So Not Last Year: Ideas for breathing new life into annual gatherings

Homecoming – SALY. Reunion – SALY. Alumni Awards – SALY. Scholarship Luncheon – SALY.

During discovery for an event assessment project, we saw this note appear again and again on the client’s production calendar. “Who is Sally,” we asked? The client explained: Same As Last Year. And then it made sense. The venue would be the same. The programming would be the same. The guests would most likely be the same.

This notation did not by any means indicate a lack of good intention or suggest that the events would be sub-par in terms of fit or finish. What it indicated to us was the lack of an event strategy based on specific audiences and intention.

As U and your teams head into planning for the next academic year, here are our suggestions for creating events that are as unique as the year itself. See ya, SALY.

1. Know Who is Invited and Why
Don’t take the easy way out. Be more specific than “All Alumni” or “Classes from 1995, 2000, 2005, etc.” Be as detailed as possible. If an event is open to all alumni, take a minute to prioritize the top three groups you want in attendance…and the reason you want them there. It’s up to U whether it makes more sense to do this by class year or affinity group or donor level. Don’t shy away from naming names, either. Knowing who U want in the room and why is the first step to creating an intentional event.

2. Control the Content
We are strong proponents of developing comprehensive, annual messaging – themes that start at the top and then are custom-crafted to be appropriate for each occasion. Three to five proof points that will be emphasized at each gathering through specific examples that resonate with the guests in attendance. Even an Alumni Awards reception can be shaped by these. If this year’s messaging themes are financial aid, tech transfer, and community engagement then the winners might be selected based on these criteria or at least their bios written to highlight these connections. Remarks by campus leaders would focus on them, as well, as would the collateral and visuals created for the event.

3. Create an Emotional Arc
To keep things fresh, you’ll want to create an emotional arc that is distinctive to this particular gathering. So, next year’s Scholarship Luncheon may include a performance by student musicians who are also scholarship recipients. Or invite a young alum/former scholarship recipient back to campus to share the next chapter in their personal story – showing both appreciation and application. Keep track of participants from year to year to ensure the entire campus is represented at one point or another. This also will help delivery mechanisms stay current with the times. A cappella may be acca-over on your campus.

4. Make It Interactive
Yep, U are correct. A lot of annual events are heavy on tradition…and food and beverage consumption. What if you were to mix things up a bit? Take the emphasis away from eating and drinking and instead provide activities that promote mingling and information transfer. Consider Reunion Weekends. Might it be more interesting to hold the welcome brunch in the newest building on campus – complete with tours or at least student greeters? Could the All-Class cocktail reception feature not just a student jazz trio but also a few examples of whiz-bang research hosted by the researchers themselves?

5. Prove It
Finally – the most reliable way to ensure that your events are intentional and fresh is by measuring success. And once again, customization is your friend. Your definition of event planning and execution success is going to differ from how you measure attendance success and event follow-up success. It’s only by defining success and tracking it that U can prove that it was achieved.

Best Practices
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