When a Freelancer Becomes an Event Organizer
Like a lot of freelancers, I do a bit of volunteering in my community. All of it has been with established organizations.
That changed during an impromptu outdoor meeting on a muggy July morning. I was part of a group of neighbors who were talking about street flooding during rainstorms. Not the sort of conversation that you’d expect for a desert city like Tucson, Arizona, but take it from me: When we get rain, our streets can turn into raging rivers. Or lakes.
Our conversation focused on solutions to street flooding. And, since this is a desert, we don’t want to send scarce rain water whooshing away. We’d like it to stay around and nourish trees and shrubs that will shade and cool our city. Call it water harvesting – we in Tucson do!
Just about everyone arrived at this meeting on their bicycles, and the group was curious about what’s been happening on the water harvesting front. So, I suggested a bicycle tour of public water harvesting projects. The group thought that was a great idea.
Read on to discover how haphazard an event can come together and still be successful. Or jump to the bottom to read through five lessons learned, which will help you organize your next event.
My little idea was quickly joined by others: Let’s pedal from here to Downtown and see what’s making our city greener! Let’s end our tour at the soon-to-open brewery that’s co-owned by our neighbors, Myles and Blake! Bikes and beer – what’s not to like?
In the blink of an eye, I found myself at the head of this parade. Meet Martha, the rookie event organizer.
Being the ever-eager graphic designer and photographer, I created a flyer for the Greenway-Brewery Bike Tour. I set the date for late September, and that was the first major thing to change.
Reason: Even though Tucson is still hot in late September, the local event calendar is quite crowded. And the brewery’s opening date was uncertain. So, why not play it safe and re-schedule for Saturday, October 1? Good thing I hadn’t gotten any flyers printed.
Assistance Steps Forward
Speaking of the event flyer, a local bicycle shop owner offered to cover the cost of the printing. Imagine that – sponsorship without my even asking for it. Life is good!
Imagine that – sponsorship without my even asking for it. Life is good!
One of my neighbors worked with me on the initial organizing of the event, but as the weeks progressed, her family, work, and community obligations prevented her from being more involved. But her 86-year-old father called the event Biketoberfest, and the name stuck. Thank you, Dr H!
Mapping the route proved to be one of those things that was best left to people more knowledgeable than me. Going out and actually bicycling the route was easy.
Getting the route into Google Maps was one of those things that made me throw up my hands. For some reason, Google’s map-tracing tool and Martha just don’t get along.
Time to call on another neighbor, Dennis the illustration ace. Dennis took my highlighted Google Maps printouts and written instructions and made a first-class map out of them.
Then along came yet another neighbor, Tom, who turned Dennis’ PDF map into a Google Earth file that can be uploaded to a smartphone. Per Tom, “[You can] play a tour of the route, see distances, and look at an elevation profile.”
Did I mention that I have some talented neighbors?
As mentioned above, life was indeed good. And then it wasn’t.
In mid-September, I went by that bicycle shop to give the owner the latest news on Biketoberfest. And the place was locked up tight. Sign on the door said that it was operating on limited hours due to illness.
A few days later, I made a return trip to the bicycle shop. Still closed. I ducked into the delicatessen next door and asked if they knew what was going on. The deli owner said that the bike shop owner had just checked back into the hospital. I pedaled away with a heavy heart.
With that bit of very bad news, the Biketoberfest flyer printing budget went down to zero. So, time for a new approach to the event publicity. Rather than posting numerous flyers around town, I’d distribute digital copies via e-mail and pursue news media coverage.
One of the old adages about the media is that you have to send your publicity to a lot of places just to get a little coverage. Well, I’m pleased to report that one of my many news releases made the bigtime. Biketoberfest was a featured event in the Tucson Weekly‘s “City Week” calendar. That’s an honor reserved for only three or four events each week.
The Weekly‘s feature story included my phone number, and I expected an avalanche of calls in the two days before the ride. Actual call count: zero. Time to start worrying? I sure hoped not!
The Event Kicks Off
Saturday, October 1 dawned sunny and cloudless – a perfect fall day in Tucson, Arizona. And yes, I can assure you that I was up at sunrise. Well, before it, in fact. See the previous paragraph and note the word “worrying.”
All told, there were two dozen people converging on a quiet residential neighborhood just north of the University of Arizona.
Half an hour before the official start, I gathered up my printouts of the route map and headed over to the start. I arrived at 8:45 a.m. – start wasn’t until 9 a.m., but I wanted to be there for the early birds. No one there.
Then look! There’s neighbor Katherine, announcing that if she comes on time, she’s late. Katherine’s an early bird through and through.
We had a chat that seemed to last forever, then look! Here are more people, riding in from the north! The east! The south! The west!
All told, there were two dozen people converging on a quiet residential neighborhood just north of the University of Arizona. The neighborhood association had been quite supportive, but what about the neighbors living at this corner?
Uh-oh. Here comes one now. A serious-faced man pushing a walker. I asked him if we were blocking the gate into his front yard. His expression didn’t change. Oh, no.
“I wanted to see this,” he said.
With that, Tucson’s first-ever Biketoberfest had a sendoff committee of one. I stepped out into the street to make a few announcements, and then we were off.
One of the fascinating things about event organizing is how the idea that’s been in your head becomes something that other people embrace and make their own.
All of my fretting about people getting struck by cars, losing their way, or falling off their bikes into a narrow alley that was recently turned into a pedestrian walkway, complete with cactus and sharp rocks, was for naught. Everyone made it safely to our break-time destination, a once-vacant lot that had been turned into a pocket park by Katherine and other neighbors.
One of those other neighbors is a guy named Armando. He was supposed to meet us at the pocket park and give a brief talk about how his neighborhood got grant funding and created the pedestrian walkway in the alley, the pocket park, and traffic calming devices that look like miniature desert gardens.
But Armando wasn’t there. Uh-oh.
I didn’t have a phone with me, so I couldn’t call Armando. But the Biketoberfest-ers were having such a good time on exploring the pocket park that I wasn’t too worried. (Not that I was calm!)
Then came a 1960s-vintage station wagon with Armando at the wheel. Whew!
Armando gave quite a thorough talk, complete with an information sheet. Dennis the map maker weighed in with his own expertise on desert plants. All I had to do was stand back and admire the show.
After the pocket park break, it was back on the bikes for the remainder of our journey. Cold beer was waiting for us – for some people, that added a certain level of urgency.
For the rest of us, there was an in-depth tour of the neighborhood directly north of the brewery. This part of Biketoberfest was hosted by one of the residents of the neighborhood, and he was justifiably proud of the place.
What a place it was – traffic circles with sculpture created by neighborhood artists, water harvesting basins with mature desert trees that shade the streets, and a protest garden created by a group that’s opposed to a road project that threatens to cut this neighborhood in two. The City of Tucson, citing soil contamination issues, shut this garden down in 2008. It’s still fenced off.
Detour and Then Hit the Pub
Sort of a downer way to end a tour, and our host must have realized this. Did we want to see the rain jars that he and some neighbors had built? Why, sure! So, off we took, in search of rain jars. And we found them.
What’s a rain jar? Think of a giant pot that sits next to your house and collects rain water off the roof.
What’s a rain jar? Think of a giant pot that sits next to your house and collects rain water off the roof. You can use that water to feed your gardens, and the plants will love it. Even better, you can use that pot as a giant canvas for your artwork.
After the rain jar detour, it was brewery time. And, wouldn’t you know it, Martha goes into worry mode again. The place isn’t open yet! There are construction workers outside! Where’s the brewmaster who’s supposed to meet us?
The brewmaster’s a guy named Blake. And there’s a lady standing outside the entrance to the brewery. Is she with the construction workers? Maybe I should give her a big, ride leader-style wave and see what happens.
Turned out that she’s Blake’s girlfriend, and Blake’s inside the still unfinished brew pub, happily serving beer to riders who’d already arrived. How about some mesquite beer? Want to try our ale? And here’s the IPA that we’re still working on.
Thus ended this freelancer’s foray into event organizing – for now. There have been requests for more neighborhood bike tours.
Here are Five Lessons Learned
- Lesson One: Your best-laid plans will change. After undergoing a name and date change, Bikektoberfest lost its one and only sponsor. And the lady who’d volunteered to co-lead the ride had to be out of town. But she found another co-leader, who did a great job. As for the brewery not being open for business yet, the riders thought that was pretty cool. Kind of like getting a sneak preview.
- Lesson Two: You’re not the only one with great ideas. Recall that I wanted to call this the Greenway- Brewery Bike Tour. Someone else dubbed it Biketoberfest, and the name stuck. I’m glad it did.
- Lesson Three: Sponsorships can fall through. Although I was hoping to have a nice flyer printed – with the cost covered, that didn’t happen. Fortunately, the flyer wasn’t crucial for promoting Biketoberfest.
- Lesson Four: It’s not just your event. Once it gets underway – or even before – your carefully planned event will take on a life of its own. Participants will make it their event, and that’s as it should be. Don’t try to micromanage.
- Lesson Five: There’s a price to be paid for success. You may be called on to organize more events. Are you prepared to do so?