay for everything had to come from somewhere else, so we decided to asked some great companies to be involved and sponsor the event, and after a few no’s to our surprise a few very kind people agreed to donate.
We also managed to get every amazing venue for free, and with the sponsor money we had enough cash to pay for pizza, cake and beer for 70(ish) people and make sure we had some left over so our speakers could actually make the trip over. Which is always useful.
With everything worked out could we do it?
Yes. This was simple for us. I am a great believer in a ‘think it, say it, do it’ approach. So even with all the problems that we couldn’t have foreseen we believed we could do it, so we did. Simples.
How did we go about starting, spreading the word and organising it?
First off we were honest and upfront with what we wanted to do, who the intended target audience was and we told people these facts. We didn’t target an age range, we just wanted anyone who was willing to be better (at whatever they do) to attend and contribute to making Cake as good as possible. N.B. the quality of people counts for a lot, a great speaker can lift the room for their talk, but if no one is willing to carry the conversation the event falls flat.
We decided that we would promote every event via Twitter and an email newsletter and targeted people and businesses in Loughborough who tweeted about business development, design and inspiration. We then begun following, messaging and them about the event and their interests.
We also identified a core group of Cake ‘advocates’ who we asked to spread the word and tell people how good it was going to be. It took us 2 weeks to “sell out” the first event, and at our peak only 4 hours to shift 90 tickets.
We also made a call to limit the attendees, make them sign-up online beforehand and proudly display the amount of tickets we had left. This was a big call. If no tickets went it would look shit and no one would sign-up. It’s heard mentality.
Fortunately the tickets went. Slowly at first but they went. We also found that making people giveaway personal information to get a ticket puts the ball in their court. If they don’t turn up that’s fine, but they know they will get a strongly worded email in return! Only kidding, we didn’t do anything about it but accountability is a big thing plus getting them to sign-up allowed us to build a focused database of attendees.
Cake really wasn’t a terribly slick event and was very rough around the edges. But we wanted it to be informal because we felt that people connected better because of it. There is no dress code and often you would see a sports coach in flip flops and shorts talking to someone in a suit and tie.
In regards to what we promised the event would have i.e. food, drinks, great presenters and a place to meet like minded people, we delivered but gave attendees more. Every event we held small book competitions, plus we held workshops and created a Twitter feed that connects people, offers good articles to read and an email newsletter that gives them links to all the books recommend by the speakers.
To help run the event we got buy-in from local businesses and individuals who helped organisation and run the event. We had volunteers help with the PA & food management plus the set up of the event all of which they did for free, just to help and to be a part of a community.
For the first couple of events we asked people for feedback via an online form just to find out if we were heading in the right direction. We also sent out an email update with links to all the images, a quick run down of the event, and a list of the books that we gave away on the night.
We kept connected with attendees on Twitter and got involved in discussions that related to what we were about and who we were trying to attract. This in turn attracted more relevant people and helped sustain and grow the community.
So what did I learn?
We discovered very quickly it’s not so much what you offer e.g. free food and drink but more who’s there and engaging.
Yes we did have great world class speakers, and we offered free pizza (this would have got me hooked), beer and cake and this was certainly a way to hook people in, but in the long run people returned to meet their friends, everything else was secondary.
Once we figure this out we put more emphasis on helping people build these bonds. We removed any formal parts such as people individually serving drinks and getting people to sign in etc and allowed it to be far more informal, these small changes it seems allowed people to relax and make more meaningful connections.
Overall it was a wonderful experience running the event, and if you have the time, and are willing to put yourself out there I would recommend trying something, you never know what it might become.
A checklist to finish
I love a checklist so heres one to run through to help you figure out if you should run an event and how to shape it as you go forward.
- Why should I run an event?
What are you trying to achieve from it? What should it be and who should it represent? If you can’t figure these questions out then no you shouldn’t run an event, figuring out the why will help shape your audience, speakers and framework for the whole event.
- Can I run an event?
Do you have the time? What did it mean for you if the event is rubbish? What did we want the event to be? How much would it cost to run? Go through all these questions and make sure you can run the event.
- How do we get it off the ground?
Once you have the idea you should begin to map out how you are going to get it started. What avenues and communication streams do you have that you can reach out to the people you want to come?
- How is it sustainable?
The next phase is to figure out why people would keep coming and if it’s economically sustainable.
- Can I have fun doing it?
Even if you can successfully answer all the above, if it’s not going to be fun I wouldn’t do it. If your not enjoying it then everyone will sense it and you won’t put your all in.
Photos thanks to Nick Rawle http://nickrphotography.com/