Craft Beer, Fine Wine, Artisan Spirits, and Mouthgasmic Food.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

How to put on blogger/online media events: A guide for restaurants

 Over the last year, the number of blogger/online media happy hours and events have exploded.  With many of new restaurants opening, restaurants undergoing a makeover, and restaurants looking for new ways to reach bloggers/online media, I’ve helped set up some of these events.  Here’s my guide to organizing and executing a blogger event.  This guide was written after attending many wonderfully orchestrated events as well that some that left a poor impression on me. 
Blogger/Online Media Culture
Bloggers and food writers tend to hang out together and to know each other well.  There is a strong sense of community, and the active ones tend to keep each other up to date on events and happenings.  Most of food bloggers have full-time jobs, kids, and other hobbies.  Very few are food writer for their day jobs. 
Make sure your staff understands that a bloggers at an event tend to be different from normal customers.  We’ll typically ask more questions about the food, move around often, and spend quite a bit of time with our cameras.  Be prepared to answer numerous questions from food sources, cooking techniques, and restaurant philosophy.  Expect questions about your wine cellar, kitchen appliances, garden, or other event areas. 
Schedule the event for at least two hours with no other events that day.  Media tends to hang out and socialize for long periods of time afterwards.  Most events are 5-7 pm or 6-8 pm.  The advantage of earlier hours is that the event won’t interrupt normal dinner services.  The disadvantage is that many bloggers work past 7 pm. 
Plan for the event to be earlier in the week so that the chef has time to chat.  Make sure your event doesn’t conflict with other food events, avoiding blogger, social media, or other community events as well as around the holidays.  Many food bloggers have a list of upcoming food events. 
Invites should address all details.  Ambiguity in an attendees’ mind almost always equals disorganization.  Invites should specify whether or not the event is complimentary, requires tickets to be purchased, or if meals will be ordered off the menu regularly.  Invites should also be explicit on whether or not the event is a private blogger event or part of an open invite to the public.
Many blogs have co-writers or support staff (photographers).  I have a small pool of photographers that rotate in when my regular one cannot make it.  Specify in the invite whether or not the event can accommodate support staff. 
Electronic invites with a built in RSVP tool can be sent out with a variety of free online services such as Evite, MyPunchbowl, or PaperlessPost.  Make sure you send in as a separate email, and NOT as part of a weekly newsletter or link on your website.  Most people won’t see the invite, and thus no one will show up.  Be sure to hide everyone’s email addresses when sending email.  No one wants their email to be stolen.   PDF or jpeg versions of the invite can also be emailed. 
Expect that many people will not attend.  In the Austin food community, usually one-third or less of people invited typically show up.  Factors that decrease attendance includes distance from downtown, parking availability, day of the week, time of the day, and proximity to other big food events.  Expect that about 10% of those who RSVPed will not show up.
Ideally, invites to these events should be sent out at two to three weeks in advance.  Be sure to include links to website, chefs bio, facebook page, and twitter accounts.  Last minute invites give the appearance of disorganization. 
If you’re marketing the restaurant to wildly different groups of people, you might think about doing events for each of the groups separately.  This will help you meet the needs and expectations of all the groups. 
Publicity and Contact Methods
While there are many good publicists in Austin (email me privately for a list of ones that do a thorough job), there are not so thorough ones.  Check up on publicists by asking for references.  I’ve had one publicists tell me that 5000 people were invited to an event, and only 12 showed  up. 
While it is nice to have your publicist(s) present at the event, bloggers/online media often want to meet the chefs and owners. 
Questions and comments from writers should be answered promptly, usually within 48 hours.  I’ve had to wait three weeks for simple answers from a publicist, which ultimately lead to me discarding the blog post.
Photography and Set up
Make sure there is a well lit area for staging food or set up arranged dishes in a well-lit area for photographs. Adequate lighting is essential for good photographs.  Many food bloggers do not use a flash.  If possible, set up a photo table with food next to a window for photos in natural light.  Dim light or multicolored lights are terrible for taking photographs, and it can require many hours of photo editing afterwards. 
Avoid sit down style events if working with a fairly large groups (15 or more).  Those types of events have often felt too formal, too stiff, and not a good set up for conversation.  Provide seating, but don’t expect food bloggers to sit still.  One of the best part about these events is the community among the food bloggers.  We love to hang out with each other. 
What to Expect and Taking Criticism
Do not pressure bloggers to post about your event.  Everyone has different reasons for why they do or do not post.  They might not post because they did not get enough content to post.  They might also decide to not write simply because they lacked the time.  Lack of writing shouldn't be taken as feed back.
Some bloggers will save your blog post for a special occasion.  For example, I posted about St. Arnold’s new brewery three days prior to an event held at the brewery.  Even though I had written the post four months in advance, it served as a teaser to the event. 
Name tags are especially helpful if inviting different types of media (magazines, online, newspapers, etc…).  It helps facilitate conversation between everyone.
You can solicit feedback simply by asking how one is enjoying the food.  Take constructive criticism gracefully.  Most bloggers offer criticism because they want a restaurant to succeed.  Don’t take it personally.  Not everyone has the same preferences.  Expect that some people might not enjoy the dishes presented. 
Tweeting or posting links to your own website, Twitter, or Facebook is perfectly fine, but make sure you ask permission before using photos outside of a post.  Some bloggers don’t care if you use their photos, some bloggers’ photos are creative commons licensed, and some are not to be used without explicit consent and proper credits. 
Promoting an festival or other events
It is quite possible that there are bloggers who specialize in covering certain types of food or drinks.  It is to your advantage to offer complimentary media passes.  Covering events is not only incredibly time consuming (some events lasting up to five hours including driving time), but blogging can also be incredibly time consuming.  I’ve spent over 24 hours uploading video for a single post, and I typically spend one to two hours writing text.  My photographer sometimes spends up to four hours editing photos for my blog.  Offering a complimentary media pass is a friendly gesture. 
To drum up events, you might offer tickets to serve as prize giveaways to prominent blogs.  Not only does it encourage traffic to the blog, but also gives more face time to the event.
Going the Extra Mile
Provide attendees with hand outs and detailed information about the dishes.  It is difficult to take notes, eat, chat with friends, and take photos at the same time.  Offering access to stock photos is also greatly appreciated. 
Publicists and chefs might take a moment to familiarize themselves with the attendees prior to the event.  This gives the impression that the restaurant truly cares and is wants to be part of the food community. It also allows the chef time to create a special dish for attendees who might have dietary requirements.
If parking is an issue, providing complimentary valet may increase the number of bloggers who would attend your event.