Business District Events Favor Restaurants

by JP Murphy
(Winchester VA)

Visitor Question: I live in Winchester VA. I'm a merchant in the Historic District. The City hired an Events Manager who for three years puts on events that not only are little more than backyard drinking parties but they conflict with long-established events. City Council is disinterested in changing this policy because, according to them, 'revenue is up'.

Problem: the events benefit mainly the restaurants because people are coming to party and not purchase. The owners of retail stores are being ignored. I have proposed 'sitting out' certain events that merchants are expected to participate in, such as the annual Easter Egg Hunt and Halloween Trick or Treat, but some merchants (including my wife) regard that as 'mean-spirited'. It is frustrating. Any suggestions would be appreciated.

Editors Reply: In most commercial districts, it is important to maintain a balance between restaurants and other retail merchants. Restaurant districts tend to be more trendy, which is why it is easy for a city or city employee to become too fixated on that part of the revenue base.

The problem with trendy, of course, is that the cachet can quickly vanish when somewhere else is able to grab the cachet.

Those of us who write for this site have discussed this, and we think that the best approach for you and your city is probably a both-and approach. In other words, now that the drinking parties are well-established and making money, events that benefit the other merchants can be added.

There is a tendency for events to become slightly easier to manage if they are repeated year after year, so conceivably the events manager would not be resistant to an additional event at this point. A direct conversation with this individual would be worthwhile. Include your wife, who sounds as if she would have good social instincts.

Think carefully about the type of event or promotion that would be helpful for your particular business. What is unique about your particular shopping district or experience? How could that be highlighted?

Depending on the mix of merchants, perhaps you could have a special themed retail walk, an event when merchants are open during a time of day or week when typically they are closed, a fashion show, a special holiday shopping preview, an art show, or just a Buy Local promotion.

The problem here may be that the events manager was hired to do events, and that he or she lacks either the authority or the imagination to pull off a marketing plan that does not involve events. If you see a need for social media, advertising, street or sidewalk improvements, storefront improvements, or rewards programs, the events manager might not perceive this to be included in his or her job description.

While this situation is frustrating, it is not at all unusual for different sectors of a commercial district to feel neglected. Communicating with the events manager, other retail merchants, and the restaurants will be key to resolving this problem.

Incidentally, it also is common for a hired employee to feel compelled to create new events and strategies and to ignore more well-established traditions. So for this part of your problem, focus your ire on the employer, not the employee.

Start with making sure you understand about how other retailers feel about this situation. If you find general agreement, this will bolster your talks with others.

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