Creating A “Magic” Event

Creating a “Magic” Event

In the course of both of my careers I’ve created and attended a myriad of events. Most are OK, some are really good, and a rare few have risen to the level of “magic.”  What factors transport an event to the rarified level of such an incredibly great time that people do not want the event to end?

I’ve been pondering this; casting the fishing rod of memory with a magic lure over a large and quiet lake of past experiences.  Ripples spread as I reminisced over games coached, seminars put on and attended, kart races announced, motorcycle rallies and charity events, motorcycle and car shows, guest speaking gigs, and so forth.  Only a very few of these were “magic,” and I would include in that select group my first year of teaching, a national championship kart race weekend I announced, a couple of the 30 teams coached, and a few of the motorcycle charity events either organized or attended.   At a guess, I’m casting back over several hundred events, yet only 5 or 6 fit my definition of “magic.”   What do these handful have in common?

 LOW COST:                         My three decades of toil as a teacher provided great training as an events coordinator. There were not that many events, of course, but special days shared one important ingredient – there was no budget for anything. Special events needed to have very minimal or no participation costs, which translates well to businesses that usually have very small or non-existent budgets for special events.

I have concluded that the idea of the event is much more important than the cost.  Perhaps of greater importance, an event with a large “buy-in” for participants increases their expectations, and thereby drastically lowers the odds that they will have a positive experience.

 ORGANIZATION:                It’s impossible to put on an event without a ton of organization – far more than first timers appreciate.  Key tenet:  Start from “the bottom” and work up. 

You need to secure adequate bathroom facilities and more than adequate toilet paper supplies as the first priority. When setting up a group demo ride or one of the fund-raising challenges I put on, stops are spaced to coincide with the bladder requirements of aging men, pregnant women, and people who really enjoy their coffee!

If the event has food, you need to spend some time on – why?  If you can structure the event so that food is not provided, or at least part of event itself, your life will be come so much easier!

Most events have registration sheets, rules and regulations, directions, and so forth. It’s a good idea to create these, with about 20% more than you will think you’ll need, two or three days in advance, as copiers can break down or run out of toner at the last minute. Perfect Murphy’s Law timing.

FREEDOM:                          As I recall the details of events that have surpassed expectations, I see that in all cases the participants were given a certain amount of freedom to create their own version of the event. This builds a sense of ownership, and a guarantee that what takes place is pretty much exactly what the participants were looking for, without having to align slavishly with someone else’s idea of perfection created weeks or months before the actual reality.

You do not need to tell people what to do for every minute of the day, or how to do it, and in some cases you don’t even need to tell them what to do.  Left on their own with perhaps a few guidelines, they will often create a better event that what you could plan!

In my first year of teaching I came to a new school – a literally new school. One that had not been previously occupied. The 7th, 8th, and 9th grade students had attended 5 different schools the previous year. There was no model at the new school for how they were to interact, and in fact there had not been such a model at any of their previous schools.

In addition, 1/3 of the staff were newly minted teachers with 0 years of teaching experience.  For the coaching staff the rookie percentage was much higher.  A week long workshop before the official first week (no students) gave the young staff a chance to bond a bit and create sense of direction.

The new student officers and cheerleaders (I cannot recall how they were selected) seized on an opportunity to be different. As a result, I cannot recall any bullying, cliques, or any of that garbage, although I’m sure there was at least some.

It was a magic year, and the last page of the annual summed it up perfectly – a picture of the smiling principal with the caption “We Did It.”  Yes, we did, and part of that was due to a staff with no filing cabinets full of tests, lesson plans, grading standards, and “fall back” projects. Everything had to be created from scratch, and therefore everyone really believed in their curriculum. The students had a chance to take part in a student government that actually created new things, and they relished the opportunity to be “real.”

In all of the charity motorcycle challenge rides I’ve put on, and in some I have attended, “cheating is encouraged.”  I just now figured out why that is a good formula. On a charity ride, people are competing for door prizes. But some people are happy just to be there, and have no desire to actually compete.  Others people are the sort will not end a game of Scrabble as long as they have two letters left.  You know who you are. The hard-core competitors, with the smiling instruction that “cheating is encouraged,” are free to band with others of a similar bent and go after more points or whatever is at stake.

Last weekend’s Riders for Health Dual Sport Scavenger Hunt provides an excellent example. I noticed one entrant who preferred to enjoy the day’s ride all by himself, and really did not try all that hard to maximize his score. Another group of 5 rode together and put on more miles than anyone else, and in fact won first prize. 

In order to ensure repeat entrants in following years, it’s nice to be able to give people ways to personalize their own experience, so they are spending absolutely as much time as possible doing exactly what they want to do.

 PEOPLE:                                Not exactly news to report that people make all the difference, but perhaps the new twist is that low cost, organization, and freedom are all crucial elements to help a group to go beyond what would be expected.  In retrospect, I can think of some events that were definitely not magic that had the same people in attendance as events that did, so it is not merely the presence of certain people or certain types of people.

If people are there at a low or reasonable cost, the event is well organized, and they get to use imagination and their own tastes to alter the event to fit their desires, their comfort level will increase and they will be having fun.

When you’re comfy and having fun, and attending an charity event or some other event that has an external reason for existence, it’s easier to reach out and help others, and more likely that you will want to. When most of the people begin to help others enjoy the event more, then the event can  rocket into the “magic” arena very quickly. 

The event last weekend is only the most recent, but provides many examples of this. The volunteers had the event well organized due to months of work spent on it.  At $15 for two nights of camping and a requested $10 donation to the charity, it was certainly low cost.  For the actual scavenger hunt main event, people were encouraged to cheat, which allowed them to dial up their competitive juices to exactly the level desired.  Therefore, the basics were in place. 

Then came the “magic.”

Doug and Kimberly, who own the facility, set the tone before the event even started by putting up a huge “Welcome Riders For Health” sign on their highway board. Once people were arriving and setting up camp Friday evening, they dropped off 6 huge bags of ice for the many coolers people had brought for food.   The ice came from their own freezer – ice they could have chosen to sell to the same campers. In fact, I’d just purchased some.  Then they wheeled out a huge wagon full of firewood and kindling for the fire pit. This was firewood of theirs which again, they could have sold to the campers.  Then they came back with their own beer and wine and spent time chatting with their guests.

Such hospitality is often hoped for, but so rarely experienced.   Even better, it has a ripple effect.

Saturday morning brought the start of the event, and one person had the misfortune of a flat tire while at breakfast down the road.  No problem, as several others helped him and delayed the start of their own efforts until his bike was rolling again. Another person had mechanical issues during the day and again, was surrounded by help.

In the evening there was a potluck dinner, and I was not sure how that would work since most people were camping on motorcycles and arrived the day before.  I could carry a couple of coolers in the Ride West events van, but as it turned out two groups showed up with pickup trucks hauling big RV trailers, so we had plenty of coolers and ice and folding chairs.  One of the entrants had decades of experience with QFC in their meat department, and the flank steak she brought created such rave reviews I decided to be noble and not have any so others could dine to excess.

Not much of a sacrifice for me, as we had hamburger patties and hot dogs galore. Doug and Kimberly lit up the two huge grills, and then another person in attendance volunteered to spend two hours at the barbecue preparing all the meat entrees!  Meanwhile, everyone had brought along more beer and wine than was necessary, although I did not see anyone overindulge.  The impact of the potluck idea was to take some food pressure off the organizers, and also give people the chance to work together and to share.  A brilliant concept, and I took careful notes for potential self-use down the road!

All in all, a very special day, and capped off the next morning with a wonderful argument with Doug and Kimberly about how much money we owed them for the spaces we had used. Wonderful because we owed them much more than they were willing to accept, so I had to negotiate in reverse. Lovely people.

Because so many people worked to hard to help others and take that extra step, they all had a better time.  Fortuitous synchronistic symbiosis, you might say. 

Would you really say that?

In any case, we raised more money for the charity than expected, by about 50% and we’ll be back next year with a larger event, renting out more or all of the RV Park. In the end, at magic events, everyone wins in every way.

To review, there are just a few keys to remember when attempting to create a great event that could cross over to the land of magical.

  • low cost
  • organization
  • freedom
  • people.

These four factors explain the success of some but not all of the classes I taught, of Woodstock all those decades ago, and of some charity events. 

However, I’ve had no success in creating coming a snappy acronym to help spread the word.  LOFP?    PLOF?  OFPL? 

Best wishes for your own events, and I hope this helps.


Copyright 2012                                                                   David Preston


About david

I am a 73 year old motorsports nut who lives in Snohomish, Washington. After a 31 year career as an English teacher, I segued into a self-created job in the motorsports business. Now retired, I was involved in customer relations for Ride West BMW in Seattle, after almost 10 years of similar work for the Cycle Barn MotorSports Group. I own, at the current time, a Triumph Rocket 3 (2020) and a 2016 Ford Focus ST. What else would you like to know?
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