The renowned horse race on the first Saturday in May is an event of epic proportions that has a lot to teach us about planning a great grand opening.
I’ve lived in Louisville, Kentucky, most of my adult life. And, I’ve been fortunate enough to attend the Kentucky Derby on numerous occasions. Regardless of whether I’m hosting someone, attending as someone else’s guest or simply going with friends, I’ve always been incredibly impressed by how its organizers successfully execute an event that typically brings over 150,000 people together in one place, at one time.
Now, your store’s grand opening may not be attracting a crowd of that magnitude. (Who would want that catering bill, anyway?!). But, if you start looking at the details of the event itself – really, everything other than the actual horse race – there’s a lot of great learning you can apply to your next grand opening.
Here are nine things I’ve learned from the Derby:
1. Surround yourself with experts.
Since I work in marketing, I’ve had the occasional opportunity to see behind the curtain of large events like the Derby. It’s truly amazing to just how many different disciplines are required to make even a small sponsorship come together – e.g., marketing strategists, attorneys, accountants, event planners, art directors, copywriters, production assistants, printers, installers and more. I say this a lot, but, be sure you have people on your staff who know what it takes to expertly execute your event.
2. “Celebrities” generate excitement.
As the prestige of the Kentucky Derby has grown, fundraising events have been created to help raise money for various non-profit groups and causes. Together, the events and the Derby itself have become huge draws for sports figures, as well as stars of the television, music and motion picture industries. Those celebrities are a huge topic of discussion and generate a tremendous sense of excitement in the community. Their presence often encourages additional tickets sales (both for the non-profit events and the Derby) from the general public, hoping for a chance to see their favorite “star.” Never underestimate the drawing power of a “celebrity.”
3. Food will tame even your harshest critics.
Inevitably, large crowds seem to make people grumpy. One seemingly surefire way to calm them is with food and drink. I suppose it is difficult to complain with food in your mouth! But, in all seriousness, there is definitely something to be said for the notion of having food at your event to keep crowds happy, engaged and around longer. It’s relatively easy to do this for your grand opening. And, if your budget allows, you can even hire a caterer and let them handle the food preparation, distribution and cleanup.
4. Clear signage is vital to keeping your guests informed.
Because of the size and scope of the Derby, there is a long list of personal items that can (and can’t) be brought into the venue. Despite the fact that the list is on a website, sent out with tickets and posted on large display boards at every entry point, there are still people who show up with items that must be confiscated. Amazing! But, it’s much easier to enforce a policy that’s posted. What information will be important to your grand opening? Return policies? A schedule of events? Directions to restrooms? Pretend your waking into your store for the very first time. What do you need to know? Better yet, bring in someone prior even to your store’s soft opening. Let them walk through your store as a “test” customer. Take notes about what they can’t find or ask questions about.
5. People love a good contest or giveaway.
The last time I took some friends to the Derby, I remember it taking forever to get from one part of the track to another. Sure, walking through tens of thousands of people will definitely slow you down. But, what took even longer was the fact that the people I was with needed to stop and sign up or register for countless prizes and giveaways. Find items with the appropriate drawing power and you can attract crowds to your store just for a chance to win something. Then, be sure to do everything you can to make it easy for them to buy something while they’re there.
6. Make sure your staff is informed about your event and are prepared to be ambassadors of your brand.
With any big event, huge crowds plus a lot of moving parts will generate a lot of questions. At the Derby, it’s easy to find event staff to help answer any of the countless questions that came up. Make sure your team is easily recognized on the day of your grand opening. And, even more importantly, make sure they are adequately trained to answer all of the questions that are likely to come up. Make a list of the most obvious ones and make sure that everyone has the same set of answers. And, don’t forget to add some of the “sizzle” to those scripted answers. Why do you believe what you believe? What do you stand for? Don’t let your employees miss an opportunity to share the essence of your brand. Just don’t force it.
7. Never underestimate the need for a clear, concise parking strategy.
Admittedly, parking for 150,000 visitors has its own challenges. But, depending upon the size of your store’s parking lot, you may need to consider how to make it easy for people to get to your store’s grand opening. Some cities and townships have trolleys that can be hired to help transport visitors over small distances. Plus, it can be a fun, convenient way to help your customers. Regardless, just be sure to make it obvious where people can (or can’t) park. You don’t want your customers frustrated before they ever get to your store. Sadly, they will blame you!
8. Make back-up plans for the unexpected.
Although I’m sure that the Derby’s organizers have a much more sophisticated inclement weather plan, the general understanding is that it’s like a public swimming pool. It’s business as usual until you see lightning or hear thunder. In fact, areas of the venue have had to be temporarily closed due to weather – and thousands of patrons moved indoors. Obviously, weather is probably the least of your grand opening worries unless your hosting a block party or something else that takes the party outside your four walls. But, don’t forget to plan ahead. If it’s raining outside, will you be able to help customers store their umbrellas? How will you keep your floors dry (and not a slip and fall hazard)? A little advanced planning will keep you and your staff from having to scramble at the last minute.
9. Use your vendors.
Days before the Derby, countless vendors set up dozens of booths and kiosks at the venue to get ready for the big day. The vendors get access to the huge crowds attending the event. Plus, some even get to promote themselves as the official “this” or “that” of the Derby. Don’t hesitate to take advantage of your vendor relationships and find ways to add some excitement to your grand opening event. Depending upon the type of store you have, your vendors may be able to offer product samples, their own promotional giveaways and more.
There are an incredibly large number of details and moving parts that all have to fit together perfectly to make each year’s Kentucky Derby a truly amazing event. Even the winner of the actual race has had countless hours of workouts by expert trainers and is ridden by a skilled jockey.
But, do you know what one of the biggest factors in attracting a huge crowd to the track on race day is? The weather. Maybe a beautiful weather forecast is the final thing your grand opening will need to be truly successful. At some point, you’re likely to be thankful for a little bit of luck.
Who knew there was so much to learn about store openings from a sporting event that only lasts two minutes?