Grand openings: use PR to keep the celebration going

Top 10 PR tips for great grand openings


Having been part of several grand opening PR teams, including Walt Disney World Resort’s Animal Kingdom, multiple IKEA stores, and a themed restaurant, I’ve had the good fortune of seeing some spectacular grand opening events. I’ve learned that whether you are opening a retail store, restaurant or theme park, creating a good first impression takes a lot of thoughtful planning, but can pay huge dividends.

Here are the top five smart moves and top five big misses I’ve seen at various ribbon-cutting events:

Five Smart Moves

The tease. Build excitement and anticipation by teasing details of the attraction at planned intervals leading up to its grand opening. Offer interviews with a senior company leader. Distribute colorful artistic renderings well before anything is built. A tangible visual on site, such as a simple “coming soon” sign is effective, too.

Advance viewing.  As construction progresses, invite media for hard hat tours. “The Wonderful World of Disney” TV show previewed plans and under-construction footage of Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando in the late 1960s before a national TV audience. As a result, pent-up demand was huge by opening day on Oct. 1, 1971.

Limited soft opening. Work out the kinks during a soft opening period before the grand opening. Many theme parks let their employees try out the attractions before grand opening. The park gets to fix any problems before guests arrive and employees usually love getting a sneak preview. It can be a good day to invite media and arrange for them to interview soft opening attendees about their experience, too.

Make it a community celebration. Don’t just make it about you, be sure to include the community. IKEA typically gives away cash and in-kind donations to a local charity on grand opening day. IKEA also gives out gift cards to the first 2,500 adults to enter the store. Consider inviting the local high school band to perform. Announce the winner of a local children’s art contest on opening day. Make a big deal about local employee hires leading up to grand opening. Get the community involved.

Extend the conversation. Don’t let your grand opening become a one and done. Make sure to plan stories and photo ops during the first few weeks to keep the buzz going. Share and encourage user-generated content on social media to entice those who missed the grand opening to come and see what’s new.

5 Big Misses

Fail to research other local grand openings. There likely has been several grand opening events in your area in the past few years.  Research them. What worked and what didn’t?

Schedule during a competing event. Avoid holding your grand opening during competing events like the first week of school, the day of a huge 5K run that will close roads or during a labor strike. With a little forethought, you can side step most scene-stealing events.

Underserve the media. Don’t underserve your best friends! Make it easy for the media to get the access and materials they need to tell your grand opening story in advance. Operations leaders will be tempted to think it takes too much work to stage tours, do interviews and mock-up photo opportunities, but it’s up to you to show them the value it creates.

Underestimate the crowd. In 1955, Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif. opened for the first time. It planned for a crowd of 15,000, but 28,154 passed through its turnstiles thanks to counterfeit tickets. The park ran out of food, cold drinks and Mickey-branded merchandise. For your event, order extra! It’s easy to give away leftover food or other materials to hard working employees at the end of the day, but it’s impossible to go back in time to avoid a bad first impression by not having enough.

Fail to plan for bad weather. Be sure to have a back-up plan in case it rains, snows or worse. That may mean umbrellas for guests or large tents with heat or A/C. No matter how awesome your grand opening activities, Mother Nature can chase away your guests if you don’t take her into consideration.

In the end, please remember that low attendance or bad impressions on the first day is more bland than grand. Use everything in your marketing communications tool chest to ensure a good crowd and great first impressions on day one. A red ribbon and big pair of scissors will not get it done. Don’t skimp on the budget or planning time. You are competing for media and consumer attention in a crowded marketplace. If well done, it’s an investment that can give you a tremendous return in increased awareness and attendance during that first critical period of public life for your venue.

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