Imagine it’s a July morning at your store. The tent is up, the hot tub ready to be given away. Balloons are blowing in the wind and hotdogs swelling up in the warmer. But there’s still just one lonely car in the parking lot. What had been envisioned as an exciting event blending sales with customer engagement is quickly going down as a flop. If experiencing this scenario, any retailer would be left with second thoughts about the merits of hosting events in the future. But such celebrations can offer a tremendous boost to marketing efforts. They can bring in new customers, foster loyalty among existing ones, drive sales and create goodwill within the community. Done annually, they build anticipation and often entice customers to not only plan in advance for a special sale or barbecue championship, but tell their friends.

Success, experts say, rests with the right planning and inspiration.

Laying the groundwork
When developing event concepts, follow a long-held marketing strategy: Showcase the sizzle, not the steak.

A customer may visit the store to pick up a new filter, but that’s not the ultimate purpose, explains Matthew Hudson, retail strategist and president of Rick Segel & Associates. “It’s what happens around the pool — neighborhood kids coming to play, fun times with friends, maybe their annual vacation,” he says. “What is it that people do with their pools that adds to the quality of life? Make your event connect to that.”

The thought process for planning should start with how the event will help customers get the most out of their pools and enhance the quality of their lives.

Keeping in mind pools often are bought by families, Hudson stresses the importance of making events kid-friendly. This boosts the chances parents will attend and spend time at the function, and it promotes the pool as the epicenter of family fun.

Retailers also should pay special attention to attracting female customers, since they often are the decision-makers, says Anne Obarski, a retail expert and founder of Merchandise Concepts. Offer items that save time and give them new ideas for the activities they’re planning around the pool.

“I’m going in to buy products for my spa, but if they have cool party cups and plates that I could pick up for a barbecue, I’d spend a fortune on that and also get the aqua blue pillows for my porch,” she says.

Targeting women has been very successful for the owners of Home Oasis in Watertown, S.D. To promote their anniversary sale in May, Justin and Lehla Pietz work with a direct-mail firm and purchase a mailing list targeting 30- to 50-year-old women with a specified household income and living in the four nearby towns.

“It worked incredible,” says Lehla Pietz. “It was the best week of business we had in three years.”

When customers are having fun, they’re more likely to take selfies and post them to social networking sites. Retailers can fuel this enthusiasm by providing great photos ops and offering small discounts to those who show their posts. It’s a win-win proposition: Store management can tap into customer’s networks, while the client leaves with plenty of likes and a new pump.

Not every event has to be a major production. Hudson puts a special emphasis on presenting training and educational seminars that help customers solve specific problems. He suggests a simple technique to develop topic ideas for the sessions.

“Sit down with your employees and figure out what questions you get asked the most,” he says. “The list is likely to fill up your calendar.”

Collaboration is a key component in Obarski’s playbook. “The best ideas often come from your own employees,” she says.

The inspiration
When developing the themes and concepts for each event, planners can glean from plenty of muses.

Grilling can always set a backyard kind of mood. To kick off the season, Hudson suggests a barbecue bash where customers can determine what kind of grill is best for them and learn ways to get the most of their purchase. Want to take that a step further? How about a Burger Wars contest? It can take place in the parking lot, with judging courtesy of a famous local chef.

The seasons offer its own inspiration. Come fall, retailers can host a demonstration showing how to throw the coolest Christmas party around the pool.

Events can be themed around popular culture, with merchandise to go with it. “How about a Frozen or Guardians of the Galaxy pool party?” Hudson suggests.

Ideas also can be more individualized. Home Oasis hosts several creative events each year, starting in January with a “When the Boss is Away” sale in January, which happens when the owners go to an annual conference. Customers now recognize this as the only time of year when the Pietzes offer discounts on hot-tub filters and chemicals.

During the South Dakota State Fair the store holds a special hot-tub sale that competes with the deals at the fair. “Only one hot-tub dealer per [manufacturer brand] is allowed to be there so we pretend that we’re there,” Pietz said.

Tom Steinbacher, the owner of TexSun Pools in Houston, devotes the entire month of May to a Treasure Chest promotion, where customers bring their water samples and make qualifying purchases for a key to a treasure chest. On the last day, they try their keys for a chance to win prizes, such as flat-screen TVs, as well as free service calls, gifts from manufacturers, cash and donations to charities.

Partnerships can provide a solid foundation. Throughout the year Home Oasis holds four events with its hot-tub manufacturer, which supplies promotional materials, radio scripts and other items. “It’s all pre-planned and easy to do,” Pietz says.

Steinbacher partners with a radio station and even has a pool-related program on the air. Sometimes he does a broadcast from the store, where he invites a local manufacturer’s rep as a guest host.

With more than a dozen events each year, Steinbacher’s calendar is close to full, but he’s considering a Grill Masters contest in October where he’d invite customers who’ve bought a grill in the past five years to show off their skills in a variety of categories. Prizes would include store credit, donations to charities of their choice, and of course, infinite bragging rights.

“Success is built on being consistent year after year and building a reputation,” Steinbacher said. “It takes a lot of exposure to get people acclimated.”

Welcome trial and error
When holding events, retailers should have some patience. These things don’t always work the first time out the gate.

Nicholas Pools in Toms River, N.J., holds an annual Tent Sale with a local radio station, with good results.

But it took two years to perfect. “We originally held it in July but realized customers weren’t interested in buying a new tub when it was so hot,” says Theodora Sergiou, the company’s vice president.

“We switched it to September and turned it into a year-end tailgating event. It’s the end of the season. People are looking for a bargain, and it’s a lot cooler.”

Now during summer she sticks with more modest presentations, such as classes, having a local pizzeria cook with the store’s outdoor ovens or a cozy evening of wine and s’mores around the fire pit.

Sergiou’s advice? Try different things and offer a unique touch. “Do personal invitations work? Do certain ads work? As a small business owner you have to be willing to try new things,” she says.