Tuesday, March 15, 2011

So You Want To Be a Lindy Hop Event Organizer?

Borrowing a page from Nick Williams blog entry http://www.swingnick.com/?p=196 I thought I’d share some lessons and tips learned over the years doing one of the things I love to do - organizing events. In my own hopefully humorous way I hope to share a glimpse into the realities and challenges of running an event that makes other people happy without making you lose your shirt. I’d also like to especially thank organizers like Michael Gamble (Lindy Focus)and Martin Beally (Emerald City Blues Festival) and my friend Mike the girl Legett for the wisdom they’ve shared over the years to make this post possible.

First off, let’s talk about what running a dance event is and is not.

Running a dance event is about having:
- a clear, focused vision and detailed business plan
- the necessary physical, financial and human resources
- the commitment to will something into being for (probably) little reward more than sharing the love of dance
- a willingness to lose tremendous amounts of sleep and all your free time
- the commitment to take professional responsibility and all financial risk for an event
- a thick enough skin to hear and read what others say you are doing horribly wrong or they could do better.

Running a successful dance event is not:
- a popularity contest
- a golden meal ticket that guarantees other people will pick up the bill for you throwing a party
- a substitute for the adoration you didn’t get as a child because you weren't picked to be the star of your 3rd grade play or because your parents didn't give you enough love and encouragement,
- the magic love charm to win you the attention and affections of your lindy crush on the far coast,
- a therapy session proving that all your Facebook friends around dance world really, really do like you and would do anything for you.

With those thoughts in mind, here are some helpful thoughts to keep in mind before deciding to put on your own dance event.

Before you even consider running an event, know (and be on good terms with) the other organizers in your immediate region - attend and support their dance events, make yourself known to their dancers as a fun person to dance and socialize with, volunteer at other events to get an insider’s view on how things are done and what’s worked for them and what hasn’t. Also learn who are the key players likely to champion your ideas or put up hurdles and roadblocks in your way. Establish as many good regional relationships as you can because these are the dancers and promoters most likely to talk up and attend your event.

Once you’ve been around for a while listening and learning, start giving your idea for an event serious thought. Is it unique and interesting enough to be worth doing (well)? Does it fill a need? Will people spend money registering and travelling to support it? Who are your target dancers you’re marketing to? What size event are you – local, regional or national? (Don’t even think about taking on the risk of larger events until you’ve tried smaller ones).

Come up with a realistic mission statement and business strategy (not a theme, like zombie pirate pimps and ho’s, or a gimmick like chocolate pudding or a pantless pajama late night). Rather, a detailed strategy that creates a distinct, recognizable brand for your event, spelling out a clear purpose, the key steps and time line to make things happen.

Understand that the single biggest decision that will define how your event is viewed is the quality of the music and the instructors you choose. If you hire Gordon Webster and friends with instructors Max Pitruzzella and Annie Trudeau you are creating one set of expectations for dancers. If you’re marketing the local Zoot Suit Accordion Swingers plus instructors who’ve bought DVD’s from people who’ve attended Herrang, you are creating a different product that will appeal (or not) to a different segment of the dance community.

Calculate a detailed spreadsheet budget that includes your expenses – venues, music, instructors, marketing and website, administrative and operational costs, profit to compensate your time and loss of work. Don’t forget the hidden costs that frequently sink new events – taxes and fees, licenses, sound equipment rental, travel expenses. Carefully read every riders and written contracts (you do have EVERYTHING in writing, don’t you?) because these have real world financial implications that are sometimes over looked.

If you add things up and the numbers don’t match, rethink your ideas and retool your event. If you don’t have the financial resources to cover your expenses in a worst case scenario, back burner your event until your finances improve.

Do NOT pre-plan to cut corners and make up shortfalls by asking those you hire to accept less pay or sub-standard accommodations. This will only lead to poor performance and complaints that will ultimately impact your reputation and lead to a less profitable event – if not in the first year, then certainly in the future.

Some professionals may agree to lower their rates to champion a new event based on personal friendships but that must be discussed in advance and put in writing (and is best offered by the other party, not requested or demanded by an organizer). Also, if applicable, any sharing of risk due to a payment contingent on event performance must be specifically stated in the contract.

Do not expect instructors, musicians or DJ's to be your personal banker or kind hearted family member giving you a de facto bridge loan or forgiving money you owe for services rendered if you realize you over-estimated revenues from registrations or overlooked a key expense.

Ultimately, you are the only one responsible for your profit or losses. Attempt to pass your shortfall around to those you’ve hired and you’ll quickly get a reputation for someone not to work with.

One of the easiest ways to ensure the failure of an event is to operate in a vacuum and not check the schedule of other events in your region. Do nearby scenes already have events on the calendar or recurring annual events you should be aware of? Putting in a little time up front avoiding conflicts that make dancers choose who will get their money will go a long way towards keeping you from butting heads with other promoters.

Make sure you also leave yourself enough time to schedule venues, instructors, bands, DJ’s, promotions. If you don’t start planning a year in advance, you’re already behind! Secure your venues first and then your six months in advance, you’ll be getting the leftovers other people have passed overheadlining musicians/instructors. If you’re not booking your desired DJ’s at least

Risk Mitigation
Require all attendees to sign (or at least view electronically before completing registration) a Liability Waiver form acknowledging that dance is a physical activity bearing some risk of injury and stating attendees assume all said risk and that you are released and held harmless in the event of any injury or personal property damage or loss.

Team Building
Throwing a big party with your best friends always sounds like a lot of fun; but that doesn’t automatically translate into success. The secret to a successful event is to run it like a business geared towards turning a profit and creating brand loyalty.

Remember that as an organizer you’ll be the one solving all the problems while your attendees are off dancing and having fun - instructors stranded at the airport, the groping guy on the floor whose upsetting the follows, the DJ who’s gone rogue and is playing Village People to an emptying dance floor, the passive/aggressive volunteer who doesn’t show up for his shift at the entrance desk (or worse, does and then complains the whole time), the lack of toilet paper in the ladies room, the local dancer who forgot to pick the food for the late night, the jealous local who jumps on the microphone to promote his own competing events, the thunderstorm that rains out your afternoon dance and triggers your backup plan, and the guy in the next town who booked the Boilermakers against your Saturday night dance.

In short, you will be overwhelmed by more logistical, people management and seemingly irrelevant details than any one person can handle. Therefore, you will need to assemble a support staff of dependable people who have the skills to responsibly do things you cannot and the ability to take direction and be part of a team effort that will make things happen. If you don’t want to manage and delegate, this job isn’t for you.

Showcasing Your Money Makers
Get the most value from the professionals you pay to bring in - full course loads of classes for teachers, sufficient play time for DJ’s, and appropriate time slots for musicians. It’s bad business sense to pad your event flyer with a dozen extra big name “draws” if they’re all going to spend most of the weekend sitting around waiting for their 1 or 2 hours of class or DJ time. Similarly, don’t invite other organizers to teach or DJ your event just to catch their attention in hopes of getting hired to teach at their events.

In other words, have a clear purpose and plan that maximizes the benefit to expense ratio for each professional you bring to your event and let them have time to shine. If in doubt, “less is more” is a good rule of thumb.

With those concepts under your belt, it’s time to finally share some tips that will help you run a successful event.

The 25/50/20 Rule
One of the first secrets I learned was the golden 25/50/20 Rule, which states – 25% of your registrations will come at the opening of early registration, 50% will come in the final 48 hours leading up to you closing discounted online registration, and 20% will come as walk-ins at the door. The remaining fraction will trickle in throughout the process.

Acceptance of this rule is VITAL for several reasons:
1. You can ballpark estimate your final expected registration size months before your event as a budget check.
2. It makes you realize that 5 days before your event, despite your months of hard work, 70+% of your probable attendees will still think they’re uncommitted… but you’ll know better… probably.
3. But most importantly, it means 70+% of your budget will not become available cash on hand until the final hours leading up to your event. By then you’ve already long ago paid out or committed to many of your non-refundable expenses; so this is the big gut check time. Are you sure your nerves can ride out the gamble?

Early Registration is your Friendly Banker
By opening your early registration as early as possible you generate operating capital, get your event on people’s radar to avoid date conflicts, and to start building a positive buzz. Also, super discounted early bird registration and reduced online registration creates an innate sense of urgency that gives dancers an incentive to commit to your event early.


Be familiar with the usual methods of marketing:

1. Website: create a stand-alone website for your event with the name as the address. Make the website easy to navigate and informative. Remember to include the city that you are based in! Avoid distracting animations, audio clips of music that doesn’t swing and photographs of nearly empty dance floors or people/activities that would make you think twice about attending someone else’s event.

Make sure YOU (not the programmer) retain ownership and intellectual property rights for your website when your event is over.

2. Flyers/Postcards: produce professional quality flyers or postcards with original graphics and/or photographs you have the legal right to use. Proofread and get a few opinions before going to the printer, then get the cards out. Bring, send with friends, and mail flyer packets to event organizers in other cities. Give them to your local instructors and DJ’s to distribute when they travel. Follow up to make sure your flyers got to the places you want them.

3. Facebook: create a Facebook event and invite as many friends as possible. Include a LINK to your website, the registration page, and/or Facebook event page so it's easy for people to find out information about your event.

Remember that Facebook is a one way communication - whether someone replies to your invitation with "yes", "no" or "maybe", the only thing you can be sure of is that their internet connection is working. FB event “attendees” are very different from paying customers and “maybe” is usually a polite way of saying, “I didn’t want to say “No” publicly and look unsupportive.

Send out important updates (eg: Early Bird Registration Pricing Ending Soon!) and occasional entertaining notes to keep your event in people’s mind. Be mindful to not become “that guy” who weekly spams everyone mercilessly about an event half a world away on a Wednesday night or who doesn’t mention what city his event is being held in. Don’t mass friend request people without comment just to invite them to your event. Do NOT mine competing event pages and contact their attendees trying to convince them to come to your event instead because it will be better. Again, people talk.

Do ask your instructors, DJ’s and bands to promote your event on their Facebook page as well. Look into paid advertisements to promote your event.

4. Create and Upload Videos: Talk to your local creative people and shoot an entertaining video that makes people laugh and highlights things you want people to know or see about your event. If you’ve got a venue that has to be seen to be believed or a smiling, genuinely welcoming dance community that is fun to be around, this is the place to show that off. Remember that the music you use in your video will be what viewers think they’ll hear at your event. Save the Evanescence for private listening.

5. Forums & Blogs: Search out forums (eg: Yehoodi) where you can announce your event. Bookmark the sites to monitor responses and write down all your registration user names/password so you can use them again next year. Try to get the attention of influential bloggers who might mention your event. If your teachers have blogs, ask them to mention it as well.

6. Free Passes: Contact other event promoters to offer free passes to your event as prizes they can award for competitions. If they offer passes in return, wonderful! If not, don’t get bent out of shape because they’re getting the same offers/requests from many other people and everyone’s got to make a living. Follow up to get the names of those who’ll be attending your event and make sure they have a good time because they’ll let the other promoter know whether your event should be a prize again or not.

7. Catch phrases and promotion bombs: What dancer doesn’t currently know, “What time is it?” Nobody can predict what’s going to catch people’s attention and go viral, but when something works, run with it. Similarly, if you know fellow organizers who agree in advance to your being a momentary spectacle that roller skates across their dance floor in spandex and pink hair trailing a banner or bringing a block of 25 attendees wearing teaser T-shirts, pocket protectors and nerd glasses to promote your event, go with it – people will remember! Crash someone else’s event in a disrespectful way and they’ll also remember, but not in the same way.

8. Thinking Outside the Box
I’m going to quote from Connie at swingdancepros.com here because she’s got some great ideas…

“There are more ways than one to make money from your event. Student registrations is one thing. How about competitions? Selling merchandise? Think about the ways in which your students/customers will be spending money during and around your event, and ask yourself if you can provide those services yourself, and be the one making the profit? For example, if you have appropriate facilities and licenses, consider running the bar yourself. Selling drinks and/or food can be a big way to boost your profits. Think outside the box. What about a show? Putting on a show with your teachers and local dancers, in a venue where you can sell tickets to the general public, is another potential money maker. In most cities it is easy to sell out a one-night-only show.”

Word of Mouth
A promoter’s personal reputation and that of his/her events count a tremendous amount in the dance community. Remember that being known for honest marketing and running a well-organized event that meets or exceeds expectations are sure ways to make sure dancers are telling their friends about your event for next year. On the flip side, nothing travels faster and wider than stories of dancers who are mistreated or who didn’t get what they paid for - so ensure your event earns a reputation for excellence. It’s not that much more effort and is cheaper in the long run.

In Closing
Plan For the Following Year’s Event From the Very Beginning
Just because your event’s music is winding down doesn’t mean you’re work is over. Make sure you wrap up the loose ends and start planning for next year.
- Announce your dates for next year and invite everyone back
- Share the spotlight by publicly thanking your support team
- Pick up your venue and organize the lost and found to reunite attendees with possessions
- Pay your bills
- Make sure everyone gets back to the airport
- Ask for feedback and listen to what people are really saying (or not saying)
- Be willing to improve and adapt
- Send thank you cards
- Write everything down and save your electronic data so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel next year and can better delegate to a new support team.

- Finally, take time off to relax and recharge your creative battery.

Bill is currently co-organizer of The Southside Stomp in Norfolk, Va. www.southsidestomp.com and offers event planning and DJ consulting services to the lindy and blues community.


  1. Love it !
    Jose Amaral

  2. As someone who has organized three workshops and a bi-weekly venue for about a year and a half I can say all of this above is golden.

    Also I cannot express how important what Bill expressed above in having a vision. I have seen and attended many workshops that try to do "everything" and in result everything is mediocre, if not horrid. An event that is unique and does a few things well is usually better 99 out of 100 times.

  3. Much appreciated guidance. Louisville is preparing its first big workshop. It is good to see that we have done some things right, and fortunate to have this insight to help avoid some failures.

  4. This is a great reference!

    Another tip:
    The first few times I put on a full weekend event, it helped immensely to create a spreadsheet of all the time points throughout the weekend. Especially for an exchange where you're moving venue to venue, you have to plan out who needs to be where with which sound system and registration table kit, and how they're going to get the stuff from the last person who had it, and who the heck is supposed to have the cash box??? Even if you don't end up following the schedule exactly, it's a good mental exercise.

  5. This is all event planning gold, what a great write up!

  6. Bwahahahaha ==> "a substitute for the adoration you didn’t get as a child because you weren't picked to be the star of your 3rd grade play or because your parents didn't give you enough love and encouragement"

    Great article, Bill!