It Takes a Village: Community Buy-In for Successful and Sustainable Events | Sports Destination Management

It Takes a Village: Community Buy-In for Successful and Sustainable Events

Mar 01, 2024 | By: Dr. Bonnie Tiell

In September 2022,  one of the most powerful storms in U.S. history ripped through Lee County, Florida, leaving in its wake a trail of destruction in Fort Myers and surrounding areas. The community effort to restore, rebuild and regenerate the countless homes, businesses and beach areas destroyed by Hurricane Ian was not a choice. However, the fortitude to bring back annual events canceled as a result of the devastation and creating a few new events was a deliberate choice exemplifying the indelible spirit of Fort Myers.

One of the new events in Fort Myers was a two-day Sports, Fitness and Health Extravaganza featuring Olympians, sports executives and local professional athletes in early February 2024. The Extravaganza exemplifies the profound advantage of securing community buy-in to endorse and execute complementary programs that drive revenue and inspire positive lifestyle behaviors among a wide audience.

The event harnessed the collective spirit and resources of the community to create an unparalleled experience. The most rewarding feature is that a Sports, Fitness and Health Extravaganza is easy to replicate in cities willing and able to harness their intellectual, financial and facility resources to design, market and deliver a program.

Fort Myers replicated a similar event taking place in Ohio several years earlier but was able to tailor the experience with a local flavor. The steps executed by a dedicated team included establishing the foundation, creating a vision, creating a dream team, communicating the vision and executing the vision. Community buy-in is a common theme in each step.

#1 – Establish the Foundation

The foundation for the Fort Myers Sports, Fitness and Health Extravaganza was an event initiated by Tiffin University in Ohio which included a festival of champions, community lectures, art exhibit and speaking tour. It was clear that community buy-in was necessary for the logistical coordination of over two-dozen Olympians and coaches, including international arrivals, who visited over 40 local classrooms and businesses in Ohio over three days. The Fort Myers program chose to create a smaller version of the event with 16 Olympians, sports executives and professional athletes visiting fewer locations. Having a foundation provided a blueprint for navigating the complexities of managing multiple events under one umbrella.

#2 – Create the Vision

Disaster Photo © Felix Mizioznikov |
Disaster Photo © Felix Mizioznikov |

The vision of the program in Fort Myers was to instill systems and processes that would create a sustainable model for replicating the Extravaganza on an annual or biannual basis.

The vision of a community event must align with three key ingredients of event planning: finances, facilities and fortitude. Finances are necessary for securing space, talent, technology, hospitality and staff. Facilities are essential to hold events and fortitude represents the efforts necessary to raise awareness, funds and productivity among individuals involved in the planning and execution stage. The vision for a complex event must consider the availability of these ingredients within the community which validates why it is easy to make a program similar, but unique from its foundation.

The Fort Myers Extravaganza, dubbed “Champions for Health,” included enough finances, facility spaces and fortitude to successfully manage six separate events over two days that were tied to the main theme of sports, fitness and health. The first day included a community forum on contemporary issues impacting the Olympics and a leadership workshop for student-athletes at Florida Gulf Coast University. The second day involved a virtual sport and fitness showcase with over 70 speakers, a speaking tour in six local high schools, a play day for youth in an after-school program and a family-friendly health and wellness festival (Champions for Health), held in conjunction with the annual Fort Myers Downtown Art Walk and Festival.

#3 – Create the Dream Team

The three primary organizers for the Extravaganza included a sport management professor from Tiffin University who spearheaded the original event in Ohio, dubbed “Elite Sport and Culture Week,” as well as a five-time Olympian and City Councilman for Fort Myers who had been part of the original program, and the economic development manager for the City of Fort Myers. Collectively, these three oversaw the entire program, secured talent, identified funding sources, managed the budget and chaired two events.

Community members volunteered to chair the four other events; these included a professor at Florida Gulf Coast University who managed the student leadership workshop; the coordinator of community engagement for Lee County Schools who arranged the speaking tour; a high school cross country coach who ran the after-school play day; and members of the Chamber of Commerce who worked with the Fort Myers River District Committee to oversee the Champions for Health Festival. Other members of the Dream Team included a professional marketing consultant, a communications and content specialist, an executive administrator for the city, an MBA sports management student and a local citizen who sold real estate in Fort Myers.

Event chairs were provided with a description of their roles and responsibilities that emphasized the latitude in determining the direction of their program. The marketing consultant and MBA student collaborated to design flyers and signage as well as update information on a main website, but the chairs planned and coordinated details for their program from set up to onsite staffing and hospitality to post-event clean up. The event chairs also assisted in coordinating transportation to and from their event.

#4 – Communicate the Vision

Photo © Felix Mizioznikov |
Photo © Felix Mizioznikov |

Virtual meetings, a website and shared project planning documents assisted in coordinating and communicating details as well as tracking information for speakers and volunteers. Once venues and the chairs for each event were secured, the vision was shared with community businesses and organizations with a vested interest in sport, health, fitness and wellness.

Ultimately, many of these entities provided a monetary donation or gifts, and even in-kind services (e.g., catering, technology and printing). Many businesses participated in the Champions for Health festival by sponsoring a table and providing free merchandise for the community who strolled through downtown. The festival was part of the opening of the annual Fort Myers Art Walk featuring concerts, food vendors and VIP tents where the Olympians and athletes interacted with visitors and residents of all ages.

The entire dream team played a pivotal role in communicating the vision and publicizing events throughout the community. An omni-channel approach was employed through social media platforms and email lists from the public-school system, the Greater Fort Myers Chamber of Commerce, the City of Fort Myers and various other targeted lists.

Communicating the vision to the athletes and other speakers was accomplished through a three-phase plan. The initial phase included speaking in person to socialize the concept and extend a personal invitation. The second phase, approximately six weeks prior to the event date, included providing the Olympians, professional athletes and other speakers with a written agreement specifying their involvement and describing each event in greater detail. The third phase, approximately 10 days prior, included providing the speakers with an individual detailed itinerary.

#5 – Execute the Vision

The execution of the vision resembled a symphony where each instrument played its unique melody, yet together created a harmonious composition. Just as different notes and rhythms combine to produce an extraordinary piece of music, the six events over two days complemented each other to form a cohesive and successful experience for participants and the many individuals in the community who engaged in programming. The expression that “it takes a village” is accurate in stressing the necessity of community buy-in to successfully execute a complex project involving 16 speakers over two days.

Benefits of Community Buy-In

The benefits of a coordinated program featuring complementary events under one umbrella range from a sense of pride and ownership among community members to the long-term impact in schools and businesses that will continue the tradition. By fostering a shared commitment to the event, the community not only bolstered the success of the Fort Myers Sport, Fitness and Health Extravaganza, but also forged stronger social bonds.

Beyond the immediate impact, the Extravaganza laid the foundation for a sustainable event as community members became increasingly invested in the ongoing success in future years. This collaborative effort not only amplified the event’s reach and influence, but also nurtured a sense of belonging, promoting a healthier and more connected community in southwest Florida. SDM

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