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A few months ago, I noticed Entrepreneur.com was having a half-day event in Long Beach, California. Entrepreneurs are our target customers for LessAccounting, so we want to be wherever they are. I looked at the event’s schedule, and it was a morning event, 9:00am to noon with no lunch provided.
Long Beach is an interesting location for us. Our head of support, Annette, lives just down the road from the venue. At first, I thought she should just go and mingle with people, but then I started thinking about a bigger play.
I emailed the event organizer about a possible sponsorship. We’re bootstrapped and don’t have hardly any extra money, but maybe we could do something for less than $500.00.
I waited a few days, and never got an email back from the organizer. So I started thinking, if lunch isn’t provided, could we provide it?
That’s it! We’ll provide lunch. Now how do we do that?
I thought we’d bring a food truck or food to a public space at the event’s location. Then I realized the event was hosted at the Westin Hotel, and hotels don’t want you to bring food in large qualities onto their property. In fact, no one with on-site catering will let you bring food near their venue. We were likely to get kicked out or shut down pretty quick.
So idea #1 failed, and we couldn’t bring food to a public space on the Westin Hotel property.
I called their front desk and asked how much a large suite was, thinking maybe we could host a VIP lunch. Nope, suites are too small and too expensive. I was hoping to find a large suite that I could order a few dozen pizzas too. There’s no real rules about hosting a private gathering in a hotel suite as long as you’re not too loud.
I looked for restaurants close by. The search for a restaurant with a private room turned up a few options, but nothing large enough or affordable for us. We need room for 40-150 people, so shutting a restaurant down during lunch is expensive.
I moved my search to local parks–we could bring food and drinks to a park and have a picnic. Thankfully, I found a newly remodeled park just two blocks away from the Westin Hotel. Parks sometimes have party rules, and we did end up pulling a park permit but we probably didn’t need it.
Idea #4 was solid, our location would be in a park. But how many people would be at the event? The event organizer wouldn’t return an email or tweet. Their website gave no indication of the size of the event. We called the hotel and asked to speak to the event coordinator. We told them we were a sponsor for the Entrepreneur.com event and gave them the date. We needed to know how many chairs they were instructed to set-up, and they said, “About 300.” So now we knew 300 people might be at this event.
Okay, we had an estimate of the number of attendees and a location, and we needed food, beverages and a way to get the attendees from the venue to the park. Pizza is an easy choice, and it works for a number of reasons. It’s easy to hold and eat while in conversation. It’s easy to transport, it’s affordable and quick to make.
The “quick to make” part was a big deal. I didn’t want to order 200 pizzas and have 190 pizzas leftover. By finding a local pizza spot we could call in separate orders. We’d start with 25 pizzas for about $400 and then we could count the number of people walking the two blocks to the park. If we hit more than 60 people, we’d order another 40 pizzas that could arrive in 15 minutes. Since the pizza spot was a block from the park, they’d hand deliver the pizzas. If we started to run out, we’d just order more, eliminating wasted expense on uneaten pizza.
Our remaining hurdles…
Beverages would be bottles of water, purchased at a local grocery store, because the pizza restaurant wanted $2.00 per bottle. You can buy bottles of water, ice and temporary coolers from a grocery store for $.50 per bottle. So that legwork saved us $150.00 or more. The other option was to negotiate a cheaper price for bottles of water from the pizza restaurant, guaranteeing them a certain number purchased, but instead we just brought our own (we do the same for LessConf).
So the plan for that day was to have Danny and Annette (who already live in Long Beach) to meet Steve (flying from Jacksonville) in the park to set up that morning. Steve’s dad, who lives in the LA area, was also on hand to help. (For pic: You can see that Steve’s dad was a big help…He fell asleep). The four of them met at the park, unloaded the tables, a few chairs, the LessAccounting banners, and all the handouts. Steve and Annette left Danny and Paul to set up and headed to the hotel for the conference.
Once there, they got the lay of the land and then Steve did something uncharacteristic: he asked for permission. He introduced himself to the organizers and explained that we had tried to contact them and what our plan was and was it OK with them to do it. Not only was it OK, they made an announcement about it at the end of the day. Steve then went and spoke to the sponsor, American Airlines, and started a relationship that will hopefully lead to some partnership or at least sponsorship for a Less Event.
Next Steve and Annette took a moment to get up the nerve and start talking to people. The trick to selling in these awkward conference situations is not to sell. Instead, you listen, ask probing questions, and attempt to make friends with people. The conversation will eventually turn back to you and then you just talk about what you do, and why you’re there (the lunch). Most people will start telling you which competitor they use, but you can always ask, just don’t make it sound like the only reason you’re talking to them is to sell. Don’t sell.
After the event, they stood by the doors and handed out our flyers with info about the lunch and said, “Please join us.” By this time, Danny had set up everything and the pizzas were there. Annette and Steve headed over and started to talk to people. Again, they didn’t sell, it was obvious we were doing a marketing event so there was no need to sell. People asked them about LessAccounting and they talked about how it’s different and how they could help their businesses, not just how LessAccounting could, but how we could help in other ways. About a third of the attendees came to lunch. Everyone seemed to have a nice time and we made some new friends.
Because Danny was there we got some video footage of the picnic and LessFilms made a video for us.
Some marketing has no trackable return on investment, if you’re unable to track the ROI of something be sure it’s something memorable, something that allows you to meet people and shake hands.