During the FERN Talks & Eats event, four reporters delivered compelling spoken stories on topics they’ve covered, and the stories were matched with a delicious array of small-plate dishes from some of New York City’s most notable chefs.
Though many might think food was the main draw, the Food and Environment Reporting Network learned a major lesson that can be applied to any news event: Content is still king.
“If the stories and food did not meet expectations, the event could not have succeeded, even given a sell-out,” FERN staff wrote in their final report. “But we know that attendees felt that FERN Talks & Eats was a quality experience that they would recommend to others.”
The event took place in the dramatic Green Building, a former brass foundry near the Gowanus Canal. Participating chefs included Peter Endriss of Runner & Stone, Richard Kuo of Pearl & Ash, Seamus Mullen of Tertulia, Franny Stephens of Franny’s, and Jason Weiner of Almond Restaurant. The evening featured singers, dancers, actors and shadow puppets, and was capped by a conversation between FERN Editor-in-Chief Samuel Fromartz and renowned chef and author Dan Barber.
As an example of a food-reporting pairing for this event, Michelle Nijhuis kicked off the evening’s spoken words, recounting the mystery of Paddlefish caviar smuggling centered in the Ozarks of Missouri. Nijhuis reported on this topic for FERN in her story, “Caviar’s Last Stand,” published on Medium. After she spoke, a dish of striped bass crudo with sustainable Paddlefish roe, created by Richard Kuo of Pearl and Ash, was passed to the audience.
To mount this event, FERN needed to retain event planning and creative production services. Core staff involvement was required to interface with the event planner, the creative team, and the promotional team.
Because FERN was creating a new model for a live event and executing it for the first time — and because FERN Editor-in-chief was participating in the event, core staff had significant involvement.
Planning began in earnest in June involving the venue search. Design of the event branding and website took place through July and August, as did creative development. The participating chefs were secured in August. A teaser website went up in the beginning of August. The full FERN Talks & Eats website launched and ticket sales began on September 15. Sponsorship sales took place during this period as well, led by FERN Executive Director Tom Laskawy.
The main promotional campaign began in October, which involved street marketing locally in Brooklyn, paid and donated ads on food-related newsletters, ads in their print media partner, Edible Publications, a paid ad in Time Out New York, and broadcast ads by broadcast media partner WNYC radio. During October, FERN also secured and finalized the caterer and provided logistical support to them, along with the chefs.
Pre-production, involving all the logistics of the event itself, such as technical requirements, rentals and rehearsals, occurred primarily in the latter half of October.
FERN exceeded its own expectations in several benchmarks, including venue and sponsorships. Staff had planned on securing a single paying corporate sponsor at the $5,000 level. However, they secured two $5,000 and one $1,500 paid sponsorship, media sponsors and in-kind contributions of drinks and food for the event.
All sponsors reported satisfaction with the event and interest in participating in future events. In addition, they contacted several sponsors that were very interested in the event but had committed all their marketing funds for the calendar year. They encouraged FERN to contact them for future events.
The event also came with some lessons.
During the course of the event, FERN realized that their food and travel expenses were going to come in much higher than estimated. They determined that, since the food experience was central to the concept and, as they knew from past experience, disappointment with food options can significantly affect attendees attitudes toward an event, they needed invest resources into that area.
And while the total cost of $84,000 exceeded the budgeted cost of $60,000, FERN also exceeded their revenue estimate by 10 percent, reaching $66,000.
Other news organizations attempting this sort of event should recognize that they will be operating outside their comfort zone and will need to bring in “specialists” in whatever area required. For FERN, that meant bringing in a theater producer and director to conceive a creative vision for the event.
“We would not advise a news organization to put on a show entirely on their own,” FERN staff wrote in their final report. “While food was central to our event and we brought expertise and relationships in the food world that enhanced the event, other elements were quite unfamiliar to us. The key is finding the right team and giving a single person, whether inside or outside the organization final and full authority to make all necessary decisions regarding the event.”
As FERN’s metrics demonstrate, they were successful along many dimensions. While they did not show a profit, that was partly a strategic decision to invest in the branding and “buzz” that will make future events easier to market and promote.