From private parties to public gatherings, in-person events took a major hit during the pandemic. Most likely, the blanket cancellation of events impacted your operation as well, preventing you from hosting events that connect you with your customers and community.
Maybe you’ve eased back into offering special events or tried virtual options. Or maybe you’re itching to get back to celebrating but are unsure of what events should look like with pandemic restrictions. Hardware Retailing spoke with two retailers who shared best practices for hosting events that prioritize safety and community.
HomCo Lumber & Hardware has been a fixture in Flagstaff, Arizona, for over 45 years. Built on a mission of serving its customers and community, the company started offering Young Builders events 10 years ago. These events were held once a month on Saturday mornings and brought together families to work on a fun craft or easy building project. HomCo provided the kits and the instructions, putting together 100 kits each month for projects like birdhouses, ornaments, pencil holders, picture frames, wooden trays and more, says chief operating officer Todd Callan.
When COVID-19 hit, Callan and his team needed to make a choice on whether to cancel the event completely or move it online, and if they did move online, they needed to figure out a safe way to distribute the kits.
“When the event was in-person, we didn’t charge for the kits. But when we had to cancel in-person events, we thought we had the perfect opportunity to still offer the popular event and in the process, raise some money for our community,” Callan says. “We told our customers we were accepting donations for the Boys and Girls Club when they picked up their kits and were able to raise a little money for that organization when they were struggling so badly.”
The marketing team at HomCo got together right after the shutdown in March 2020 to come up with a plan. Because they had already been livestreaming the in-person events, the team had the framework in place for a digital event and decided they could easily move online. They called the new format HomTooling, a play on homeschooling, since so many kids had transitioned to e-learning.
“We thought we could put together some good content and do a video to still offer this event to our customers,” Callan says. “Now parents can pick up the kits anytime, and if they don’t get around to building them with their kids right away, the video is up on our Facebook page. They can do it a month later or two months later and they’ll still have instructions for whenever they’re ready.”
Connecting With Customers
Callan says it was important to the team at HomCo to continue to offer the Young Builders program as a service to their customers.
“We felt with kids being at home all the time and parents trying to juggle school, work and life, that it was important to keep this event going to keep the kids busy at home with fun projects,” he says. “Our customers are so appreciative that we offer this event. It takes away some of the heartache of being stuck at home and it’s free for our customers, which they love too.”
Moving from in-person to online has been successful for HomCo, but Callan says they would eventually like to resume in-person events when it is safe to do so.
“We’ll continue to do the production work to create the high-quality videos, and eventually when it’s safe, we would love to bring it back into the store,” Callan says. “Any time you can drive customers in and put steps into your store, it’s a good thing. It creates sales because people see and purchase merchandise they might not have known we have.”
For HomCo, gaining sales is just one of the benefits of hosting events. The biggest gain is the connection with the community. HomTooling has raised over $1,000 for the Boys and Girls Club of Flagstaff. Past events have also brought in money for local organizations. The annual HomShow also raises money for the Boys and Girls Club and past ladies’ night events have brought in over $20,000 for Sharon Manor, a local women’s shelter.
“With any of our events, we’re not in it to make money. It’s a bonus when we get extra sales from them, but for us it’s all about being a part of our community,” Callan says. “Everything we do ties back into the community. Mike Brackin, our owner, cares about this community and that’s what he wants to focus on.”
Sullivan Hardware & Garden, which has four stores in the Indianapolis area, has built a reputation for hosting fun events that resonate with customers and the community. In 2015, the company started the Sullivan Santa Express, where families can ride a holiday train through the outdoor garden center in one of the locations, enjoying scenes that change each year. At the end of the ride, families have a chance to visit with Santa and do crafts. New for 2021, another Sullivan’s location offered the Pumpkin Town Express, a similar experience but with a Halloween theme. Other popular events the company hosts include ladies’ nights, cooking classes and Valentine’s Day dinners.
Thanks to flexibility and a willingness to pivot, the company only canceled one event since the start of COVID-19.
“We felt it was our civic duty to try to present—as long as it was safe—some sort of normalcy,” says Sullivan’s owner Pat Sullivan. “It appeared to us that many other companies were canceling everything. Because we’re small and a little more flexible, we were able to scale everything down and still host events to serve our customers.”
Modifications included stretching an event over more days, mandating masks and social distancing based on the local guidance and selling tickets ahead of time.
For example, one store location hosts a free annual ladies’ night event. In 2020, Sullivan moved the event outdoors, offered the event over two nights and required attendees to register for the free tickets online so they could track how many people would be attending. In 2021, the company was able to return to a more normal format and had nearly 400 women attend.
“We used similar guidelines for our Eggfest, which normally draws 1,500 people,” he says. “We hosted Eggfest over three nights with a 200-person cap each night. So, not as many people were able to come, but we were still able to host the event. Our customers really appreciated we were able to do that.”
Being able to host in-person events was important to Sullivan, because those events are a part of the fabric of the company.
“Events are a part of everything we’ve created as an entertainment retailer. People expect us to have these great events and we want to deliver,” he says.
Another part of Sullivan’s reputation as an entertainment destination is the on-site restaurant, Sully’s Grill, at one of its locations. This location offers event rental space for wedding and baby showers, rehearsal dinners and more, which draws in more customers and creates buzz for the business.
“It’s all about getting people into your store who have never been there and would never have a reason to come in except they attended one of our in-store events or a special event in our rental space,” Sullivan says. “You get them in and they’re like, ‘Wow, what is this place?’ All the advertising in the world wasn’t bringing them in, but that wedding shower invite or special event brought them in the door.”
Check out these tips for sharing your event on social media before, during and after.
Post on Facebook
The Facebook events feature allows you to include all the details of the event in one spot. Facebook events automatically post to your page and are also easily shareable by your customers.
Make a Shot List
Put together a list of must-get photos and videos so when the day comes, you can focus on getting those shots. Be open to catching candid moments as they happen as well.
Use Facebook Live and Instagram Live to share in real-time and encourage engagement with your audience, even if they can’t be there.
Retweet and Repost
Pay attention to what attendees share on social media about your event and retweet or repost positive posts.
CDC Guidance for Large Gatherings
As you return to hosting events, it’s important to take precautions when planning to keep your attendees safe. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published guidelines for organization events and gatherings to assist you in creating an event that’s safe and successful. Here is a summary of the guidelines.
Consider risk factors. Everything from how much travel is involved for attendees to the length and setting of the event can affect possible COVID-19 exposure. It’s also a good idea to look at the number of COVID-19 cases in your community and what types of behaviors attendees will engage in, such as eating and drinking.
Implement social distancing. As you plan, look at different ways you can be sure attendees can social distance, taking into account anytime they need to wait in a line, sit down to eat or be in groups. Use physical barriers, tape on the floor and other visual cues to remind attendees to distance themselves from others.
Clean frequently. Have a plan in place and enough staff scheduled to keep the event space clean and disinfected before, during and after the event. Keep an adequate supply of hygiene products, like soap and hand sanitizer, on hand and ensure ventilation systems operate properly.
Create a contact tracing plan. Put together steps to take if an attendee does get sick at or after your event, including a way to contact trace attendees. Notify the local health department or other health authorities in case of a sickness and provide as much information as possible.
Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Guidance for Organizing Large Events and Gatherings