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What’s the Occasion?
How Creative Event Marketing Strategies Build Loyalty, Drive Sales

October 2011

If it is true – as Sir Winston Churchill said, that “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty,” – then the area business owners profiled in this feature clearly share a view of the glass as half full.

While many companies have suffered at the hands of the worst recession in recent memory, these four have not only succeeded, but also thrived. And despite offering wildly different products and services to different target markets, they share another key characteristic in addition to optimism – a common commitment to event marketing as a way to grow their respective businesses.

Purchase with Gift

Since opening specialty toy store Tiddlywinks on Bel Air’s Main Street in 2009, owner Kim Norris knew events would be a critical part of her business strategy, helping to raise initial awareness and mitigate the notoriously seasonal nature of retail sales. In fact, Norris planned for them from the very start, building a party area into the design of her new store to accommodate birthday celebrations and other events.

Not one to sit and wait for the party calendar to fill, Norris came up with the idea of hosting her own themed events for her youngest customers. Tied to kid favorites including Lego, tea parties, storybook and movie characters, for $25 each, up to 12 children could register to enjoy an hour and a half of games, songs, snacks and make-and-take activities and toys. Tiddlywinks turned a profit on the event, and by requiring pre-registration, Norris ensured a full house and that parents would show up willing to spend even more the day of the party.

From there it was a natural evolution to add even more scheduled activities, including year-round morning “Tots & Dots” classes featuring a craft or activity geared toward the toddler and preschooler set, and summer “Fun Fridays” activities for school-age children. Offered at a lower fee of $5 per child, these regular classes help keep traffic steady while doing double duty for product promotion and as a clearinghouse for closeout items.

Surprisingly, some of the events that bring the most revenue into the store are totally free, including an annual Star Wars event, a visit from Peter Rabbit to coincide with Easter and a planned new “Storytime with Santa” event series in November and December. According to Norris, “These free events typically translate into a bigger uptick in sales because traffic numbers are so much higher. We’re not limited to 12 kids like we are with the paid events.”

Keeping Customers Happy

About five miles west, over at The Arena Club health and fitness complex on Churchville Road, marketing coordinator Angela Saccenti says their event marketing strategy revolves around a focus on keeping members happy. According to Saccenti, because so much of the club’s business comes from referrals, it is vital to provide a positive member experience. To that end, The Arena Club offers a mix of free and paid events, some that focus on attracting new members but others that are designed just to reinforce the positive image of the club and reflect its values as a family-oriented club.

For instance, The Arena Club hosts a family movie night every month that is free and open to the public. Inspired by the outdoor movies offered by the Bel Air Downtown Alliance, The Arena Club applied for and received a movie license to show family movies on a huge screen on its indoor, heated and air-conditioned turf field. Saccenti says, “This is just an opportunity for people to bring their families for a night out in a tough economy. It’s a great way for us to showcase what we offer as a family club.”

Taking another approach, to mark the start of summer, The Arena Club offered a pool party that was free and open to the public. “Our pools are one of our best features, so we wanted people to be able to come out and experience it for themselves. Plus, the event allowed members to bring in friends and guests without paying the normal guest fee as a way to say thank you.” By combining this event with membership special incentives such as free personal training sessions, Saccenti says The Arena Club was able to sign up a sizable number of new members on the spot that night alone while also thanking existing members for their patronage.

And while events like movie nights and pool parties are free, some of The Arena Club’s events are revenue generators including its monthly Kids’ Night Out events where parents can drop their kids off from 6pm to 10pm for a fee. Saccenti concludes, “Our event strategy ties in to our overall philosophy. It’s really about offering a lot of options for families.”

Happy Clients = More Happy Clients

And it’s not just business-to-consumer companies like Tiddlywinks and The Arena Club that benefit from event marketing. At White Marsh-based investment, tax and accounting services firm WeberMessick, events are an integral way for them to strengthen client relationships while also maximizing referral opportunities.

WeberMessick partner and certified public accountant Brian Messick says, “In this economy, people are more goal-oriented and rely on our services more than ever. Our marketing strategy has responded to this by offering seminars through which we can educate our clients on ways to maintain and grow their personal and business finances even during challenging times.” For instance, a recent educational seminar offered clients the opportunity to meet a representative from a large mutual fund company to understand how worldwide trends can impact their investments.

Additionally, the seminars provide WeberMessick with a way to let clients know that the firm is there to help them through difficult times. Says Messick, “This isn’t about inviting random people out to lunch at a hotel. Rather, our event strategy is focused on our current clients – providing them with additional support they need to be successful, which ultimately leads to more referrals.”

Messick believes that offering events designed to provide clients with an extra level of support has allowed WeberMessick to continue to grow during a time where other firms have struggled. He says, “People realize the value of what we do more so during a difficult economy. As both CPAs and financial planners, we can ensure your accounting and investment strategies work together to take you where you want to go financially, but not all of our clients realize we offer all of these services until we share that with them at events.” Coupled with a commitment to thanking loyal clients through events such as an annual client and partner appreciation crab feast at an IronBirds game at Ripken Stadium, this strategy inherently nurtures referrals by strengthening client loyalty and relationships with other referral sources.

Sometimes, Bigger is Better

Perhaps one of the most ambitious event marketing strategies of late can be credited to Churchville-based web development firm WebIXI, who decided that they would invite some of their closest business contacts to their Small Business Survival Summit event held in September at the Baltimore Convention Center.

According to WebIXI vice-president P.J. Chambers, the seed for the event was planted after WebIXI started seeing long-standing businesses in the area struggling during the recession. “As a website design company, a lot of our clients are small business owners and non-profits. We were seeing disturbing trends including long-standing companies closing their doors. On the other end were start-ups with great ideas but no idea how to get going in this economic climate. This was the impetus for organizing this event.”

To connect their clients with the expert resources needed to succeed, WebIXI organized a three-day event featuring educational sessions and workshops, an exhibit area, networking events and big-name speakers.

Chambers says the idea evolved from smaller-scale presentations WebIXI had previously offered to prospective clients on a variety of industry topics such as best practices in e-mail marketing and search engine optimization. Even on that level, WebIXI saw big results, frequently walking out of a training session with leads that led to several new clients.

But much to Chambers’s surprise, putting on the event has done far more for his business than just helping to keep more clients in business. According to Chambers, the connections forged during planning for this large-scale event opened doors that never would have been possibilities, including meetings with the head of M&T Bank and a high-ranking executive at McCormick. I95