This is the story of one suburban county’s feral cat advocates coming together, sharing their message through a public outreach and education expo along with a screening of Kedi. Loudoun County Animal Services, the Humane Society of Loudoun County, and Loudoun Community Cat Coalition set up shop in the theater lobby, featuring interactive exhibits like humane trap training and adoptable kittens obtained through TNR efforts, as well as information about and volunteer opportunities with TNR clinics, trapping, and barn homes/alternative placement.
This exhaustive (and somewhat exhausting) recap covers the particulars of organizing and executing the mini-expo/screening, and is intended to help other communities plan similar events. The sample letter copy and exhibitor guidelines are free to anyone who would like to modify them for planning purposes.
If you haven’t read about the networking event/screening in Washington, DC that got the whole thing going, it’s a good place to start.
Organizing the event
About a month and a half in advance and after the venue was secured, this letter went out to Loudoun County Animal Services, the Humane Society of Loudoun County, and Loudoun Community Cat Coalition; the three county-wide agencies that deal with feral cats.
All confirmed interest within hours, and the event was a go. This exhibitor guide was distributed to each agency a week and a half before the event.
One of the non-negotiable facets of this event was that as much as possible be hands-on and interactive. To the average “uninitiated” person, TNR is a WTF; the concept and particulars needed to be broken down and demystified in order to make it digestible to people who had never heard of it. The primary objective of the day was to make a brand new topic feel somewhat familiar (if not comfortable) to cat-lovers that were previously unaware of TNR.
To cut down on unnecessary back-and-forth (we’ve all been through it) and give everyone ample time to prepare, I assigned each group a topic to cover in their exhibit. The excerpt below, and the entire exhibitor guide, are just a consolidated, fleshed-out version of a bazillion emails to make sure nobody missed anything.
Every reasonable effort was made to empower the exhibitors with answers to questions they hadn’t even asked. Waiting for answers can dampen enthusiasm and slow down development of the display, so I wanted them to be able to do their thing at full speed.
Alamo’s lobby wasn’t huge, but had a long wall that was ideal for each group to have two 6′ tables. A mock-up graphic of the lobby was sent out so that everyone would know where to set up.
I don’t know about you guys but something magical is happening in Loudoun County. I’ve never witnessed so many animal welfare groups working together towards the same goal, saving animals! – Kim Fields, Director of LCCC
To add that extra “something” to the event, we needed swag. Oscilloscope Laboratories (Kedi’s production company), sent us another generous round of Kedi catnip (made by our friends at Koop Brand), posters, and postcards. All of these were a huge hit at our DC screening party and without them, I never would have had those perspective-changing interactions with other movie-goers that inspired this event. Swag is social lubricant and a must-have for events like this.
Alley Cat Allies (known for their strong swag game) sent two huge boxes of calendars, reusable bags, temporary tattoos, magnets, 1″ buttons, stickers, and more. Though all that brought people in for conversation, it was the tri-fold pamphlets that I was most excited about. The concise presentation of “what do do if you see a _____”, etc. made them approachable and useful, even at a glance. Because of their size, we were able to work them into the small “take one” setups on pub tables and people took them in quantity to share with friends.
There were also balloons for the kids hanging around. Did you know that cat-shaped latex balloons aren’t a thing? I found these weird nipple-eared things and these weren’t quite what I was looking for, so, like everything else I touch, it turned into an unnecessarily involved DIY project. We decided to go the confetti balloon route and spent Friday night cutting cat heads out of dollar store mylar… because featherweight cat head confetti isn’t a thing either. Also not a thing: crystal clear balloons. “Clear” actually looks like an inflated a condom, but we packed enough glitter and shiny cat heads in there to make it less obviously prophylactic-like at a glance.
Kedi sells itself and hadn’t been shown in Loudoun County yet, so packing the theater wasn’t going to be an issue. The challenge was filling those seats with our target audience: the “uninitiated” that were not already involved with or intimately aware of local cat issues. Like many suburban and rural communities, Loudoun’s feral cat initiatives are carried by a relatively small number of people. They volunteer, trap, transport, work clinics, and are regularly donating. It’s wonderful and we love them, but burnout, especially financial, becomes a problem. We have to expand the donor and volunteer bases through awareness campaigns, and that’s what this event was all about.
Everyone was provided with the Kedi press kit and asked to use it for their own advertising material. The custom Facebook event page banner and a square graphic for social media were included to get them started.
Exhibitors were instructed to promote well in advance to generate interest and give the public a better idea of the “what” and “why of the whole thing. They were asked to post compelling Facebook content like invitations to do specific things (“try your hand at setting a trap” or “get your kitten fix”), introduce individual adoptable animals that would be on-site, and post pictures of the exhibit’s main attraction. Specific groups to advertise to were also suggested.
A volunteer from another group generously wrote and distributed a press release that ended up in one local paper, and one of mine listed the event on a bunch of public calendars, got it into her corporate newsletter, and contacted as many news outlets as she could.
The Facebook event page was updated with a trickle of new swag/freebies to keep people enthused. Because of the venue’s reserved seat approach, we were able to post screenshots of availability and sell the last tickets in the days and hours before the event.
Exhibitors were added to the event page as co-hosts so that it wold show up on their own page calendars and their posts in the event would generate notifications to attendees.
Having seen the question of emotional safety in so many comments on other people’s Kedi posts (“I don’t want to cry” or “is this OK for my butter-soft kid?”), the topic was addressed in the event’s description.
The internet forgets nothing, so you can see the original event page and it’s posts here.
Reception & feedback
The show nearly sold out (151 seats) days in advance, as screenings of Kedi do. Visitors loved the event and many came early to check out the lobby happenings. The film, the free stuff, the kittens and opportunities to get involved with their local “kedis”, the response was wonderful. Even the theater employees went out of their way to cruise through the lobby. One in particular had a broad, unhindered grin on his face that seemed stuck as he became a moving fixture in the lobby; it turns out he’s a sucker for kittens, and that smile became an infectious highlight of the day. We also had the pleasure of meeting TNRers that had come from three counties over, and a woman who does TNR in Istanbul; she said her friend’s group’s logo appears on a wall near the end of the film. Small world, huh?
Here’s a video tour of the lobby and displays, taken toward the end of the day. You’ll see setups, pub tables loaded with swag, happy volunteers, and the condom balloons.
The star of the (lobby) show was indisputably Tucker, a young Maine Coon mix that traipsed around on a harness throughout the event. While unpacking, Stephanie, an HSLC volunteer, noticed a small dog harness among the event supplies and thought Tucker’s temperament might jive with it. They slipped it on, he was fine, and the rest is history. He entertained visitors in the lobby and effectively slowed the flow of outgoing traffic. He ended up being my foster for a few days afterward: you can check out his gallery and story here.
Agency heads and volunteers received a post-mortem survey to help improve similar events to come. Feedback was anonymous, generally positive, and distinctly varied; two organizations’ lead people had very different observations than their volunteers (some responses were received via direct email). While some leads were disappointed by lower-than-expected fundraising (not the purpose of the event) and engagement and alluded to the venue or event itself being responsible, the volunteers cited specifics about what did and didn’t work. You can read the full results here.
If you’re not asking your volunteers about their thoughts and experience, you’re squandering a priceless, game-changing set of insights. We used Surveymonkey, where you can add and get analytics for up to 10 questions for free.
I share the disappointment in the lack of media coverage. In spite of the press release being sent out, no actual reporters showed up to the event. It’s beginning to look like these community-building cultural events are just something I do, so developing relationships with media outlets has to be on the get-it-done list before the next round.
I loved the idea about a pre-event meet & greet. These groups regularly collaborate, so it didn’t even occur to me that they’d never met in person. It’s a must-do next time.
The name tag idea is also good. I got the jump on that one for my volunteers and encourage everyone to do the same. The aluminum frames are a nice touch that lets your volunteers know that you give a damn and want them to have nice things. They’re usually under $2/ea. here (price fluctuates) and come with the silver lanyard. The battleaxe-wielding kitten lanyard is from Five Below. The cards themselves were done with a regular printer, then hand-stamped with the volunteers’ choice of color. Custom stamps are surprisingly inexpensive; I get mine here.
I also agree that displays need to be re-evaluated, because there’s no doubt that they factored in to lower-than-desired engagement. Having done trade shows for over a decade, I guarantee that the visuals were too much for visitors to absorb in even a small exhibition setting. Textures, patterns, and colors were all over the place and there were a lot of items on two of the tables; this was brand spankin’ new information for most visitors and tables needed to be “cleaner” for individual concepts and programs to stand out. Even with a volunteer walking them through the material, it was a lot.
Pro tip: when presenting cat -related visuals, be mindful of the “crazy cat lady” stereotype and make an effort to use a minimalist aesthetic; low-clutter and bright with emphasis on the cat and headline.
Two bits of feedback from different people validate each other and need to be pointed out; that volunteers spent a lot of time talking to each other (“cliqueish”) and that there was question about how many movie-goers actually stopped by the tables. See where I’m going with this? Yeah. I personally observed people standing behind the mob of kitten-fondlers and others in front of tables, holding their ACA swag and curiously trying to peer through the crowd. Events like this need your extrovert (or at least ambivert) A-team, and they need to be initiating conversations with strangers.
Loudoun County Animal Services found placement for one of their barn cats and recruited three volunteers, including a videographer for upcoming projects. Other groups’ volunteers were concerned that kittens were stealing potential foot traffic, but Nicole Bowser, their Community Relations Manager, said the event was worth the time of the two paid staff members that attended. Hopefully, I’ll be collaborating with them on a barn/working cat display makeover that they can dispatch to rural events with a volunteer.
Humane Society of Loudoun County brought 7 cats (4 cats, 3 kittens) and received three applications: one foster, one foster-to-adopt, and one volunteer. They also sent Tucker the Lobby Cat home with me for fostering. While disappointed that they didn’t get any adoption applications, they did get the word out about their organization, missions, and programs. Donna Drake, their Vice President, said they had fun and would be happy to do a similar event in the future.
Rounding up the pictures from Saturday’s @kedifilm event and found this gem. ♨️ Thanks for the #temporarytattoo stash, @alleycatallies catallies!A post shared by Cat Hustler (@cathustler) on
Event planning challenges
Securing a venue
All four management companies that handle theaters in the area were contacted through their websites. Of those, two didn’t understand the pitch at all and only offered to rent a theater out, as if for a corporate event. One didn’t respond at all, and one, Alamo Drafthouse in Ashburn ,VA, (my first choice), was unbelievably easy to work with. Alamo has a reputation for screenings that go beyond a typical theater experience, offering unexpected films, audience engagement through props, delivering food and booze to your seat, and more. It was difficult to envision this event being held anywhere else.
Gabe, the Creative Manager at the Alamo (and a cat guy), welcomed the concept and offered several dates that could work. He granted use of the lobby for exhibits (free of charge) with generous space for tables, was flexible about date changes, and worked all the details out with Oscilloscope Laboratories. A weekend screening was critical for outreach purposes (kids/families/general diversity in attendance), and he made that happen as well.
It can’t be proven, but I think this one may have actually worked in our favor. With the Climate Change March happening in Washington DC (about half an hour away), many of the bird-squeezers and wildlife fetishists were likely there instead, raising their fists about threats far more serious than neighborhood cats they’d like to shoot or “humanely euthanize”. While the lulz of attempting reasonable debate with the truly fanatical bird-squeezers keeps me young, I recruited a TNR/biologist friend with a tone more pleasant and face far kinder than mine to help with calmly addressing the concerns and unhelpful suggestions. Though no BSers that may have been in attendance made themselves known, I’ll likely always have an extra person on hand just for them.
Because the agencies had multiple overlapping programs, giving each a specific angel to work for the benefit of the public needed to happen early on. Fortunately, none of the groups openly expressed concern over the programs they were assigned.
Exhibitor participation on this front was minimal, but their few posts certainly filled some seats. None posted to the event page or used the press kit to make their own promotional graphics. I didn’t bother pressing the issues because the show was on track to sell out early on.
Event pages were an unexpected challenge. One group expressed interest in making their own (which led to the mention in the exhibitor guide, and another actually did (having not read said guide). Secondary event pages are problematic for a few reasons.
- Updates posted to the original page‘s details are not necessarily communicated to the secondary page.
- Multiple pages appear divisive and confuse the public. This event’s purpose was to present a united front on the community cat issue, so divisive couldn’t be a thing.
- Any event page started by another group, even if for the same event, attributes organizer/host credit to the agency that created the new page by default. It’s terrible etiquette that socially depreciates the actual event organizer’s work, and in this case, excluded mention of the other groups and collaborative effort completely.
The sole purpose of the second event page was to get the event onto the groups’ Facebook page calendar. The issue was resolved by my adding all of the groups as co-hosts on the original event page. The second page was removed, no hard feelings, everything is cool. I didn’t understand why the first group wanted to do their own event page, but figured it out when the second actually made one. It hadn’t occurred to me that exhibitors would want the event on their page’s calendar. It makes sense, and I’ll certainly be more sensitive to it next time.
Every headache aside from the balloons came down to people not reading the material provided. Some emails were skimmed and some were admittedly never opened by the agency leads or social media volunteers, including the exhibitor guide. That dismissal and resulting difficulties were a serious buzzkill , but I got past it and learned from the experience. Next time, I will absolutely require some kind of confirmation that information has been read. I’ll also require an exhibitor agreement that states the agency will contribute to advertising in a meaningful way as a condition of participating.
Otherwise, this event was incredibly easy to set up and execute. I learned a lot and am already looking forward to a similar event for The Cat Rescuers.