January 28th, 2006

  • feneric

How to Kill a Popular Event

Obviously I should have written about this a month ago, but I've been pretty caught up with various projects lately (the biggest three public ones being the annual Saugus Calendar, the new Newton book reader extension for Firefox, and the sequel to A Gathering of Memories).

Anyhow, I'm of course writing about the event known as the Hammersmith Holiday Stroll. This used to be one of the most popular events in Saugus; trolley buses on two different routes would shuttle "strollers" from one event to the next all over town, and many Saugus businesses, a handful of Saugus non-profit organizations, several Saugus churches, the Saugus Chamber of Commerce, the Saugus Town Government, and the Saugus Public Schools would get involved and work together to make what many considered to be the premier Saugus annual event. Each trolley stop featured its own attractions, and crowds would look over the pre-announced schedules of events and plan their own personal routes according to their own interests.

Over time this all started to break down. This most recent Stroll was something of a disaster, although few have actually dared to come out and say as much. Attendance was way down at most of the participating locations; many locations that traditionally participated either didn't bother at all or held their own independent events (even Santa went his own way this year at a separate event held by the Friends of Breakheart, although curiously some of the literature listed this event as part of the Stroll when it most definitely wasn't); media coverage of the event was weak; and there simply wasn't as much going on -- walking through Cliftondale during the Stroll one wouldn't even know that anything was supposed to be happening. For the second year in a row there were no trolley buses, and there was essentially no travel between the different sites.

I personally covered the event from 1998 through 2005, and as someone who made an earnest effort to visit each participating location each year, I have some observations. Now I'm certainly not going to claim in a fit of hubris to be wise enough to simply step in and address something that others have tried and failed to fix, I think my perspective on the Stroll is somewhat unique and may give me a little insight that others lack, and I think I have a few ideas that may help a little.

The first thing that must be noted is there has been a gradual breakdown of the various groups working together, and it stems from the basic fact that in some cases they really started seeing each other's efforts as hurting more than helping.

For example, lets look at the trolley buses. They were really at the heart of what made the Stroll work in its successful days. Unfortunately they are very expensive.

From the perspective of the businesses, they provided the vast majority of the funding for the trolleys. The amount that the schools contributed tended to cover only Chamber of Commerce expenses. The schools appeared to be the primary beneficiaries of the trolleys as they enabled people to park safely away from the schools limited (and overly congested) parking lots and attend multiple school events throughout the day. As the years passed, the happenings at the various school sites built up, and more and more people would just go to the schools and ignore the businesses entirely. For most of the participating schools, however, the Stroll became their number one annual fundraiser. Why couldn't they share some of their gains to help cover some of the expenses? It only seems fair. Furthermore, trolley usage started to drop. Why bother with the trolleys at all? Why bother with the Stroll at all? Each year, fewer and fewer businesses participated. In 2004, there was no longer enough funding to keep the trolleys, and the Stroll transformed from a big town-wide event to a bunch of separated smaller events.

From the school side, the trolleys were not seen as incredibly important. Each school in fact tended to somewhat go into competition with its peers (and the other Stroll sites) to monopolize people's attention, because that is the way to get the most out of the event as a fundraiser. The individual schools instead looked at the pre-event promotion of the Stroll as being their most tangible benefit, and thought they were already paying too much. As this promotion started to get weaker over time (last year the Stroll organizers didn't even bother to list it in the free Saugus calendar, let alone all the papers and commercial alternatives) the schools had to step up their own efforts to promote themselves. If we have to do all the work ourselves, what are we paying for? Why bother participating in the Stroll at all?

The churches provided the majority of the free parking for trolley access. As with some of the schools, the Stroll became a pretty significant fundraiser for some of the churches, and they likewise found themselves doing most of the promotion work directly. The same sorts of arguments thus apply to the churches as to the schools, but the loss of the trolleys affects some of them more deeply as they no longer get traffic by virtue of offering trolley access parking.

From the perspective of the non-profit sites located outside of Cliftondale, without the trolleys there's basically no reason to be part of the Stroll without the trolleys. If the trolleys are no longer bringing strollers anywhere near the sites, why should we have to participate? We have nothing to gain.

Some of the Cliftondale businesses think that making the Stroll Cliftondale centric helps balance things out (considering that Founders' Day is Saugus Center centric). Some of the businesses outside of Cliftondale don't agree.

Looking at it from the Chamber side, the Stroll overall seems to just be seen as an overly expensive event that produces few gains. The money it takes in from site fees is used for advertising and for overhead (the Chamber employs / has employed multiple people, pays for an office, etc.). Remember that the trolleys were sponsored directly by businesses; the fees that sites pay to be part of the Stroll just goes back to the Chamber. As the Chamber, though, if the Stroll completely consumes the time of one or two full-time employees and another part-time employee for however many days, the money it takes in has to cover those salaries for that period in addition to the advertising expenses if is to stay in the black. One can only assume that the apparent decrease in promotion efforts from year to year are probably due to the Chamber weighing these factors.

Viewing it all from the perspective of an actual stroller, things got pretty bad when the trolleys stopped being free (and it was even a little difficult during the Stroll itself to purchase a pass button). This one change (although necessitated by the dropping of trolley sponsorship) in return resulted in significant dropping of trolley usage. (This in turn led to more dropping of trolley sponsorship, but I digress.) When the trolleys were gone, it made it much harder to travel from site to site. Parking at the schools is a nightmare; out-of-the-way sites tend to no longer be worth the effort. Why bother with the increased hassle of strolling around from site to site when most of what I want to see is now in one place anyway?

Anyways, just looking at this situation with the trolleys from the different points of view hopefully makes it clear that the problems are a little bit complicated; it's not simply a matter of anyone being right or wrong. Rather each party has reason and argument to feel that they're the ones being taken advantage of.

If the Stroll is to ever succeed again as a town-wide event, the trolleys have to return and there has to be reason for strollers to move from site to site. This means that the trolley sponsors have to feel that their spending is not completely in vain; they have to get some sort of increased recognition or something in return. It also means that there has to be some sort of centralized plan covering attractions; if one site is too complete, there will be no reason for strollers to ever leave it to check out other locations.

My few suggestions are as follows; I hope others will comment with still more suggestions.

  • There should be some restrictions placed on popular and traditional characters. For example, the entire Stroll should just have one Santa, one Mrs. Claus, one Rudolph, one Frosty, one Scooby Doo, and one whomever-is-popular-at-the-moment. This makes for less confusion for the kids going from site to site and fewer explanations from the parents. It also potentially provides a reason for people to stroll to smaller (and possibly less interesting) sites. I would think that all such characters could be distributed via a random drawing of sites that want one; possibly this drawing could be limited to the trolley sponsors for some (or even all) of the characters. Some characters could potentially even have predetermined shifts at multiple locations.

  • The schools (and other major beneficiaries) have to help somewhat with the trolley expenses. It's really not fair that the businesses shoulder all the load for such an essential Stroll-wide resource. The exact amount that they contribute is of course up for discussion, but clearly they should contribute something.

  • The Chamber has to ensure that the word gets out properly. The announcement of the Stroll (and when possible, the detailed schedule) should be (at absolute minimum) on Saugus.net, in all the papers, on the local access cable channel, on the street banner, and in relevant local newsletters. There's no reason why they couldn't even post something about it on this very blog. They have to make the effort to reach as many Saugonians as possible.

  • Stroll sites have to be clearly marked. People randomly driving by should be aware that something's going on. The trolley stops did a pretty good job of this, but I'd argue that participating sites should get some sort of temporary marking even if they don't have their own trolley stop.

  • Sites should strive not to be boring. There are quite a few talented individuals and organizations in town that don't normally have the opportunity to showcase their stuff -- why not invite some of them to perform or exhibit at some of the sites? Besides helping them get exposure and experience, it'd help attract strollers.

Clearly these suggestions won't fix everything and won't make all the bad feelings that have already engendered go away. Equally clearly these suggestions are pretty raw and require a lot of work in the details. Still, I hope that everyone involved can work together and make the Hammersmith Holiday Stroll successful again.

Please do comment with your own observations and suggestions. Do you think I'm totally right, completely wrong, or somewhere in between? Do you agree with me that the Stroll's sliding into obscurity is generally a bad thing for the town?

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