January 2013 Issue of Wines & Vines

Events: Great PR or Waste of Cash?

Clear vision and realistic goals increase likelihood of success

by Sara Cummings
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in “Spinning the Bottle Again,” a compilation of strategies, tactics and case histories of wine public relations edited by Paul Franson and Harvey Posert. Details: napalife.com/spinningthebottle.htm

We have all heard it at one time or another: Let’s do a huge event to draw attention to our brand/winery! Let’s get “the media” to come! (Please note that “the media” is used in a tone that creates the impression that they are a herd of cattle grazing together in some nearby meadow as they await your invitation and phone call. Accordingly, “the media” is expected to respond en masse to any wine-related invitation that arrives, attend the event and love it, and then write a glowing article.)

If you have ever proceeded with a large wine event, you know what comes next: A budget that grows beyond all reason, an event dominated by style rather than substance, and a huge drain on your time (and usually the time of the entire ad hoc committee that gets sucked into the project), and then many expectant gazes from management assuming that the minute the event ends there will be countless feature articles about the event and the winery.

In my years in wine public relations, I have seen some events truly pay off in terms of delivering key marketing messages, generating media ink and positive coverage, but I have also witnessed many events that were not so successful. In the challenging marketplace we are all navigating, some of these excessive expenditures have become historic mementos of the “go-go” late 1990s. But it seems like more wine events continue to take place every week, especially in key wine markets.

Now more than ever, it is important for wine public relations officials to ask the tough questions at the beginning of event planning, shape the event to achieve the winery’s goals and manage expectations along the way—or decide that there are better ways to achieve the desired goal.

What makes a winery PR event successful?
I joined a company some years ago in the midst of a huge event plan created by an outside PR agency. The events involved “shipping in” the most distinctive elements of the winery to New York and Miami to a venue where trade and media guests were invited for the evening.

On my first day of work, I was flown to the Miami event, which cost more than $60,000 (in the late 1990s) before the agency retainer and many other expenses were factored into the equation. The attendance was lighter than anticipated, with many last-minute cancellations. Everyone who attended enjoyed the event, and perhaps left knowing more about the winery than when they arrived, but that was the whole outcome. No feature articles, no splashy coverage—and as far as I know, the reputation of the wines remained the same.

The sister event held two weeks earlier in New York was a great lesson in the “luck” factor of getting good event attendance. The Yankees were suddenly in the play-offs, and many New Yorkers who had planned to attend suddenly had a new, more important engagement. More than $100,000 was invested in the New York event, and it would be hard to justify with results from trade or media.

So, enough about how not to do a successful event. I believe that a successful public relations event (wine or otherwise) includes the following characteristics:

Conveys and strengthens the key points of difference or marketing messages for the brand/winery through every element of each guest’s event experience. In other words, the event is well conceived from top to bottom, beginning to end.

Achieves the agreed-upon defined goals, which assumes that one has to have specific goals for an event before promising any sort of result. (This may sound obvious, but we all know that events with ill-defined expectations happen often.) Without this step, there will be no agreement about expected results, which can lead to misunderstandings and disappointment—usually on the side of management. Since most executives are not public relations experts (and don’t claim to be), it is up to us to do the educating.

Offers a fair return on cost for the brand or winery in terms of desired goals. This is the “bang for the buck” part of the equation, which is more of a concern now than in the past 20 years in the wine industry.

I like to have comparisons for an event in mind in relation to other promotional options. Is the event equal in cost to an ad in the Wine Spectator? A national media tour of the winemaker? Sponsorship of a cooking show series?

Thinking about costs, payout, the tangible value of the event goals and making sure there is full comprehension among company leadership is time well spent. I should also mention that this doesn’t mean the event is cheaply done by any means. It should reflect the quality and style of your brand and positioning—or be slightly above current brand perception (aspirational) if you are trying to raise perception.

What are the tough questions?
I have worked with a wide variety of clients over the years, as well as internal marketing teams and external agencies.

There is absolutely nothing else like the excitement one sees when a big event starts incubating. Results become easy to promise. Everyone will want to be there because it will be so fabulous! Budgets grow with the anticipation of results. There is excitement in the air as people begin imagining themselves at a lavish and well-orchestrated event, surrounded by “the media” (see first paragraph!), caterers swishing among the crowd with beautiful hors d’oeuvres.…You get the picture. People get excited. People lose sight of realities of human nature, competition in the increasingly busy calendars of wine journalists and sometimes even the realities of the media’s perception or interest level in the winery/brand.

We unfortunately have to watch for the tipping over of the scale and be the voice of reality. There is a good reason for this, which I mentioned in the beginning: When the event is over, we are the people responsible for delivering all of the results that everyone has convinced themselves are so easy to achieve and practically a sure thing. We must be able to deliver.

So what are some of the tough questions that wine PR people must ask, internally first and then sometimes out loud?

What exactly do we hope to get out of this event? What are the actions we want guests to take following our event? Are these expectations reasonable?

How will we make the event unique to our brand/winery? Why will the media/the trade/consumers/wine club members come?

Will the timing of the event make sense in light of our goals, other competing events, and the business (or media) cycle?

Are we out ahead of an upcoming trend with this event or following in a parade of similar events that might not be as compelling for media?

Will the budget we have been given allow us to meet the desired goals, or is it unreasonable? Do we have adequate staffing resources for the event—and if not, can we secure an outside vendor?

Is the management of the winery/brand able to host the event easily? Is it a good fit for him/her/them? (For example: Are you suggesting a black-tie event for a vintner who is really only comfortable in jeans and cowboy boots? Is the event team expecting a shy vintner to become Johnny Carson for the evening?)

If considering an outdoor event, is there a backup inside location where the event can take place? How would moving it affect the quality of the event? What other logistical surprises might occur, and are there ways to work around them?

Tips for making your wine event work
Great wine events take place every week and continue to be one of the many useful tactics in every wine PR practitioner’s toolbox. After the tough questions have been answered, how do you make your event a success? Here are some suggestions:

• Have at least three key goals. Agree on how event results will be measured as the event is beginning to take shape.

• Ask the tough questions listed above, and make sure things are as much of a ‘fit’ for all involved as possible.

• Make the event compelling to media if that is your primary goal. Compare the value and anticipated results of a large event with other alternatives for garnering media coverage.

Do research in the year prior to the event to see what types of events are being written about and how. When you see a feature article, ask how it came to be if you know the public relations person behind it…connect the dots. Many features come from one-on-one pitching—not events!

Get invitations out at least a month prior to the event, if possible. Try to check the calendar for other wine events that might keep media from attending yours.

Confirm and then confirm again. Make it tough for someone to cancel, but remind leadership that media (and other important people) do cancel.

Last, but very important, involve multiple key audiences, if possible, so that you are diversified in your event investment. For example, create an event for trade, media and consumers so that you have potential benefits with more than one key audience.

Sara Cummings has worked in wine public relations for more than 20 years and is currently director of marketing communication for Sonoma County Vintners. Her background includes agency experience at Balzac Communications & Marketing in Napa, Calif., in-house experience as public relations director for Fetzer Vineyards at Brown-Forman as well as representing 14 domestic and international wine brands for Terlato Wines International.

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