Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Advantages of the "Shop Local" movement for Event Organizers

There has been a big push in recent years to support local business. The small shopkeepers in the small towns and the big cities of America are struggling in the poor economy and have taken definite steps to up the ante on Main Street.  From "Cash Mobs" to "BuyLocal" events the push to help keep our dollars in the local economy is going strong and gaining momentum.


People are very supportive of the idea and will bypass the local big box stores to patronize the small shops owned and operated by their neighbors, friends and families. This trend benefits everyone involved. It keeps local money local. When you buy your Christmas gifts from a small shop or your Mocha Latte from an independent coffee stand you are helping a local mom pay for her kids' braces, or a person stay in business so they can provide entry level jobs to local high school students during the busy season. You are infusing your cash into your town and your neighbors. It is a win / win scenario.

So what does this trend to support local business have to do with event organizers? A lot. Trying to think of a new event venue, one that is a bit more socially responsive than the tried and true "Arts in the Park" option? How about this: Get together with the local Chamber of Commerce and pitch a "Buy Local Festival" to take place on Main Street. Suggest a day long street fair type event with vendors, artists and music. Get the shopkeepers on board and emphasize the benefits for them. Suggest they do sidewalk sales events and offer discounts or specials on the big day. Get their ideas and be open to suggestions while keeping your focus on the event and how you can all be of benefit to each other.

This sort of event lends itself well to a theme. The most obvious one is "Made in America" - another huge trend right now. What could be better than a Buy Local/Made in America event in July? Does your town plan events or fireworks around the 4th of July holiday already? Great, there will be lots of folks in town! Get the shopkeepers to decorate with flags and bunting, put it in your vendors contract that there will be a prize for "most patriotic" booth. Create buzz in the weeks leading up to the event by posting flyers in the businesses or supplying them with bag stuffers detailing the event. You need to supply all the promo materials. Do not expect that the shop keepers will do it for you, they won't and they shouldn't.

Doing a Christmas fair? The same plan works at any time of year. Find a local farm that does horse-drawn carriage rides and invite them to participate (Hint: they can also do hay rides in July)  and talk to local schools and churches about providing strolling groups of carolers. Hire a Santa Clause if none of the shops have one.Talk to the local High School Booster Club about providing a kids area with games. They can charge a small fee and make money for the local sports team. Do a Trick or Treat Main Street Halloween Fair! Have a Harvest Festival. There are so many ways to make this work and lots of times these events turn into annual events and big draws for small towns. If your town doesn't have one - make it happen.

One area to be mindful of is food vendors - in a street fair scenario they are just as welcome as any other event; just make sure you do not assign them space in front of the local diner or burger joint! This applies to all of your vendors. Select and place them with an eye to not be in direct competition with the local businesses you are working with. No one will appreciate losing business to some interloper selling the same thing they are, trust me. When you pitch the idea to the locals it is a very, very good idea to make it abundantly clear that you are there to enhance their businesses, not to compete with them.

Just as with any other fair you will need to contact local law enforcement. They need to know what is going on. You need insurance. You need helpers. You are also responsible for all the gritty details like trash removal, porta-potties and parking. No town will thank you for making a mess for their public works department to clean up. This is just as much your show as any other type of event and you are responsible for everything from first to last. Resign yourself to that fact at the start. Sweeping streets late at night is a noble profession, you (or better yet a half dozen hired hands) will enjoy it. Make that town happy to have worked with you - especially if you ever want to do it again. Have a clear plan.

Just a word to the wise: When you are selecting your vendors you will obviously be giving preference to the locals. Once the roster is full up with artisans and vendors from the immediate area then - and only then - can you begin to offer space to those from outside the local areas. While I usually do not hold geography against any artisan this is one venue where you must. The whole point of the exercise is, after all: Buy Local!

If you plan it right and pitch it right the Shop Local Fair concept can be very good business for everyone involved. It is fun and it helps boost local economies. That is a great thing.