What conferences and exhibitions can learn from La Tomatina

Choosing who to lob a crushed fruit at while competing for space with thousands of goggle wearing students backpackers while wading in 3 foot of mushy tomatoes is a challenge. What was surprisingly easy however, was listing how our much more serious business events can learn from this wonderful festival. I hope event planners can take ideas from this most wonderful environment and adapt them to their conferences, road shows and exhibitions. La Tomatina tips for event organisers!

The majority of events I organise are solid B2B events, however I seek my inspiration from galleries, museums, festivals and even shops. This week the worlds largest multination tomato chucking extravaganza: La Tomatina in Buñol in Spain has been the sauce (sorry source) of much inspiration.

La Tomatina tips for event organisers!

1. Audience participation is key

Without the participants La Tomatina is eleven lorry loads of rotting, mushy redness. That does not make much of an event. The participants bring this event to life. The organisers create the environment and provide the resources. The participants create the event. It is a very simple approach. How much can our business events learn placing the audience at the very heart of our environments?

2. Allow participants to decide on their level of engagement 

Not every attendee wanted to bath in mush. Very few participants decided to wear a water ring, swimming trunks and goggles. But a few did. On the flip side only a handful of visitors returned free of tomato stains (I was certainly not one of them). And a small splattering of attendees simply launched a fruit and then vanished. But that is the beauty of the event: it offers a different level of participation for all. But everyone still felt very much part of La Tomatina.

When we run conferences and exhibitions we can sometimes be too demanding or too lessefare in the environment we create for participants to engage. I believe we should have an ‘ideal’ level of engagement in mind but allow attendees to do less if they wish and create more engagement for some. Here’s an example of what I mean when it comes to the networking we offer at our business events.

3. Communication is key

Most events are fluid (that fluid isn’t normally 130 Tonnes of rotten tomato juice) but the dynamic of every event can change and it is exceptionally important that every event builds in a sure way to communicate with their participants.

La Tomatina started at 11am. No qualms, no delays and no waiting for anyone. So with hundreds queuing and the clock ticking it was crucial the organisers didn’t let the countdown get dangerous. Unfortunately there was no communication strategy built into the event and participants felt pretty secluded from the vital informational channel they should support an event like this.

4. No matter how exciting the event you have to take care of the basics

Every event must have basic event management support. People shouldn’t queue for almost three hours for the cloakroom. If you offer a service for all to use you have to be able to provide it for everyone. Sixteen showers for 5000 people isn’t what people were expecting. Attendees shouldn’t be meandering about without a single sign or instruction helping them find the right part of the event. These are some examples of the basics that La Tomatina didn’t have. Not only does every event need the basics but they have to be a cornerstone of the event.

Even with an audience made up of foreign nationals, mostly under the age of 30, and paying less than €50, you can not manage an event without stressing it is the event manager (in this case SpainTastic’s) job to ensure the whole event experience is as easy and as enjoyable as possible. We B2B event organisers can not lose sight of this either.

5. Build and remember the importance of the brand

Most events are brands or have the potential to be brands. Brands are powerful and they punch above their weight.

On the surface La Tomatina is a 1hr soggy fruit fuelled friendly street fight. But look under the surface and this tiny little village has something that can be recognised the world over. So why cant that happen with your event?

6. Think about adding value

One of my favourite moments was post squishing about with tomatoes breaking through the gaps in my shoes. It was seeing the locals get involved. Most were selling 1 litre mugs of cerveza, jugs of sangria and choritzo dogs (we were in Spain remember) But some locals were more enterprising. One stall, with its’ queue stretching round the block stood out. And the reason for the line? It was because that stall had added a lot of value.

Through the normal lens they were selling a €10 t shirt like many other stalls. But through the eyes of their potential customers they were offering a quick high powered shower while you waited (and when it was most needed) and a dry, clean and crisp change of clothes. The value they offered was way above a cheap branded tshirt. It made me think; do we always consider how to add as much value as possible to all our stakeholders?

7. Create moments that people will share

The colourful and playful nature of La Tomatina ensures that pictures and video will go viral around the world. For them it is a given. Even with the danger of a flying seeded fruit smashing attendees iPhone or expensive camera this event is amplified 1000s of times over. But even here there are lessons to be learned for even the most serious of events. Event Managers must design moments within their events that people want to share via Social Media. We must create moments that support their event in seeping into people’s consciousness.

8. Build satellite events on to your main attraction

I often think that we organisers do all the hard work without really making sure we get as much reward as we can. I loved that all the tour companies had pre and after parties. Of course you fall into this much easier when your event lasts for only an hour but the point remains valid for much longer events: If you have done all the hard work in getting people to attend an event you must make sure there is something else you can add that will keep those attendees close to you.

9. Guests paid for different levels of participation

This again that comes very natural to an event like La Tomalina with its very varied appeal. It costs €750 to ride in the dump drunk and €10 to have tomatoes thrown at you from it. So it has a point of access for everyone. Transport, t-shirts, priority access, optional food and drink are all added to provide an optimum price point for every attendee. I love this and wonder how we can replicate the principles in our business events? Does the one size fits all model still work?

10. EVERY event needs a bad weather backup

It was the 25th August in the middle of Spain. Average temperatures for that time of the year sit in the low 30s with as much chance of being caught in a thunder storm as you do being injured by a bull during a tomato festival. But of course it rained. And it rained good old chunky Spanish rain. Little could be done if it rained during the outdoor fruit throwing frenzy but a back up plan should have been in place for the post and pre parties.

My hope is that on 2014 La Tomatina is a much better organised event. My wider hope is that business events consider how they can learn from an 80 year old 1hr event that continues to grow from strength to strength and is known the world over.