The joy of winter events that drive business

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My career in marketing places started in Pittsburgh’s South Side. I helped to put on a historic house tour and a neighborhood festival-gone-wild. Talk about two different events! Despite its early success in drawing attention to the South Side, the festival blew up to the point that the net benefit was no longer evident. Residents routinely vacationed that week to avoid the inconvenience of being home. Our organization – South Side Local Development Company – decided to sunset the event and focus on promotions that accentuated the positives of the neighborhood.

South Side Soup Contest


One of those promotions was the South Side Soup Contest. I created this event with the intention of highlighting South Side’s shops. The neighborhood was already well known for its bars and restaurants, so we paired every participating shop with a local restaurant that would provide soup for tasting. Event goers walked from shop to shop (with lines out the door), sampled soups, and voted for their favorites. The February event is now in its 11th year and brings over 1,300 people to the business district in an otherwise quiet month. The ticketed event sells out within minutes of the start of online sales, and raises over $30,000 to benefit the local chamber and food pantry. Similar soup walks are now held in the towns of Sewickley and Ligonier.

Photo: Renee Greenlee

Joy of Cookies Cookie Tour

Cookie ladyMost people don’t know that part of my inspiration to start the soup contest was the Joy of Cookies Cookie Tour in Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood. The concept: people walk from shop to shop and sample cookies provided by local shopkeepers. The event’s held in December, and plenty of people do some holiday shopping while out and about. The organizers of the four-day free event – Lawrenceville Corporation and local merchants – encourage break stops at local bakeries, cafes, bars, and restaurants to effectively involve a variety of businesses. It’s an event 17 years strong that, no doubt, has been replicated in other places.

Cookie Tour a “dream situation” for business district

I spoke with Matthew Galluzzo, Executive Director of the Lawrenceville Corporation, about the cookie tour’s impact. “The first thing is you have 52 businesses participating. Anytime you can get people to synchronize their watches as merchants, market to their own networks, and attract a regional audience, you’ve become a competitive business district.”

He added, “to be a hospitality district for a few days is a dream situation. We do Zip Code tracking, and it’s a bona fide regional attraction.” And drawing this wide audience is effective. “It’s a really big deal for some local merchants. We assessed the impact and found that some businesses can net 30% of their annual sales if the weather cooperates.”

I attended the tour last Saturday with my partner and two aunts and have since decided to take a look at our four-person economic impact. We represented three ZIP Codes across two counties and spent $335 as a group. That’s about $84/person at a free event! Here’s the breakdown:

Dinner and drinks      $58

Retail purchases       $262

Chocolate                  $15

Surely, there are groups that spent more than us and groups that spent less. Our most expensive purchase was a $65 area rug being given as a Christmas present. We had a handful of other holiday driven purchases – gifts, tree ornaments, greeting cards, and chocolate truffles and a tablecloth for hosting a family gathering. But the spending didn’t stop there. We bought hand-crafted soaps, a terrarium plant, materials to fix a favorite bracelet, and a present for an upcoming birthday. Any other time of year, our spending would have been down; the event is perfectly timed. But still, our spending was a mix of gift-buying, treating ourselves, and picking up convenience items. If we spent over $300 as a group visiting for five hours, was was the impact of thousands of visitors over a four day period?

I must confess – I started out years ago as an event-weary event planner (how is this even possible?). Often, events don’t pay for themselves, at least not in terms of the event budget for the neighborhood group that does the organizing. But an event done right pays in dividends when the community experiences spending in local shops and restaurants, increased awareness and return visits, positive media coverage, and a general buzz about the neighborhood. I started this post thinking about these events as a “shot in the arm,” but I think that’s an understatement of the impact experienced. A small business pulling in 30% of annual sales in four days is huge, and it all started with putting out free cookies.

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