Holiday Festival Marketing & Customer Experience (Podcast)
In this episode we talk to Dawn Robinette, an experienced PR and events manager, who runs Tale to Tell Communications. Dawn has worked with a wide range of events across the US, from holiday festivals and state fairs, to a national event management and sponsorship role with General Motors.
In the episode Dawn shares key insights around event management and promotion, as well as best practice advice for managing the customer experience. Dawns talks about her current project Old West Christmas Light Fest, where she manages the dual roles of event manager and event promoter for this Texas holiday festival.
Dawn is an advocate for the customer experience and how vital it is to keep this front of mind while planning, promoting and executing an event experience. She is always looking for new ways to engage customers and shares some tactics and strategies around this.
Dawn also shares advice on maximizing marketing spend, and where to get the most value for your efforts, particularly if you have limited resources. She gives some great insight around social media engagement, marketing and the use of influencers in your event marketing.
- Old West Christmas Light Fest – Evolving a drive through light show into an engaging holiday experience
- Brand around what makes your event unique
- Identify key audiences and create unique experiences for them
- Effective marketing channels for a holiday festival
- Social media and authentic engagement with the right influencers
- Get the most value from your advertising spend
- Holiday festival content marketing
- Event planning, execution and evaluation
- Finding the right ticketing platform makes all the difference
- Keep customer experience front and center
- Engage event attendees with a customer centric strategy
- Event day logistics, gate management and check-in
- Managing event challenges. Be prepared, but be adaptable!
Event: Old West Christmas Light Fest
Old West Christmas Light Fest runs from Thanksgiving to Christmas day.
Dawn Robinette runs Tale to Tell Communications and is an experienced PR and events manager. Dawn's background includes managing sponsorships and promotions for General Motors and its brands (with more than 175 events and programs annually). Her work included event engagements with NASCAR, the NFL, the NCAA, the PGA, MLB, the Olympic Torch Relay and Cirque du Soleil. Dawn achieved a 150% increase in promotional press coverage for GM across all major US media markets. Dawn is currently working with everts across Texas, including San Antonios Day of the Dead and holiday favorite Old West Christmas Light Fest.
Lisa: Welcome to Ticketbud Tidbits, where we share tips, advice and insights from event organizers, for event organizers. I’m your host, Lisa Carson. If you are new to this podcast, welcome! If you are a returning listener, welcome back!
In this episode, we talk to Dawn Robinette. Dawn is a communications and marketing expert, with deep roots in public relations, marketing and promotions, as well as media, community and government relations.
She is involved in strategy development and campaign management for a wide range of clients, and has managed local and national campaigns, including overseeing public relations efforts for all national and regional events, sponsorships and promotions for General Motors. This included working with Nascar, the NFL, the NCAA, the PGA, MLB, the Olympic Torch Relay and Cirque de Soleil.
Dawn’s recent projects have included event management and marketing for San Antonio’s Day of the Dead events, as well as her current project, Old West Christmas Light Fest, for which she has won a number of awards for the festival’s marketing, social media and PR campaigns.
In the episode, we talk about Dawn’s experience working with General Motors. She also shares strategic and logistical details for her current project, Old West Christmas Light Fest, where Dawn manages the dual roles of event manager and event promoter, and a small team.
Dawn is an advocate for the customer experience, and how vital it is to keep that front of mind, when planning, promoting and executing an event experience. She is always looking for new ways to engage customers, and shares some tactics and strategies around this.
Dawn shares advice on maximizing marketing spend, and where you can get the most value for your efforts, particularly if you have limited resources. She gives some great insight around social media engagement, marketing and the use of influencers in your event marketing.
I hope you enjoy listening to my chat with Dawn. Here it is!
Lisa: Hi, Dawn. Thanks for joining us, and welcome to the podcast!
Dawn: Terrific! Thank you so much, Lisa.
Lisa: To give people a bit more of an understanding of your background and experience, can you tell us about your background working in events and marketing?
Dawn: Yes. I have a primarily public relations background, but thanks to an opportunity with General Motors, I moved into more of event management and event promotion. So, I had the opportunity to work across the country, with their event sponsorships and promotions. That ranged everything from being the official vehicle of the Dallas Cowboys, the State Fair of Texas, what we would be activating, say around the Olympics, or with the Oscars.
It was pretty wide-ranging. Since that time, I’ve been focused in Texas and what we do here with a variety of events in south central Texas.
Lisa: Can you share a bit about the scale of some of the events that you’ve worked with, including the San Antonio Day of the Dead?
Dawn: Yes. Day of the Dead San Antonio was an inaugural year this year, a brand new event, celebrating the Mexican holiday Dia de Muertos. It’s a growing event here in San Antonio, and it’s a growing cultural tradition. Many people relate it back to the popularity of Disney’s Coco. But even in Mexico, it has become – Coco really reignited the passion for that holiday.
Mexico City now has a parade that has 250,000 people who turn out to celebrate the holiday, and we’re replicating that here in San Antonio. We had our first ever river parade for Day of the Dead, and a three-day festival. We had 40,000 people out for the river parade, and we hosted 30,000 people for the festival.
Lisa: Wow! I saw some pictures from it. It looked great. It looked really fun.
Dawn: It was terrific! We’re already planning for 2020.
Lisa: Nice! You also run Tale to Tell Communications, and have extensive experience in PR and marketing, working for lots of different big name brands. You mentioned General Motors. I think you also worked with Nascar and the NFL, the PGA.
Dawn: Yes. Through General Motors, I had the opportunity to work with the NFL, NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball. Across that, we also worked with the Olympics, because Chevrolet was the official vehicle there for some time.
And smaller events, as well. When I say small, most people wouldn’t think that the State Fair of Texas is small, but it is a smaller entity, when you look at it from a national scale. Everything from that to here locally in San Antonio.
I had the opportunity to work with People en Espanol, and an event that they wanted to do called Festival People en Espanol. Women in the World expanded to do an event here in Texas, so we had it here in San Antonio. And smaller event activations here in the Texas market, versus some of the national activations, I’ve done.
Lisa: Let’s talk a little bit about your current project, your baby of the moment, which is the Old West Christmas Light Fest. It’s an established event, and it’s the second year being held at a new location of Enchanted Springs Ranch, which is near San Antonio.
It looks like an awesome venue! It looks like an old western movie set. I love it!
Dawn: It does look like a western movie set. As a matter of fact, we have had a number of videos and commercials that have filmed out there. The ranch itself, the old west set is that. It is not authentic, but we have 40 buildings that have been recreated to look like an old west town.
You see everything from a Post Office and a jail to a trading post, and of course we have two different saloons, and a church. When you are walking out there, you feel as if you’ve been transported to the old west.
For Christmas, we turned that into everything that you can imagine from a holiday experience. The old west town, mind you, the old west didn’t have the electricity that we have these days. So, we blanket everything in lights, and turn it into just holiday magic. It’s an opportunity for families to come out, spend an evening.
We have everything from old time games to laser tag, which is a new activity we’ve added this year. We have a synchronized light show we’ve added this year, which is synchronized to music, and we have a fabulous playlist that I think everyone is going to love.
Our designer actually ended up on Good Morning America and on Fallon last year, because he has a knack at picking the right songs to go viral. So, we look forward to everyone finding us online, and then coming out to see us this year.
What we have evolved to, from just a drive-through experience, where you could come out, be in your car and drive through the lights, which is wonderful and terrific, but we wanted to create something more. We’ve been at the ranch now for two years – this is our second year at Enchanted Springs Ranch. Boerne is located just outside of San Antonio, but we’re in the hill country, which is naturally beautiful.
I swear that the lights are brighter there, because you’re not competing with the big city. You can actually see the stars. We have families who sit around the campfire, making smores and drinking hot chocolate. While we have the fun modern elements, there’s also that time to just connect and have fun, and get really messy with melted chocolate and marshmallows!
Lisa: How long has the event been running?
Dawn: This will be our sixth year. We’ve evolved a bit each year. As the event has grown, and quite frankly, as we have watched our attendees, we’ve really tweaked our experience, to make it better for them. We really look at it that way, and not just rolling out the same event year after year.
Lisa: So, it’s like a light show, and it’s got additional add-on activities. I know you’ve got, you mentioned laser tag. There’s also an escape room, and cookie decorating?
Dawn: Cookie decorating, yes. What we saw last year, when we switched to this ranch and the ability to have so much space – the ranch itself is 82 acres. The old west town is 40 buildings. So, rather than just look at is as we’re going to have people walk through the main street of this old west town, we’ve activated those buildings, so people have the opportunity to come in and explore, and do different things there.
You do have a saloon, where Santa is up on stage, meeting and greeting everyone. We have music in another saloon. But what we chose to do was create activities that people could engage with, and spend time with us onsite. Cookie decorating is set up in one of our buildings. It’s only on certain evenings, but it’s one of the things that we’ve looked to do, to really differentiate ourselves and target niches within our market.
When we are looking at what our data shows, we know we have a high percentage of female buyers who are generating our ticket sales. We’d like to say that it’s mom, who is deciding where the family is going to go and spend their time for the holidays. But what we saw last year, we had people who would come out with their families, and come out separately, either for a date night or a girls night.
So, we wanted to do something that would allow them more of an experience. With the cookie decorating, it’s just an opportunity to come out. It’s a short class, but you get to go home with the recipe and all the skills you need, to recreate those, and you get to take home cookies. But you get to do it with your friends, a glass of wine, enjoy the lights before or after.
We noticed last year that we had incredible sticking power. People weren’t just coming out, spending 15 or 20 minutes watching the displays. They were staying with us all evening. They were coming out and enjoying the campfire. We have food trucks. They can make a whole evening of it.
We had some families who would just sit down and play checkers. We have checkers sets out. It was really interesting to watch the experience. Our staff spends a lot of time roaming with the crowd, to see what people are enjoying. That helps us then change and tweak our experiences, to grow it even more.
Lisa: As your role of marketing and event management, are you kind of doing both?
Dawn: Yes. It’s interesting, because I have been working with the event in some capacity, from the time that it opened. I actually wrote the first press release about the event, back in 2014.
It has evolved to three years ago, I really took on more of an operational role. We have such a small team, and since we’re seasonal, I end up spanning things like the ticketing platform and figuring that out, to our ad buys, our public relations, a lot of our consumer engagement, and how we’re really interacting with everyone onsite.
It becomes much more than just a press release or the ad that we might buy. I’m sort of hands on with a number of things, because we have such a small team.
Lisa: The event runs from Thanksgiving day through to Christmas day. How many attendees are you expecting to see, based on previous?
Dawn: My conservative goal this year, based on feedback and what we expect to see, is 30,000 to 40,000. But we have the capacity to be able to host as many as 60,000, and we would love to reach our capacity of 60,000.
Lisa: With such a big event, with lots of moving parts and activities and things going on, where does the planning start for all of this? Can you walk us through some of the key stages of the planning process?
Dawn: Sure. I’d love to say that because we’re a holiday event, we wrap it up on Christmas night, and then we don’t think about it again, but that’s not the case. Truly, our team, while we close things out on Christmas night, and we have to do some of that immediate post-event that everyone is familiar with, we start looking at what worked and what didn’t work as early as January.
We start looking at our dates, as far as – part of it, we are dictated by Thanksgiving to Christmas. But we also know that we have some things that will ebb and flow. What are the school calendars? Because school calendars do dictate when we’re going to see the bulk of our families coming out and spending time with us.
We look at what events worked, what didn’t work. What would we like to grow? What would we like to change? We even take a look at what we feel worked, from a marketing standpoint. What direction do we need to move?
In this case, with this year we took a hard look at our ticketing. How did that work for us, and what would be better for us in the future? Which is one of the reasons why we have the opportunity to be working with Ticketbud now. We wanted to change our ticketing experience for our guests, as well.
So, we start with that in January, and really start looking at what should our displays be, doing an equipment inventory, what sort of budget do we need to have, to grow? People always ask how many lights we have. Quite frankly, we quit counting a long time ago! Someone even asked how we counted. My joke is always that we’re going to send somebody out into the field and make them count one by one.
But frankly, we know what we’ve purchased, so we can go through and count it that way. But also, we quit noticing all of that, so we say that we’re over three million. I’m not certain that we’ve hit the four million mark yet or not. Perhaps if someone ends up on the naughty list this year, that will be their punishment, to physically count all of the lights! But we do that in the spring, and really start figuring out.
The venue is a private event venue, so it’s not that we’re hosting other events through the year. Christmas Light Fest is really the biggest time that we have people at Enchanted Springs Ranch. But they are hosting corporate trainings, weddings and corporate events throughout the year, so we work with them as far as what else we need to be doing, from an infrastructure standpoint.
Is there anything that we want to add or change or upgrade in the old west? This past year, we actually, because of our location, we had the opportunity – we added fireworks sales for the Fourth of July. So this year, while we will be closing down Christmas lights on the 25th, we will start selling fireworks immediately, and we’ll have True Texas Fireworks up through New Year’s Day.
So, we’re always looking at what else we can add. Part of that is the result of people asked “What else can you do here at the ranch?” We really hadn’t thought about it, but we’ve started adding more and more activities throughout the year, where people can engage with the ranch.
Lisa: That’s really exciting. There’s lots of different possibilities of things you can do there. I love that! How do you break things down, in terms of the project management side of things? Obviously, you do that in the review process. You’re doing the planning over the year. What are some of the key things, how you break it up?
Dawn: Key things for us, as far as breaking it up, like I said, we’ll use our spring timeframe as when we’re looking at what worked, what didn’t work, what do we know we want to tweak? We look at everything from our staffing, and all of our equipment onsite, our timeline of things.
Unfortunately, thanks to Texas heat, we can’t have all of our displays out through the summer. It wouldn’t be great for our equipment.
Lisa: Melted displays!
Dawn: Yes. So then, the timing becomes “When should we start setting up?” I’ll be honest with you. Through the month of November, we are out literally in the field, setting up displays practically 24/7. We do start on some of that as early as Labor Day, and use that fall season to get everything into place, because we know we have a hard open date of Thanksgiving, and we have to have everything ready to roll at that point.
From a time frame, we break that out and look at our staffing and what we need. Of course, part of this has to be our marketing, as well. As important as everything is onsite, what we have chosen to do, we actually do some version of marketing year-round. Just because we’re seasonal doesn’t mean that we can go dark on our social media or our website, when things are wrapped on Christmas Day.
When we were doing that, we would see a huge loss in engagement. In the last couple of seasons, believe it or not, people were still following us and actively engaging with us online, through the summer. We have a hardcore group of Christmas fans who like to hear from us year-round, so we’ve maintained those channels, and we’ve seen growth in all of our audiences by doing that.
It’s been easier for us to ramp up on our true marketing push now, because we never lost touch with those people over the summer.
Lisa: I was going to ask about the marketing and PR side of things. You’ve been recognized for a number of awards for the PR and marketing campaigns for this event. Can you talk a little bit more about the marketing, particularly the social media campaigns? I believe you use influencers, as well.
Dawn: Yes. From a standpoint of we’re a smaller event in a very big market – you know, San Antonio is the seventh largest city in the country. So, finding the right niche and how we could stand out, influencers have been key for us.
Finding the influencers, we don’t necessarily look at it on just who has the most followers. We look for authentic engagement, and people who really get our brand. We don’t want someone that we’re going to work with, just because we’re paying them to talk about us. We want someone who gets us, and wants to share that with their followers.
We develop relationships with the influencers that we’ve worked with, and really keep in touch with them, and talk with them about what will work for them. We don’t have a cookie cutter approach for any of our influencers. And we don’t have a cookie cutter approach for our social media, either. It really ebbs and flows, based on what’s working for our audience at any time.
We work heavily with our influencers to reach their audiences, but we don’t set a lot of “You must do this” or “You must do that.” What we have found is when we’ve identified the right influencers, and we are working with them in partnership, it’s much more authentic. The coverage is stronger, and we see a greater feedback from their followers than we do if we put that specific box around how they work with us.
We encourage everything from we have people who have strong Instagram following, we have people who are just straight bloggers. We really work with them to get them onsite, and have them enjoy the experience and share that.
Overall, social media-wise for us, and our digital, has just been huge. We have, as a matter of fact, almost no print spend at this point. It’s not an avenue that we feel. The print spend that we do have, we’re doing primarily because it has a sister digital component to it, so it keeps us online. We have a limited TV relationship, as well, but we’ve tracked it and looked, and our audience is really finding us online.
Lisa: I was going to ask what channels are working best. Is it broadly across social channels?
Dawn: For us, it’s Facebook. As visual as we are, everyone would automatically, your gut would say that it’s Instagram. But we see more of an engagement on our Facebook channel than we do on Instagram. I think part of that is that we, of course, have everything set up from an event standpoint.
Actually, we do some boosts in advertising, but what we find is it’s usually people who are sharing news coverage of us. So, those influencers, when they do a great piece, we share it out, and our followers then share it out. We see those ripples continue with that. It’s why we’ve spent so much time developing our influencer program.
Lisa: What’s an example of something that the influencers are sharing?
Dawn: Usually, it’s part of their experience out there. We have a light tunnel that you drive through. I’ve lost count on how many videos there are. People are either in their sun roof or hanging out of their car window, as they’re driving into the event, snapping a shot of that, because we don’t allow people to walk through the tunnel. We have a separate walk-through tunnel and display area, for safety purposes.
But that tunnel shot, that experience is a perennial favorite. We tinker with our tunnels every year, but I’ve said if we ever take them away, we’ll probably have people storm the gates and get upset with us, because they’re so popular. And this year, with the lights show, my bet is that the lights show is probably going to be what goes viral, out of everything that we’re doing.
We try to create some of that onsite. It’s such a beautiful venue. There’s really nowhere that isn’t share-worthy, from an Instagram standpoint. We truly encourage everyone to tag us in it, so that we have the opportunity to track that and the opportunity to share it, and know what’s out there.
We all sort of bet, going in, what’s going to be the most popular. We know that we will have people taking pictures with our longhorns, because we are a working ranch. In Texas, Santa can’t use reindeer to fly across the state. He uses Santa’s holly jolly herd. We do! We have a herd of longhorns. That was one of our marketing things last year.
We chose to do a scavenger hunt onsite, and we named the longhorns. We actually did an online contest, so that people could tell us what they thought the names should be. It was really interesting to see. It was one of our most popular posts of the year. Everyone had ideas. A few people were a bit unkind, and ended up on Santa’s naughty list, because there were comments about taco or chalupa, and you cannot eat Santa’s holly jolly herd! That is not allowed, and will put you on the naughty list!
We have a whole story that goes with that. We created a scavenger hunt, and we have wanted posters throughout the town, that really go with the old west theme. You have to find our eight members of the holly jolly herd, and you get a prize at the end of that. We had kids who came back time and time again, to do that with Santa’s holly jolly herd.
We do have, as long as they’re not asleep, I will tell you that longhorns are not nocturnal, and at some point during the night, they just go in their pens. But most of the time, they think all of our visitors are going to give them treats, so they’ll come up along the fence to say hi to everybody. They’re like “Oh, people! I can get food!”
Seeing that engagement and seeing the kids interacting with them is just so much fun! So, part of our marketing campaign this year, if you look at our website or any of our social, you’ll see Santa with one of our longhorns, because that draws people out. It’s part of who we are, as a true Texas event. We’re doing this at a ranch in the Texas hill country, so it’s just part of our branding. And yes, the holly jolly herd is a lot of fun!
Lisa: I love it! You mentioned that you are encouraging social engagement at the actual event. Are you inviting people or influencers in before it opens, to get some of that engagement?
Dawn: We actually are not doing that this year. Part of our challenge, with the Thanksgiving weekend, we open on a holiday. I will tell you that our opening weekend is not our strongest weekend, because it’s a holiday.
Some people immediately eat that turkey, and go into Christmas mode. Other people aren’t ready for it. This year, with Thanksgiving being later, you’ve seen everyone is bemoaning the fact that the Christmas season is six days shorter. Well, that impacts the number of event nights that we have, as well.
So, I think our Thanksgiving weekend will be bigger than it usually is, because people are looking at it. But people are also shocked that December first is actually Thanksgiving weekend this year, so it throws everything off from a calendar standpoint.
I’m already guessing that our two biggest weekends will be the weekend after Thanksgiving, when everyone all of a sudden wakes up and realizes “Oh, my gosh! It really is December, and it’s time to get out and see Christmas lights!” And the weekend after that seems to be a weekend that everyone is then in the mode and ready.
What we’ve done, we do have some influencers who will be out with us for opening weekend, but many of them aren’t available. So, we actually customize for that next weekend. We do more of a marketing push post-Thanksgiving than we do pre-Thanksgiving, because we know the light lovers, that we’re on their calendar. They’re going to come see us on Thanksgiving anyway.
Everyone else is going to be in that mode after Thanksgiving weekend passes. So, we really plan our marketing campaign for that push. We’re Thursday through Sunday for our first couple of weeks, and then we go into we’re every night, so we do a separate campaign when we’re approaching that, to get everyone out there for that every night experience.
Lisa: In terms of posting on social on media, how many times a day is that happening, things going out?
Dawn: Like everyone else, you want to know what that magic mix is. For us, if we post more than one a day, we see engagement drop. So, we really are careful about that. This time, we are only doing two or three a week, depending on what our news is. A lot of pre-event, we’re doing some giveaways, and getting people excited about what’s coming.
During event, we go to every day. We’re always looking to share video clips, new pictures. What can we do? Last year, we chose to create a blog, Pony Express, from the old west. We wanted to be able to share some of our story directly, that way.
Yes, it helps from an SEO standpoint on our website, but it also allowed us to tell our story directly, in a longer form, so we’re sharing that out through social. Then, we see people sharing our blog that way, because we have great pictures or something fun. That’s how we introduced Santa’s holly jolly herd last year, and announced the winning names.
It really has helped keep people going back to our website, not just on our social. We see that whole cycle. We’re busy right now, doing all of our new content for the blog for this year. We’re going to go ahead and pre-populate it, but we only share it at certain times, through our social media. We know that’s when the traffic will then spike back to the website.
Lisa: If someone has got limited time to do promotion, and they are organizing an event and doing lots of promotion, as well, where do you think people are going to get the most value for their effort?
Dawn: Definitely social. There is an aspect to digital spend, but I really feel that for everyone who says that social is dying, that people are getting off of Facebook or getting off of Instagram or whatever, and you can’t keep up with what the next new channel is, that’s still your highest direct way to reach your audience, at least for us.
For what we’re doing, a family event, a holiday event, we’re very much general market. I could say we have the niche where, like I said, we go after moms who do most of the family planning. But everyone can come out. We usually will see kids, parents and grandparents coming out at the same time. So, multi-generation.
For us to get all of those eyeballs, social is really the only way you can cut across that, and better target. That’s been a huge part of our strategy, especially in a short time frame. There’s no better way to reach people in a short time frame than going heavy on a social aspect.
Lisa: You’re talking about paid social promotion, as well as engagement on different platforms?
Dawn: Exactly. Unfortunately, I think some people go straight for ads, without finding that voice and creating that brand for themselves on their social channel. I’m not a believer. I know there are people who will go and buy followers. We’ve never done that. That’s not what you want.
You want people to find you authentically, and it takes some time to really build that audience. But if you’ve got the right content, they find you. So for us, really what we’ve looked at from the beginning has been true content marketing, going from that telling what our story is, branding us strongly, giving our event a certain voice, and finding the right channels that really play that voice up.
Like I told you, we’re active through the summer. I can tell you, any time we post something, a joke about Texas, anything that puts Texas above anyone else, it will go nuts. Here in Texas, it is something that plays well to that audience. We call ourselves a true Texas Christmas event, so it’s not off-brand for us to be promoting Texas at the same time that we’re doing all of that.
I think that’s part of it. If you really want to attract the right audience, you have to know your brand, and push the content that is going to work to gain that audience.
Lisa: You mentioned doing video. What sort of video? Is it just showing images of what the experience is? Have you done more professional videos?
Dawn: No. Honestly, we haven’t done professional. Anymore, everyone can be a videographer, if you’ve got that camera. You’ve got your phone in your hand. It’s those short little clips that give people that feel. It’s also, we live in an age now where everyone has a short attention span. If we were to do a longform video, I guarantee you people would click out of it at some point, unless there was a great reward at the end of that.
We really do the fun, short things that illustrate what you can do out at the event. We’ve had videos of the holly jolly herd, and videos of the tunnel. This year, with the light show that we’re doing, we’re going to end up doing a ton of little clips of that. The light show itself is actually 30 minutes long.
I could post that whole thing online. I seriously doubt anyone is going to watch the whole thing. But we will be posting specific songs from the show. I think people will pay attention to one song, but they’re not going to pay attention beyond that.
Lisa: Can you talk about how you identify and target those key audiences? Have you clearly defined different audiences, and then a broader audience?
Dawn: For us, part of it is we’ve looked at our data. With that, it’s not just who our buyers are. It’s who is following us online. Then, we spend a lot of time looking at who is coming through the gate. We can tell you that on average, when a vehicle comes in, you’re probably coming out with four members of your family.
We know the amount of time that they’re spending onsite. A lot of that is just our staff paying attention to what is going on. We pay attention to the zip codes of our buyers, and where they are. We use that, then. Who are we missing? What should we be doing from an ad targeting standpoint, to grow? Should we expand beyond that?
We’re going to be doing more of that this year, as we’re looking at things. That also impacts who we look at from an influencer standpoint. We have influencers who have different followings within our market, say the south side of San Antonio versus the hill country. We then target our influencers to match where we know either we have an audience, or perhaps we’re missing an audience, and we need to work with them to grow that niche. So, we’ll target them specifically.
Lisa: I think I read that you have an Instagram room.
Dawn: Yes. New for this year, we are adding the Candyland Instagram. When you step into one of our buildings, you are stepping into Candyland. Everyone has asked, when we talk about branding the onsite experience and getting people to share, I had someone say to me “Does that mean that your logo is everywhere in the Instagram room?”
It’s not, because frankly, I know as a consumer, if I’m coming in and I want to take that shareworthy photo, I don’t want the event logo in the middle of me and my family, in Candyland. It’s hard at times, as a marketer, to pass up that opportunity. But once again, it goes back to authenticity. I would rather that someone captures that great shot and tags us, uses our hashtag, and shares that out, than that ultimately they take the picture, but they crop out my logo anyway.
We all know, when you look at your event through your guests’ eyes, it changes how you perceive everything. I look at it as in the perfect world, I want A, B, C, D, when I’m putting together my event. When I flip it and I look at my event from who is coming out onsite, the mom with the three kids and the grandparents and that sort of thing, what can we do to really maximize their experience?
We want them to come out, have a fabulous time, and tell everyone that they know. That may be through social media, or that may be at the school meeting the next day, where they say “Oh, my gosh! We had the most amazing time out at Old West Christmas Light Fest! You really need to go!”
People forget about that viral aspect, that we do talk to people more than just on social media. We want people to have that positive experience, and to share it. There are times when I have to give up the branding opportunity. I’m not going to have a bunch of candy with the Old West Christmas Light Fest logo in it.
We’re looking forward to seeing how everyone enjoys the Instagram room this year.
Lisa: That’s very true. As a marketer, it needs to go on everything, but there’s so much value in just focusing on creating that great customer experience. They will talk about it for you, and you can’t buy that.
Dawn: When we look at the experience standpoint, and I think anyone who does events, when you really think through it, you think through the whole thing. What is it like? What’s the ticket buying experience like? You want to know that it’s very simple for them to purchase your tickets and do all of that.
We are heavily encouraging online sales. We want that to be simple and easy for them, because if they have trouble buying tickets, they’re probably not going to come out to us.
What is the gate experience like? How quickly can we get them in? We know that on a busy night, we are going to have a long line of cars. So, we staff up to make certain that we are getting everyone into the experience, and beyond. That’s our choke point right there, so we do everything we can to push them in, and ease that whole check-in process, as well.
How easy is parking? How well lit is everything? We want our lights to stand out, but we want everyone to have a good time, as well, and to feel comfortable when they’re out there. We’re an 82-acre ranch. Not everyone is smart enough to come out to our fields and not be wearing flipflops. I have seen that in extreme!
Lisa: Inappropriate footwear!
Dawn: Yes. We joke about that. We are a working ranch. If you wear flipflops, sooner or later, you may step in something that we did not notice that one of the longhorns left behind! We actually really make certain that that doesn’t happen.
We look at everything. I always joke that if you walk across your event, if you’re any good, you are the one who is “Oh, I see this piece of trash here,” and you’re picking that up. Constantly, your eyes look at everything. What is the consumer going to see, and how are they going to experience it?
That impacts your signage and your event flow. Where are we placing the food trucks, so that it’s really easy for mom to then turn around and get that food over to tables, when they are juggling kids on a cool winter night? We look at all of that, as we’re planning our layout and the interaction.
I think when you look at things that way, it changes what you might see on paper and think “Oh, this is the perfect event layout! This is what we need to do!” You really have to walk it with your guest experience in mind.
Lisa: That’s definitely true. You mentioned about ticketing was something that you have changed. I know before working with Ticketbud, you had experiences with other platforms. What were your frustrations, that led you to look for an alternative?
Dawn: Lack of customization. Not that we have really specialized needs, but we wanted something that we could customize. We could make it more of ours, and really work with it, more ease for our guests and ease for us. Frankly, your life can be consumed with the ticketing process, when you’re doing an event that spans. For us this year, it’s 19 days. Our overall ticket sales will span a six-week time period.
If you don’t have a great platform, you end up spending a lot of time trying to fix those little glitches and things like that. We wanted something that was going to create a great onsite experience, as well, finding something that really had an interface that was going to work for our check-in and our staff, and be simple for them to use onsite.
We just didn’t have that before, so we’re really looking forward to how all of that is going to work for us this year.
Lisa: What are some of the features of Ticketbud that you think have been helpful? I’m thinking in terms of like the multi-day calendar is probably important for you, and unlimited ticketing, because you’ve got a lot of different programming.
Dawn: Yes. We are actually, in addition to our general admission tickets, we are also selling the escape room experience online, our laser tag tickets are online, and the cookie decorating. We also have been able to work with the platform. We have some hidden things in there. Group sales; we will have busloads of people come out. In the past, we really couldn’t do group sales the way we needed to, to accommodate those folks.
Really being able to customize all of that, and have the experience behind everything with Ticketbud, so that it wasn’t just we were looking at this platform and trying to figure out how to make it work for us. We’ve had Ticketbud working with us and hearing what we needed, and customizing the platform to really work to fit us, versus us trying to be the cookie cutter, fitting into what was already there on another platform. That’s been terrific.
We have customized tickets for each of those. After someone has purchased the ticket, they are getting our event map and specific details on that ticket. If you’ve purchased an escape room ticket, you are getting specifics about your escape room location and time, and what you need to do for that.
Same thing with laser tag, same thing for the cookie decorating. The fact that if someone has purchased all of that, each of their tickets then directly relates to that specific experience, is huge for us. We feel like being able to arm the guest with that information, before they’re onsite, is going to give them a better experience when they are with us.
Lisa: Obviously, there’s communication that they’re going to get prior to the event, which you can obviously now target, based on what type of ticket they’ve purchased. But then, also you’ve got that data available, to keep communicating with them after the event, and thank them for coming, and tell them potentially about upcoming things you have next year.
Dawn: Yes, and that part of, I’ll be honest, we are new to the Ticketbud platform. It’s almost – I don’t want to use Candyland again, since we were talking about our Instagram – but I do feel like a kid in Candyland. We have the opportunity to be so much more hands-on and more in communication with our guests than we have in the past, and be able to really customize all of that.
Looking at how we’re going to be doing that this year, and post-event, and how we’re going to communicate with everyone, we’re still working through what we think is ideal for that. This year will be a test case for us on what we feel is the right amount of communication, what works best for our customers.
We look at everything that we do, and tinker with it. We don’t think we’ve ever truly hit anything out of the ballpark, so there’s always room for improvement. We’re excited to see what we’re going to be able to do with it all this year.
Lisa: With anything like this, it’s continuous improvement. Peoples’ expectations change, and the different types of events they go to. Everyone is always stepping it up. There are always going to be things you can learn from the last event, new ideas that come up for the next year.
Can you talk a little bit about the event day logistics, in terms of staffing, communication, the gate setup and management, and then the ticket scanning?
Dawn: Sure. That actually is something that, because we know that with using the platform for all of the experiences that we have onsite, so it’s not just the general admission, we actually will have ticketing available at general admission, at escape room, at laser tag onsite. We also have inflatables games and activities. We’re using it there, as well.
We’ve looked at it on what we need for our maximum crowd, and to be able to really have a smooth experience. We know that we’ll have different staffing on a Thursday night, versus a Saturday night. Saturday nights are always our biggest traffic nights. So, working through what we needed from an equipment standpoint and a staffing standpoint, and training our staff on everything before we open those gates.
As far as communication onsite, we go back and forth between walkies and phones. We still are all on our phones non-stop, while we’re out there. I sometimes wonder if that’s going to take over the walkie-talkie industry, because you’re texting, texting, texting. Group texts keep everyone in the loop on what is going on.
Our entrance is so far from the town, because you drive in, and you’re driving through light displays and our tunnel, past our pond. Yes, it’s gorgeous, because the lights all reflect off of the pond. You’re driving through all of that, and then you’re parking and coming into our event experience.
So, before you even walk through the gate that gets you into the town, you’ve already had an experience with our gate staff, our parking staff, we have directional staff that are out there. We need to make certain that everybody is on the same page, as we are greeting everyone, and making certain that their flow into the event is as positive as possible.
Lisa: Looking at the event, that first touchpoint is so important. I think sometimes people are very focused on the event itself, but the minute someone pulls into your car park or gets out of their car and interacts with the front gate staff, -.
Dawn: Exactly. I always joke that you have to be nice to everyone, because you just never know who they know. They probably know someone who knows you, and it’s going to get back if you’re not nice. But if you are that person working at the gate, you really don’t understand the impact that you have on that guest.
If you are not nice, if there is a glitch with the ticketing, if there is some problem and you don’t handle it well, you’re going to lose that guest, and that guest is probably going to tell a lot of people that they didn’t have a great experience. I will be honest. We have had people show up at our gate with tickets for other events, where they thought they were buying, and instead they’re with us.
We don’t turn them away, because we recognize that for whatever reason, they landed in the wrong place. We talk with them, we explain it. We have invited them in. We’ve actually had people turn around and hand us cash, to pay for what they know they should have paid for with tickets, because we have treated them so well.
It is the bottom line across the board. No matter what we do, we want to make certain that every person who comes out to us has a good time, and we’re going to do whatever it takes to make that happen. We really stress that with all of our staff, that every interaction you have has impact.
We know that there are difficult people. We know that everyone is not always nice. But no matter what they do, you have to have that holiday spirit and that smile, and we have to stay calm and help manage that. Inevitably, we will be judged on it, if we’re not.
Lisa: Plus you also don’t know what people had going on, before they turn up to your event – some sort of chaos with kids, or something like that. I’ve worked in customer service before. Sometimes people are a bit short. If you’re really nice and friendly, it will register in their brain.
Dawn: It disarms them. It really does, yes. When you keep that in mind, and yes, the minute someone has a negative experience, they’re automatically pulling out that phone and putting something on social media. So, there isn’t any reason for you to have a negative experience, when you come for a happy night and holiday lights.
We really have worked so hard to make certain that that does not happen. We know, all of us, you know that something can go wrong. You know that no matter what you’ve planned, there can be a glitch. How you respond to that, and how you handle that, that then changes how that guest -.
Lisa: The whole experience.
Dawn: It really does. We’ve been honest with people in the past. “We’re so sorry. We know this was a problem that we had. Can we do XYZ, to work with you?” Usually, because we are honest and address it, they’re like “Oh, okay!” It completely disarms and changes that.
We truly, truly stress that with our staff, that no matter what sort of mood or attitude, how grinchy someone may be, we don’t ever let ourselves slip into that. That’s not our job, and it won’t help anything.
Lisa: What are some of the key challenges that you’ve faced, organizing this event? I guarantee there’s been a bunch!
Dawn: Even though we’re in modern times ,the old west town, we’ve had to change our electrical capacity out there. As you can imagine, when you’re plugging in three to four million lights, we’ve blown a few things.
Lisa: I’m just picturing, like when you’ve got the Christmas tree and there’s one light that’s not working, and they all go out. I’m just picturing that on a massive scale!
Dawn: In addition to the longhorns at the ranch, there are a number of other species. We actually have some endangered Chinese deer who are out there. We have one who likes to swim in the pond. Routinely, last year, we had to go and plug lights back in, because as he would swim, he would hit some light strand, and unplug things and that sort of thing.
I’m not certain how many events have to deal with random swimming deer that create electrical issues for you! We’re out in a field. We’re out on a ranch, so in the summer, we can have snakes. There are holes and such. We always have to make certain. We walk the event grounds, to make certain that there’s no safety hazards, nothing that’s going to cause a problem for a stroller or a wheelchair, or anything like that.
But we are an outdoor event. Last year, we had a couple of very cold nights, so we end up – we have the contingencies of pulling out heaters and doing that sort of thing. Because the only time we close is if the weather is truly inclement, and it would be unsafe for people to be out there. On cold nights, we tend to have more smores and hot chocolate around the campfire than we do on other nights.
We’re Texas. It could be 80 degrees, it could be 20 degrees. And it could be that all in the same evening!
Lisa: I’m learning this!
Dawn: We stress that to everyone, that we are outdoors, and to really enjoy it, you need to be prepared. But we’re also happy to give people a spot around the campfire and some hot chocolate, to keep them warm.
Lisa: I love the smores! This is a new thing for me. I went camping and got introduced to smores, and I was like “Oh, my God! You’ve been missing from my life all this time!” It’s just amazing, so I can’t wait to do that!
Dawn: You definitely need to come out. There’s a difference between just doing smores, and then that campfire thing. It’s just fun to be around the campfire with your family, and to be doing that. You see the kids are just so excited. I’m sure part of is little pyromaniacs, like “Oh, I’m getting to burn something over the fire!”
But it is just a holiday memory that you want to have. I always talk about that, that what we are doing is helping people make holiday memories. Everyone only has so much time at the holidays, and there are so many other things that they could be doing.
Just in San Antonio alone, we have Sea World Texas. They do a huge light display. I want to say they’re more then seven million lights. Fiesta Texas does lights, the zoo does lights. So, what is it that is going to help us be different from any of that? That’s where we really have branded ourselves and branded our experience, and changed our experience, so that we are different from the other light shows that are there.
From that standpoint, I think that’s the case for any event. What is your differentiator? What is the reason that is going to pull people to come out to see you? We keep that in mind with everything that we do.
Lisa: It’s really kind of owning a space. “This is who we are. This is why we’re different.” What have been some of the most important learnings from organizing this event?
Dawn: For us, I think it’s really more of, at first we just thought family, family, family. The pivot to the fact that there are date nights, girls’ nights. People are coming out. It’s not just about the kids.
When we were talking through things last year, and explaining the event to people, I was like “We have lights and we have games and we have activities.” And I said “Oh, and we have bars, with beer and wine.” I had a woman stop and say “Wait a minute! You should have said that first!”
Lisa: This is what you should have led with.
Dawn: “This is what you should have led with!” I laugh about that, but it’s true. It gives the adults part of the experience. It’s not just about the kids roaming around in the lights. It’s that yes, while your kids are having fun, mom and dad may be having a glass of wine or a beer, and enjoying the evening. You’re not going to do that on a drive-through light thing.
So, changing that up, the fact that we have music that they can listen to. We have vendors onsite, that you can come out and shop. We have rotating food trucks, because we want everyone to have the opportunity to have different holiday flavors.
Yes, in addition to the smores, there’s cookies and cupcakes and funnel cakes and churros. You can eat your way through the holiday experience, as well. It’s part of creating that whole feel of “I want to come out and have a great evening, and do all of this with my family.”
I think when we started, when I look back six years ago, we really were just “Come out and drive through the lights.” People could get out of their car and come visit with Santa, but they would take their picture, and then leave.
We’re so much more than that, now. When people ask “Can I come out and just stay in my car?”, I tell them “No, because you’d be missing out on everything!” Why would you want to just do that, when you have the opportunity to get out and enjoy all of these other components that are out there?
We happen to have the real Santa, the best Santa ever! We have a Santa who, when the kids are scared, he gets up and dances with them. He is so engaging and so fabulous! You want to be able to do all of that. If you’re just coming out in your car and turning around and leaving, what fun is that?
Each year of the event, we’ve had something where we look at it and go “Wait a minute. We’re missing out on this. Why aren’t we doing X? We should be doing Y.” That’s part of knowing your event, and paying attention to your audience. There’s a difference in doing a one-time event, versus you want to be that calendar event that people know and plan to attend.
That’s really where I feel that we’ve evolved to. It’s not just “Well, maybe I’ll go out and drive through those lights.” We have people who have been saying – we had early people, as soon as we hit Labor Day, “When can we start buying tickets?” I was shocked, because I usually think most people don’t think about us until Halloween.
But those hardcore Christmas fans, who we love, and I happen to be one of them – if you’re watching your Hallmark holiday movies in the heat of summer, then you’re probably someone who wants to come out to our event.
Seeing that change, and really, as we have customized things, that has been huge for us. I think if we were still just a drive-through, we probably wouldn’t be here.
Lisa: You’ve moved into that space where you are part of someone’s family holiday tradition. That’s a great place to be! A couple of my traditional questions. Do you have any tips or advice for event organizers, that you can share?
Dawn: The fact that you really have to remember the attendee experience. Everything is so different on paper, than in real life. As event planners, we spend months looking at event layout and equipment and budget, and all of that. Everything that you do on that end ultimately leads to what that experience is. But if you’re not looking at it from the experience backwards, you’re going to miss out on something. You can’t do it all on the spreadsheets.
For me, I will admit I am an event junkie. I like to go to events. I like to see how people do their ticketing. What’s the signage that they use, and how are they organizing their food offerings, and that sort of thing? I think if you’ve spent any time in this industry, you can’t just go to an event.
Lisa: You can’t switch it off!
Dawn: No, you can’t! I notice everything. I’ll pull out my phone and go “Oh, I really like how they worded that sign, or this.” Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. When you really look at all of that, you can’t turn it off. How can you then turn around and incorporate the good into what you’re doing?
Or when you go to an event and you’ve had an awful experience, you also then go “Wow! I know that I need to change this, so that my attendees never experience that.”
Lisa: We definitely give that feedback to event organizers. Make sure people understand where to go and how to get there, and what to expect. On a more personal note, is there any advice that you wish you’d been given at the start of your career?
Dawn: Oh, so long ago! Really, we always say, you always hear the phrase “Don’t sweat the small things.” I think in the big picture of things, we all, as event planners, we know what may have gone wrong beforehand. We know what didn’t go according to plan. Most of the time, your guests have no idea.
We can get fixated on “Oh, but wait! That sign was supposed to be this size, and it’s not!” Or “We were supposed to have this in this area, and now it’s not!” We get so caught up in that. As long as your event experience is still strong, those little things that didn’t flow as you expected, are no reason to stress. I think that’s hard for us to remember, when you’ve spent so long with the perfect plan.
That’s it. There is no perfect plan. You’re dealing with a live event and live guests, and the things that can happen and that force you to be ready to change. I think that flexibility is huge. Being ready to pivot, and deal with whatever comes up. I think that’s hard at times, when you are stuck to the plan, especially when you’ve poured your heart and soul into it, for all of that time.
If those little things, no one knows about it but you, it’s no big deal. Your team probably knows everything that didn’t happen as it was supposed to happen. But if your event attendees leave happy, then you’ve still done your job.
Lisa: I think because event planning usually attracts people who are very organized and who are planners, there’s that letting go of you can do all of the planning you want, and that’s great, because you need that for the event to go well. You’ve got contingency plans, and all of that sort of thing.
But the goal is actually the experience that they will have, when they come. If that goes off well, and those details don’t happen, you have to just let go of it, and go “That was a success, or I’ve learned some things that will put some plans in place for next time.”
Dawn: Yes, definitely.
Lisa: As my last question for you, can you tell us about a great event that you’ve attended, and what you loved about it?
Dawn: I’m such an event junkie, that’s a really hard one. For me, rather than trying to tag just one event, what I look for – what do I know about the event beforehand? What are my expectations, going into it? And then, when I’m there, does it match the marketing? How are you selling the event? And then, is that what I’m experiencing when I’m there?
The best events for me are incredibly well branded, throughout an event. It is before the experience, and then, when you’re there, I admit it – I’m a graphics junkie. I like to see the pretty signs, and that everything looks like it belongs, and that sort of thing.
But I also love that full engagement. And communication is so huge! I’ve been to practically every light event, anything that I could reach. At one point, my son said “Please, mommy. Don’t make me go look at any more lights!”
I think that there is something to learn from almost every experience, and I think that there’s an opportunity to see different things, and figure out how it would incorporate best for you. So, I enjoy going. I also just enjoy events, period.
Lisa: I have that problem, since I’ve moved to Austin. There’s always something. I’m like “I should have a quiet weekend this weekend, and relax.” Then, there’s all these things on, and I’m like “I’m not sitting here and missing out!”
Dawn: That fear of missing out is huge. I think that’s part of our job, when it comes to marketing. You want your guests to have that FOMO, because you want it to be that “Oh, my gosh! If I don’t go to that event, what am I really missing out on?” For all of the times when I think I should be sitting on the sofa, I fall into that trap of “If I don’t go, I’m going to miss out on XYZ!”
But as a marketer, I use that FOMO to my best ability, to make certain that everyone knows that they have to come out to my event, or they will be missing out on things!
Lisa: They will! They’ll really regret it. They’ll be sad later! Thank you so much for chatting with me on the podcast today, Dawn.
Dawn: Thank you. I really enjoyed it, and I hope everyone can come visit us at Old West Christmas Light Fest, and do some laser tag and escape room. I can’t wait for everyone to see our light show!
Lisa: I can’t wait to come down there. I’m definitely getting my smores! I’m a mad Christmas fan, so I like to get into it early, so I’ll be coming down and checking it out!
Old West Christmas Light Fest opens on Thanksgiving, and runs until Christmas day. You can find out more information about the experience on the event website, which is ChristmasLightFest.com. Tickets are on sale now, through Ticketbud.
Thanks for joining us. Until next time, this was Ticketbud Tidbits!
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