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WOW Special Event Moments to Convert Guests to Loyal Donors

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Let me begin with a true story that’s informed every single special event I’ve ever developed.

[TRUE STORY] Early in my nonprofit career, before I ran my first special event, I attended an Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) luncheon (it was called N.S.F.R.E. at the time) where Charlotte Mailliard (now Charlotte M. Schultz, wife of Secretary of State George P. Schultz, and California and San Francisco’s Chief of Protocol) gave a talk about putting on killer special events. Hailing from Texas, she was all about the “wow.” (Still is. In fact, the San Francisco Chronicle calls her the “city’s premier party giver!”). Charlotte’s philosophy is as big as the state from which she hails, and it’s one I’ve carried with me ever since: 

Give your guests more than they anticipate; bestow them with exceptional gifts so they leave fulfilled beyond their expectations.  


Don’t just meet people’s needs. Exceed them. Merely meeting an expectation doesn’t get people excited. They may be satisfied with what they got for their money, but they’ll tell their friends the event was “fine,” “okay,” or “what I expected.” They won’t become a raving fan who tells others: “The event was fantastic! You absolutely can’t afford to miss it next year!” 

Feelings, Nothing More Than Feelings

Maya Angelou famously wrote:

People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

If you want to retain event attendees, heed Maya Angelou.

Surprise them. Excite them. Enchant them. Make them feel special. Make them feel like heroes.

Stuff your Event with Memorable Wow Moments

Think back on events you’ve attended. Vacations you’ve been on. Restaurant meals you’ve enjoyed. What good memories come to mind?

Chances are it’s the extra touches you didn’t expect. The towel folded into the shape of a swan. The bottle of bubbly delivered for your birthday. The complimentary chocolates tucked onto your pillow. The rose petals on the bedspread. The water misted on you at poolside. The touches that made you sit up and think: “Wow!”

Customer-centered touches make people feel pampered.

People like to be pampered. They like to feel taken care of. It puts them in a good mood. It creates positive memories. And that’s what you want for your special event attendees. Right?

Right! Because happy guests are giving guests. And guests who remember their experience with you fondly will give again.

The Secret to a Memorable Event Attendee Experience

Let’s look at an example of a memorable restaurant experience (a true story) that can serve as a guideline for creating a memorable event experience. I found it on a podcast from Convince and ConvertThe Secret Ingredients to a Memorable Customer Experience. The whole episode is interesting, but I particularly commend the example found midway through the audio [10:04 – 19:46]

[TRUE STORY] For his seventh anniversary, Joey took his wife to Flagstaff House which is, according to Thrillist, the most romantic restaurant in America. Every detail was considered, from custom menus with their names and a hand-signed congratulatory message on them, to a magical, theatrical dessert called S’mores Flambé. Joey was over the moon about the presentation of the hand-signed menu and the dessert finale. First and last. The in-between part was important too.

The podcast looks at lessons learned from this truly memorable customer experience. Takeaways include:

  • Personalize with mementos to make details remarkable and create a memorable customer experience.
  • Create an experience your customer hasn’t had before.
  • Service is as, or maybe more, important than setting.
  • Focus on all the small details that show you care.
  • Anticipate, and be sensitive to, personal preferences (e.g., dietary restrictions, allergies).
  • Follow your customer’s pacing.
  • The first and last experience with a brand are the ones that are most memorable.

Let’s look at what you can do, first, last and everywhere in between, to create a memorable experience for your special event guests.

FIRST WOW: When Guests Arrive

If you give folks rose-colored glasses when they enter, they’ll view the rest of your event through this cheery lens. I recently attended an event that, sadly, blew it. Rather than envelope me in a rosy haze, they effectively jump-started my critical nature.

[TRUE STORY] The organizers began with a good idea. Tell folks to park at a public garage (rather than the high-priced hotel valet), and let them know there will be a shuttle available to ferry them to the event site. So far, so good. But… when I arrived at the garage there was no signage pointing me to the shuttle. No one to greet me and direct me to the appropriate boarding area. No one to reassure me I was even in the right garage! So… I waited outside the entrance. Some other guests decided to walk up the hill towards the hotel. One woman said “I’m not really wearing the right shoes for this,” then grudgingly headed up the sidewalk.  You get the idea. The shuttle did eventually come, but by then I was in a critical mood.

You only have one chance to make a first impression.  

Whatever first impression you make, it’s more important than you may realize. Because folks will carry this mindset throughout the rest of the event. And you don’t want them in a fault-finding frame of mind.  You want them more or less “high” on love, right? Because then they’ll think everything they see and do is wonderful!

Things I have done to incline folks towards a joyful, dopamine-induced “high” (the science behind love at first sight) right from the get-go:

  • Searchlights to guide folks to the event and create excitement.
  • Cheerful balloons at entrance.
  • Volunteer greeters to warmly welcome folks as they arrive.
  • Roving musicians, magicians, acrobats or other entertainment.
  • Corsages and boutonnieres for special guests.
  • Logo pins (or glow stick jewelry) for all guests
  • Welcome glasses of bubbly.
  • Hosted bar and or specific cocktails with donated liquor.
  • Hosted coat check.
  • Photographer to take guest photographs and present them with a memento.
  • Passed hors d’oeuvres.
  • Food trucks with free bites.
  • Interactive reception entertainment (e.g., silent auction, raffle, surprise gift boxes; fun games with prizes (e.g., guess the number of gummies in the jar; spin the wheel to win a prize); photo booth).
  • Favor bags or souvenir at everyone’s seat.
  • Designated host at every table to welcome guests and assure everyone is included in conversation.

LAST WOW: When Guests Leave

Things I have done:

  • Champagne toast (bubbly is served to all; host leads everyone in a toast to the donors – who make it all possible).
  • Bonus dessert reception (after dinner is completed, guests exit the dining salon and are greeted by a surprise dessert buffet in the reception area — now filled with donated treats).
  • Bonus espresso bar.
  • Surprise guest performer at end of formal program.
  • Take-home favors (e.g., logo gift; donated chocolates, cookies, candy, dried fruit, etc.; donated (autographed?) book or magazine; donated gift coupon) [Always add a meaningful note and package items festively. Once I gave away chocolates in a bag with a note saying “Sweet Dreams.” Once I gave away heart-shaped cookies with a note saying “Thanks for being the heart of our community.” Once I got donated bagels and the Sunday morning newspaper as a way to say “Thanks for coming – Enjoy breakfast on us!”]

In Part 2 we’ll look at all the little ways you can make the event experience extraordinary (not just ordinary) all through your event. Part 3 will cover how to follow up with your guests so their experience moves from simply transactional to transformational.


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  • AW

    This was wonderful! Thank you for the guidance and also for the podcast recommendation.
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