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What do events mean to your organization?
First and foremost, events are our brand, and brand is the promise of an experience. It connects so many people, not just the 1.6 million people that are here physically but billions through social media, and public relations, and marketing efforts.
How are you using social media now and what are some of those measurable changes you’ve witnessed as a result of that?
We are a small organization and we look at our marketing and communications team the same way any other company might. We recently added an additional person to that team because social media and keeping up with all the new ways of reaching people are so important. For example, the Pink Tie Party that we do is our key fundraiser of the year. Socialites and stakeholders all come. It’s about 800 people in physical attendance, but through social media and special activations on-site we reached 76,000 people over the course of the evening. So it really extends our audience, it helps us communicate the messages we want to get out there, and that’s what sponsors are looking for as well as our other partners.
What are sponsors looking for and what do you want from them?
Our sponsors come to us for different reasons. We have the brand and the marketing association, which is part of what they come to us for – for example, if they want to launch a new product or just want to associate good will in being aligned with the Festival. Another reason is that the US and Japan relationship is completely unique, so those organizations or individuals who want to support that relationship, whether it’s for business or political reasons, can do so through sponsorship. And then there’s the Washington, DC hospitality industry and the fact that the Festival brings so many people. So we talk to each sponsor about what their goals are, their objectives, and when it comes to things like social media, we make sure they know that we have that opportunity for them. With the Festival, and probably for most other companies, there are so many messages that need to be communicated. And I think that’s one of our biggest challenges or concerns: How do you communicate all these messages without overdoing it to your social media networks? But we absolutely tie into the social media with our sponsors.
Is there a call to action that you or the sponsors want these people to take?
What we’re seeing mostly across the board is that [sponsors] want [guests] to know who they are and visit their website. There has to be some kind of action involved, because if you take an action then you’re engaging, and when you engage there’s more of a connection and remembrance of who that company is.
And are they tracking that action during that timeframe?
They are, and we are too. For example, ANA is one of the largest sponsors that came on board this year and one of the reasons they came on board is that they’re celebrating 30 years of direct flights, from capital to capital, DC to Tokyo. Their goal was to get people to really understand who they are, so we put out a social media campaign and they had a goal in mind of how many people they wanted engagement from – and we exceeded that goal number by 33%.
And in terms of sponsorship, how has that changed?
It’s forever changing. I think people are not satisfied anymore with just their name or logo on a piece of collateral. They want to get something out of it, certainly a return on their investment. So more and more we are understanding that there is an investment in our staff to really understand what a sponsor is looking for and ask ourselves if we are a good match for each other. Are we really going to take the money because we need it and the sponsor thinks it’s a great thing, but maybe it’s not really the right fit, or might fit a little bit for this year but there’s no future for a long-term relationship? We’re really taking a look at the relationship to see if it’s compatible long-term. Does it make sense? Is it relevant? Can we deliver what the sponsor wants us to deliver? And through creative engagement, I think that’s what makes a sponsor look back and say “wow, yes, that’s what I was looking for”
Sponsorship engagement, creative engagement… What does sponsorship activation look like to you?
I’ll give you an example, one that was recognized as one of the top best ideas by BizBash this year. At the Pink Tie Party we had a landscape design company that wanted to be involved with us and we were trying to figure out, how does this fit? They helped us with the design and the implementation of the actual event and how to tie it into the culture. We celebrate Japan because that’s where the history of the trees comes from. In Japan, celebrating the Cherry Blossoms means sitting under the Cherry trees and drinking Sake. Of course, we can’t do that here in DC so we created a similar experience with the help of Linder, of course, who is our partner in creating and implementing these events. We created Hunami right inside the Reagan building where people can taste sake right under this gorgeous, beautiful tree that was created by Land Design, the architect firm.
What is the mission of the organization?
The vision of the Festival is something I love to talk about; it is to create the Nation’s greatest springtime celebration through events, programs, arts and culture and international friendship. The international aspect comes into play because of the roots of the Festival, the gift of trees that came from Japan over 100 years ago. So we want to make sure all of those things are relevant, and ask ourselves: how can we deliver on that promise?
In 2012, you celebrated the hundredth anniversary of that gift of trees. How did you use that moment as a springboard for what you wanted to do in the future of the organization and the events that you host?
The Festival has evolved over the course of the last 16 years. 16 years ago it was an all-volunteer organization. In trying to get sponsorship levels up, you have sponsors who’ve been with you for a really long time at a certain level of sponsorship, but your assets begin growing and changing, your brand is expanding, and the value of your brand is increasing. So how do you take that next step? It was perfect to use the actual anniversary – there’s such a perceived value with an anniversary, particularly a 100 year anniversary – to elevate those sponsorship opportunities, as well as the assets we could provide. It was really a leap of faith. What comes first, the chicken or the egg? Because you can’t do these things without dollars, so we put it out there and said: here’s what we want to do, we’re looking for sponsors to be part of it, to be creative, to be the first to celebrate the 100th year anniversary – it made a pretty compelling package. And it actually worked. Once we sold a few hundred sponsorships, we were like, what do we do to make sure we can implement this? It was a fabulous opportunity to take the festival to the next level as far as upgrading our website, our communications in general, our design materials, and the actual experience that we were able to provide.
Your demographic, the demographic that watches parades are aging out, so what are you doing to keep that as your signature event and as relevant to you, your sponsors, and your watching audience?
This is new for us. We just discovered that this is happening through evaluations and assessments. We know that the watching crowd is definitely getting older. So, of course, content has got to be the first thing that we look at, making sure there is content that really reaches the audience we want. But backing up even further you really have to understand who your audience is and who you want your audience to be, and what resonates with that audience. That’s where we’re starting to look and to act on that information.
How are you getting that information on the audience to impact the content?
We’re not that sophisticated in our methods, but basically through surveys. We worked with a company to do a survey of the audience during the parade as it was taking place. We also have the capability of figuring out where they’re coming from through our ticketing process. The event is open and free to the public but there are bleacher seats. I think it’s really from that survey that’s been ongoing for a couple of years that we’ve been able to see a trend, and that’s really the way that we’re tackling that.
How have your events evolved over the years? How do you keep them fresh?
It’s certainly a challenge to keep up on trends. But that’s what the festival has to do after you’ve been around for over 89 years! So trying to make people know that this is not the same old thing and that there are new and exciting elements is very important. I think it comes from keeping the energy going with your staff. You have to have energetic staff. Someone once told me, and this is bad for our industry but, events are a big killer of any company. So if that’s all you do, you have to really make sure that you’re managing a team very differently, and that when it’s time to work and do the festival for 6 or 7 months, they’re working triple time. You have to get them energized and relaxed, a little bit of the “off season,” which is really not a thing. But also, are they starting current? Are they really understanding what the trends are? Personal development is so important, creativity… talking to others, reaching out to others. Also, working with an external organization is important because we can’t do it all. We don’t have the budget to go to every new conference or every webinar or seminar. We do send them out to do some of that, but working with an organization or organizations that are up to date on all of the trends is so important. To have lots of feedback from your stakeholders, evaluation assessments and reviewing while it’s still fresh in your mind: what worked, what didn’t, how are we going to do it differently next year. That’s really important and then getting feedback from outside eyes.
Is that personal development you mention included in your staff’s evaluations?
It’s evolving to that. You can put that out there as much as you want but if you don’t have the budget to back it up, that’s an issue. We certainly are talking about that, it was included in people’s evaluations last year and we’re encouraging it. And sometimes it does not take a lot of money to find other resources like magazines and websites. I challenge them each to go and network with an individual, whether they know them or not, take them to lunch and just pick their brain and find out, what are they doing? One-on-one networking conversation is really important. To me, that’s so inspirational. I love talking to others about what they’re doing or new ideas – even if it’s a different topic, it might be something you’re interested in or stimulates you.
You use external planners, such as us and some others as well, what are your expectations of an external planner?
I think to bring expertise and a SWAT team when something needs to be taken care of and one or two people are not going to cut it. Building out our events as we get closer to the Festival, we need to have a team that’s bigger and bigger and bigger, and those last couple of weeks you really need a lot of people to help execute. So I think it’s the expertise, efficiency, knowledge, the creativity, the freshness, the fabulous work ethic. I mean, this is not a 9-5 career and people have to understand that this is the business we’re in and you have to love it to live it. That’s the bottom line. I’ll talk to my staff who’ve been here for several years and I’ll say, you know, I hate to see you go but if you don’t love it, if this still isn’t fitting into your lifestyle, then you need to make that change because you don’t want it to get bad or difficult on that person. But those that stick in there love it, it’s what inspires me, and for them to find inspiration from others is really how it works.
When all is said and done, at the end of the three or so weeks that the Festival is taking place, what does success look like to you?
Quantifying is the hard part – did we create the “wow,” did we create that event where people walked away and said “I wish there was more, I wish I could come back.” That’s hard to quantify but the festival is pretty emotional, it’s a very emotional kind of organization around events. That’s one piece. Of course there’s the public relations and the media reach and that’s definitely something we can absolutely quantify. We have invested in tracking companies that can tell us where and who we’re reaching and what the demographics of those audiences are. We’re reaching over 300 billion people if you talk about the online, the print, the television media, and that’s not even including international coverage which we know we are getting. So, it’s huge. And each year is a tricky thing, depending on the weather and when the blossoms bloom… it can go up and down, so we’re not going to get upset if it’s not 1.5 million but it’s 1.4 or 1.6 each year… we’re not looking to draw hundreds of thousands of more people in the city during the festival. What we are trying to do is expand the audience of specific events, and we actually do count that attendance as part of our success. And then what are the headlines or people saying about us? Whether it’s in the media or individuals on social media. What are they saying? Are they saying what we want them to say? Did we get the right messages out? All of these things are what we evaluate each year.
How does budget play into whether it’s a success or not?
It’s if we’re able to do what the team has set out to do without three months before the festival saying, “ok, pull back, undo what we’ve been doing” because the budget just wasn’t there. So success, financially, is being able to set the budget, matching the initiatives of all the programs, and us being able to fulfill those initiatives.
GUEST: Diana Mayhew
Diana Mayhew became Executive Director of the National Cherry Blossom Festival in 2000, and has been President of the National Cherry Blossom Festival since 2007. Under her leadership, the Festival has grown from an all-volunteer, seasonal organization to a fully staffed, year-round 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization. Her success as a “connector” has led to developing strong partnerships with business, media, government and industry leaders, resulting in the Festival’s growth in programming, funding, and staff support.
Today, the strengthened brand of the National Cherry Blossom Festival receives local, national and international recognition, attracting more than 1.5 million attendees each year and generating over $160 million for the nation’s capital annually.
Diana currently serves on the World and Foundation Boards of the International Festivals & Events Association (IFEA) and is a member of Leadership Greater Washington, the Destination DC Marketing Advisory Committee, and the Woman’s Leadership Group of the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Washington. She was recognized by the Washington Business Journal as one of the 2012 Women Who Mean Business. Also in 2012 Diana was given the Certificate of Commendation from the Foreign Ministry of Japan for her contribution to the deepening of the Japan-US relationship and promoting mutual understanding between our two countries.