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Hearth & Home April 2017

How to Draw a Crowd

By Tom Lassiter

Hot food, cold drinks, live music and a few activities are but some of the magnets that attract people.

Topolobampo, the arty Mexican restaurant in Chicago, understands the concept. So do Disney World and Sandals resorts.

People don’t come just for the gazpacho, the Enchanted Tiki Room, or cocktails on the beach. People come for the total experience.

When the place and event succeed in creating an impression, when the result is fun, unique and memorable, guests tell their friends. They’re likely to look forward to returning one day and having another good time.

Doug Sanicola, president of Outdoor Elegance in La Verne, California, gets that. So does Susan Kiley, owner of Bay Breeze Patio in Destin, Florida.

These specialty merchants, with businesses different in scale as well as locality, have mastered the challenge of staging events that draw crowds.

We’re not talking about seasonal sales that involve fluttering flags and blinking lights, like the used car lot down the street.

We’re talking about events – gatherings that draw people with food and drink, maybe some live music, and activities. Maybe there’s an educational component, such as how to cook an entire Thanksgiving meal on a grill. Or perhaps the gathering is a charity event, benefitting one or more local non-profits.

Either way, there’s a crowd on the premises. People are having a good time. They see what the store has to offer and are surrounded by beautiful, comfortable outdoor furniture. Perhaps they savor catered delicacies or something prepared on high-performance grills and other outdoor cooking equipment.

Every element contributes to an atmosphere that bathes the host merchant and other sponsors with positive associations. The event builds good will and strengthens the store’s brand, earning the merchant’s name innumerable mentions throughout the community. Sooner or later, as Sanicola and Kiley know, sales follow.

Events are elemental to Sanicola’s marketing strategy at Outdoor Elegance, about 30 miles east of Los Angeles. “We want to drive traffic to the store,” he says. “I want to take advantage of every possible way to do that.”

Outdoor Elegance, winner of an Apollo Award in 2010 and a Vesta Award in 2013, stages about 30 events a year. They range from elementary grilling demonstrations to holiday parties to charity fundraisers that may draw more than 600 people.

Bay Breeze Patio, in a resort area on Florida’s Panhandle, stages two events annually. One, called Eggs on the Beach, “is like a gourmet Big Green Eggfest,” Kiley says.

The other, in the spring, is a two-day event that started in 2008 as a way to “thank the community for keeping us here,” she says. “We had eight competitors go out of business.”

Last September’s Eggs on the Beach drew 31 teams of cooks and several hundred attendees who paid either $25 (in advance) or $35 (at the gate) to attend, socialize, watch and feast. Kiley recruits other local businesses to help sponsor the event, which last year had a $24,000 budget.

Rental fees for tents ran almost $6,000. Other expenses included renting portable toilets, hand-washing stations, a disc jockey, and security.

“We raised enough sponsorship money to cover just about all the expenses,” she says. “If you don’t ask for a whole lot of money, you can get people on board. It’s not hard for a business to find $750.”

Bay Breeze Patio provides all the necessary paper goods, knives and forks, even toothpicks. Teams of cooks get free beer, which is as important as fuel for the Eggs.

“Backyard teams” of cooks pay a $50 registration fee, which is waived for teams representing non-profit groups. Teams, which typically spend between $300 and $500 on food, are offered a $100 food allowance, but most don’t accept. That leaves more dollars available for prizes for the teams and to benefit selected charities.

In 2016, prizes to non-profit cooking teams and donations to charities amounted to about $29,000, Kiley says.

The Big Green Egg grills used in the event were offered for sale to the public in advance of the event. 

Last spring’s customer appreciation event at Bay Breeze drew support from the store’s six grill vendors. “If you are one of our furniture or grill vendors,” Kiley says, “you have to participate.” Grill sales reps turn out to cook, and the store secures special promotional discounts from furniture vendors.

“It’s something a lot of customers look forward to every year, because we cook our brains out,” Kiley says, who runs Bay Breeze Patio with a staff of three. The fare included beef briskets, pork butts, and smoked salmon. “Lots and lots of it,” she says. “You have to put food around an event.”

Sanicola agrees. “When there’s food involved, and maybe beverages,” he says, “people will respond to that.”

Above all, he says, make the logistics easy on your guests. For example, not every event needs to take place at 6 pm on a Friday night. Sanicola sometimes stages events around lunchtimeon a weekday, when people don’t have to fight evening traffic or hurry home for family time.

Remember, too, that certain times of the year, such as the December holiday season, already are jammed with events. If you feel like a holiday gathering is essential, Sanicola says, considering stretching it out over several hours and start early.

Outdoor Elegance held an open house on December 15. Hours were from 1 pm to 7 pm. “We had about 85 people, which is not bad for right before Christmas,” he says.

One of the biggest challenges in staging an event is knowing how much food and drink to have on hand. For his open house, Sanicola says, “I bought way too much food. One of the best things that can happen is you run out of food at the party, toward the end. Everybody has fun and then goes home.”

December’s open house was not a sales event per se. New product introductions for 2017 were on hand to view, as well as some end-of-season specials. Sanicola and his staff made appointments at a later time for guests who expressed interest in a possible purchase.

Outdoor Elegance drew more than 600 people to a ThanksGrilling event in early October. A tie-in with a local radio station heavily promoted the event in advance. The station also did a live remote broadcast from the event, where reps from grill manufacturers demonstrated how to cook an entire Thanksgiving meal.

Grill sponsors included American Muscle Grill (AMG), Alfresco, Fire Magic, and Memphis Wood Fire Grills. “The sponsors got a lot of name recognition,” Sanicola says, adding that four AMG cart grills were sold that day. “It’s about a $7,000 ticket for a grill on a cart.”

People who fit the profile to be potential customers for high-quality outdoor furniture and grills, Sanicola says, do not respond to year-end closeouts, “20% off, Super Saturday sales and stuff like that. Our customers respond more to the experience of what we do.”

Knowing your customers and their tastes is crucial for success, Kiley says. Destin, she explains, “is a wine snob town,” so the house pour must be up to par. Plus, she says, her friends know the better stuff is in her office.

Traditional print and broadcast ads “just don’t do it” anymore, Kiley says, because audiences today are so fragmented. “The real marketing, for us, is event marketing.”

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