Reimagined Event Nets 6-Figure Total to Benefit Student Success Initiatives at Local Community College
By Diane Larusso, Owner & CEO, A Curated Experience
As the only major fundraising event for Columbus State’s Foundation, Taste the Future has been a celebrated, annual, summertime culinary showcase of central Ohio hospitality businesses for more than thirty years. In recent years, the event had grown to host more than 1,500 guests in the central courtyard on campus every August.
Each year, more than fifty local partners—ranging from restaurants, catering companies, and hotels, to distilleries, breweries, wineries, and more—would generously donate their time and talent to cater on-site, providing sample-sized portions of nibbles and sips to enthusiastic “tasters.” Guests enjoyed live music and bellys-full of joy as they mingled on lovely summer evening, making their ways from table to table, sampling the best culinary offerings available from the most talented and creative chefs in the area, buffet style.
(For a look at a recap of the 2019 event, click here.)
In 2019, the event yielded its greatest revenue total ever, attracting $275,000 in gross income. This was a significant achievement, related to the date of the event coinciding with the opening of a brand new building on campus—Mitchell Hall—which has been built to serve as the new hub of the College’s growing culinary and hospitality management program.
Direct expenses each year generally ran just under $40,000, while in-kind donations and support from other College departments contributed to the team’s production resources. Gross revenue averaged about $238,000 over the past four years (2016-2019), setting the resulting 84% revenue margin well above the generally-accepted “minimum threshold” for successful return on investment (fundraising events must generally net at least 50% of the total gross revenue to be considered nominally worth the return on investment for the effort).
Net funds raised by Taste the Future benefit a variety of the College’s programs supporting initiatives that help ensure success for students, including workforce readiness, scholarships, and projects addressing the non-academic barriers to higher education that many of its students face.
Enter the Challenger: COVID-19
By the time Coronavirus began disrupting live events all across the nation in March of 2020, the Foundation team had already started planning; the date was scheduled for August 11. Outreach to sponsors had begun in January, and by March, some initial commitments were already made to the traditional sponsorship ask, which included recognition benefits such as tickets to the main event (which included unlimited food as well as drink tickets), as well as a number of upgrades to add the VIP reception experience prior, in addition to typical print and digital exposure for corporate sponsor brands.
In March, when conditions changed drastically, forced by pandemic, it became clear that the event would need some reimagining. The Foundation wished to offer only that upon which it was confident it could deliver, even if the uncertainty ahead meant tight deadlines and an enormous internal team effort. They announced that the date would be postponed to October 13, 2020, and that new details would be shared as they were confirmed. Over the weeks and months that followed, the Foundation led the internal team through continued, concurrent planning and production.
Acknowledging Realities and Assumptions
First, the primary goal of fundraising was affirmed, but leadership quickly acknowledged that the record-breaking results achieved in 2019 were not reasonable to repeat in 2020. A large portion of the local culinary industry was suffering acutely, the Foundation team consisted of a very bare-bones staff, and the road ahead was anything but certain.
The team recognized that the fundamental model of the event, and its great success in the past, rested heavily upon the ability of local restaurants, caterers, and other hospitality-focused businesses to participate generously. Given the economic hit to the restaurant, hospitality and events industry due to forced closures, cancelled/postponed live events, continued public health concerns, and an audience perceived to be cautious about exposure to the virus, it seemed highly unlikely that many of the event’s previous partners would be in good position to participate in such a significant way this year.
Adding, then, the likely need for continued social distancing, and the liabilities of planning any large event in person, regardless of when or how restrictions might be lifted, the team investigated options for a virtual experience—a model that would engage its significant existing audience, keep the event brand relevant and visible, and provide an entertaining, uplifting experience that would, ultimately, leave viewers more informed about the role and importance of the organization in its community.
- A new, state-of-the art facility as a venue
- Engaged and willing program leadership
- Loyal sponsors and a cultivated audience
- Thirty-year history and overall positive reputation
- Strong relationships with key donors
- Internal support from marketing and events departments
- An expense budget that could be repurposed
New Goals, Considering 2020 Conditions
- Achieve a gross revenue goal of $170,000, the majority of which was expected to come from corporate sponsors rather than general public ticket sales (based on a review of previous sponsor history with insight from relationship notes and staff anecdotes)
- Produce a program of engaging content to entertain viewers with culinary-themed demonstrations, while educating them about College initiatives and the organization’s importance/relevance
- Attract at least 500 live viewers and 1,200 total views during the event week
- Retain the event’s relevance and maintain fundraising momentum
- Repurpose the out-of-pocket budget and recruit necessary in-kind products and partnerships to maintain expenses at or under $40k
- Pay tribute to the culinary and hospitality industry partners who made the original Taste the Future so successful for so many years, and wherever possible, find ways to support them through our event benefits and outreach
Approaches and Outcomes
Experience Model – Settling into the acceptance that the whole experience would have to be “reimagined,” the team decided to theme it as such, while still maintaining a focus on food and beverages as the topic. Retaining the original event name gave the audience something familiar to recognize in marketing and outreach, and leveraged the 30-year history of the event brand, despite a completely different format and delivery.
The team decided to offer a roughly hour-long virtual show—essentially a “foodie” show—that would feature chefs (including many College alumni), as well as a master mixologist and sommelier. This content would drive the entertainment through four courses of food and two beverage-focused segments, with shorter “impact storytelling” video segments in between. To mitigate the many liabilities of a live performance—from the availability and safety of working within specific facilities, to the risks of relying on specific individuals who, should they become required to quarantine, could become suddenly unavailable—the decision was made to record and edit a great majority of the broadcast event in advance, leaving only a handful of live cut-ins to be produced in person during the event, driven by the excitement of drawing the grand prize winner and announcing the winner’s name in real time.
Ensuring that the most important stakeholders had opportunities to provide feedback and input during the strategy-setting phase made it relatively simple to call on them to provide the in-kind support and leadership commitments that would be necessary to make the project successful overall. The “talent” pool was focused on individuals with close ties to the College—featuring employees, faculty, and alumni, and including students in support roles wherever possible.
Despite confidence in being able to deliver on entertaining culinary content, the team still faced the concern of competition for eyes amid busy schedules on a Tuesday evening event date and time, and whether the content alone would be enough to garner the viewers they hoped to attract. Never having done anything quite like this before, the team decided on a somewhat arbitrary goal of reaching 500 viewers—but needed to figure out what real-time excitement would compel them to tune in that night. Ultimately, they placed their hopes in the idea that if tickets included an entry in a spectacular Grand Prize Drawing, people who purchased those tickets would be interested in watching in real time, if only to discover if they’d won!
The Grand Prize concept solved two problems—for entertainment’s sake, it provided a real-time reason for the audience to tune in that night, and not simply put off watching a replay at a later date. But for the revenue model, the Grand Prize drawing provided an enticing benefit—a chance to win a unique and high-end experience, curated just for the winner—to attract ticket purchases even in the absence of food and drink benefits.
Finally, to add a tasty, tangible element for an upgraded, VIP-level experience, the team felt likely to succeed in creating a “Support Local” Hospitality Kit, which would include select recipe ingredients (related to the dishes from the virtual event’s featured courses), recipes, wine, coupons and a small assortment of other “tasty” (or food-related) items. VIP kits were included at an upgraded individual ticket price, and were also used as sponsorship benefits. Kits would be assembled and packaged with assistance from the internal teams, and delivered to VIP’s homes or offices on the day of the event by a local catering delivery partner.
Financial Strategy – Given the previous events’ success in securing funds from corporate sponsorship, the team created investment menus with visible recognition opportunities in mind, knowing that many would take pride in continued support during these challenging times, and would appreciate the public accolades. In addition to on-screen (in the show credits) and web recognition, sponsorship benefits included direct benefits of gift cards and VIP kits, with quantities depending on the level of investment.
To attract Host Committee and VIP commitments, the team worked closely with 2nd term Host Committee co-chairs and loyal Host Committee members from previous years to spread the word and hype the “Support Local” Hospitality Kit, in addition to promoting the chance to win the Grand Prize. “Consolation” prizes of $50 gift cards to local restaurants were planned into the budget for two reasons—first, so that every ticket purchaser would win something (even if not the grand prize), and secondly, to allow the event budget to support local businesses by purchasing gift cards from them, and putting them into the hands of individuals who would use them, and likely spend more from their own pockets.
Finding the right value to offer to entice the individual ticket purchaser became the most challenging projection, since in previous years a $100 ticket was good for a full evening of gorging. Would a chance to win the grand prize be enough of a draw? Would the idea of a “consolation” prize of a $50 gift card be apparent enough in the explanation of benefits? (Messaging a “new” event format for an event with a long history was one of the more difficult challenges faced by the team, since there were so many new elements to describe and explain!) Ultimately, the event found success in attracting many sponsorship renewals, and across all participation categories, generated a little more than $165,000 in gross revenue, coming in at 98% of the goal.
On the opposite side of the financial equations, a majority of the original event expense budget was reallocated to support the two most significant costs required to support the event plan—video production and the gift card benefit. Thanks to enthusiastic support from internal teams, generous in-kind partners, and well-known community leaders setting examples, the out-of-pocket costs to produce the virtual event and fulfill all tangible benefits were kept within the typical annual expense range required for the event in years past. This achievement meant the event net revenue would still fall within a successful range, generating 75% or more of the proceeds to directly benefit the stated cause.
Marketing and Outreach – While the new virtual event model provided plenty of challenges all on its own—requiring significantly more explanation and set up just to make a pitch for sponsorship or ticket sales than in “normal” years—the compressed production timing added another layer of complication. Due to the significant shift in the project model, and the sheer time it takes to work new plans through a complex organization, the team was often in the position of communicating new developments and decisions nearly as soon as they were made.
Communications were furthermore challenged by the state of the team, itself. In addition to open positions that had not been refilled, a key relationship manager was out on family leave, and the team was only in position to catch up to its outreach strategies in the last 6-8 weeks leading up to the event, meaning that certainly, some opportunities were left on the table. Aging website technology platforms also hindered the team’s ability to make easy changes and maintain a contemporary look to the site and transaction/data collection functions, and only with the added assistance of web technology teammates from the marketing department were they capable of the home-page polish eventually displayed.
In retrospect, there were many opportunities for better engagement through social media channels, and by further involving past event participants, could have strengthened and extended the event marketing into the audiences that might have been reached through partner channels.
Production – Event planning for live events is not dissimilar to producing a virtual event—and frequently those experiences are cross-pollinated, anyhow. However, early on, the team recognized the need to let go of what was “normally” on the checklist and focus on designing a timeline and strategy for what this year’s experience would require.
Instead of worrying about ice, tables, trash stations, and port-a-johns, this year’s coordination centered around creative processes, messaging strategies, segment ideation, and the subsequent logistics of video production. Delivery of sponsorship recognition still required ongoing communication and collateral production, but instead of collecting eight guests’ names for a table at a luncheon, it was VIP recipients and addresses for those designated to receive a hospitality kit.
Because of the online format, ensuring a different sort of accessibility needed to be taken into consideration, and live captioning services integrated to ensure compliance. Also because of the broadcast format—like a live TV show—there were new and dynamic ways to reiterate information and layer calls to action, through moving tickers, lower-third graphics, and animated bumpers.
Finally, stringing together a narrative, and filling in-between moments with live cut-ins added life and heart to the program—a human face to address the audience directly in real time, someone to respond to compelling stories, and celebrate the programs upon which this event shined a spotlight.
Overall, the College leadership and community stakeholders involved have declared the virtual event a great success, having raised 98% of its fundraising goal in a challenging year, while creating a completely new experience from scratch and stretching the boundaries of its internal production capabilities.
Certainly, this success was not possible without a team of people, committed to the cause and willing to work together with a sense of shared ownership. The resources devoted by the College and Foundation were significant, and only with such broad support was this project made possible.
In the shift to a virtual platform, the team did a great job of producing the main event broadcast experience, but there were missed opportunities to further activate the whole website—for instance, offering more enriched digital resources, interactivity, off-shoot events (recorded videos or Facebook Live interactives), and other features. Social media engagement, as well, could have been better applied to cultivate the audience in advance, perhaps through side-along cooking “contests” or other partner promotions or interactions.
There were additional logistics improvement notes for collecting transactional and functional data, but those lessons tend to be too organization-specific to be of broad use. The bottom line is always that data-keeping can be complicated, and more so when CRMs could be better-integrated with communications support tools. Keep CRMs in good order and look for technology that produces administrative efficiencies for the best possible results.
Finally, if 2020 teaches us anything, it’s to have backup plans for everything. Despite the overall celebrated achievements of the virtual event, it wasn’t without its hiccups—but at every stage, the team developed contingencies. Possibilities of facility closures, or exposures resulting in staff quarantines lurked around every bend, so at every step forward the team asked itself, “what if, and what is our plan?”
In the end, this event experience was created upon a foundation of a long-standing and well-loved event, and the audience responded with great enthusiasm. Lessons learned will be reviewed and applied as planning begins for next year—and while the team remains hopeful that conditions will be safe enough next summer to allow for a traditional in-person experience, rest assured, there’ll be creative thinking and backup plans just waiting to be deployed as needed, whatever challenges may arise.