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Planning an Open House

(March 2003) posted on Mon Apr 21, 2003

This article guides you through the process of planning an open house, getting your customers to come to the event, and keeping them interested and informed once they've arrived.


By Mark Goodridge

An effective open house is the best way I know to cement good customer relations. An open house may be no more than a casual after-work party on a Friday or a formal, structured program with a catered buffet and valet parking. Events like this may not be inexpensive and easy to plan, but they are unparalleled in their ability to transform customers into friends. As far as I know, few screen-printing businesses host open houses, mostly because the drawbacks are immediately obvious. A lot of work can be involved in preparing and hosting an open house. The cost can be high compared to other public-relations events. And what if, after all the work and expense invested, no one comes? You also face issues of client confidentially and safety. And finally, once you get customers to your open house, what are you going to do to impress and entertain them? Despite these obstacles, if you're not considering an open house in your marketing mix this year, you're passing up one of the most successful methods of increasing customer loyalty and sales. In this article, I'll explain how an open house can be the crown jewel in your marketing program. For a list of key factors to keep in mind when planning your own event, see "Open-House Task List". Consider open-house programs a long-term investment. If you host an open house, you must understand that the objective of the event is to increase customer loyalty, not directly increase sales, and that the payoff is long-term, rather than immediate. When the last customer leaves your open house, you'll be exhausted, and you'll wonder if the hard work and money spent was worth it. There usually is no immediate, dramatic impact on sales. However, companies that hold one open house and never hold another for various reasons (too much work, too expensive, and did not pay off immediately) will not see any reward for all their effort and expense. On the other hand, companies that sponsor open houses regularly will have a level of customer loyalty that will be the envy of their competitors. Marketing an open house Open-house programs are a product, and like any other product, to generate interest, they require a marketing plan and a considerable amount of selling. Too many managers assume that if they put together a program featuring free food and a keg of beer, the only sales effort necessary will be to tell the customers the date and time of the event. The truth is, most customers will not attend unless a well-planned, persistent effort is made to sell the event. When a salesperson sells screen-printed products, he or she understands that there is competition for the customer's money. Sometimes the competition is direct, such as another screen printer. Sometimes the competition is indirect, such as the customer simply not wishing to purchase the product for any of a variety of reasons. When you offer an open house to your customers, understand that you are attempting to get the customer to invest something even more valuable than money--their time. Think of all the things your customer could do other than attend an open house. They could spend that time working in their own business, with their family, or going fishing. The list of competitors for your customer's time is endless. You have to make your customer believe that the best way they can invest their time on the day of the open house is to attend your event. A major open house should have a sales program that includes direct mailings sent out 30-60 days prior to the event and telemarketing by the host company's in-house sales staff. All host-company sales reps should be required to sell the event to their customers with as much effort and persistence as they devote to selling their products. I cannot overemphasize the importance of selling an open house. Nothing is more embarrassing than spending thousands of dollars and hundreds of man hours preparing for such an event only to have only a handful of customers show up. Creating the invitation list Who should you invite to you open house? "Well duh," you say, "our customers." Think again. Sure, you want to invite all your current customers, but what about former customers and potential customers? This is a great chance to mend fences and build bridges. Give your sales staff a list of potential customers (the better sales people will already have such a list) and tell them that part of their job is to make sure that the invitations reach the right people at all the businesses on the list. The success of an open house is not just measured by the number of current customers that attend; it's also measured by the number of potential customers that come to check you out. Your sales staff should personally invite key people from every business on their list and encourage RSVPs and personal commitments to attend. And what about the other members of your business community? Why not invite salespeople from your subcontractors and suppliers? Why not even give them a role in helping to make your open house a success? Who has a greater incentive to make your open house a success than businesses that depend on your orders for their cash flow? What can you expect for attendance? After all the work and expense, you may be disappointed with what you consider a poor turnout. In my experience, anything greater than 10% of your customer list attending is a success. Every former customer or potential customer that attends the open house is a success. Attendance also depends on the geographical distribution of your customer base. Customers in your neighborhood or across town (if the town is not Los Angeles or New York) are reasonable prospects to attend. Customers in the same region located up to an hour away are also prospects but not as good. Customers further away than that are less likely to attend, unless the incentives are particularly strong.Mark Goodridge Determining when to hold the open house Your schedule must be driven by what suits your customers. The better you know your customers, the better you can plan the event. You may want to hold an open house on a Saturday morning and finish with a barbecue lunch. Or you may invite your customers over for hors d'oeuvres after work on a Friday, or perhaps on a Wednesday afternoon for a mid-week break from the business grind. When you plan an open house, check your calendar carefully and steer clear of competing events, major holidays, football-bowl weekends, etc. Pray for good weather. There's nothing like a snowstorm or other bad weather to depress attendance. Locating a proper venue By all means, hold the open house at your business. If your location is so bad (dangerous neighborhood, dilapidated building, etc.) that you can't hold an open house there, perhaps you should move your business to a new location. If your location isn't an appropriate place for your customers to visit, then it's not an appropriate place for your employees to work. An open house typically requires a large office or classroom area for seminars or other group gatherings and perhaps another large area for the buffet. If you're short of indoor space and the weather is good, consider setting up a party tent in your parking lot. I do not recommend renting space in a convention facility or a hotel. The cost is unacceptable and there would be a loss of a certain indefinable atmosphere--a feeling of hospitality, improvisation, and togetherness that is an outstanding feature of the best open houses. Entertaining the guests The key to a good open house is to assemble as many customers in one place at one time as possible, make them feel wanted and important, and show them a good time. People attending your open house are your guests, not your customers. There is no easy way to put on an open house. It is a major project. However, it need not be complicated. In fact, for the first two or three years, every effort should be made to keep it simple and inexpensive. Here are some suggestions: * Make sure that a party atmosphere dominates. * Offer a meal of some sort--everyone likes a free meal. * Design events that will appeal to your customers. The better you know your customers, the easier this will be to do. Attractions will vary with your customer base. Do you sell mostly to corporate buyers? Are art directors your key buyers? Or do you sell mostly to athletic directors? * Give your guests a chance to talk to the people who actually do the work, and make sure that your employees are prepared to represent your business properly. * Feature a display of recent outstanding work such as examples of prize-winning jobs. Be sure to display work you've done for customers whom you know will attend. * Set up a flashy demonstration job. Everyone likes to see production in progress. Make sure the job is one that you've run before and ironed all the bugs out of. Lead your guests through every step in the production process. * Offer a seminar on an appropriate topic by a local celebrity. (For more on presenting seminars, see "Successful Seminars".) * Demonstrate a special effect or a new super-duper piece of production machinery. * Hold a raffle with the prizes being discounts on upcoming work. * Design a self-guiding tour of your facilities with directional signs to key stops (and the bathrooms). Give away free samples of your products at each stop on the tour. When planning your open-house event and its attractions, keep the following points in mind: Seminars If you offer a seminar, treat it seriously. It should not be an afterthought. The free meal Suit the menu to the customers. There's nothing wrong with serving barbecue beef or chicken, hot dogs, hamburgers, soup, soft drinks, and potato chips. If there is a local specialty food that is also appropriate at parties, go for it. Simple buffets are fine. The handouts Every attendee should leave the open house with a bag of samples of your very best work. The party This is another great opportunity for your salespeople to mingle with their customers. Wine and cheese with a live band is considered top drawer. A keg of beer, an unlimited supply of potato chips and pretzels, and recorded music will also suffice. Warning: For legal and marketing reasons, the party should be reasonably sedate. A drunk-driving injury that is tracked back to your open house would be a real kick in the ribs. Making it profitable I don't make this a hard and fast rule, but I strongly suggest that you advise your sales staff to avoid the hard sell at an open house. Make sure that everyone in your business understands that the goal of the open house is long-term good customer relations, not immediate sales. You want a relaxed, friendly, host-guest atmosphere. Any direct-selling effort will defeat the purpose because your customers will raise their defenses. Your salespeople should back off all sales effort but pay close attention to everything their clients say and do to provide sales leads for their next sales call. You may want to offer a special open-house discount sales program for attending customers to encourage attendance--but don't push it. Make sure that all the customers know about the program in advance, but don't let your salespeople make discount sales the main subject of conversation. That's not the marketing theme you want to foster. Open houses range from events as elaborate as any trade show to events involving only the business owner, the sales manager, and four or five of their regular customers eating take-out pizza. The degree of elaboration is immaterial. What matters to the customers is the chance to learn more about one of their key suppliers (you), the chance to attend a free party, and perhaps the chance to get a deal. Successful Seminars One of the most important ways an open house can quickly distinguish itself as a prestigious, must-attend event is by providing seminars of outstanding value. If an open-house program establishes a reputation as a source of interesting and profitable seminars, the battle is half won. Careful selection of speakers and topics The seminar should present exciting speakers with important, interesting topics. The speakers should be well-rehearsed, supported by any necessary training aids and well-prepared handouts that can include, but are not limited to, seminar outlines and summary papers of the talks. Make the seminar seem meaningful Symbolism is important. Speakers and topics should be advertised and presented as important in some way to your customers. Business topics Successful topics will vary depending on your customers; however, there is one sure-fire topic that every customer will find interesting--how to get more bang for the buck when purchasing the products you sell. Present this topic carefully; the tenor of the talk should be helpful, not hard sell. Other business topics may include examples of how your customer's competitors or similar businesses in other market areas are using screen-printed products to increase their sales. Technical topics Most of your customers have little or no understanding of screen-printing technology. Anything that you can teach them about how you produce the products they buy will be beneficial to both you and them. If you can present a seminar that will help your customers take advantage of the latest technology (that you have thoughtfully acquired just to anticipate their needs), you will be ahead of the game. General-interest topics Professional local humorists can often be hired at surprisingly reasonable prices. The drawback here may be that your customers have already heard them two or three times in the last few years. Local newspaper columnists or TV personalities are also often ready to entertain you with their version of local events. Use your imagination. You would be surprised how many local celebrities will be willing to entertain and/or instruct your guests for a nominal honorarium. Open House Task List This list is intended as an outline and planning document only. It is not a complete and all-encompassing list. Use it with care. Every open house is different, so you will find tasks listed that you can ignore and some tasks omitted that you must do. The tasks are listed in general categories. Within each category, the tasks are listed approximately in chronological order. You may want to assign a team or an individual to each category of tasks. Marketing tasks * Select date and location * Select theme * Design event logo * Create open-house schedule * Design registration flyer (flyer should include map and schedule) * Print and mail flyer * Design program handout (handout should include map, floor plan, and schedule) * Print handout * Work with vendors on any special product/promotions * Create marketing pieces for specific promotions * Stuff registration flyer in all customer shipments Attendee-registration tasks * Create attendee-registration badges * Input registration data as the customers sign up * Send confirmation letters * Make preparations for on-site registration * Organize supplies for on-site registration * Staff registration booth Food and beverage tasks * Select caterer * Plan menu for attendee meals * Check with caterer for utility requirements (electricity, water, etc.) * Purchase doughnuts and coffee for morning for early arrivals * Set up coffee and doughnut stand Set-up and tear-down tasks * Determine what signs you need (way-finding signs on street and inside, parking, etc.) * Order or make signs * Clean up plant Coordinate parking * Hang banners and signs * Clean up afterward Attendee-entertainment tasks * Plan entertainment events (contests, door prizes, sample bags, etc.) * Schedule staff for entertainment events * Set up entertainment events Seminar tasks * Create seminar schedule * Select seminar speakers * Finalize all seminars and speakers * Obtain seminar descriptions * Confirm locations and times of seminars * Send seminar letters with requirement sheets * Receive requirement sheets * Assign a seminar assistant/introducer to each speaker * Order audio-visual equipment for each seminar * Order chairs for each seminar * Have a meeting with assistants to review duties * Contact speakers for final confirmation * Setup seminar rooms (chairs, audio visual, special equipment) * Make sure that seminar assistant is standing by 15 minutes before seminar starts


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